6 months ago by Oskar Scarsbrook

The Kemmelberg – A theater of history

The story of the iconic climb used in Gent - Wevelgem

and in the sky
             The larks, still bravely singing, fly

– In Flanders Fields, John Mcrae, 1915 


The epicenter of Gent – Wevelgem, the Kemmelberg is an iconic cobbled hill that both Human Powered Health Cycling teams will crest multiple times from different directions as they race this monumental classic. Beyond towering over the race parcours, it has always been a theater of history.

A study by British artist Richard Carline paints a vivid picture of how this simple ridgeline dominates the surrounding Douve valley and alludes to why its symbolism stretches far beyond cycling. 

‘Den Engel op de Kemmelberg’ [The Angel of the Kemmelberg] monument signifies a deeper past. In fact, humans have used the hill as a vantage point since the neolithic period with the peak rather poignantly being named after Camulos, the Celtic god of War by Celtic settlers.

A sight down the Kemmelberg (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

2,400 years later, in April 1918, this monument to a battle deity was the scene of some of Europe’s bloodiest hours, the Fourth Battle of Ypres – part of the German spring offensive during World War One.  

At the time, the Kemmelberg was home to French, British and American forces before a brutal four days of relentless ground and aerial bombardment, trench warfare and vicious hand-to-hand combat, broke the allied line.

As the dust settled, an estimated 7,000 servicemen lost their lives in less than a week of fighting, only for the berg to be recaptured that same September. 

Over a century later, their sacrifice is remembered in the many graveyards and memorials that line the roads, including the Kemmel American Monument on Kemmelstraat that both races will pass on their way back to Wevelgem.  

“Camulos” can also be compared to the Old Irish word ‘cumall’, which loosely translates to “champion”. The hill that takes this name has certainly crowned a lot of them – Merckx, Van Looy, Boonen, Wild, Vos, all the greats have had to conquer the Kemmelberg to win one of Belgium’s greatest races.  

An ascent that is lined with baying Flandrians cheering on their heroes, in parts ten deep, the climb is now one of the great theaters of Belgian cycling, on par with the Koppenberg and Muur van Geraardsbergen. 

Local Belgian Jesse Vandenbulcke grew up on the course – she and her teammates will pass her hometown of Geluwe with 7 kilometers left in the race. For the 27-year-old, Gent – Wevelgem is more than just another race in the spring calendar. 

“The Kemmelberg is really special to me,” she says. “I would always climb it in training but it was also where my husband asked me to marry him.”

The Kemmelberg is also a unique climb compared to many of the other cobbled roads in the area as it is used sparingly in the lead up to Belgium’s Super Bowl, the Tour of Flanders.

Local rider Vandenbulcke (Photo by David Stockman/Getty Images)

It’s totally different from all the other climbs,” explains Vandenbulcke. “The first time when you come from the Monteberg and it’s a hard climb but you can do it with speed and then when you come to the other straight side it’s really steep and it’s not easy to climb so you have to sit down and push and survive.”

Team director Hendrik Redant knows the peril of the Kemmelberg’s cobbles first hand. It was there in 1997 his career came to an abrupt end. Redant told the story in our story, “What are the spring classics?

“We were climbing the Kemmelberg in the Three Days of De Panne and in that era we were still descending the cobbles the way they now climb up. We were going 75km/h and you are almost airborne as you are bumping from the cobbles,” recalled Redant. “Someone lost a bidon, it exploded on the road, one guy touched his brakes and there was a crash of about twenty guys. I could not avoid it. I descended that climb about 100 times and only one time it went bad, but that’s life.”

After countless ascents and descents of the famed climb, the cobbles bit back in Redant’s eleventh year as a professional. 

“That was my last ever race. In my whole life, I would always be one of the first up the Kemmelberg. There was a breakaway and we were still 90km from the finish so I thought why am I going so hard? So I climbed slower and like 40 guys came past. I’m completely fresh but then you’re in a position where the hazards will affect you far more than being in the front. So I could have avoided a broken elbow, muscle tearing in my right leg and a broken jaw. To this day my elbows are not normal.” 

It is with this deep historical context that the team will suit up and also join the long list of those who have tried to conquer this Flandrian monolith. Add the famously windy roads of ‘De Moeren’ and driving rain and you have a race that is truly a classic. Time for Human Powered Health to add to the history books. 

Gent – Wevelgem In Flanders Fields WE roster
Daria Pikulik
Marit Raaijmakers
Kaia Schmid
Jesse Vandenbulcke
Marjolein van’t Geloof
Lily Williams

Gent – Wevelgem In Flanders Fields ME roster
Stephen Bassett
Adam de Vos
Colin Joyce
Bart Lemmen
Sebastian Schönberger
Gijs Van Hoecke

How to watch


North American fans can catch the racing action on FloBikes with GCN+/Eursopsort supplying pictures to Europe. Coverage of the men’s race starts at 6 am CT with the women’s at 9:15 am CT. Make sure to follow Human Powered Health Cycling social media channels for all the best behind-the-scenes action of an epic race.