Book Excerpt: The Tour of Flanders from ‘The Spring Classics’ part 2

Part 2 of our excerpt from "The Spring Classics"

Get access to everything we publish when you join VeloNews or Outside+.

Editor’s note: This excerpt from “The Spring Classics” is republished with permission of VeloPress. “The Spring Classics: Cycling’s Greatest One-Day Races” delves deeply into the glorious, beautiful history of cycling’s monuments. The book is available now in bookstores, bike shops, and online. Part 1 was published Thursday.

Schotte: The Last of the Flandrians

The portrait of the Flandrian sometimes takes on more political, historical, or social accents. “Cycling, for us, was originally a way to lift ourselves socially,” Godefroot said. “At 16, I worked 57 hours a week as a carpenter, and I did two four-hour rides in addition. What father would let his son do that nowadays? A real Flandrian is a man who knows how to fight because he has always been dominated by someone: the Walloons, who owned the industry and culture, the Dutch and Germans, who wanted the lands.”

Dominated. The word summarizes, describes, and justifies a century of scars, in languages that overlap each other, that Belgium struggles to heal. The Walloon dominated in French; the Flemish plowed in Dutch. For the past half century—with Walloon metallurgy and textile industries in ruins—all of this has been flipped. Here in Flanders, before living in architects’ homes made of rare teak, polished concrete, and brushed steel, a people suffered and struggled to have its language and culture acknowledged. An administrator at the Tour of Flanders museum in Oudenaarde concentrates these 60 years of history into the hero who exudes cycling: “The typical Flandrian left his parents’ farm to make his living on a bicycle; he is a man who works with his hands and who picked Flanders up after the war.”

Briek Schotte, “the last of the Flandrians,” whose death effectively brought the dynasty to a close in 2004, was the perfect example. His statue is a familiar sight to casual cyclists and Ronde competitors alike as they pass through Kanegem, where he was born in September 1919, southwest of Ghent. Schotte is eternally linked to the race by his being at the starting line of 20 consecutive editions, winning twice, in 1942 and 1948, and finishing 2nd twice and 3rd four times.

Despite this record, Schotte would have liked to be included in the prestigious list of three-time winners: Achiel Buysse (1940, 1941, 1943), Fiorenzo Magni (1949, 1950, 1951), Eric Leman (1970, 1972, 1973), and Johan Museeuw (1993, 1995, 1998). The best Ronde that Schotte ever rode, according to him, took place in 1950 in infernal conditions. His fingers frozen, he managed to repair a punctured tire with a spectator’s assistance before throwing himself into the pursuit of a three-man breakaway. Racing through gusts of wind and banks of snow, with the cold air cutting his cheeks, he almost closed the gap but could not stop Magni, “the Lion of Flanders,” from winning his second Ronde. When Schotte died at the age of 84, on the day of the 2004 Tour of Flanders, he left behind precious testimony about the Ronde and the heroic cycling of his time. He would go to the start of a race by train and sometimes come home on his bicycle after the race. After finishing his first Tour of Flanders, in 1940, he pocketed 2,000 Belgian francs, a tidy sum when compared with a worker’s average hourly wage of 4 francs. To protect himself from the elements, he would cover his legs in oil or candle wax and breakfast on a steak, two eggs, buttered bread, and coffee. This protein bulimia in the form of meat defies the current laws of sports nutrition. “We ate steak until we were exhausted,” Schotte said. “We brought steaks in our suitcases that we would cook in cafés. I lived near the illegal slaughterhouses and could easily get supplied.”

Once launched on the Ronde’s crazy course, which damaged bicycles even more than their riders, he would often turn into an improvised mechanic, fix a brake with some wire torn off a fence or sew a tube with a needle and thread borrowed from a spectator.

Schotte’s heirs? Simply scroll through the black, yellow, and red palmarès to find the names of the 66 Belgians who have stood on the podium’s highest step. But be careful, because the purists are hard to please: Boonen’s two victories in 2005 and 2006 were not enough to make him a Flandrian in their eyes. “Boonen? He lives in Monaco. Too glamorous to be a Flandrian,” they said. Peter Van Petegem is the one whose name comes up most often in any attempt to sketch the portrait of a Flandrian in recent times. Hardworking, specializing in classics to the extent of devoting almost his entire career to them, he also lives in the area, in Brakel, between the Tenbosse and Valkenberg climbs. Prior to his retirement at the end of 2007, his every training ride was a concentrated Tour of Flanders, which he won in 1999 and 2003. He knew the bergs, cobblestone by cobblestone, every corner, and every pothole lurking under a puddle. This is one of the secrets of the race’s winners. They know where the Koppenberg’s cobbles may be damp, where the left-hand gutter on the Kwaremont ends, and in which way the wind turns atop the Paterberg. “Many of Flemish cycling’s biggest names live on the race’s itinerary,” Nico Mattan, born in 1971 at Izegem, 5th in 2003, pointed out. “This proximity doesn’t exist in any other country or any other sport. This is what makes our identity.”

