Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections: Ben McCormick

Ben McCormick | 2nd January 2020

It’s time once again for the annual series of postings we like to call Shadows and Reflections, in which our contributors and friends look back on the past twelve months. From Ben McCormick:

Known locally as the Bump of Melden, and officially named Steengat (stone way), the Koppenberg is less a road, more a tall, thin, rickety wall that’s listing slightly. In Dutch slang – something I expect isn’t in short supply among local cyclists attempting to ride up this mottled, unforgiving track – cobblestones are called ‘kinderkoppen’ or children’s heads, a rather grim yet uncannily accurate image. Small, grey skulls thumped into a gulley cut into the side of a Flemish hill. Open, relatively smooth and gentle in gradient at first, the Koppenberg rears up like a shotgun-startled stallion as you approach a tunnel of trees that marks the start of the steepest section. It’s as if you’re cycling into the cover of a Robert Macfarlane book, which is particularly appropriate given this stretch is classed as a ‘holle weg’ (hollow way). What at first appears welcome shelter is deceptive. The trees that arch the near-vertical trench are no more than sneering spectators mocking your frankly feeble attempt at scaling this staggeringly steep serpent of an incline that twists its way skywards out of the dark. It is far from a huge obstacle – just under half a mile long and rising 64 metres – but that’s only half the story. What makes this hill the most feared and revered climb in the region – one that famously made Eddy Merckx get off and walk – are those children’s heads. At first just momentum-sapping, they become more malevolent as you plough into the undergrowth, flanked on both sides by sheer embankments. It’s as if the paving contractor ran out of money halfway up and enlisted the help of a few locals from the nearby pub to finish the job. Drunken builders have pitched bricks into the clay and the resulting miniature Giant’s Causeway of cobblestones set haphazardly into the hillside makes forward progress a mere guessing game. At this point, you are alone against nature, gravity and shoddy workmanship. My front wheel skitters alarmingly from side to side with each pedalstroke as it bounces nervously over the rough granite hunks. There is no point trying to direct it with the handlebars; its destiny is governed by the uneven stones and crevices over which it picks an uncertain route upwards. Control is an illusion created in my mind by the realisation I am still pedalling and moving forwards despite everything. That said, I am genuinely unsure I can make it to the top; this is the hardest thing I have ever done on a bike, day-long races in the French Alps included. When eventually the gradient flattens out to a more manageable 13%, the cobbles calm down again, almost giving you the impression you’re cycling along a horizontal piece of tarmac. Though by no means over, it’s here you begin to believe again. And as I arrive wheezing and unable to speak at the top, that self-belief has been vindicated. This is a real high-point. Not only of the ride I’m on, which takes in another five challenging ramps (known locally and appositely as ‘hellingen’) in this crumpled blanket of a landscape, but of the entire year.

Elsewhere, there is little of note to reflect on. I indulged in a bit of nostalgia driving to and from Spain at the end of May, calling in at a few significant places in my life and catching up with old friends on the way. Managed to enjoy a couple of good festivals in summer as well, including the last Port Eliot for the foreseeable future, a bittersweet weekend if ever there was one. But work has plodded along inconsistently, less interestingly. And it remains to be seen whether there’s enough in the kitty to pay myself enough to live on and cover my taxes. Non-work writing has trickled to a halt. Every time I try and commit some words to a page, it’s a struggle that eventually buckles under the pressure of my growing feeling I’m out of ideas and my best stuff was written a long time ago. Any ambitions I had, I seem to have shelved. And not just in terms of writing either. It sometimes feels as if an enthusiasm vaccuum has opened up and everything else that once brought joy is collapsing into that void. Here, there is no illusion of control. Unlike the ascent of the Koppenberg where sheer bloody-mindedness and toil produced the desired result, life seems impervious to the influence of such effort. It just goes on; a continuing struggle without the reward of even some sense of achievement bar getting through another year. I hope this is just the steep bit. The section you just have to power through. That I’ll soon reach the point where the punishing gradient relents, things get easier and I can start believing again. One of the things I’ve learnt climbing hills by bike is not to look up the road to see how much further you still have left to pedal, but instead to focus your gaze just a couple of yards ahead on the road. Maybe I need to apply the same approach to life in 2020.