I’ll get to the point — Belgians are nuts about bikes. Cycling is a national obsession, paved into their cobbled hearts. Belgian kids grow up wanting to be professional cyclists and to them, those that pedal on to the podium are like gods. For a small country, with a little over 11 million people, the number of races they win is incredible. So what’s the secret?
When I cycle along the paths and lanes that cover every corner of this country, I meet cyclists of every ability gathering in packs and sweeping through like silent wolves. In this lazy landscape they are often the only movement. You’ll see weekend cyclists riding with a ‘team’ car behind them, set up as a professional support vehicle, with spare wheels on the roof. Even leisure cycling is taken seriously here.
As a Brit whose in-laws live in Belgium, I’ve acquired a certain perspective on the national psyche and it is clear there is something about cycling that reflects the way that Belgium sees itself in the world — it believes in success through hard work and has dreams that are bigger than itself. Robbie McEwan, the Australian sprinter, settled here, saying he admired the Belgian work ethic of ‘rolling up your sleeves’. He summed up the character well when he said they have “an ability to make themselves suffer, riding their rivals into the ground.”
Belgium is a country of two halves though: Flemish and French speaking. People are defined as being Flandrian or Wallonian. The two sides have their differences and distrust each other but cycling is what unites them. When any Belgian cyclist wins, the whole of Belgium celebrates. When asked which side he associated with, Eddy Merckx simply stated, “I am Belgian.”
Merckx then, let’s get him out of the way. He was known as the Cannibal for his blood lust for victory. Race against Merckx and you were racing for second place. You probably know the stats — he won the Tour and Giro five times each and bagged the Vuelta, he won the world championships three times and set the hour record. He is the most successful cyclist of all time. I emailed him to ask if he had any regrets and unsurprisingly I didn’t hear back.
This year he turned 70, and he isn’t slowing down — he organises the Tour of Qatar and Tour Oman and is involved in the bike brand that bears his name. For his 70th birthday they made 70 limited edition bikes, costing 14,000 euros each. Unwittingly, he is also helping to strengthen the connection between beer and bikes in Belgian culture — Merckx Cycles is owned by the same company that owns Palm beer.
Belgium has taken some time to adjust to the post-Merckx era and accept it has to stop looking for the next Grand Tour specialist and enjoy its strengths, particularly in the Classics. Tom Boonen, Philippe Gilbert, Jurgen Van den Broeck and Thomas De Gendt are amongst the recent greats. And Belgian cyclists dominated the opening of the 2016 season. We saw Greg Van Avermaet win the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and Jasper Stuyven take a windy Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne.
Whilst Etixx-Quick-Step and Lotto Soudal have their fanatic supporters, for many Belgians their heroes are much closer to home. In such a rural country, where you come from has huge importance. Fans gather around their local heroes and support them like us Englanders do football teams; that is to say they follow them everywhere and cheer them loudly with beers in hand, even when they know there is no hope of winning.
The fans have plenty of chances to hope for victory. From Gent-Wevelgem to the Monument that is Liege-Bastogne-Liege, there are dozens of epic races and Belgian TV covers them all. And in the winter, there is an active cyclocross calendar. It’s a close community of supporters where people know each other and drinks are passed around. And it’s a comforting time; we all know the Belgian riders will dominate. In this world, one name rules though: Sven Nys. He retired from cylcocross racing this year after 18 years in which he amassed more than 290 victories, and several Belgian and world titles. A documentary, Sven — the final year, received a cinematic release in Belgium, testament to the respect for the athlete and the sport. In the film a fan tells us almost tearfully, “There will never be a better rider. Never.”
Each area of the country has also traditionally had its own local races. They are accompanied by funfairs and popcorn and whilst sadly they are in decline, some still thrive, such as the ‘Across our House’ race in Baardegem, which runs through the middle of a bar (what a surprise) before returning to the streets.
As you’d expect, by far the biggest race of the year — and one of the biggest things in Belgium itself — is the Tour of Flanders, aka the Ronde van Vlaanderen. It’s an unofficial national holiday. This year was the 100th edition and for weeks building up to the race we saw our social media feeds light up with calm pictures of deserted cobbled hills lit in breathless sunsets with the caption, ‘It is coming.’ The day before the pro race, amateurs take on the sportif, and even they are treated like stars. Old men spill out pubs and pat the competitors on the back and ask how the course is faring. Then they scribble thoughts in dogeared notebooks and return to the bar.
One of my favourite cycling photographers is the Australian Marcus Enno who goes by the name of Beardy McBeard because of his fantastic facial follicles. He travels the world capturing the mood of the greatest races and this year he was covering the Ronde for the first time. “You can imagine what these cobbled hills are like,” he told me, “but nothing prepares you for the reality — you look at this goat track rising up steep in front of you and you think, ‘Holy cow — the peloton is coming up here.’”
