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The Greatest Race

The greatest race? Sunday’s edition could be a dud, an ode to the siesta but no matter what happens no other race is embraced by the locals as much as the Tour of Flanders. This is a sporting event like no other, a socio-cultural phenomenon that no other one day race can touch.

The crowds line the road, the weather looks grim, those Lion of Flanders blow perpendicular to the route. It could be any edition of the Tour of Flanders but it’s a photo of the finish at the 1952 edition as featured in L’Equipe yesterday as they look at Roger Decock’s win, the oldest living winner of the race. The Tour of Flanders has long been a popular race and more than ever it’s become central to this region of Belgium.

It’s hard to pin down the cause of cycling’s popularity in Flanders. Across Europe industrialisation in the late 19th century meant workers started travelling to work in a factory or the fields by bicycle and this led to a culture of cycling at the weekend and those with a competitive nature took up racing and you can correlate industrial areas with the sport sometimes but Flanders didn’t have a particular industrial boom, if anything Wallonia had the big factories thanks to steelworks, canals and river barges although the hilly terrain is less suited to a cycle commute. It could simply be that success breeds success and the presence of the sport sparks curiosity. Just as you’ve landed on a cycling blog here to add to your enjoyment of the sport, millions in Belgium see the race and talk about it and so it becomes a point of interest, add some local winners and the legend grows.

Today it’s perfectly possible to hear people in a bar, at a bus stop or elsewhere debating the contenders and pretenders for the classics as well as reviewing tactics and acres of newsprint is dedicated to Etixx-Quickstep’s quest for a big win. This is special, the equivalent conversations in Italy or France don’t seem to happen as much when the Giro or Tour occur.

Belgium bookmakers bike race

A race is more than a pack of riders charging across the landscape. There are food stands, giant screen TVs and bookmakers arrive with their blackboards to chalk up the odds. All the classics are live on TV, no need for a subscription, pay-per-view or a pirate internet feed thanks to a law that decrees they’re shown for free to all. There’s a list of all the sporting events (PDF)  that must be shown free across the European Union and Belgium’s list is the longest thanks to an extensive collection of cycling events.

TV matters and the race has changed to suit the camera more than the newspaper. Whereas once the Ronde had just a few climbs today it’s got 18 ascensions if we include the multiple use of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg. This creates more drama rather than the way we’d read about the race. As a consequence the race attracts bumper audiences, the stats say it has a market share of of 75% (superior to the Superbowl in the US or the Melbourne Cup in Australia).

Comparisons with Paris-Roubaix are inevitable. The French race has also incorporated more and more cobbled tracks to build its legend. The pavé are wilder and on sporting terms the race is more brutal and less suited to tactical finesse. There’s a beauty to it all but it’s fleeting, the Nord area of France has this one big classic and several other major pro races during the year but it’s not the same, the pro cycling circus arrives in France just once for Roubaix. By contrast the Tour of Flanders tops off Gent-Wevelgem, the E3, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and all the others that mean the sport tours Flanders for six weeks.

We can also compare it to the Tour de France. Three weeks of France in the glory of summer and one afternoon during Belgium’s muddy emergence into spring may not have a lot in common at first sight but both races reach into a national psyche. Most of the population of the respective host nations will have stood beside the road to watch each race, often in childhood, creating memories that last. This gives the races what sociologists call “cultural capital” and in turn the crowds make the race more of a phenomenon which brings out more people.

The Flags of Belgium

Spot the unofficial flag: Belgium, Flanders, Vlaamse Beweging, Wallonia

There’s also the thorny subject of nationalism and politics but since the race doesn’t occur in a hermetic bubble let’s explore this for a moment. Belgium has a linguistic fault line, one side speaks Dutch and the other French and there are wider divides along these lines going as far as a separatist Flemish movement. You might remember Belgium couldn’t form a government for over 500 days but it didn’t matter as much as you might think given so many powers are devolved to the two main regions of Flanders and Wallonia. There’s a constant tension and quarrels across this fault line, it did not take long after the recent Brussels bomb blasts for partisan points to be made and things flare up over all sorts of issues. Back to the race and you’ll know the “Lion of Flanders” flag. The official one for the region of Flanders has a rampant black lion on a yellow backdrop and crucially with red claws. The black lion without red claws, the unofficial Flanders flag, got appropriated by the Vlaams Blok, “Flemish block”, a militant political party of the far right that was shut down a decade ago. The flag doesn’t belong to the extreme right but a good number of people waving the flag are making a political point, just as you get those Lega flags at the finish of Italian races. The Ronde the race helps reinforce the national identity so you can see how politicians are keen to get a slice of the action and had out their flags for free.

