The Kemmelberg: Belgium’s New Toll Road

Belgian cobbles paveBelgium, the heartland of cycle sport where the popularity level of bike racing is greater than any other country in the world. But if it’s a popular sport in the Kingdom, not everyone loves it and there’s growing trend to charge bike races for riding through a municipal area and now even the Kemmelberg is getting in on the act with a new tax for races.

Het Nieuwsblad reports the Kemmelberg will now cost between €300-500 to cross per race with a new charge levied by the Heuvelland municipality.

If the story sounds familiar you might remember the Flèche Wallonne has been pestered by the authorities in a place called Ham-sur-Heure for cash. Last year the race rode around the area rather than pay up. The sum involved was modest at €587.54 but the race detoured partly out of principle, fearing if they got shaken down just once then they’d have a queue of mayors filing bills the next year.

What’s new with the Kemmelberg is that the charging is now going ahead. It might not sound like much but €500 per climb adds up and there’s a total of 308 gemeente or municipalities in Flanders alone meaning a lot of bills for a race.

Charging looks mean on behalf of these towns. To be blunt nothing ever happens in Heuvelland or Ham except for a big bike race where the world, or at least a proportion struggling with pirate internet streams, is watching. Plus there’s a longer gain in notoriety, fans will visit the area. something Marnic De Meulemeester, the mayor of Oudenaarde tells Het Nieuwsblad. It looks mean to try and charge for a spectacle and benefits that showers the area in glory.

Yet while we’d all like to imagine races are welcome, not everyone sees it that way. Even the biggest races may well be part of a nation’s sporting heritage but closed roads leave locals fuming as they try to drive to the shops or collect the kids from school. Plus being Flanders it’s not like this is once a year, it can be several times a week in April.

The case for charging is reasonable too. Belgium is one of those European countries faced with a gap between government tax revenues and spending commitments and it affects small things. Police have to be tasked with security and municipal workers are expected to prepare the roads and clean up afterwards too, there is a cost associated with the race. Plus many races are not charitable efforts, they are run for profit by the likes of Flanders Classics and ASO.

One extra problem is the layer cake of local government. It’s possible for one part of regional government to pay for a race like the Tour of Flanders or Liège-Bastogne-Liège only for a local mayor to take an opposing stance, possibly for budgetary reasons but also for the more cynical sake of opposition and publicity.

Another problem is the charging doesn’t work. Just as ASO avoid Ham, other races have skipped parts of the Limburg province of Flanders where a gemeente wants to charge. The result, the race skips the area so no classics, no ENECO Tour and more. If charging were to happen perhaps some regional agreement could be worked out rather than leaving races left to pick a route based on charges rather than landscapes.

Yesterday: Merckx attacks on the Kemmelberg
Today: A tax on the Kemmelberg

Beyond Belgian
Towns charging might be a novelty but rising costs are a shared threat for races across Europe. In Italy shrinking budgets are seeing sports events cut back and many a cycling race is losing the subsidy that kept it on the road, the bridge between the costs and any income from sponsors and publicity. The French have to contend with rising police charges where the gendarmes used to be hired out at €3 per hour and now this is jumping to €14 per hour; although in mitigation races can now use private motorbike security.

New charges in Belgium won’t stop the racing right away. But at the margin an event could drop off the calendar because rising costs are the final straw that break the budgetary back. If the Tour of Flanders is safe you fear for lesser races at the U-23 and local level. What’s more likely is that races are being routed in a way to avoid the bills.

Charging seems mean but you can see the costs involved and given political tensions, tight budgets and publicity at stake there could be more and more bills in the years to come now that the Kemmelberg has got its way with a tax. In the meantime should you visit Belgium, why not reward Oudenaarde over Heuvelland and its costly Kemmel?

33 thoughts on “The Kemmelberg: Belgium’s New Toll Road”

  1. We see some of these issues here in the USA, especially for CX races. Townspeople and city leaders claim the damage done to the courses and fields are not worth having all the extra people in town. Now the teams and promoters for the most part put the courses back together and lay more seed. My club goes through this exercise every year after we put up our race, a lot of heavy work but worth it to build good will.

  2. The inevitable consequence of Government expenditure exceeding income. Without being too political, the inevitable answer is that the state, at all levels is too big.

    I just wish it would keep its greedy paws out of bike racing.

  3. I read in the newspaper today that it costs €50000 each year to the town of Heuvellland for races that pass through, that excludes costs for police en administration.

  4. This is too bad, but it seems that everybody wants more money these days.

    I have a friend who is a venue organizer for another sport in the US, he says that the fire departments shake him down like they were the mob; making deals, then changing the requirements, then last minute additional charges. Always with the unmentioned threat; no permit, no race…

  5. If the Tour of Flanders is safe you fear for lesser races at the U-23 and local level.

    This is really the thing that worries me most. If there are fewer and more expensive races at low levels, then the ground-level access for the sport dwindles.

