ANTWERP, Belgium (VN) — Jasper Philipsen stood atop the main stage in Antwerp’s Grote Markt (main square) and looked out at the 90,000 fans awaiting the start of the 2019 Tour of Flanders. When Philipsen was introduced, the crowd erupted in cheers, their yellow Lion of Flanders flags waving in the wind.

One of the rising stars of Flemish cycling, Philipsen (UAE Team Emirates) pulled his phone from his jersey pocket, framed himself in front of the crowd, and snapped a selfie.

“It’s a fantastic feeling to be here,” Philipsen, 21, told VeloNews after stepping down from the stage. “We’re in the heart of Flanders.”

Like all Flemish pro riders, Philipsen grew up watching the Tour of Flanders on television and cheering for the country’s cobblestone heroes. One year he and his family traveled from their home in Mol, Belgium, to the race’s start in Bruges. Philipsen said it is one of his favorite cycling memories.

As a boy, he dreamed to one day compete in the race, even if such a reality seemed out of reach.

“Racing [Flanders] was the dream when I started cycling,” Philipsen said. “You never expect to be here.”

Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Throughout the starting area at this year’s Tour of Flanders, VeloNews spoke with Flemish cyclists, and asked them to describe the importance of this race, which celebrated its 103rd running on Sunday. Riders recalled watching the race on television, and live, as children. They spoke of being inundated by messages from friends and family in the week before the event. And they recalled memories from their first attempt at the event and discussed why, exactly, the race holds such a special place within their country’s cultural and sporting fabric.

“It is our special event. I think you can compare it to your Super Bowl. That is what we have with the Tour of Flanders,” said Jens Keukeleire (Lotto-Soudal). “It’s like a national holiday.”

The buzz around this iconic race has, for generations, helped drive Belgium’s fanatical interest in pro cycling. Every year, young children watch the race in person and on television. The tradition around the Tour of Flanders helps convert them to the sport. Some of them even pick up cycling and make their way into the pro ranks.

Keukeleire, 30, grew up in Brugge, and said he often attended the start in Bruges’s Market Square as a boy. Those trips to see the race helped spark his interest in pro cycling.

The race has importance for all Flemish riders, not just stars like Philipsen and Keukeleire. Dries van Gestel, 24, a budding pro on the Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise team, said he grew up watching the great battles between Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen on television. Van Gestel’s extended family always hosted a family reunion in conjunction with the race.

The entire family would watch the six-hour broadcast on television.

“My grandparents and aunt and uncle and nephews would all sit down and watch it,” van Gestel said. “It was always a big family happening for us.”

When van Gestel’s cycling career began to take off, racing the Tour of Flanders represented an enormous goal of his. He made his Flanders debut in 2017 but missed the race in 2018. When van Gestel was named to the team’s Tour of Flanders roster for 2019, the news spread to his family and friends.

“People I did not know that well were messaging me on Facebook — it was fun,” van Gestel said. “They are cheering for you because they know you have to be selected.”

Like van Gestel, other Flemish riders said that a start in the Tour of Flanders sparked interest from friends and family, even those with little knowledge of pro cycling. Guillaume van Kiersbulck (CCC Team), grew up watching the race in Bruges, and make his first Tour of Flanders start in 2011.

In the week before the race, Van Kirsbulck said, friends reach out. Sometimes, the messages are somewhat ridiculous.

Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

“My friends give me some tips on racing, but of course I already have lots of experience racing Flanders,” Van Kiersbulck said. “It’s OK. They are living the emotion of the race because they love De Ronde.”

The Antwerp crowd cheered loudest as the final team, Deceuninck-Quick-Step, rolled onto the stage. Announcers passed the microphones to the team’s Belgian heroes, Philippe Gilbert and reigning Belgian champion Yves Lampaert. Flanders’s favorite team spent several minutes greeting various media members before finally rolling toward the finish.

The crowds, stage, and TV cameras created a surreal—even seasoned pro riders acknowledged the special moment.

“It’s like your first day of school, you’re always a bit nervous,” said Yves Lampart. “It gives you goosebumps.”