Of course not all Belgian rivalries are Flanders against Wallonia. There’s West Flanders against East Flanders and Etixx vs Lotto. You can take this right down to each village and town. Tom Boonen is from Balen in the province of Antwerp, the same area as legendary classics rider Rik Van Looy. Sep Vanmarcke and Stijn Devolder are from 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. Visit a bar in Belgium and you may find the occupants are rather partisan for “their” local rider rather than cheering for all Belgians.

Sometimes I wonder if this local fervour can, in a small way, be a curse too. It’s as if all roads lead to the finish line of a cobbled classic and square-peg riders get forced into the Ronde hole. Take Tiesj Benoot, a classics contender yet he seems more versatile, he was making the top-10 on mountain stages in the Dauphiné in his first go at the Alps last year and in 2014 he was third overall in the Ronde de l’Isard, an U23 stage race festival for climbers. Just what is he suited to? Perhaps if he was French his career would be pointing towards the Champs Elysées. That said the economics of pro cycling do tilt some Belgians towards the grand tours, see how many times Jurgen Van den Broeck has tried. The country, both Flanders and Wallonia, would love to have a successor to Lucien Van Impe too. Every nation has its cultural and topological biases and Flanders of course celebrates the Flandrien.

Summary
The conclusion of several weeks of racing in one region this Sunday’s Tour of Flanders is the ultimate race in the ultimate region. No other part of the world has as many races, whether the series of cobbled races right now or the kermesse events and cyclo-cross that happen all year round and no country takes the sport so seriously. History, regional and national identity come into play they’ve helped make the race what it is and today some politicians and movements try to exploit the event for their own ends too. The Basque Country, France’s Brittany region and areas of Italy are hotbeds too but not to the same extent. Beyond the cobbles, climbs and distance it’s the deep popular support that makes the Tour of Flanders the greatest one day race of the year.

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  • Larry T. Saturday, 2 April 2016, 2:28 pm

    Great piece! As an unabashed Italo-phile I have to suggest that if one were to cram all of Italy’s cycling enthusiasts into a tiny country like Belgium (population density is almost 2X that of Italy) you might find the same overall levels of interest and knowledge that you note in Belgium. It’s pretty hard to escape cycling in Belgium while in Italy the interest is concentrated in particular areas – Lombardy, Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, etc.
    Having written that I still count this http://cycleitalia.blogspot.it/2013/04/belgium-cobbles-and-beer_6.html as one of the (many) highlights of my life. Certainly one of the “must-see-live” events on the cycling calendar.

    • Uli Saturday, 2 April 2016, 4:15 pm

      Larry,

      Agree. Nothing beats Italian cycling enthusiasm and – even more so – expertise. The standard of racing from bottom up is higher than anywhere else.

      Cheers

      Uli

      • Larry T. Saturday, 2 April 2016, 5:34 pm

        One thing I found VERY strange for such a cycling-mad country was the level of aggression from the automobile drivers. Even cycling in the center of Rome was less stressful! We rode on the Friday and again in the sportive on Saturday and I was shocked at the blaring of horns and yelling pretty much any time we were sharing the roads or out of the organized sportive-controlled routes.
        I thought it was more like the USA than anyplace in Europe that I’d ever ridden – very odd and shocking for a guy expecting to be at least tolerated on the roads in this cycling-mad country. But I’m still looking forward to seeing L-B-L to complete my 5 monuments.

        • Uli Saturday, 2 April 2016, 5:42 pm

          I’ve never been (beyond riding a few k’s there during a stay in Luxembourg). However, I found it odd that it was usually Belgians who passed us extremely close when we rode in Provence for three weeks last year. You’d think they know better.

          Italians drive aggressively and sometimes dangerously but they rarely ever question your existence on the road unlike many Americans. Just this week again I had to endure a “You think you’re fucking Lance Armstrong” by a 30ish-year old driver who took my right of way, followed by “get off the fucking road” by the driver behind him, a 25ish-year old woman.

