The final act of Belgium’s biggest race, the Tour of Flanders, the Paterberg is an iconic cobbled climb, but its history is unlike all the others.
Imagine for a moment you are a die-hard West Ham fan. You’re so desperate to see your beloved claret and blue army closer to home that you decide to build a football pitch outside your front door. You then get out a pen and paper and write a letter to Newham Council requesting that the team starts playing its home games here.
Now imagine that the council and West Ham’s owners say yes. Before you know it, you’ve got Declan Rice, Mark Noble and the rest of the team playing against Manchester United in full view of your bedroom window.
It’s a dream that lives solely in the mind of a certain journalist who writes for an unspecified cycling magazine, yet for one Flemish farmer the cycling equivalent of this dream became a reality.
As recently as 1985 the Paterberg was nothing more than a steep, unpaved dirt track. That was until one of the farmers who lived on the climb decided to take action after he found himself a little envious of one of his friends.
Apparently this friend lived on a nearby climb called the Koppenberg, which had been introduced into the region’s biggest bike race, the Tour of Flanders, a decade earlier in 1976.
As a huge cycling fan, the farmer felt it was unacceptable that he couldn’t live as close to the action as his mate.
So he got out pen and paper and wrote a letter to the Kluisbergen council requesting approval for him to pave the dirt track that ran outside his farm with cobbles, thereby creating a new cobbled climb that could then be used in De Ronde.
Incredibly, the council listened. It allowed the farmer to cover the Paterberg in kassei and by the spring of 1986 the Paterberg was ready to make its debut in the Flemish Monument. Build it and the Tour of Flanders will come.
Time to shine
Despite having been built for the race, for the first 26 years the Paterberg was seen as just another climb. It was steep, harsh and it sapped the legs, but being a long way from the finish it was no more significant than climbs such as the Eikenberg or Wolvenberg – just another obstacle the peloton had to haul itself over before the Muur van Geraardsbergen/Bosberg one-two knockout blows that had concluded the race since 1973 and so often decided its winner.
And so it would have remained had it not been for a controversial decision by Tour of Flanders owner Wouter Vandenhaute in 2012. Having bought the race in 2009, Vandenhaute founded Flanders Classics a year later, the company that runs De Ronde plus five further semi-Classics in the region.
Looking to make the race more financially viable and commercially lucrative, the long-established route was given a refresh. The finish in Meerbeke was swapped out for the town of Oudenaarde, with the iconic double of the Muur/Bosberg replaced by the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg.
Both were to be climbed three times apiece during the race, giving spectators the chance to see the action on multiple occasions from the same spot, and Vandenhaute the chance to erect highly profitable hospitality tents roadside.
The route change made many local fans incandescent with rage, to the point where they held a fake funeral on the slopes of the Muur in protest at its axing. But it was also a decision that gave this little cobbled hill its time in the spotlight.
The profile of the Paterberg looks like a Roman nose – all the harshness comes in the middle before it eases off ever so slightly towards the end.
That harshness only lasts for 100m, but then the entire climb is only 350m, a statistic that makes it the shortest Classic Climb that Cyclist has ever featured.
To the top
A maximum gradient of 21% and an average of 12% on those crooked cobbles is enough to strike fear into amateurs and pros alike, however.
The beginning is civilised enough, the gradient of the first third of the climb remaining in single digits and allowing for a bit of a run-up at what’s to come. The further into the climb you get, though, the harder it becomes.
It won’t be long before you’ll have managed to convince yourself that the alpacas in the field next door are smirking at you as you huff and puff, body contorted over the handlebars, struggling against the knee-crunching gradient and wheel-bouncing cobbles.
Even the pros can’t help but slip into slow motion while riding the Paterberg. The most recent winner of the Tour of Flanders, Mathieu van der Poel, went searching for the Paterberg’s narrow gutter as he endeavoured to follow the accelerations of rival Tadej Pogačar, those few inches of smoothness offering a moment of sweet relief from the jarring cobbles.
For mere mortals, it’s prudent to avoid flirting with that half-piped slither of road, as fatigue tends to have a detrimental effect on bike-handling skills.
Instead, the best bet is to stick to the crown, push the pedals as hard as humanly possible and pray to the Flemish gods that you stay upright and forward-moving all the way to the top.
Last ditch effort
What is perhaps surprising is that in its decade as the final climb, the Paterberg has only seen the race-winning move on two occasions.
The first was in 2013 when Fabian Cancellara rode away from Peter Sagan and Jurgen Roelandts for the second of his three wins; the second was in 2016 when Sagan achieved redemption by shelling Sep Vanmarcke on its slopes.
The lack of decisive moves on the Paterberg may be a sign that it is too short to launch an attack, or proof that after 250km of racing, it is too tough to attack on.
The answer is uncertain, but what is beyond doubt is that, despite being only 36 years old, the Paterberg is already a Classic Climb.