Flanders – home of the classics
Spring — as grey and miserable days pass and the pale, early-season sun reappears, the fervour for racing returns. It is the time of the Flemish spring classics, the opening chapter of the cycling season. Everyone knows the names of the races. First, there’s the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, followed by the E3-Prijs Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem. The climax comes the weekend of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, where all of the madness culminates. Then, there’s Paris-Roubaix, which is really a Flemish race in the eyes of many. And they’re right.
The two races are Siamese twins, united in their embrace of cobblestones and their history of being dominated by Flemish racers. The first two Sundays in April are marked off on everyone’s calendar. Divorced men who are supposed to look after their kids those weekends go to great lengths to avoid their parental duties. A mad spirit takes over the residents of Flanders, the country of racers. It begins about a dozen days before the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the season opener. In the Flemish papers, previews and prognoses begin to appear. In reminiscences of previous editions, reality is transformed into legend, and legends become myths. Biographies are turned into hagiographies. Famous races are rebroadcast in full on Flemish television. People have no problem with watching races from decades ago. Of course, only the most brutal editions are shown, so the collective belief that racing must be inhuman is reinforced. Stories are exaggerated, if not made up.
It all revolves around speculation; performances in preparatory races are poured over, giving rise to analyses that are based on nothing. Odds are reckoned for the racers. People make predictions that rarely come true. Everywhere, interviews are published with former riders, heroes from past times, who say the sport used to be much harder than it is today and today’s riders are clueless. They sigh and say again and again, as a sort of mantra, “Before, yeah, you have no idea. Before…”
Riders who everyone thought were long dead come on TV and speak in incomprehensible dialects, relaying anecdotes that can no longer be verified. People aren’t interested in verification anyways. The more brutal and unlikely a story is, the truer it must be. There’s no debate. Worrying rumours about the top favourites do the rounds. Overgrown toe nails, bruised ribs, minor concussions, broken collarbones, displaced vertebrae, colds and bronchitis are all happenings in a stirring drama. That’s for sure.
On the days of the races, they stand in their thousands and thousands to watch the arrival of the racers on one or the other berm or a sloppy section of cobbles or a slippery and viciously steep hill. If it rains, they stand in the mud. And it always rains; that’s how it’s supposed to be. It’s strange, but cycling fans always hope for bad weather. They don’t want to see the early-season sun. Prayers are answered when it rains or it hails or it’s windy. Sometimes, they even pray for snow. Why not? In the country of racers, races should not be diminished by good weather. It should storm. The rider who can win a spring classic in the worst weather is the more heroic. It’s a strange thing, this lust for bad weather, in which winners become respected strongmen, members of a brave elite who can perform in the most apocalyptic conditions.
The crowds arrive in places no one knew were inhabitable, places whose virtues are only known by the locals. The rest know nothing about these places, but when there’s a race, they flock there, because they happen to be home to the contest.
So they stand there on the day of the race and wait impatiently for the riders to arrive. Cheering cuts through the silence. There’s yelling and shouting. Then, pandemonium breaks loose. Everyone loses his mind. There are the racers, finally. It was a long wait. They pass at a tremendous speed, appearing in view for a few seconds. Then, pffft. They’re gone again in no more than a flash. A sensible person might ask himself why they would stand there for all that time waiting. But it cannot be explained so easily. What is it all about?
It’s probably something in the blood of every Fleming. They can’t help themselves. The ones who are a little more reasonable go find a cafe to watch the race in. It really is such a hassle, all that driving, that turning back and forth on way-too-small roads. Or they gather into crowds of a few hundred in a hall to watch the race together on a big screen. They grab a glass of beer, look to the race, and then there’s yelling and shouting.
Flanders, it’s the country of racers, the land where a foreign rider rarely plays a role, where people would rather not see a foreign winner. Occasionally, more often than not in recent years really, someone will break the spell and abandon the Flandriens behind him. To the Flemish, it’s unnatural for someone with a different temperament to their own to be insensitive to their feelings. If one of their riders doesn’t win, it directly contradicts their sense of justice. It just can’t be that a frivolous Italian or racer from another country can possess the toughness that is necessary to win in such inhospitable conditions. Such a person isn’t supposed to win, right? To soften the blow a little, they give all of the Italian, French, Swiss, and, if necessary, Canadian or Australian riders Flemish characteristics, despite the fatal flaw that is their foreign birth. In other words, they say they’re a bit Flemish. The people are then satisfied and say that it really was one of them who won.