          • The Inner Ring Saturday, 2 April 2016, 7:44 pm

            One difference in Belgium is all the cycling lanes, there’s an expectation people use them plus the place is densely populated making the roads crowded. Italy has some wild drivers but they’re often used to encountering cyclists although tempers fray on a Sunday morning around Como like anywhere else. But as much as the Italians like cycling, I don’t think the sport reaches into the national culture so far, it’s not talked about in the street as much and even when the Giro is happening you get arm ache turning page after page in La Gazzetta through all the football-calcio coverage to get to the 3-5 pages on cycling, despite Gazzetta effectively owning the race.

          • Larry T. Sunday, 3 April 2016, 8:30 am

            Mr. Inner Ring- Ah, separate but equal. I’ve heard that before. Maybe I couldn’t understand the “Get off MY road and onto YOUR bike path!” that was being yelled at us? But despite all that there’s no argument that pro cycling there is a big deal. I’m glad I went!

          • Larry T. Saturday, 9 April 2016, 8:22 am

            Update on “cycling friendly” Belgium
            http://velonews.competitor.com/2016/04/news/philippe-gilbert-attacked-by-drunk-driver_401957
            Can’t say if this has ever happened in Italy, but I have doubts.

        • Paul Jakma Sunday, 3 April 2016, 1:14 pm

          Larry,

          Note that in Belgium, like the Netherlands, you are typically legally obliged to use the cycle-paths if on a bicycle. A round blue sign for the cycle-path means you are _not_ allowed on the road (a rectangular sign means you have the choice). As cycle-paths are usually designed, built and (most importantly) maintained (inc. cleaning) to a much higher standard than in the likes of UK or USA, it’s usually not a hindrance for faster sports cyclist to stick to the cycle-paths.

          Belgium I think has wider exceptions than the Netherlands for pelotons over a certain size (somewhere in the 16+ region IIRC) on some roads, but I’m not sure of the details. Assuming you weren’t covered by that, perhaps the aggression you faced was because (from your other comment) you were illegally ignoring the cycle-path and using the road?

          • Paul Jakma Sunday, 3 April 2016, 1:15 pm

            Sigh, I meant to say the rules on the signs are NL specific – I don’t know the BE signage.

  • Ian Saturday, 2 April 2016, 3:58 pm

    Lovely piece. Born and raised in Ghent, so I never knew better. Cycling is what I grew up on.
    De Ronde is truly a special day here, you got that right. The tension already starts in February. In March it’s like: when’s the Ronde coming?
    Today I’m just counting the hours, tomorrow I’ll be watching the tv and several media all day, following it from start to finish (including bits and pieces from the women’s race!)

    Only two other races get me pumped like this every year: World Championships Road Race and the Cyclo-Cross World Championships!

  • BC Saturday, 2 April 2016, 4:33 pm

    Thanks for yet another informative and thought provoking article.

    I personally love both Flanders and Paris – Roubaix as wonderful climaxes to the Spring Classics season. If for any reason one fails to live up to expectations, then for sure the other will compensate.

    It is very true how deeply involved the general Flemish population is with their ‘Ronde’. in contrast to the French attitude to Paris – Roubaix. When one sees the efforts of Les Amis de Paris – Roubaix, then you start to realize that the DNA of the two race areas is subtly different.

    Still, both fantastic events. What other sporting competition could match bike racing at its finest ?

    • The Inner Ring Saturday, 2 April 2016, 7:40 pm

      Paris-Roubaix has all these themes of “struggle” with the race taking part on roads past old mines that have closed, themes of Zola’s Germinal and in some of France’s most deprived areas, for example Roubaix often scores among the lowest towns for socio-economic indicators. The people often salute the courage of the riders and share some empathy with the struggles of the riders as a reflection of their tougher lives. Of course it’s just a bike race rather than a social commentary so these thoughts only go so far but they help explain why it’s less festive. Another big factor is the landscape, the way Roubaix passes through so many open fields rather than all the prosperous towns and villages of Flanders, it makes the race look a little more bleak.

      • Francesco Saturday, 2 April 2016, 8:26 pm

        It’s a bike race and not a social commentary, but the social commentary plays a major part in Flemish cycling history/folklore. The image of the ‘Flandrien’ as the hard working (almost) illiterate local peasant youngster taking it up against the francophone city slickers is one you find almost in every pre WW2 description of Flemish cyclists. Together with this comes the battle against the elements (wind, rain, cold) that everyday land labourers and top cyclists have/had in common. This image of the Flandrien, with Briek Schotte as the personification of it, is something you still find in today’s Flemish journalism as some kind of reflection on and reconnection with the live the (grand)parents of today’s followers of the race had. Keeping this (imaginary) connection alive plays an important part in the popularity of cycling in Flanders.

