The GP E3 Harelbeke race is on today, marking the beginning of a four week period of spring classics in and around Belgium. In particular the region of Flanders will host many races. A hotbed of cycling, some opinion polls suggest that nobody else in the world likes cycling as much as the inhabitants of Flanders. Here is a look at the region via its language, its flag and more.
Belgium is a country of 11 million people and 30,500 square kilometres. For comparison if it was a state in the USA, it would be one of the ten smallest, smaller than Maryland. But Belgium is itself a federal state with three regions.
There is the capital city Brussels, the Flemish region and the Walloon region. The Flemish region sits in the north, the capital is a dot in the centre and the Walloon region is in the south. There are three languages, with French in south, Dutch in the north and a few German speakers to the east.
The composite nature of the country is a result of history, being sandwiched between the Netherlands to the north, France to the south and Germany to the east. The country we know today has changed over the centuries but its form was largely settled in 1831. Belgium is a monarchy with a King and parliamentary democracy.
What’s in a name?
Wikipedia says it best: “Vlaanderen was probably formed from a stem flām-, meaning “flooded area”… which becomes vlamesc, vlaemsch in Middle Dutch and Vlaams in Modern Dutch”.
Do you speak Flemish?
They speak Dutch. Whilst many say the language is Flemish, Dutch is the official language of the Flanders region. However there are regional dialects. This is common across Europe, you have a standard language but locally there are different dialects on the ground. In France regional languages are almost illegal as the state seeks to perpetuate national unity; in Spain regional languages like Catalan are celebrated.
When people talk about “speaking Flemish”, there’s West Flemish and East Flemish and other dialects. These are Hollandic languages (ie Dutch) but with some changes to pronunciation from the Dutch you’d hear in Amsterdam. Some words are different too, or more often the Dutch prefer certain words whilst the Flemish prefer others. Both peoples can understand each other.
The Lion of Flanders is the regional symbol. Robrecht van Béthune, aka Robert de Béthune, was a knight in medieval times who went on a religious crusade. It was common for the victorious to adopt the lion on their coat of arms, an exotic testament to travels in Africa and beyond. This knight was the original Lion of Flanders and ruled the area for a brief moment in medieval times under the French crown.
Today Belgium is split between its two main regions. Linguistics and history play a part and I’ve dipped into this topic before. But note those who wave the flag are identifying with the region ahead of the nation. In particular, look for the red claws on the flag as these are the hallmark of the official flag of Flanders.
By contrast those waving flags with a black lion are waving the flag associated with nationalist Flemish tendencies. It was appropriated by the Vlaams Blok, a militant political party of the far right that was shut down a decade ago. From here things get very politicised so I’ll be careful where I tread. The flag doesn’t belong to the extreme right but chances are if you spot someone waving it on the roadside, chances are they’re making a political point that leans towards nationhood and secession.
Rivalry exists within Flanders of course. West Flanders against East Flanders. You can take this right down to each village if you like where locals support “their” rider and many champions have a distinct local identity. Tom Boonen is from Balen in the province of Antwerp, the same area as legendary classics rider Rik Van Looy – both share four wins in today’s E3 Prize race. Sep Vanmarcke and Stijn Devolder are from in and around Kortrijk in West Flanders. East Flanders is home to Greg Van Avermaet of Lokeren and the province is also where you find most of the cobbled climbs of the Flemish Ardennes, like the Koppenberg.
The cycling culture
It’s hard to find reasons for the popularity of cycling. Industrialisation in the late 19th century meant workers had to start travelling to work by bicycle. It could simply be that success breeds success. Today you only have to buy a newspaper like Het Nieuwsblad to get the measure of cycling’s popularity. It is not measured by column inches but by pages.
A race is more than a race. You will find mobile food stands on hand with warm food. Bookmakers appear with their blackboards to chalk up the odds and add some risk for spectators. All the classics are live on public TV, no need for a subscription or a pirate internet feed.
A state of mind, a style of riding or a regional identity? Some riders are labelled as “Flandriens”. This is distinct from Flemish and can apply to someone from West Flanders, but it used in cycling to denote a particular rider. It refers to a type of rider who excels in the flat classics, a hardman who makes the cobbles bounce. The original Flandrien was Alberic “Briek” Schotte, a man whose stamina earned him the nickname, Ijzeren Briek or “Iron Briek”. Note the term can include honorary foreigners, for example Juan-Antonio Flecha.
The 139th smallest country in the World, Belgium is split into two main regions, Flanders and Wallonia. Cycling is wildly popular in Flanders and for the next four weeks the region becomes the epicentre of the sport as riders are tested on cobbles and in crosswinds. Enjoy!