Words by Peter Cossins
This article first appeared on La Course en Tête in March 2021 and is being reposted today as a tribute to all those who fought in the Great War and who are remembered by Gent-Wevelgem in Flanders Fields
Standing in the pre-stage mixed zone at Paris-Nice one morning earlier this month, I listened in to FloBikes reporter Gregor Brown as he quizzed Classics specialists about the key points on the Gent-Wevelgem route, focusing particularly on the Plugstreets gravel sections and, of course, the race’s totemic climb, the Kemmelberg.
It was fascinating to hear the likes of Oliver Naesen, Sep Vanmarcke, Matteo Trentin and Jasper Stuyven describing the specific challenges of what was very much a Classic where the sprinters once dominated, but has become more unpredictable in recent seasons, and a far better spectacle as a result of that.
The general take from the riders who spoke to Gregor was that the Plugstreet sections, which come between the final two of three ascents of the Kemmelberg, don’t add much in terms of the overall difficulty of the challenge at this long-standing Classic. The critical thing, according to Trentin, is to get through them without puncturing as waiting for a wheel or a bike and then accelerating back up to the bunch as it’s accelerating towards the climbs of the Monteberg and, soon after, the Kemmelberg, is sure to take a toll when the race reaches the latter.
The riders were almost unanimous in saying that the Kemmelberg isn’t as iconic as the bergs in the Flemish Ardennes a few dozen kilometres to the east, largely because it only features on the route of Gent-Wevelgem among the major Classics. What’s more, they said, the second and final ascent arrives with more than 30km remaining to the finish. Nevertheless, they all agreed, it’s a characteristically difficult West Flanders climb thanks to both its cobbled surface and super steep ramps, a place where Gent-Wevelgem is very unlikely to be won, but does tend to sort the very best from the rest, as was the case today, when the strongest nine riders coalesced going over the top of it, passing the memorial to the French soldiers who died defending this strategically important hill during the Fourth Battle of Ypres in April 1918.
For me, though, the Kemmelberg is just as iconic as, for instance, the Oude Kwaremont, the Koppenberg and the Paterberg because of its Great War history. When I first reported on Gent-Wevelgem during one of the three editions won by Mario Cipollini, I remember driving to see the climb and its memorials the day before the race. I walked up the cobbles, to the top and looked out across the flat plains of Flanders, wondering whether my great-grandfather, Lionel Saynor, had trained his big artillery gun to which he was posted after joining up in 1915 on its heavily fortified slopes after German forces had captured it the spring of 1918. That autumn, Allied forces recaptured it in Fifth Battle of Ypres, also known as the Battle of the Peaks of Flanders.
Lionel died nine months before I was born, but over the years I’ve heard stories from my mother about the physical and mental damage he sustained during the First World War, about how he would walk to a certain point in the fields near his East Yorkshire home and then stop, unable to carry on to the “swinging branch” that my mother, then a little girl, wanted to play on. After being rooted to the spot for a while, he’d have to be led back home. The “shell shock”, or post-traumatic stress disorder, never went away.
Seeing the riders gathering for the start of Gent-Wevelgem in Flanders Fields this morning at the Menin Gate, beneath the stone panels featuring the names of more than 54,000 Commonwealth soldiers who died in the battles at Ypres and whose remains were never found, brought Lionel back into my thoughts again. I called my mother, who told me that he’d fought at the Battle of the Somme, earning medals that he refused to accept because, as he often told her, “We were heroes led by donkeys.” She didn’t know where he was posted after that battle, but we have resolved to find out more.
Later in the day, after watching the riders pass cemeteries with thousands of carefully tended crosses, including the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing (pictured), I was reminded that one of the unique beauties of bike racing is its constant connection with a landscape that’s been shaped by human activity over the centuries. This is what, even in those many moments when not a great deal is happening in the race itself, still makes it captivating and magical. Seeing riders, men and women, of dozens of nationalities racing through this former “hell of the north” is a reason for reflection and even celebration, for realising that things have changed and mostly for the better.
As the riders reached the Kemmelberg for the first time, the action getting gradually more intense and enthralling, it struck me that the same can also be said for Gent-Wevelgem. Under the aegis of Flanders Classics, it’s been thoughtfully revamped and restored. Once stripped down to little more than 200km, it’s been beefed back up to full Classics distance and status. Run largely on open roads that are raked by the wind, it’s always likely to provide a fascinating contest from the off, the racing sometimes better than the Tour of Flanders. The addition of “In Flanders Fields” to its title boosts its importance even more.
Today’s men’s edition highlighted this success of this makeover particularly well, the whittling process beginning very early and continuing all the way into the final dozen kilometres, when Sam Bennett and Danny van Poppel were dropped from the leading group of nine, leaving a very select group of favourites at the front, from which Wout van Aert proved the quickest. Watching the women’s race as I write this, the racing is just as engrossing.
It’s been a day for memories, sad in parts, exhilarating in others, and ultimately one I won’t forget, and that’s something that I certainly wouldn’t have said about Gent-Wevelgem a few years ago.