  • J Evans Saturday, 2 April 2016, 5:10 pm

    ‘The greatest race’ – and yet you seem to intimate in your preview that it’s going to be split-screen with another race. And you think that’s ‘a great example to set for other races’?

    • The Inner Ring Saturday, 2 April 2016, 5:12 pm

      You seem to be quite set against this. Why not watch something else if it’s so stressful for you?

      • J Evans Saturday, 2 April 2016, 6:24 pm

        You’re mistaking sarcasm for stress. Or you’re just trying to make a cheap point.
        But to answer your question: because I want to watch the Ronde, without ‘another race’ on screen with it (doesn’t matter what that race is or who is riding it). Is that so hard to understand?
        Would you want to see an hour of the Tour of Austria in the middle of a Tour de France stage?
        Do you think the women’s race online should be mandatorily split-screen with the men’s race?
        Do you honestly think that the majority of people watching the Ronde want another race on split-screen? Or is the opinion that this is a good thing simply pseudo-liberalism?
        Take gender out of the equation and ask ‘is this really what I want in big races?’ Or any other race for that matter. I can’t think of any other sport that does this.

        • Francesco Saturday, 2 April 2016, 6:37 pm

          I know at least one sporting event where they switch from the men’s to the women’s race with and without the use of split screens. At many/most city marathons coverage switches between both races. As someone who is interested in both men’s and women’s cycling I’m really looking forward having both races covered at the same time.

        • not cheap Saturday, 2 April 2016, 6:43 pm

          Inrng’s point was well worth making. His question is rhetorical, no one has any interest in the literal answer.

          • The Inner Ring Saturday, 2 April 2016, 7:34 pm

            It’s a great race with some of the best TV production seen all year, Belgian TV (along with France Television and Italy’s RAI) excel at this. I’d rather we discuss the enormity of the event, the premise of the piece, rather than people’s pet preferences over split screens which is rather trivial, no? 😉

        • ShortsNL Saturday, 2 April 2016, 7:38 pm

          Yes I do and theres nothing wrong with that thought.

          Let’s not forget that a full broadcast of a cycling race, even if its 7 hours of De Ronde, has at least 3,5 hours of the time where absolutely nothing interesting happens. In those moments, there is nothing wrong showing highlights of an event that is run parallel with the same target audience.

          • J Evans Saturday, 2 April 2016, 8:09 pm

            The ‘same target audience’ – that’s a moot point. The Tour of Azerbaijan doesn’t have the same target audience as the Giro d’Italia.
            But as a fact:
            The women’s race is ‘likely to finish between 2.45 and 3.10pm CET’ (according to cyclingtips).
            In the men’s race, ‘the crucial Oude Kwaremont-Paterberg-Koppenberg trippel is forecast to start around 3.15pm’ CET.
            That doesn’t really sound like a ‘time where absolutely nothing interesting happens’.

          • ShortsNL Sunday, 3 April 2016, 2:05 pm

            Currently live on Sporza, two seperate live tv channels: one for the mens race, one for the women. What more could we wish for?

            I really don’t see a problem here, to each his own and great coverage by the Belgians.

            Looks more like your entire post just became moot.

          • J Evans Sunday, 3 April 2016, 3:13 pm

            Good idea – for Sporza.
            For Eurosport UK, it was a pointless, cursory glimpses of the women’s race, which showed you nothing meaningful of the actual racing. Nothing more than a frankly patronising sop to the women’s race.
            If you were interested in that race, you’d be watching it. As it was, if you hadn’t watched any of the rest of the race, you had no involvement in it and it was just a random sprint to a line.
            Distracting from the race we’d tuned in to watch. And we could have missed something vital – e.g. GVA’s crash or Benoot’s crash, or if a break had gone.

        • Francisco Saturday, 2 April 2016, 10:40 pm

          The men’s and women’s races will share logistics and must thus be run together, it is not perverse to transmit them together too – unlike the other made-up example you gave.
          The time may come when women’s cycling commands the kind of money needed for a full event. A time may even come when women’s cycling helps support some endangered men’s races.

