The Ronde van Vlaanderen, the Tour of Flanders, is a bike race held this Sunday. But it is so much more than a bike race, so much more than a sports event. It is a sociological phenomenon, a cultural and national event.
Many countries have days on the sporting calendar that take on a national significance. France obviously has the Tour de France, Italy has the Giro d’Italia. Australia has a horse race, the Melbourne Cup that is described as “the race that stops a nation” and that’s apt for De Ronde and Belgium. Britain has the Grand National horse race and the FA Cup final and there’s the Superbowl in the US. But I still don’t feel these events get the measure of what’s coming this Sunday in Flanders.
Small place, big deal
Belgium a smaller place so any event that takes place is likely to grab more attention. By contrast it’s easier to ignore the Superbowl if you’re American. But it’s still different, competitions like the Superbowl or FA Cup are reliant on fans from each team for a lot of support. By contrast, whilst there will be fans of Tom Boonen and Philippe Gilbert by the road, most people will simply be out to watch the event; most TV viewers just want to watch the race.
There are some pointers that this is more than a mere sports event. Belgium’s TV1 channel broadcasts a sort of soap opera called De Ronde. Similarly the race escapes the back pages of the newspaper sports sections and it’s the stuff of front pages, comment and opinion plus features on what the riders are eating, new bike technology and more, all in the national press. This isn’t to say every Belgian watches the race. No, millions also tune in via radio too.
It’s also a nice distraction for the country right now. Belgium has no formal government, elections 290 days ago when the last government collapsed resulted in no overall majority from any party and all attempts at horse-trading so far to form a coalition have failed. Life goes on, Belgium relies a lot on regional and local government but De Ronde is a common good shared by millions, like a love of frites, the King and the soccer team.
Of course plenty of Belgians are indifferent to the race but this race is really unlike others. Many a race will flash through European towns and villages without people knowing, an inconvenience thanks to closed roads. Politics aside, this is a nice day out for millions in the country. When you see the TV coverage or photos you’ll see many lining the road but you have to imagine many more people sitting in their homes, in bars and cafés watching the race. You have to experience it to believe it.
For tips on watching the classics, see an earlier post: How to watch a race.