Seven years ago almost to the day, I was sitting in the bar of the De Kalvaar Hotel on the outskirts of Ninove eating fritz and mayonnaise while trying to make sense of Het Nieuwsblad’s coverage of the forthcoming Ronde van Vlaanderen. In Flanders this bike race, to be held this year on Sunday 5th April, is the sporting event of the year. It’s F1 Grand Prix, the Australian Open and the AFL Grand Final all rolled into one. The whole of Belgium and especially the area known as Flanders (Vlaanderen) will go completely cycling crazy. Roads will be closed, fairs (kermesse) set up on village greens and the whole of Belgium will come to a stop and/or be glued to their TVs. Such is the power of De Ronde.
I’d made the 1,000km round trip from Liverpool in the UK to Belgium with my son Roldy. Bikes, wheels and cycling kit all piled high in the back of a very inappropriate, low slung, drug dealer styled Mercedes coupé. On the ferry from Dover to Dunkirk, we sat next to a heavily pierced conceptual artist from Oudenaarde who had spent a weekend on Tyneside getting a Celtic design tattooed on her shin. When I mentioned our trip to De Ronde, she rolled her eyes. “People think the Flemish are obsessed with cycling,” she said, “but obsession is not the right word. It is more like a neurosis.”
Likening a national interest in bicycle racing to mental illness may seem an exaggeration, but anybody who has spent time in Flanders in the week leading up to the Ronde will regard it as a typical Flemish understatement. I’ve been a regular visitor to mainland Europe to watch bicycle races for the last 25 years. In my late teens I’d harboured thoughts of being a professional bike rider before reality got a grip. The previous year I had travelled to Belgium to watch the midweek semi classic race Ghent-Wevelgem. On the slopes of the Kemmelberg near Ypres, I stood next to a beautiful young woman who, as the riders pedaled past, held up her 10-month-old baby son wrapped in a Lion of Flanders flag and whispered into his ear their names, Nelissen, Vanderaerden, van Petegem, Tafi softly, devoutly, like somebody reciting the catechism. It was a touching cathartic experience.
Het Nieuwsblad carried a profile of my Flandrian cycling hero Johan ‘The Lion of Flanders’ Museeuw. As a small boy I had, belatedly, learned to read by studying Cycling Weekly (The Comic), which my Dad came home from work with every Thursday evening. This had left me with the vague feeling that I might master a foreign tongue simply by staring at Gazzetta dello Sport or Marca. To a large extent this policy had worked with L’Equipe, though it had skewed my vocabulary to such an extent that while capable of a relatively fluent discourse on Bernard Hinault’s latest medical crisis, I couldn’t buy a train ticket without pointing and making chuff-chuff noises. Het Nieuwsblad had always proved a good deal less penetrable than L’Equipe. This is because it is written in Flemish, a language that seems to include far more vowels than are strictly necessary. In fact, looking at Het Nieuwsblad’s piece that evening, I became convinced that at some point the Flemish publishers had bought up a job lot of As, Es and Us and told the printers they weren’t getting any more consonants until they’d used them all up.
As my mind wandered in this witless fashion, the owner of the bar, a kindly middle-aged lady who wore a green floral pinny and a look of unfathomable disappointment, arrived with another glass of Leffe beer that I hadn’t ordered. “It is from the Germans,” she said in excellent English, indicating a thirty something couple sitting on a nearby table. When I looked across, the man raised his glass and the woman smiled. I smiled back and, taking this as an invitation, the Germans came over. Having established that they were not disturbing my peace, they began to ask me about the Tour of Flanders. Was Museeuw as strong as everyone said, the man asked? Because, his wife added, there were rumors of a knee injury. What of Andre Tchmil? And how would the weather affect Fabio Baldato?
The Germans asked their questions and when I answered they listened very attentively, nodding in approval at my obvious cycling wisdom. It was all very flattering, like being the subject of a SBS TV special. In such circumstances it is difficult not to become pompous, and after a while I eased back in my chair and began speaking more slowly, with orotund flourishes, until I began to sound rather as the Yorkshire cricket broadcaster Don Mosey used to when delivering his close of play summary on Test Match Special.