          • John Irvine Sunday, 3 April 2016, 4:12 am

            Not to mention both the men’s and women’s count equally in the Velominati Super Prestige. I’m happy to watch both.

        • Anonymous Sunday, 3 April 2016, 3:45 am

          Wow, J Evans. Maybe go out for a ride and burn off some of that stress. At the very least maybe keep the nasty comments to the CN boards. It’s getting very tiresome here.

          • Anonymous Sunday, 3 April 2016, 9:32 am

            J Evans wasn’t the first to make a personal comment, though: that was in response to Inner Ring.

          • Chris Monday, 4 April 2016, 12:45 pm

            @ Anonymous

            But this isn’t J Evans’ first comment here. He gets personal at the drop of a hat here, at Cyclingnews and Cyclingtips.

    • gabriele Saturday, 2 April 2016, 9:40 pm

      Perhaps you should just buy a bigger TV and concentrate on the side of the screen you prefer.

      You simply *can’t* take gender out of the equation if you want to elaborate on the suject, because this sort of situations *need* to happen precisely because of the huge inequality one of the two genders (guess which one?) has been enduring, both generally speaking and especially in sport.

      No idea of a fair competition in a free market of public attention makes sense, here (most of those concept don’t make sense anyway – but here they’re totally out of place)… the starting point of the two gender is too different, and the difference is due, among other things, to a biased culture which must change, whatever it takes. And what we’re speaking about in this particular case is quite a humble “whatever”.

      • J Evans Saturday, 2 April 2016, 10:16 pm

        We live in a world that ranges from misogynistic to insanely misogynistic, but that doesn’t have anything to do with why I’m against this.
        I’ve given my reasons here and on the preview, so I won’t repeat them, but basically it’s about seeing the races one chooses to watch.
        Incidentally, I will always prefer a ~260km race to one that is virtually half of that – again, nothing to do with gender.
        As for ‘buy a bigger TV’, increased consumerism is inherently a good thing, obviously.

        • gabriele Saturday, 2 April 2016, 11:35 pm

          “That doesn’t have anything to do with…”. Maybe.
          But it should have a lot to do with why any person interested in some sort of “equality” between human beings should look with favour to such a decision, since the costs/benefits balance is hugely shifted towards the latter.

          [“equality” with inverted commas because of the troubles which that concept brings along, but let’s leave it like that for now, I think we might get what I’m meaning]

        • Larry T. Sunday, 3 April 2016, 8:50 am

          I might rant at how awful a split-screen idea was, but I’ll wait until I’ve seen it. VIVE LA RONDE!

      • CM Sunday, 3 April 2016, 9:18 am

        It’s an absurd proposition to watch two races/sporting events at the same time. In such circumstances the viewer cannot appreciate the nuances of either. Split screen distractions do not work well within one race in my opinion. And, though necessary, split screen coverage barely works in the presentation of pursuit track cycling.

        When Van Avermaet won at Dwars-d-V the TV coverage was superb because it avoided split screen technique: (notwithstanding any moto-drafting issues) the head-on shots of Van Avermaet pumping the pedals were spectacular and really showed how hard the game is. The cuts back to the chasers were good/well-timed too, and tension built beautifully by the TV direction.

        If you have a sunny disposition the concept of packing two events onto one screen is a laudable but unsatisfactory attempt to give them full exposure. Those of a cynical, worldly view may see it as exploitative; a shabby compromise which demeans the nature of either or both events, and represents a failure to do justice the importance/enormity of both.

        To suggest a bigger TV screen is childish and unworthy.

    • E Pickup Sunday, 3 April 2016, 12:40 am

      I can understand where J Evans is coming from — on some level it’s inconvenient to have two races on the screen at the same time. However, I see this as a minor inconvenience (for some) which has the potential to be massively beneficial for women’s racing.

      It’s important to place the issue in context. Split screen, even for those who find it distracting, is a minor nuisance — viewers will still be able to follow the Ronde closely, they just have to put up with a smaller picture for a percentage of total airtime. However, the benefits are massive. Given the huge TV audience the Ronde draws, the exposure the women receive will act as a shop window, introducing a larger audience to the more ‘niche’ women’s racing. This in turn will be an indirect financial boon to women’s teams, ultimately allowing them to invest in better training camps, better equipment, better staff, and better paid riders. Trickling down a little further, with more opportunities like this, increased TV exposure will ultimately allow women’s teams to give roster places to more riders and will encourage more young girls to get into cycling. All of which has the potential to make women’s cycling itself more exciting and competitive.