More than anything, the people want things to be just they way they were, when one of their own was always the winner and all of the foreigners weren’t in the picture. They are nostalgic for a lost time, which is pointless because time will never be turned back. People love to remember and make their memories a little fuller. They nurture a mythology, a collection of stories, more often than not invented, and all of the bizarre anecdotes that comprise it, `get written up by journalists in articles that don’t have to contain much truth.
To understand this madness, you have to go back more than a hundred years. Then, Flanders was a poor region, heaving and groaning with poverty, where people lived with no future in sight and rarely knew how they might survive all of their misery. Let me put it this way: they didn’t have money for a cow. The fable about the little match girl is straight out of their daily reality. It was poverty, and to flee it, huge numbers of Flemings left, crossing the border into France to work in miserable conditions, where they could finally earn money.
Because they were considered boorish people, brutal and rude in their manners, people called them the Flandriens. To make their plight worse, all official business was done in French. School was in French. University was in French. The judges only spoke French. The bourgeoisie, anyone who was anyone, spoke French. Flemish was a language for lesser souls, for the farmers, the uneducated. The average wretch couldn’t speak French. They were victims of discrimination. They didn’t have a certain history, and certainly no future. There were a few people who tried to change that, but they were intellectuals. Their words meant nothing to the common man. That was the final nail in their coffins; most people couldn’t even read and write. But then, out of nowhere, a man arrived, a man who could win important international races. His name was Cyrille Van Hauwaert, and he was rightly and justly held up as a hero. Like that, the poor people learned there was a future.
His deeds were spoken of all over. Through him, people realised that life can have meaning, that it is possible to make money. Lots of money. Van Hauwaert earned more in a month than a government minister could earn in a year. Others wanted his life for themselves, so anyone who could, became a bike racer. Racing became a Flemish affair. With victories in Milan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix, and the Tour de France, that is a fair assertion. And they won those races more than once. Flanders became the country of racers. Suddenly, the people had heroes. Racers were revered. Strong men who won races in France showed they were no lesser than their neighbours. Perhaps, that is the essence of the Flemings’ love of cycling. Indeed, it’s a political matter, a matter of national pride, of realising that you’re no lesser than anyone. Every victory during the past hundred-plus years has contributed to the Flemish people’s self-esteem. People don’t treat such matters lightly.
Flanders is no longer a backwards region now; on the contrary, it’s relatively prosperous. But all of the past racers’ feats are buried in people’s souls, are a part of their DNA. That’s not hard to see. All of those heroic deeds are buried in the collective memory of the people, in their identity and their pride.
But the world has changed. The Flemish classics are based on nostalgia. They aren’t congruent with modern reality. For the time being, they remain. Television images allow people to take comfort in the illusion that everything is the same as it was. Riders perform on a stage that’s almost the same as the one on which all of the strongmen before them performed their acts of heroism. Why they regularly search for the muddiest roads poses a mystery to thoughtful men. On the other hand, if the riders were to pass through the real Flanders, we’d see nothing but villages that all look the same and poorly built concrete highways that have wrecked havoc on the landscape. To maintain the race’s authentic character is a massive undertaking. The first signs that it is all going to change soon are already here.
Many of the Flemish races now fall under the umbrella of Flanders Classics, a name that many find hard to even say. Every change is looked on with suspicion. No other sport’s outlook is as conservative as cycling’s, especially in Flanders. “Why does everything always have to change?” the people ask themselves. They think that De Ronde will one day be turned into a massive criterium held on a parcours that’s no bigger than a tissue. People were hardly used to the new format, and now the organisers have decided to change it all again and have the race start in Antwerpen and no longer pass through West-Vlaanderen, which has been an important part of the event from the very beginning. The supporters are completely confused and no longer know what to think of it all. There’s one thing they do know. “It’s all about money now. That’s for sure.”
The people don’t want change. There’s no space for them in the future. Everything should stay as it was. That’s the problem. If nothing is going to change, the sport will soon be dead. The facts don’t lie. Whereas cycling in Flanders is alive and kicking, leeching off the past, outside Flanders’ borders it’s beginning to die. In other places, it’s more of a niche sport for a few fanatics who don’t mind watching the hours of coverage when nothing happens. In most sports, rules are amended now and then. Changing times lead to that. In cycling, nothing’s ever changed aside from a few minor tweaks. A few lonely figures have tried, but they’ve always bashed up against the same wall. There is no model for making money and there is no real interest from the public at large.
As such, everyone pushes the other out the door. In the country of racers, it’s even worse. People don’t want change. Everything has to stay exactly as it was. Nothing can change. So, the Flemish classics remain as they are, relics of the 1950s that survive on nostalgia. They aren’t doomed to disappear, but only the people in Flanders understand them. So, they will disappear so slowly that they’ll become matters of folklore.
If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 16 where it was first printed.