Soigneur Travel: Flanders
To travel to Flanders is to make a pilgrimage to one of cycling’s meccas. The place is steeped in racing heritage, soaked in the world’s finest beers, and smothered in a rich culture that has been blended together like the finest Flemish stew. The five Dutch-speaking provinces of northern Belgium make up Flanders. Travel beyond the boundaries of the city centres of Antwerp or Ghent, and you’ll find a rural people whose love of cycling is, per capita, unmatched anywhere in the world.
The two-week stretch from late March to mid-April is a glorious feast of cobbled classics. Beginning with Gent-Wevelgem, which tours battlefields from the Great War, this block also features the two spring monuments, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, which finishes right across the border in French Flanders. Ever since the inaugural Ronde in 1913, cobblestones have defined racing in the region. They’ve turned the molehills of the Flemish Ardennes, which struggle to reach 150 metres, into colossuses.
Like those hallowed bergs, the cobbles have bred legends of the sport. Talent runs deep in Flanders. It is an unforgiving arena, in which the hardest of hard men and women are groomed. With his 11 grand tour wins, Eddy Merckx remains their king. Olympic gold medallist Greg Van Avermaet and four-time Paris-Roubaix and three-time Tour of Flanders winner Tom Boonen are more recent Flemish stars.
To pedal a bike through Flanders is to bask in the rich history of the region. Whether your pilgrimage involves a journey to one of the many breweries, a stroll through a medieval city centre, a place in a VIP tent at a cobbled classic, or just a pedal down some forgotten farm lane, it’s all an immersion in the vast two-wheeled heritage of cycling’s most hallowed land.
TIPS AND HOTSPOTS
Food | Frites
Ask for “French fries”, and they’ll chuck the mayonnaise meant for those deep fried potato strips right into your face. Frituurs, the traditional Belgian fast-food joints, are in just about every town across Flanders serving various meat snacks and fries with mayonnaise. But the staple starch takes on more sophistication at places like De Vlaamsche Pot in Brugge, where fresh frites are served in a classic Flemish beef stew.
Music | Tomorrowland
If there’s one thing Belgians love more than cycling and frites, it’s the booming baselines and synthesised riffs of electronic dance music. It’s no surprise that the largest EDM festival takes place in Flanders, though it’s miraculous that they cram 400,000 raving, party fiends into the town of Boom, normal population 2,185. Should you miss Tomorrowland in July, you can still catch the Super Prestige cyclocross race, which is held each October at the very same location.
Drink | Belgian Beer
From Trappist ales to farmhouse saisons, no country does beer like Belgium. Amongst the canals and cobbles of Brugge (the entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage site) De Halve Maan has brewed beer for nearly 500 years. You needn’t head to a city to find world-class beers. Wander into most any small town, and you’ll find the local specialties brewed fresh from Westmalle to Ename.
Rides | Classics Cyclosportives
The days before the pros tackle the cobbled classics, tens of thousands of recreational cyclists descend on the stones in the grandest fondo fashion. Gent-Wevelgem, Paris Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders all offer cyclosportive rides, and for those who yearn for bonus flahute points, the Retro Ronde takes on 120 kilometres of farm lanes and cobbles on vintage bicycles that must have been built before 1987.
History | Great War Memorials
During World War I, West Flanders experienced the bloodiest and most catastrophic fighting Europe had ever seen. Today, cemeteries and memorials dot the landscape, with some of the most famous located in Ypres and Yser. Smaller monuments are scattered about West Flanders in fields and towns, reminders of the Great War’s enduring legacy on this region and the world.
Local Heroes | Eddy Merckx
While each Flemish village has its hometown hero, everyone agrees that Eddy Merckx is Belgium’s greatest champion. His 11 grand tour titles and 19 monument victories firmly cement him as the greatest road cyclist of all time and a worldwide icon.
Racing | Ghent 6 Day
For nearly a week, the Kuipke velodrome in the city of Ghent produces some of the finest track racing of the year. The Ghent Six Day dates back to 1922. The three-thousand-seat stadium offers an intimate setting to watch the fastest men in the world rip around the boards.
Culture | Sven Nys Cycling Center – Baal
After a cyclocross career with 50 World Cup wins, nine Belgian titles, and two world championships elevated Sven Nys to hero status amongst the proud Belgian fans, he retired to the quiet life of a museum curator… well, sort of. He opened the cycling centre that bears his name. In addition to the cyclocross museum, the Sven Nys Cycling Center offers camps and clinics and features a dedicated cyclocross track, where a major cross race takes place each New Year’s Day.
Culture | De Ronde Museum
Oudenaarde sits at the foot of the Flemish Ardennes, and its proximity to most of the finest cobbled climbs in Flanders makes it a major hub of Flemish racing and riding. The Centrum Ronde Van Vlaanderen celebrates the century of racing that’s taken place in the region. After being inspired by the history and heroes of the Tour of Flanders, grab a bite in the upstairs café, and then head off to experience the parcours of De Ronde first hand.
Races | Kerstperiode Cyclocross Races
For the cyclocross faithful, the kerstperiode, a week and a half of near continuous racing between Christmas and New Year, is the quintessential Belgian cyclocross binge. From the dark alley ways of the Diegem Super Prestige night race, to the hilltop racing around the citadel of Namur, these classic races are must attends for any cyclocross fan.
Rides | The Canals
Built across Belgium for shipping, irrigation and runoff management, the canals of Flanders offer uninterrupted and tranquil riding. Most dykes have a paved or gravel path running alongside them, and the expansive network connects the major cities and towns across the region. Many group rides rip along the canals, including the Schelde Peloton, a daily group ride between Oudenaarde and Ghent.
Shops | Pro Shops
In Flanders, visiting a ‘pro shop’ means you might very well be walking into the establishment of a sporting legend. Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet’s fietsenwinkel sits just off the motorway south of Ghent, while two-time cyclocross world champion Niels Albert has his own storefront in his hometown of Tremelo.
American writer and cyclocross racer Andrew Juiliano regularly travels to Belgium to compete in Superprestige events and world cups. These are his favourite rides in the country.
Hard | Ronde Van Vlaanderen Cancellara Ride
Inspired by Fabian Cancellara, this 180-km route accrues 2,200 meters of climbing without ever going more than 160 meters above sea level. The cobbled bergs and paved climbs will take their toll.
Medium | Two Monuments Day: Roubaix and De Ronde
This ride takes you from the finishing straight of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen just outside of Oudenaarde to the legendary banks of the Roubaiux Velodrome.
Easy | Eddy Merckx Ride
The Eddy Merckx route tackles some of the most iconic cobbled climbs from the Tour of Flanders, like the Paterberg and the Oude Kwaremont, in a short and sweet ride near Oudenaarde.