      I’m not convinced that a separate TV broadcast, on a different channel or via an online link, for the women’s race would have the same beneficial effect. A large number of viewers would choose to watch the men’s race instead of the women’s race and, in turn, the companies sponsoring women’s teams would get less bang for their buck. By presenting both races in the same broadcast, the two are not competing for viewers.

      For these reasons, even if I were in the camp that, prima facie, was irritated by split-screen coverage, I would still be in favour of the arrangement for the Ronde — simply put, the positives outweigh the negatives. Plus, if, like me (and a good number of other cycling fans), you enjoy women’s racing, split screen is not inconvenient at all — rather it allows viewers to conveniently enjoy all the action from both races, with no need to ‘channel hop’ or to watch one later on catch-up TV.

      • Foley Sunday, 3 April 2016, 3:13 am

        +1 Wow. See what you did, Evans? As a fan of the men’s side of the sport, I don’t feel like it is my job to care what the UCI or anyone else wants to do to “promote the sport.” But that’s because I like the sport the way it is (for now), and I’m skeptical of the people who have motive and opportunity to promote. With the women’s side it’s totally different. As EP says, “encourage more young girls to get into cycling” is a goal that has obvious potential in many different dimensions, and I find it quite impossible to understand why a “real” cycling fan would not tolerate these efforts, at the very least.

      • gabriele Sunday, 3 April 2016, 2:42 pm

        +1
        Thank you so much E Pickup.
        The kind of things I’m too tired to write out that clearly, and patiently, too. One would expect them to be assumed (as well as the difference between serious opinions and, say, sarcasm about TV width). Besides, two separate channels isn’t the same thing at all.
        However, at least in Italy, we’re not having any sort of split screen: we’re having flashes from the women race from time to time, and, to be more specific, no proper effort is being made by the production to put the men’s race aside when nothing relevant is happening, whereas big action is on in the women’s competition.
        I’d also add that if the split broadcast was worked out from the source production, with adequate takes, it wouldn’t hinder that much the comprehension of race dynamics. As CM pointed out above, with the opposite intention, cycling is a sport which includes several “races in the race” and TV production can manage that in several ways.

        • gabriele Sunday, 3 April 2016, 2:42 pm

          EDIT: Rai is doing slightly better in the last 20 kms.

  • Martin McEvoy Saturday, 2 April 2016, 5:33 pm

    A great article that got me thinking of the ‘narcissism of minor differences’ : how in a few key areas the sport that ‘makes’ a place can both in a real way define the place, yet also open up these odd ‘parish’ rivalries. Rugby League in the North of England springs to mind, or in Australia around State of Origin, the Ranfurly Shield in New Zealand, Hurling in Kilkenny and Munster too.

    • The Inner Ring Saturday, 2 April 2016, 7:36 pm

      Very true. I think one subtly that many don’t quite grasp is the regional and political significance of this race. Not to over do it but this is the big day for Flanders ahead of all of Belgium, even if the King, a symbol of the country’s unity, is expected to attend the finish.

      • Ecky Thump Saturday, 2 April 2016, 10:35 pm

        Interesting that you mention the intra-Flandrien rivalries Inner Ring.
        From the outside, these feelings are not so obvious to observers. Do they have any historical basis?

        I know from experience, in the North of England that there is *huge* parochial rivalry between regions / cities / towns / even down to villages, and that they are largely based on old economic and industrial fortunes. Sport merely represents one, albeit significant, way in which these rivalries are expressed. What sport does do, is allow the parochialism to be passed to successive generations, long after the original cause/s may no longer be relevant.
        That can be both a good thing, but a weakness as well.
        For instance, would a more unified Belgium be likely were cycling to fall out of favour. Does cycling prolong the cultural differences in Belgium?

        • H Sunday, 3 April 2016, 11:01 am

          There’s a well known phrase in Belgium that the only things holding the country together are the Royal Family and the national football team. I always wondered why cycling was omitted from this; after all, there are major classics in Wallonia, and Belgian cycling is great, as opposed to Belgian football, which is rubbish. I now think that that’s part of the reason cycling doesn’t unify Belgium: it’s too successful. In the industrial cities of the North-West of England, for example, where there are genuinely great football clubs, there’s not really much unity behind the England team. Where you’ve got a small pool of talent, the country doesn’t have much choice who to support, but where you have a cornucopia of gifted athletes in a certain discipline, the competition is naturally going to produce rivalries – the ‘narcissism of minor differences’, I guess.
          As an outside observer, I’d have to say cycling thus does amplify the differences in Belgium. Witness, for example, the pressure on Merckx (widely regarded as the quintessential Bruxellois).

