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.
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.
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.
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.