“There are two races for the Kwaremont; the race to it and the race up it, and of the two the race to it is the nastiest,” says double Tour of Flanders winner Peter Van Petegem.
He continues; “It was the same when I raced. You had to ride so hard, use your elbows to keep position, anything to make the first two rows across the road at the bottom. If you didn’t the Tour of Flanders was over for you.”
This hill always has been crucial in the Tour of Flanders; or Ronde Van Vlaanderen, or simply the Ronde, to give it its Flemish and nowadays international name.
The Oude-Kwaremont is one of the cobbled hills that make the Tour of Flanders; it’s steep, but so are the others. It’s rough, just like the rest. But now it’s strategic, the first cobbled climb, and the only one the race goes up three times.
It opens the action, and is still there in the final act as the penultimate climb.
Kwaremont is a village on the East-Flanders ridge, where the Tour of Flanders hills are, and it’s been part of the race almost since it began. However, the Oude-Kwaremont we know today didn’t make its race debut until 1974.
This part of the story gets complicated. Kwaremont the village takes its name from a green mound a little to the west of it called Kwaremont, which is the true Kware hill. The pre-1974 Kwaremont climb used by the Tour of Flanders was where the N36 main road from Berchem to Ronse passes west of Kwaremont village and between there and the geographical top of the hill.
It was a cobbled road, like a lot roads were in Flanders before the sixties and seventies. Races didn’t have to seek them out then, they were just there. Well, they were until they started being be cemented over during the 1970s.
Smoothing out the Kwaremont turned what had been a crucial climb into a big ring romp over a concrete lump, so the race organisers started looking around for something to replace it. What they found was the Oude-Kwaremont, which was a back way into the village running parallel to the main road.
The Oude-Kwaremont climb is 2.2 kilometres long, but it’s not as steep as many other climbs, although the middle part is tough. The cobbles aren’t too bad either, because the road is used a lot and vehicles have worn a path of least resistance.
It’s not the Oude-Kwaremont that’s hard, it’s where it comes in the race. Well, that and the the cobbles after the summit, they play a part too.
The cobbles take the riders to a flat main road that runs along the top of the ridge, from where they dive down to climb the Patterberg then do the same for Koppenberg, in quick succession.
The long pave from the top of Oude-Kwaremont to the main road is the scene of desperate, strength-sapping chases every year. Chases that make themselves felt later.
The fight Van Petegem talks about takes place through Berchem and before. The route goes this way and that through a series of abrupt turns. You need nerves of steel, fearless late braking and very sharp elbows here.
20, 30 or 40 places gained in by patiently fighting in the crosswind before can be lost in one corner. Then the riders hit the climb.
The gradient is shallow at first and the surface concrete. The road bends right then left then gets steeper where the cobbles start, about one third of the way up, but only ten per cent and then only for a bit.
Then the hill slowly relents where the ornamental lamp-posts start, before kicking up into Kwaremont square. This is packed on race day. It’s like Christmas in the spring for the village cafes and bars.
Schilderstraat is the cruel, flattish, cobbled section after Kwaremont. It’s at least another two kilometres of leg-gripping false flat. And out of the village, away from the trees, outside of the shelter from the hedges that line the climb, a crosswind hits here like the trident-wielding Demons of Hell.
That’s it, times three. Once with 16 climbs to go. Once with seven to go but as the opening shot of the Oude Kwaremont, Paterberg, Koppenberg trinity. Then once as the last but one climb with the Paterburg following it.
Come and have a look next year if you can. Ride the Oude-Kwaeremont as part of the Ronde cyclosportive the day before, then watch the pros do it on the ‘First Sunday in April’, a Belgian bike fan’s holy day.