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VN Archives: Belgian fans in Flanders fields

An opus on Belgian cycling culture.

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VeloNews cover from May 20, 2002

At the Back was a column in every VeloNews magazine for decades. It was a place where riders and staff writers would share personal stories. This year, we are running an At the Back every week for members to enjoy. In this piece from May 20, 2002, John Wilcockson comments on Belgian cycling culture while covering the Tour of Flanders.

Their wide eyes were transfixed on the man racing full tilt toward them across the chunky cobblestones. From their mouths came shouts of encouragement for their hero. And their bodies throbbed with adrenaline-charged excitement at seeing Johan Museeuw heading for his third career victory in Paris-Roubaix. As the celebrated racer passed between the two anonymous spectators, his mud-splattered face only inches from theirs, one waved a huge black, gold and red Belgian national flag, the other a red and yellow Lion of Flanders banner. Although middle-aged and wearing fuddy-duddy jackets, caps and glasses, they exuded the immediacy of childhood. It’s the sort of passion that courses through the veins of every cycling fan in Belgium.

The two gentlemen standing beside the pavé in northern France were probably among the thousands who gathered one week earlier in the old marketplace in Bruges at the start of the Tour of Flanders. They were there to see each of the 193 starters ride their bikes up a temporary ramp onto a huge covered stage, rising 10 feet above their heads, where they’d be introduced to the crowd like rockstars. In Belgium, pro cyclists have more celebrity cachet than most show-biz personalities.

That’s reflected in the demographics of the fans. They come from all age groups, both male and female, from wide-eyed tots in their mother’s arms to wizened seniors with walking sticks sitting on chairs in their doorways.

Take the scene at Gistel, Museeuw’s hometown, where the race was due to arrive just before 11 a.m. At the main intersection, hundreds of fans were crammed together inside and outside the Tourmalet, a cafe-pub that’s filled with memorabilia of local hero Sylvère Maes — the two-time Tour de France winner in the 1930s. On this cool, breezy March morning, the neat, brick cafe was also filled with the expectant hubbub that surrounds any big sporting event, along with the usual chatter that accompanies customers placing orders for frites, mayonnaise and beer.

Museeuw fans wearing colorful bandanas, some with their bodies wrapped in those Lion of Flanders flags, pushed between the jostling throng to be roadside. They’d be there to greet their champion when he rode into town ahead of the pack. Down the road, at the day’s second feed zone in Melden, there was on one side of the road a display of life-sized caricatures of former stars like Brick Schotte, Rik Van Looy, Eddy Merckx and Roger De Vlaeminck, all of them beautifully executed by a well-known artist. Incongruously, Romy Pils, one of the hundreds of brands of beer Belgians chug every day, sponsored the display.

By the time the race reached the Paterberg, the sixth of 16 climbs, it was mid-afternoon. A few thousand people lined the 20-percent cobblestone hill, which snakes up an abrupt ridge between green pastures and brown fields of newly sewn crops. Here was the full panoply of Flemish fans.

Original article published in VeloNews magazine

Up on the ridge, sitting politely in a row along a grassy bank, were 10 small children, including one girl. The oldest was probably 10. They were all budding cyclists, because over their motley outfits of ill-fitting tights, shorts, T-shirts and sneakers they wore cheap nylon windbreakers in the blue, black, gold and red colors of the Belgian national team. Every so often, they would join together in a chant of “Jo-han, Jo-han, Johan Museeuw!”

From down the hill came a counter chant shouted by dozens of Gen-Xers: “Nic-o, Nic-o, Nico Matt-an!” Seeing kids with earrings, tattoos and body piercings watching a bike race in the middle of the countryside was an unexpected sight. Clearly, the “cool” Nico, 30, from nearby Izegem, has a bigger pull on these teens and twentysomethings than the manufactured stars of the music industry. Not only does Mattan race for a foreign team (Cofidis) and compete in a sport that doesn’t conform to the more conservative world of soccer, tennis or golf; he wears a durag, sports a goatee and clearly lives on the edge — being a close friend and training partner of the disgraced Frank Vandenbroucke. Reflecting his near-the-knuckle ethic, Nico’s fans all had on oversized white Tees, printed with their gang name, the “Mattan Ultras.”

Another unexpected group to show up was a line of motorcyclists, some on choppers, most in their 30s, who were cutting cross-country to watch the race in several locations. And, of course, there were many from the older generations: family and friends having a barbecue on their patio overlooking the climb; the flag-toting fanatics buying hot dogs, dried herring or beers from temporary stands set up on the hilltop; and regular husbands and wives just out to watch the fun, some catching the cheap paper flags thrown out from a self-conscious publicity caravan.

In such an atmosphere, it’s no surprise that Belgian cycling continues to produce great athletes and attract massive crowds. Cycling is among the most popular sports on television, and half the nation was glued to their sets that afternoon, hoping to see Museeuw pull off his fourth Flanders victory. Indeed, he won the sprint with a flourish from a small breakaway group at the finish in Meerbeke, but it was for second place after another veteran, the classy Italian, Andrea Tafi, took a late solo win.

After a press conference, Tafi rode off through the schoolyard with a female TV reporter on his crossbar. You have to appeal to that Gen-X audience.

Down the street, as the sun set over the fields of Flanders, music, shouts and laughter emanated from a corner bar packed with fans who had been watching the finish. The post-race analysis was as animated as the pre-race predictions had been 10 hours earlier, back in Bruges. And those two middle-aged fans were probably back home by now, depressed that their man had somehow allowed a foreigner to creep away and take the Ronde. But their talk would be laced with expectancy, too, as they made plans to be on the pavé at Paris-Roubaix the next Sunday.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.