Matteo Jorgenson rides away from chaos on the Koppenberg during Tour of Flanders 2024.

‘Walking up Koppenberg was a humbling experience.’

What happened on the Koppenberg?

Matteo Jorgenson (Visma-Lease a Bike) rides away from chaos on the Koppenberg during Tour of Flanders 2024. Photo: © Cor Vos

Kit Nicholson
by Kit Nicholson 31.03.2024 Photography by
Cor Vos, Gruber Images
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The mixed zone was a gloomy place at the finish of the men’s Tour of Flanders, the tent roof heavy with thrumming rain, and we were doubtful as to whether anyone would respond to our down-jacketed hand-waving as riders trickled in.

Julian Alaphilippe had blushes of grit beneath his aged eyes, Stefan Küng was visibly shaking and avoiding eye contact, Oier Lazkano was stopping for no one, Riley Sheehan – one of the cheerier finishers, along with Alexander Kristoff and Fred Wright – had snot smearing his top lip, and Michael Valgren was so cold and windburnt that the colour of his face almost matched his helmet.

In short, it looked horrific out there.

And one of the most dramatic and most horrific moments proved definitive for the race: chaos on the Koppenberg. Movistar’s Iván García Cortina had attacked the reduced lead group containing Mathieu van der Poel less than ten kilometres earlier and held a slender margin as he hit the infamous cobbled climb – sheltered by steep verges on both sides and trees overhead meaning it retains both grit and water – only to be forced off the pedals on the way up.

“It was totally impossible to have grip on that climb. For us at least, I don’t know about the other riders… Different tyres, maybe?” Cortina said. “So I tried in this very moment to lower the pressure because if I don’t do that on the Koppenberg, then probably I have the same problem later on the Paterberg. So yeah, it is like it is.”

But none of that was clear at the time. All TV viewers could see was that Cortina was on foot when the group caught him, Van der Poel then surged up the climb with Matteo Jorgenson attempting to grab his wheel, Mads Pedersen grovelling a few bike lengths behind, then everyone else was forced to dismount.

“Err, we walked!” Toms Skujiņš told Escape Collective when asked ‘what happened on the Koppenberg?’. “Some of us walked, and others managed to ride it. Yeah, I mean, it was quite slippery so quite early from the bottom I knew, ‘I’m gonna be walking.’”

Toms Skujiņš on the Koppenberg.
Credit: Andy van Bergen

Also in the fight for second and forced to walk was Magnus Sheffield, who took up the mantle of top American finisher after Jorgenson’s valiant effort to follow the world champion saw the Visma-Lease a Bike leader fade to 31st.

“I mean, there’s the Koppenberg cyclocross race, so I’m sure that’s the best as you can describe it,” Sheffield said. “Obviously with road shoes, they’re not meant to run up cobbles, so we were just trying to get up as quickly as possible, and as soon as I saw guys remount I did the same.”

Every bike racer must ride in all conditions, from burning sun to snow flurries, and sudden showers, and it’s perhaps an indication of his Britishness that Fred Wright was one of the better prepared and most cheerful riders at the finish, already well togged up by the time he reached the journalists. By this point, he was at least approaching comfortable, but the story had been very different not much earlier.

Tiesj Benoot at the Tour of Flanders.

“I just thought that on the second time on the Kwaremont it felt like the third time on the Kwaremont,” Wright said, explaining his sense of the race. “And then walking up Koppenberg was a humbling experience.”

The fact of the matter was that once García Cortina had been caught (still on foot, remember), and Van der Poel had swept through with Jorgenson and Pedersen trailing, a bottleneck formed on the cobbles and everyone – everyone – was left scrambling.

“I think with a clear run I would have been absolutely fine, but when you’ve got all the blokes in front of you jumping off and running, you end up having to do the same, so yeah, it wasn’t the most pleasant experience. There’s something about getting off your bike and running when you’re absolutely blown at that point – getting off the bike and running then, it’s really not very nice. So chapeau to the ’cross guys cos I needed to put my bike on my shoulder and keep going.”

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