Do you speak Flemish?


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.

The basics
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 map gets redrawn

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.

That Flag
Flanders flag

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!

35 thoughts on “Do you speak Flemish?”

  1. Paris-Roubaix 2012 will be our first REAL taste of the region after some short visits following LeTour many years ago. The Ronde will be in 2013 and we hope to add L-B-L in 2014, completing my goal of seeing each of the 5 monuments live. See you there AH…we hope to be in the nasty forest section of the course if they can get the pave cleaned up enough to include it – any news on that Mr. Inrng? Compliments on continuing excellence.

  2. “The flag doesn’t belong to the extreme right but chances are if you spot someone waving it by a race, they are making a political point that leans towards nationhood and succession.”

    …unless you’re at a cross race in the states, in which case most people just don’t know any better.

  3. Great stuff again. I know there’s a strong divide between Walloons and Fladriens in Belgium. Is there much rivalry between these groups in the péloton? In fact, outside of Gilbert, how many Walloons are there in the pro péloton? The lesser spotted Blegian cyclists?

  4. Very well said. Very clear.
    I’m a Belgian (from Flanders), and it is not always easy to explain to non-Belgian the difference between Walloons and people from the north (=Flanders)
    Ronan: there are not much Walloons in the peloton: Gilbert of course, and Monfort. Earlier on, you had Vandenbroucke and Criquelion. That is about it, for la wallonie.

  5. @Larry T.
    The cobbles at Arenberg have been cleaned and the moss removed. The D40 road that connects the cobbles at Monchaux-sur-Écaillon to the cobbles at Haveluy à Wallers has been cleared for use too. Remember the problem with the oil depots and the ban on events being held nearby?
    The road is just before Arenberg so the Forest will definitely be in this year’s edition.

    Here’s the news from last Wednesday –

  6. ITYM, “coat of arms”. also second to last paragraph, a bit of editing leftover “a man whose stamina earned him the name stamina earned him the nickname”.

    I don’t speak Flemish but got used to it from watching the Sporza and VT4 cyclocross coverage in the past few years. When you speak English and German, it’s quite easy to follow most of the commentary. Actually, it’s definitely preferable to the senile babbling of Liggett and Sherwin in English, so if there is no EuroSport coverage, I usually opt for the Dutch/Flemish.

  7. Another great entry. Over the last few weeks I’ve started to visit this site every day. Great blog entries, informed, respectful, helpful comments. I’m really glad I found it.

    Can’t wait for the cobbled classics – E3 is off to an exciting start!

    Many thanks.

  8. Love the classics! I’m off to Bruges next weekend to watch the Tour of Flanders and ride the sportive the day before. Slightly bricking it about the latter – anyone got any advice?

  9. As a kid, I always loved the “How Things Work” books because you learned not just “what”, but “how” and “why”. This blog does the same thing for cycling, and in spades. Chapeau!

  10. It would be interesting to better understand the Walloons side of the story. Paris-Roubaix is in reality, a French race, and I would think that while it might not be the same as when compared to Flandriens, the level of interest in cycling in Walloons still trumps almost anywhere else in the world.

    And was there ever a political reason for the split in interest? Was the interest in cycling kind of borne out of Flandrians trying to be different from their Walloon brethren?

  11. tashkent: a bit of respect please… Liggett and Sherwin may not be your cup of tea, but they are doing a fair good job in presenting the sport and its riders in a positive manner.

    Inrng: thank you for a well written and timely primer.

  12. Any country that has such a race on a Friday gets my thumbs up. I was brought up to think that Belgium was a bit of a dump! until I went there several years ago to do some cycling and watch Paris Roubaix that weekend. How wrong I was and I must go back soon.

  13. @TheDude: Sherwen and Ligget are a joke. They get their facts wrong, completely ignore important storylines, and make every race all about LA. If guys of their quality were broadcasting a major sport, they’d be out on their respective ear.

    The EuroSport team puts them to shame.

  14. Thanks for the comments and corrections so far.

    If you can ever visit this area around this time of year, do grab the chance. What surprises is just how concentrated the races are in one small zone.