“It’s a bananas race — everything about it is crazy: the course, the fans… the atmosphere is just awesome but there’s also a crazy contrast between the hard-core fans who know it all and those that are there just for the fun — there’s definitely a lot of beer being sunk.”
The Ronde has made its famous (and beautifully maintained) cobbled hills into household names. Amongst them, the Koppenberg is one of the toughest. It has a max gradient of 22% and you get engulfed in its steep banks. Before it was resurfaced, it even caused Merckx to once step off and walk.
The Paterberg is another — it can be the deciding factor in the race, as we saw with Peter Sagan this year. It is also a marker of that Belgian determination — a local farmer who loves cycling rolled up his sleeves, paved the steep side of his field and, once built, the race came up it.
But the most famous paved hill is perhaps the Muur van Geraardsbergen. Belgian TV made a documentary about the postman that had to cycle up it every day. Such is the way cycling is worshiped in Belgium, when they suggested taking the Muur out of the Ronde course in 2012, there was extensive debate across the media for weeks and when it was finally removed fans gathered for a mock funeral and carried the coffin of the Tour of Flanders up to the chapel at the top.
But you can still go yourself of course — take on the Muur and then wheeze back to the café at the bottom and celebrate with a mattentaart buttery pastry cake and marvel in its glory. People in the rich pasturelands of Geraardsbergen will tell you it can be made nowhere else in the world.
Today, the Ronde finishes in Oudenaarde, which has become a hotspot for cobble junkies, there to bag their bergs. Join them. Grab the ‘Tour of Flanders Cycling Routes’ map and timing chip that tracks you on certain parts of the route to see how you compare to the pros, and set off.
There’s plenty of cycling for all styles and appetites in Belgium. In northern Flanders, where I visit most, the flatness is bisected by a myriad of canal-side cycle paths that form part of the ‘Fietsroutesnetwerk’; a system that allows you to follow numbers along the way. I recently followed the paths from the north coast down through Bruges and beyond. Bruges is a fairy tale medieval city but for the true Belgian character you have to go further — it’s just another couple of hours on to Ghent, the ‘hipster’ capital of Belgium. It’s often said to be the best European city you’ve never thought of visiting. Just think about that.
At times it feels like Ghent is the centre of the cycling universe. The Omloop starts and finishes here and it is also the heart of Belgian track cycling. At the Ghent Six, the most flamboyant fans crowd the centre of the velodrome in fancy dress, drink beer and eat hot dogs, dancing badly to dodgy tunes. Six days of revelry with riders racing until 2 am… it’s simply brilliant. It was the thought of a town so committed to cycling which drew my hero Tom Simpson to live here in the 1960s.
Today, it is seeing a surge in everyday cycle love. Spotting the trend, when Annelies Browaeys opened her café here a few years ago she called it Bidon and stuck some bicycles on the walls, and now she’s on the touring map.
“You can tell when the races are on as the town builds up for weeks before, with cyclists from around the world chasing the excitement,” said Annelies. “But Ghent is also one of the nicest places to visit in Belgium. It’s beautiful, we have art and culture and it isn’t a walking museum like Bruges!”
The popularity of Ghent will keep growing — it has plans to get cars out of the centre, which will see the street by Bidon reclaimed as a canal. It’s part of an effort to better support cycling across Flanders and seen most evidently in Antwerp, Belgium’s capital of style.
Antwerp was placed ninth in the 2015 Copenhagenize Index of Bicycle-Friendly Cities. It’s praised for the way bikes have been embraced by all ‘ages and all wages’. However, the Index criticizes the commitment of the capital Brussels, saying it “offers no competition or inspiration.” “You have to go all the way to Paris to find a city that has reestablished the bicycle as well as Antwerp,” it says. In Antwerp, nearly a third of all trips are made by bicycle. The infrastructure here is thought out, not thrown together. And they are investing in promoting cycling through business as part of economic growth, with couriers on everything from fixies to cargo bikes.
Antwerp is a place for hassle-free, cool urban cycling. Join a guided tour with Cyclant or grab a red chopper-style Velo hire bike and make your way from the palatial central station, through narrow alleys and beside docks, past medieval squares. My personal favourite — a plate of mussels and fries, washed down with one of the many fine Belgian beers.
The bike and beer connection is demonstrated in the city by the fact that one of the finest cycle shops around, Velodome, is located inside the historic old building of the De Koninck brewery.
Philippe Van Eekhout, owner of Velodome, has now revealed to me why the two are often found together in Belgium, “Well, one beer equals around 8 grams of carbohydrates, and in De Koninck it might be even higher. As students we used to say that one beer replaces a sandwich, so we could be found at the bar, rather than at the lunch table. We simply have to drink beer for our recovery. Fortunately we live in the kingdom of the best beer in the world. So can you blame us for combining the two?”
So the secret is simple then — put a beer and a bicycle in a blender (and add a sprinkle of cool) and you’ve got yourself a slice of Belgium, and oh my, isn’t that a tasty little adventure.