This weekend marks what was once the proper start of the year’s racing season, in years past any event before Het Volk was effectively a training race. Now known as Het Nieuwsblad (“the newspaper”), Saturday sees the Belgian season start and it’s followed by Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne on Sunday.
Many races in Flanders feature cobbles, from residential roads lined with ornamental pavé to full on agricultural tracks still surfaced with medieval stones. There are flat sections and in the infamous hellingen – the plural of “slope” or “ramp” in Dutch – with their steep gradients. These are strategic points in the race, crowds gather and it makes for great TV, riders pedalling squares as they bounce their way up, the difference between the leaders and those struggling to keep in contention is amplified ten times.
But there’s also something else that’s 100% Belgian: the concrete road, the betonweg. Safer and smoother than the cobbles, Belgium has many rural roads surfaced with concrete instead of tarmac. Large sections of concrete are separated by small gaps, partly for drainage but also to let the material expand on a hot day, to avoid the surface buckling under expansion.
Riders using these roads have to avoid the central channel, usually a tyre’s width, and endure the constant bump every few of seconds as they cross from one block to the next. Often the cracks have tufts of vegetation. These roads are smooth compared to cobbles but the bump in between each section does wear a rider down, the constant thump… thump… thump only adds to the fatigue after hours of experience especially as you tend to race full speed and don’t relax or brace for the bumps, that way the shock comes straight up the forks to the wrists.
These things don’t determine a race, no way. But they do drain a rider and whilst not unique to Belgium, the country has more than its fair share. Look out for the betonweg this weekend.
* on a point of fact, the images used here are of Danish roads but they could just as well be in Flanders. I couldn’t easily find a useful photo of roads from Belgium. If you have a good image, please get in touch.