Riding the Kemmelberg
Cycling in Belgium
The huge popularity of the Koksijde World Cup CycloCross, close to Dunkirk, and the Ghent Six Day track meeting with British cycling fans is a clear indication that Belgium is an accessible option for a cycling trip whether for a day or a long weekend. We chose to visit Ypres because of the Kemmelberg and to check out an area of Flanders that has such a strong a link to Britain. We drove to the Eurotunnel at Dover and caught an early train meaning that the 92 kilometres drive from Calais to Ypres would see us in the centre of town well before lunch. The day cost us below £100 and if you get four people and kit into a car then it becomes even cheaper. Eurotunnel offers value and convenience, but if you have more time the ferry companies have some good deals.
Ypres is basically a ‘new’ town, having been reduced to rubble by the war, and the remarkable ‘Cloth Hall'(Lakenhalle) stands proudly in the town square. My companion, Patrick, and I unloaded our bikes in a car park closely adjacent to the Hall, putting together, in my case, a Merlin MALT-CR and in Patrick’s, a Sensa Giulia with 105 kit. We hadn’t made any tweaks to accommodate the pave to be ridden, but we did make sure we had a good gear to get over the Kemmelberg and the Messine/Kemmel Ridge. The Merlin is an open mould entry level carbon bike fitted out with Shimano 105 and retails below £1000 whilst the Sensa is a little dearer at £1400.
Replacing wheels and attaching water bottles, stuffing food into pockets and tightening shoes allowed us to think that we were just like the great professional stars, as they too prepare for a day on the Belgian pave. This wasn’t Surrey or Yorkshire, rather it was a place and time that allowed us to dream just little bit beyond the norm…
The Kemmelberg awaits
There are two historic exit and entry points into Ypres; to the East is the famous Menin Gate with its arch inscribed with the names of tens of thousands who have no known grave and to the south, the Lille gate (named after the city held by the Germans in WW1). Both cross the Kasteelgracht and Majoorgracht moats surrounding the town. At the Lille gate and buried with so many within the town’s earthworks are a row of graves that includes Fijian engineers and this reminded us how varied the allied army was. We chose to head out over the Ypres cobbles via the Lille gate (N336) across the Gracht Bridge, which the Fijians had died keeping open, and set our sights on riding out and over the Kemmelberg.
Finding your way in Belgium is pretty straight forward, you can work out your general direction of travel and then follow the many signed cycle routes or do what we did, and buy a specific cycle route map from the ‘In Flanders Field’ Museum based in the Cloth Hall; we used it in combination with the marked routes.
Naturally in our excitement we turned left rather than continue along the N336 and soon had to backtrack. We popped onto the cycle path next to the main road. As if to indicate that we were in really in Belgium, when we slowed to cross a road, so did an articulated lorry, patiently waiting for us to use the cycle path ahead of him! We smiled at him and continued; he smiled back at us! It would be foolish to suggest that any country is totally safe for cyclists – I was reminded that drivers come in all styles when forced to brake sharply after a car pulled out in front of me later in the day – but what is safe to say is that the general Belgian motorist, whether lorry or car driver, does pay cyclists greater attention and care than in the UK; just never bank on it…
The route we took out to the Kemmelberg wasn’t the best and with hindsight we could have taken more care to follow the suggested ‘nicer’ way. As it was, we soon reached the local roads leading to the Village of Kemmel and we said farewell to the cycle path that separated us from the speeding trucks.
Situated to the south of the town, the Kemmelberg commands the high ground between Armentières and Ypres, just behind the Messine Ridge. In 1914 the Allied Armies of Britain, Commonwealth, Belgium and Portugal (the German’s having declared war on the Iberian nation because of their pro-Allied stance on neutral shipping), were able to hold onto Ypres, the Messine Ridge, the Kemmelberg and close by Scherpenberg. In early 1918 the Messine Ridge and Kemmelberg were key objectives for the German Army. The allied soldiers at the Kemmelberg were set squarely against their counterparts of the Central Powers (Germany, Austrian Empire and the Ottoman Empire).