          • Foley Sunday, 3 April 2016, 9:58 pm

            Good stuff there, H. This was Inrng:

            “Visit a bar in Belgium and you may find the occupants are rather partisan for “their” local rider rather than cheering for all Belgians. Sometimes I wonder if this local fervour can, in a small way, be a curse too.”

          • Ecky Thump Sunday, 3 April 2016, 10:50 pm

            I think that was the aspect I was wondering about Foley.
            The Flanders / Wallonia division is obvious.
            But the intra- Flandrien rivalries, despite the Lion flags as a symbol of unity, are not.
            I was just curious as to why they came about, and to what extent they affect Belgian cycling.
            And, when a race has got as big as RVV, does in itself become a cause of division?

          • Colin Tuesday, 5 April 2016, 2:07 pm

            I’m not sure that your logic follows. In North East England, the football teams at the moment are universally poor, but support for England remains cursory at best.

  • Marsman Saturday, 2 April 2016, 8:29 pm

    I find it a little difficult to get excited about de Ronde this year. I’ve already seen so many racing on the Oude Kwaremont this season already, cause it seems to feature in every flemish race there is. Tomorrow we get it another three times. At least the Arenberg forrest doesn’t feature in every French race. It leaves something to look forward to.

  • DMC Saturday, 2 April 2016, 11:03 pm

    Really interesting to hear the background to why this is the best race on the calendar.

    I’m coming around to seeing how the Belgian Classic season is bigger to cycling than the Tour. It might not be as big internationally, but to the insiders it is bigger. Then it follows that the Ronde is the biggest race on the calendar, followed by Paris-Roubaix, and then the Tour.

    Anyways, can’t wait for tomorrow and thanks again for the really interesting piece!

  • David Saturday, 2 April 2016, 11:29 pm

    The one must-watch live cycle race of the year.
    I saw Liege a few years back on the La Redoute and it was okaaaay…but it lacked something.
    As the post says, Flanders is more than a bike race: it’s an entire region celebrating what it means to be from that part of the world.
    It’s crazy – lots of people get very drunk, chips and mayo everywhere. Everyone seems to turn out for it. Everyone.
    And if you’re from overseas, people are really pleased to see you – slightly startled that you’ve made the trip over, but very accommodating. It might be about what it means to be a Flandrian but in my experience they’re not unwelcome to outsiders. In fact, the opposite. Very inclusive.
    There is something different about this race. The TdF has a higher international profile of course but Flanders is the one to see live.
    It’s always slightly sad when it’s over. But there is Rounaix to come.

  • David Stevens Sunday, 3 April 2016, 6:49 am

    square-peg riders get forced into the Ronde hole. What a great comment 🙂

  • thomas Sunday, 3 April 2016, 9:32 am

    And the coverage started on Sporza… I love our national tv

    • Anonymous Sunday, 3 April 2016, 10:45 am

      Yes, great and 250km to go!! just my sort of viewing.

  • Peter Sunday, 3 April 2016, 12:08 pm

    Is cycling fans a subscription service?

  • Michal Sunday, 3 April 2016, 2:48 pm

    Even Google Doodle is acknowledging the Tour of Flanders!

  • Strictly Amateur / The GCW Sunday, 3 April 2016, 4:54 pm

    Nobody wants to work so I have to drop them.
    Sagan.

    Awesome race.

    • channel_zero Monday, 4 April 2016, 8:15 am

      Women’s race is on youtube and was quite good. The end was a nail biter down to the last meter.

      An open broadcast feed is the way forward. I don’t care if someone talks over it or not! Hopefully the UCI is enabling more broadcast opportunities like this for Women’s racing and less “pay to play.”

  • MultiplexRant Sunday, 3 April 2016, 9:44 pm

    I didn’t love the race (though perhaps because I’m sole caregiver to my 2yo anklebiter today while Ms MR is on hols – J Evans might want to try split-screening with Peppa Pig to get a real sense of frustration).

