Another side to Belgium

Saturday, 13 March 2010

This blog covers pro cycling, but so do many websites. I started the blog to give a different insight into races, whether it’s personal opinions or picking up on small things that get overlooked, whether it’s Amaël Moinard’s SRM or analysing sponsorship deals. In short, the aim is to give a bit more detail.

One aspect of this is going beyond the sport and occasionally I want to blog about local issues in different countries. Our sport travels across farm tracks and through towns, I want to help place the sport into the context of political, geographical and social forces that surround it. Cycle races don’t take place in a bubble. So as part of a series about life in Europe called Out of Competition, here’s the first installment about Belgium…



Think Belgium and most people might think “small European country”, “can I name five famous Belgians?”, “Brussels” and other nondescript ideas. But for cycling fans the mention of this country brings up images of cobbles, classics, crosswinds and crowds – and that’s just the letter C.

Background

Belgium is a country of 10 million people. A monarchy, the modern state can be traced back to independence in 1830. It has two regions, Flanders and Wallonia. Flanders is the dutch (aka Flemish) speaking region to the north and Wallonia is the French speaking area to the south. Flanders is roughly 45% of the territory but with two thirds of the population. Cyclists will note the ever present villages and towns in the Tour of Flanders but the more open terrain of Wallonia’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Another side
There’s another side to the country. The world is full of happy multilingual nations, think Switzerland or Canada. And Belgium is ok for the most part. But there are rising tensions between the Flemish and the Walloons. On a big scale you have political parties who are either Dutch speakers or French speakers, rather than sharing common ideas and values. But one ugly side is the pettiness of the disputes.

In one example, a French-speaking couple from the capital Brussels wanted to buy a second home in Oostduinkerke on the coast. But the West Flanders local government said no, or more precisely nee. A “provincial evaluation committee” blocked the francophone couple. Why? Well there’s a law put in place that stops people who have not lived in an area for 10 years from buying a property, the aim is to stop outsiders driving property prices so locals aren’t priced out of the housing market. But Oostduinkerke has seen many Dutch-speaking Brussels citizens move in, it’s only the French speakers who seem to get blocked. This has happened in other places too. It’s not common but there are more and more examples of tension between the Flemish and the Walloon sides.

What’s this got to do with cycling?

Not much, but have you ever seen those yellow flags at bike races, the ones with a black lion? They are the flags of Flanders. Ask yourself why people aren’t waving a Belgian flag. Tom Boonen may be draped in the black, yellow and red of the Belgian flag but many cycling fans prefer to identify with the region of Flanders, not the nation of Belgium.

Out of Competition
Part I: another other side to Belgium
Part II: Is Belgium splitting apart?
Part III: The Bike as a Way Out

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