  6. Worth clicking for the picture comments alone sometimes but always a good read too.

    Here’s hoping this doesn’t turn sour. Hard to see Belgian mayors winning votes by taxing local races.

  7. My father-in-law went on pension a few months ago after */-20 years in the Sint Niklaas city hall. He knows the politicians here well. Let’s just say that if you walked in on a city Management Meeting lunch break, and saw how they are eating and drinking, you would think you were in a Saudi Arabian palace! Politicians seem to have their own unique philosophy over what justifies a cost and what justifies an expense… a fine line that can be stretched and warped in so many ways!

  8. Budge. Sorry to be the bringer of bad news. In case you have not noticed, this is yet just one more example of the creeping pattern of additional costs and safety demands being heaped on event organizers by those who order our lives. Not just in Belgium but all over Europe. The roads were not constructed with bike racing in mind and most safety aspects required by the authorities are already paid for by organizers with the assistance of volunteers.

    There was a time, not so long ago when sporting events for the young, including bike racing, were looked upon by the authorities as something too be supported and encouraged. Times and attitudes from these authorities are changing. Not in a way conducive to the future of our sport.

  9. What types of sales taxes do these community levy? In the US, many small communities get a share of sales tax. Systems vary wildly, sometimes they get a share from the county they are in, sometimes it is actually the taxes raised within their little border. A race like this in my community would generate thousands of dollars in sales tax in one weekend. Not just for my village, but for the town, county and state. I wonder if they can’t see the road for the cobbles?

    It would also seem to me that local merchants would be livid to know that the race passed their town by over a few hundred euro.

  10. Costs us money in Philadelphia, PA, USA to close any road or use any part of our city park to hold an amateur bike race. I guess this will come down to economics…if the towns lose more money by “charging” and losing a race than having a race, they won’t do it. If having a huge pro bike race roar through costs them money and doesn’t contribute enough to the local economy then why not charge for closing down their roads if not just to discourage the “nuisance.” While racing in Belgium seems sexy from far away like you say if it’s every weekend in the spring one could see how some towns would rather do without the hassle (and extra trash pickup, etc).

  11. In the Dutch province of Limburg, roughly in the area of the Amstel Gold Race, they also felt there were too many ‘toertochten’ (sportives, gran fondos). They’ve come up with a set of rules and a cap on the number of organized rides with more than x participants. They also ask for some money, 50 cents per participant, to compensate costs of coordination etc. Good news there is that they have coordinated policy, not every community will have its own set of rules and taxes.

    Of course a pro race is not the same as a sportive but to the driver trying to get home or the city representative who has to close off the road there’s not much difference.

  12. Looks like the carbon taxes that are sapping the economies of Europe are having the effect of cutting back on events with a low carbon output. May be they should connect generators to the cyclist and feed into the grid. 🙂

  13. Part of the apparent iniquity in this is that the ‘solution’ is unrelated to the ‘problem’. How does charging E500 solve to problem of ‘closed roads leave locals fuming ‘? It comes over just as a publicity-focussed knee-jerk reaction, rather than a reasoned attempt to alleviate a real problem.

    • True. If they’d actually wanted to ‘alleviate’ that problem, they should have set the fee at €50 000, rather than €500, to ensure an effective deterrent.

  14. The kemmelberg is situated in west-flanders, wich is except for the kemmelberg totaly flat.
    This means that the city of heuvelland can try to ask money for passing there, knowing that its part of some big races whitout any other options.
    But in east-flanders there are a lot of (small) hills so if some city asks money for passing it, organizers can easily change the route to other hills.

    Nice try but it aint gonna happen I think

  15. In some ways it feels a bit exploitative to expect to use roads for no charge, but the amount of visitors and cycling tourists that get brought to the area because it’s in the race surely outweigh trying to extract an extra 500 Euros from the race organisers?

    Maybe it’s as a result of the snowed off races last Spring that they’re desperate to get some money up front where they desperately can.

  16. I’m not surprised to see this in Belgium. Last year I rode around there before The Ronde and was startled by how bike-unfriendly so many motorists were. In this supposed cycling-mad place I was expecting a far more friendly welcome. The only other time I remember feeling this unwelcome while cycling around in the days before a big event was in Hawaii just before the Ironman triathlon. A conflict between national heritage like The Ronde or LeTour and the big profits turned by private enterprises running them seems something that can (and should) be worked out by reasonable adults to everyone’s benefit.

  17. Larry, you may find that many motorists resented you riding on the road because in Belgium, you have to ride on the bike path where one is provided.

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