  15. Another great post.Congratulations.
    Now I understand the flemish cycling a little bit and the passion of the flemish people for cycling.

  16. So, what are alternatives to the bumbling blokes in widely accessible coverage or video, who, Bob Roll, or that blimey-whiney-cricket-esque blather on cycling.TV? Yikes. Maybe the opportunity is ripe for better commentary? Perhaps folks have a few favorite commentators they can recommend in a positive vein, versus negativity toward the old duo. Cheers.

  17. “Ik spreek geen Vlaamse” was the only sentence I could ever consistently remember in my time in the mother land. Literally translated from the Dutch (at least according to Google translate) as “I don’t speak Flemish”. Fortunately for me I knew a smattering of French and almost everyone speaks at least some English.

    I did pick up a few nice curse words though, usually directed at me, for leaving gaps in kermesse races when my tongue was in the spokes and the tunnel vision took over!

  18. You are a wordsmith.
    I will pickup a few belgian beers throw an another few logs on the fire, watch it snow outside.
    While watch the Classics with a bit more insight to the people lining the Pave.

  19. My mother is Belgian, and therefore so am I. I appreciate your care in dealing with this delicate matter, because a foreigner can never be too careful with the internal relations between the communities of another country, and will very seldom fail to grasp in full trhe complexities and psychogames that are played between the communities, just like even the most competent and well-informed couple therapist will never really get the full picture of what happens inside a problematic marriage, with its myriad of variably meaningful details and undercurrents. On issues like this, foreigners seem to be tempted by frivolous simplifications, and to forget that there are issues of elementary political stability about it. I am also half-Spanish and have lived for many years in Eastern Europe, so I think I have a little experience with some kinds of gentle meddling and opinion-making. Which is why I especially value your circumspection when writing this piece (which, I think, could be followed by another one on the historic Flandria cycling team, and what it meant for both pro cycling and Flanders).

  20. Another aspect to the character of the Flandrien’ is the willingness to go out on the bike even when there are strong winds and driving rain, or even a bit of snow! Those who love the sport will praise you as a Flandrien while those who have no love for the sport will say you are mad!
    One cool aspect about living in Vlaanderen is that there are very few people who look sideways at you for being a male with hairless legs! On the contrary, women go mad for it! “Amai, sexy legs!”
    Becky D: a tip for the cobbles, if i may! Hands loose on top of the bars! Dont grip hard! Not necessary! Your wheel will find its way! Keep pedalling! Dont coast over cobbles…they dont appreciate it! 😉 Have fun! Tis an exciting experience that will stay with you…and create hunger for more!

  21. indeed but you grouped it with dialects, we get very protective! Also if we’re being REALLY strict some people take offence at the term region vs Nation which they prefer

  22. that said, i really enjoy your non cycling pieces, what with relating cycling to politics and culture being my job and all! thanks for writing about something other than shimano 11 speed and W/KG

  23. Two things…

    1. Please post up a profile or interview with the Sporza announcers…those guys rock, even though I dont’ speak Dutch! Oh la la la la….

    2. A friend starts – offering masters racing in Belgium on two trips this year. Rick Adams is giving lots of folks the chance to experience the culture, with Spring Classics and CX trips in the offing for 2013 as I hear it!

  24. Great piece. Love seeing this stuff explored – it is part and parcel of what makes Belgium such a cool place to visit. As someone living in the United States (Seattle) but whose first language is Dutch, its amazing for me to go to Belgium and hear all the differences between the languages. The first day is a real adjustement.

    “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.”

    To this point, you’ll also find that a lot of Flemish themselves disagree on what language they speak. We rode with Johan Museeuw and his riding partner Ronnie last week on the roads around Kemmel, and Ronnie was adamant that he doesn’t speak “Dutch”, but “Plat Vlaams” (Flat Flemish).

    I also discovered that French tends to be the more sophisticated language, so sometimes you’ll find Flandrians walking into a room, speaking some French initially to prove they can do it, and then slip back into their local dialect.

    Overall, the biggest difference between the Dutch and Flandrian populations – aside from the quality of their beer – is their humility; the Flemish are incredibly humble people. During every month of April, I find myself wishing I was Belgian, not Dutch!

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