Before they left, the German couple asked if they might have their photo taken with me. The bar owner took the snap and the Germans sat on either side of me, putting their arms quickly and bashfully around my shoulders as she called for us to smile. “Super,” the man said, shaking my hand. “We will see you at the race on Sunday also I’m sure?” yes I said “on the Kaplemuur, just before the cobble section where the Walloons and Flandarians stand on opposite sides of the road shouting insults at each other”. After they had gone, the bar owner came over to pick up the empty glasses. “That’s funny,” she said with a dry chuckle. I asked what was funny. “Those Germans,” the lady said, nodding in the direction of the door. “You see, they thought you were Tom Steels”. Steels is a classic Flandarian having won Omloop Het Volk, and Gent-Wevelgem, was Belgium national champion four times and with 9 Tour De France stage wins; quite a palmares. All those races won astride a Colnago C40 while rocking the cubes of glory of the Mapei team. I asked who she wanted to win De Ronde. “I don’t really care,” she said. “As long as they are Flemish. And if not a Fleming, then someone like a Fleming.” She meant gritty, tough, stoic and down-to-earth. The sort of man who might travel the world making millions of Euros from bicycle racing but still take his family holidays at De Panne or Oostduinkerke. “As Museeuw says,” the bar owner said, pointing at the newspaper, “you don’t have to be Flemish to be a Flandrian.”
This lady has a point, my good friend and ex-footballer, Damo, is known by all as the ‘Flandrian Fox’. He is a proper dyed in the wool Flandrian, despite hailing from Wolverhampton in the UK. Fast, smooth and stealthy on a bike he glides over the cobbles looking all schmick and purposeful. My other good friend, the Pink Flea, who sometimes lives in Oodenaarde is originally from Liverpool. He came here in the 1980’s to escape Thatcherite Britain and swap unemployment for the pro peloton, Belgium mix and the rough and tumble of continental bike racing. Both are official honoree Flandrians, one even has the T-shirt to prove it. After the De Ronde I always meet up with these characters in a bar called The Black Hole. It’s a shit hole that the European law banning smoking seems to have bypassed. In a bid to keep us captive and buying more beer, the hostess, who is in her late 50’s and looks it, normally takes most of her clothes off, with her husband’s full approval, to sing terrible Euro-pop karaoke on top of the bar. As if fully assimilated into Belgium life we stay and drink more Leffe beers and try to critique and analyze the race, without batting an eye at the barmaid.
But De Ronde van Vlaanderen is not just about the professional riders hammering it over the 264km cobbled course. This is a two day event and on the Saturday the weekend warriors get their turn with a choice of three courses; 100km, 160km or the full 264km hit. During De Ronde weekend every hotel is full, every couch has an occupant. One year at the De Kalvaar, my cycling cousin Craig turned up from San Francisco in the USA and had to share a bed with my new Australian girlfriend and I. Not knowing any different, and being too polite, she went along with this, thinking it was normal European behavior, which it kind of is for De Ronde. That year was exceptional weather. I briefed my cousin and girlfriend about the cold, rain, possible sleet and inevitable cobbles. Bring gloves, overshoes, Gortex in fact bring all the cold, wet weather cycling gear you own. We all rode the sportive in glorious 22-degree sunshine, a first for me.
The first year I rode the sportive there was snow all the way along the drive from Dunkirk to Ninove. The day of the sportive the rain was coming down at 45 degrees and it was barley above freezing. I turned and looked at my son and he said “proper Belgium weather” with a sly grin. Luckily we arranged to meet up with two out of work professional bike riders and their girlfriends. They towed us round at an incredible pace and never mentioned the weather once. These are the type of people the Flandarians love, hard case bike riders fully integrated into the Belgium lifestyle. After the ride they introduced me to strong black coffee with caramel stroopwafles, left to soften on the top of the coffee cup. They both now ride for top UCI World Tour teams. That’s what the Ronde van Vlaanderen is, its character building.
This year I’ll be glued to the TV set in the Melbourne suburbs dreaming of cobbles, beer, Euro-pop, rain, cold and the fanatical Belgium cycling fans. I once witnessed some stropping young guys rolling a huge beer barrel up the 325 meters of a 17% gradient over the cobbles to the top of the Molenberg, now that’s dedication. I’ll be there in spirit if not in body. I may even don my retro Mapei team kit, jump on the Colnago and ride up and down the Beach Road doing my best Tom Steels impression.