    Sagan *was* superb, but he’s a hard guy to like, for me anyway. I felt for Fabs, especially stuck with Vanmarcke in a kind of crap prisoner’s dilemma; but I was most sorry to see GVA crash out (Benoot too to a lesser extent; he’s got plenty more RVVs in him) – how many more chances is he likely to get? Especially in the form he’s been in. He may still not have beaten Sagan, but without that cruel twist I think he could have stayed with him.

    Thoughts on Etixx, by the way? Another disappointing showing for them; all very well having four guys in the top fifteen, but when none of them are top five, let alone podium, let alone top step, you’ve got a problem.

    • Foley Sunday, 3 April 2016, 10:07 pm

      I want to wait for Inrng’s Moment the Race Was Won post before discussing the race, but I’d like to hear more from the guy who does not like Sagan. Just as a matter of style (I could see it, maybe), or is there something cycling related you don’t like?

      • MultiplexRant Sunday, 3 April 2016, 10:16 pm

        Ha ha, me too. Reminds of the newsreader quote from Brass Eye: “Find out exactly what to think, next!”.

        Sagan is an awesome cyclist, he’s super talented, strong as owt, the best handler around and among the best descenders (one of the reasons I maintain that I’d live to see a downhill TT – at least a prologue – at a stage race) and I’m not for a second suggesting he doesn’t deserve the win, but I find him really unlike-able. The hair, the arse-pinching, the wheelies, the whole ‘bro’-ness of him.

        It’s a personal judgement, based on the snippets of his public persona we see and purely a gut reaction, to which I’m well aware of the limitations. Some people think he’s rock ‘n’ roll. Others think he’s a wally. I’m in the latter camp. But he is an amazingly good cyclist. As soon as he broke away, there was no way anyone was catching him.

        • Foley Sunday, 3 April 2016, 10:49 pm

          Thanks MultiplexRant. I’m sure I recognize the objections, and we might agree about Cipollini, for instance. I was noticing Sagan’s hair too, when very few in the peloton seek to stand out that way, and I wondered. I have to admit his riding could cover for a multitude of sins for me probably, but I think the arse-pinching was an anomoly and the rest of it is basically him being a good sport while people say second isn’t (wasn’t) good enough. As a fan I am very much the sort who would rather appose the incredibly gifted “Michael Jordan” type, but with Sagan I find it hard to criticize. I do have a very good Slovak friend but he’s not a cycling fan so I don’t think that’s it either.

        • Barry Tuesday, 5 April 2016, 12:33 pm

          I find it had to agree with your opinion of Sagan. Obviously everybody notes his talent, he has it all and I was delighted to see him get the long overdue big win on Sunday. As far as the other stuff is concerned, I think a lot of it was mistimed/ill judged youthful exuberance. The pinching incident was regrettable but he has matured greatly since then to give him some credit.

          I think the guy really just enjoys himself with the wheelies and other antics. Even when he crossed the line on Sunday he looked like he was stopping and I thought we were going to get another Richmond like bike abandon and congratulating of Cancellara and Vanmarcke on such a good race. He seems genuinely happy when he gets a result and not afraid to show it. In an age of PR scripted sports people he is a breath of fresh air. Some other sports superstars, for instance McIlroy (and I am Irish!) in the golf world, have about as much character as an old sock and stick to script so much it becomes tiresome quickly, so we should be happy to have an extrovert at the top of our sport. Sagan has the air of a young man who is enjoying himself and long may it continue.

          Another Irish example, if you will forgive me, is Brian O’Driscoll. Now retired and regarded as one of the all time greats in world rugby, he went through a period similar to Sagan IMO. The silly haircut, flashy girlfriend, partying phase and was failing to deliver on his promise. He sorted it, got professional and went onto fulfill his early promise, captain his country and become a very well regarded public figure. It may not align exactly with Sagans timeline (he has the haircut when he has reached his maturity!) but I think the parallels are there.

      • The Inner Ring Sunday, 3 April 2016, 10:23 pm

        Just waiting for the photos to go with the piece as so far there’s only pictures of the start, Koppenberg, Paterberg and finish.

  • Bag Pus Sunday, 3 April 2016, 10:02 pm

    Yup – Etixx nul points. Vandenbergh and Martin rode like Trojans, Terpstra and Stybie couldn’t do it. I feel more hopeful for them at Roubaix.

    Best rider won today (in both races ?)

    • channel_zero Monday, 4 April 2016, 8:19 am

      What happens if Lefevere gets nothing at P-R?