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A load of old cobblers

"He just laughed before snarling a succinct reply: "Not cobbles! There are none in the UK."

 

When triple Tour of Flanders winner Johan Museeuw asked me if I'd ridden on cobbles before, I gamely tried to disguise my inexperience by listing the strips of British "pavé" I'd conquered on my commutes and training rides.

 

Had there been some kind of Belgian brioche advert taking place on the Flandrian equivalent of Shaftesbury's "Hovis Hill" he may well have been mildly impressed. Instead, he just laughed before snarling a succinct reply: "Not cobbles! There are none in the UK."

 

Ian Stannard, the Team Sky powerhouse recently seen attacking on the famous Cipressa climb in Milan-San Remo, would beg to differ. Stannard hails from Cheshire and reckons his local cobbled climb of Swiss Hill near Macclesfield is harder than many of the 'hellingen' that feature in the Belgian classics.

Given he's in line to make his seventh appearance in both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix this spring, Stannard – a double Omloop Het Nieuwsblad winner, lest we forget – certainly knows a few things about riding the cobbles.

 

The notion that there are no challenging cobbled roads in the UK is, of course, a load of old cobblers. There are plenty – they're just not concentrated in small farming communities and used annually in mythical professional races that are beamed around the world on TV.

 

Last year the British national championships circuit featured the challenging cobbled climb of Michaelgate in Lincoln, while Trooper Lane in Halifax and Thwaites Brow in Keighley, near Bradford, are both meant to be real perineum punishers. Rising to a maximum gradient of 45 percent, the Corkscrew in Cheshire is meant to be the steepest cobbled climb in the UK, while most years the Somerset town of Frome hosts the infamous Cobble Wobble hill climb.

 

Have I tackled any of these cobbled climbs? Don't be silly. As Museeuw – the Lion of Flanders – found out, my experience of real cobbles in the UK is basically restricted to Shaftesbury's Gold Hill, that short but sharp, cottage-lined strip of bumps so steep that it forced the Hovis delivery boy to dismount and push his bike up before freewheeling down (something I wouldn't advise, by the way).

 

As my parents live nearby, I can't really avoid testing myself on this 100 metre-long brute every now and then. With a one-in-six gradient and more grass growing between the jagged stones than in most Londoners' back garden (should they be lucky to even have one), Gold Hill almost brought me to a wheel-spinning heap the first time I had a pop.

Since then I've crawled up it a handful of times. Seeing that the panoramic view Gold Hill affords of the lush Dorset countryside is perhaps the biggest tourist attraction for miles around, it's hardly surprising that any summiting of a cyclist is accompanied by anything from curious disbelief to raucous cheers from the tourists gathered outside the cafe at the top. Sometimes they even take photos.

"To watch the professionals ride up iconic climbs on TV one day and then try to emulate them the next is one of the principal joys of cycling, the most democratic of sports."

London's many cobbled mews are a doddle in comparison. I've been commuting and riding around the capital for a few years now, and initially I would actively seeking out these stretches of granite bumps (most of which are sandwiched between the kind of expensive houses that even the combined cobbled classic clout of Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara couldn't afford).

 

There's no mud or grass or gaping chasms between these ordered city cobbles in London – just concrete. But if they're to Flanders what deep pan pizza is to Italy, then I still dream of seeing a professional race powering through the narrow Holland Park Mews en route to the usual finish on The Mall one day.

 

The closest you get to that right now is the annual London Classic – a 58km sportive-style jolly which traditionally takes place on the morning of Paris-Roubaix and features five lung-busting hills and some 22 sectors of "pavé" (including the five-star difficulty sections of Wapping High Street, Hayfield Passage in Stepney Green and Folgate Street in the City).

 

And yet... Museeuw would probably have a heart attack were he to hear these mildly rutted strips of road described as cobblestones. And of course, now I've ridden alongside (but mainly behind) the 50-year-old former world champion in his own Belgian back garden, who am I to disagree?

Tackling the Koppenberg, Taaienberg, Oude Kwaremont, Paterberg and numerous other cobbled climbs and sectors in a 75km loop around the town of Oudenaarde was a real baptism of fire for this Flandrien first-timer.

 

I was out in Belgium on a crazy day trip with some friends and Le Domestique Tours, who organise fully supported cobbled packages for £99 per person, including Eurostar and bus transfer. It was exactly a month before the Ronde van Vlaanderen and a few days after the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad race had tackled some of the same ascents.

 

To watch the professionals ride up iconic climbs on TV one day and then try to emulate them the next is one of the principal joys of cycling, the most democratic of sports. Cycling's battlefield is the open road and there's nothing – besides physical inability – stopping us fans from trying to emulate our idols.

If my day on the cobbles in Flanders with Johan made me appreciate the true difficulty of the Belgian classics, it did nevertheless stir inside me a desire to give it another go. Those London mews are waiting. Perhaps I'll even venture up north and perform my own cobble wobble on the Corkscrew?

 

Felix Lowe is a London-based freelance writer and author of 'Climbs and Punishment: Riding to Rome in the Footsteps of Hannibal' (Bantam 2014). He covers all the major races forEurosport.com and writes the website's popular Blazin' Saddles blog. A regular contributor and monthly Lasp Gast columnist with Cyclist, Felix also penned a chapter in the latest edition of the Cycling Anthology (Volume 6). When not cycling or writing about cycling, Felix likes to travel, take photos, read novels and watch films. He can be found on Twitter (@saddleblaze) and on Instagram (@blazinsaddles) and on his personal website, www.felixlowe.com

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