For his part, the legendary Rik Van Steenbergen did not like the Tour of Flanders weather. “Not my race,” he would say of the Ronde, having already won it in 1944, as a 19-year-old, and again in 1946. He raced on the track, a significant source of income for riders in those days, until the spring weather turned warm. Rik I, as he was known, preceded Rik II, Rik Van Looy, in the Flandrian dynasty. Van Looy participated in his sixth Tour of Flanders, in 1959, as a champion of suffering—toe abscess, intestinal infection, stomach cramps. Unable to eat, he nevertheless won, wearing the Belgian national champion’s jersey. In 1962, he again suffered an upset stomach and yet again won, flanked by his Faema team gunslingers, his red guard. A week later, he triumphed in Paris-Roubaix, becoming the sixth rider on the list (which now totals 10) of champions who won both races.

As he attacked the 1969 season, Eddy Merckx, 24 years old and five years into his professional career, had already claimed almost all the classics on the calendar. He was only lacking Bordeaux-Paris, Paris-Tours, and the Tour of Flanders. A fall had caused him to quit the Ronde in 1966. His lack of experience had allowed him nothing better than 3rd place in 1967 and 9th in 1968. As he left Ghent on March 30, 1969, the barometer was stuck on “rotten weather.” Merckx had grabbed his third Milan–San Remo just days before, and a hefty dose of bergs was determined to shred him into fine strips. Young Roger De Vlaeminck, 21, had himself just won the Het Volk circuit, organized a few days earlier on a course similar to the Ronde’s. As Merckx approached the Kwaremont, there were 22 men clinging to his wheel. Seventy km from the line, Merckx took off alone. He finished, after a memorable ride through the rain, cold, and hail, with a five-minute lead on Felice Gimondi and eight on the next closest riders.

His summary: “If I’m going to have to do all the work, I might as well do it alone.” He used this script again for his second win, in 1975, which only Frans Verbeeck attempted to thwart by sticking to Merckx’s wheel for a good 100 km.

Merckx competed in 12 Tours of Flanders, from 1966 to 1977, and won 2. In 1976, in the twilight of his career, he ascended the Koppenberg on foot. In 1977, he abandoned the race, one year before his retirement from the sport. The Ronde: An Obsession Besides supernovas like Merckx, the Ronde has produced plenty of twinkling stars. Belgian sprinter Eric Leman, a winner of five stages in the Tour de France, put his stamp on the race by winning it enough times (1970, 1972, and 1973) to assure him eternal fame in cycling-mad Flanders. This fascination for the Belgian classic extends well beyond the Dender River, which flows by the foot of the Mur de Grammont. Some foreigners have wound up living here, beneath the hills, through love of the Ronde.

Andreas Klier was born in 1976 in Munich and has plied his trade in every race the Flemish countryside has to offer, classic or no. He attacked the cobbles of eastern Flanders again and again, finishing 25th in the 2000 Tour of Flanders and 6th in 2004, before seeing his obsession rewarded in 2005 by a 2nd place finish, behind Boonen. But he wanted more. Victory still eluding him, he chose to settle in the area with his wife, children, and bicycles. He could have lived the life of a star in Germany, but he preferred to keep sharpening his skills here, in the small town of Denderwindeke, between the Ronde’s finish line in Ninove and Van Petegem’s house in Brakel. The only reason for this sacrifice is to win the Tour of Flanders: a feat so monumental for a non-Belgian that he lives here, as a Flandrian, in the hope of one day seizing the ultimate prize, following in the footsteps of his onetime teammate Steffen Wesemann (2004) and 40 years after their countryman Rudi Altig.

The few foreigners who have excelled in the Ronde have had to intimately acquaint themselves with Flemish cycling’s rough demands before getting their name in the history books. Out of 94 editions (up to 2010), only 28 went to foreigners. In its early years the race did not attract the global peloton’s best and brightest. It was even sometimes held at the same time as Milan–San Remo, preventing any of the top Italian riders from competing.

The first winner from outside Belgium was a Swiss, Heiri Suter, in 1923, but it took almost three more decades to see another outsider step atop the podium—Italian Fiorenzo Magni, the first “Lion of Flanders” (1949, 1950, 1951). Far behind Belgium, Italy has 10 total wins, and the Netherlands has 9. The French have only 3: Louison Bobet and Jean Forestier, one after the other in 1955 and 1956, before Jacky Durand in 1992. The only Anglo-Saxon to win the race was Tom Simpson in 1961. Like many British pioneers, Simpson lived in Flanders, not far from Ghent—where he received the keys to the city after his historic victory in the 1965 world road championship.

The Belgian riders’ dominance of the race can also be explained by the veritable obsession they make of it. Talk among them turns to the Ronde as early as December. Durand said that “when we’re in Bessèges [at the start of February], the Belgians talk about Het Volk; during Het Volk, they talk about the Three Days of De Panne; and then of the Tour of Flanders. It’s all they talk about.” Durand achieved his 1992 triumph in his own way, with a morning breakaway that lasted more than 200 km and a lead that went as high as 23 minutes. He was able to slip by some of the Belgian favorites’ vigilance, notably that of Van Hooydonck, for whom the Tour of Flanders was the objective of his entire season. Victory in the Ronde comes with the boundless adulation of the Belgian public. Durand received this as well, his name shouted from the Flemish roadsides almost before he had ever heard it in France.

“To win one of their classics,” he explained, “is as important as winning a stage in the Tour de France.”

This public fervor is palpable on each of the classic’s climbs. The first weekend in April has become the Flandrian equivalent of Super Bowl Sunday in the United States. On the morning of the departure, all of Bruges appears to be in the streets to glimpse the riders in person. And all the way to Meerbeke the road is lined with row upon row of fans, some of them unruly. The furor is nothing new: The organizers have been pondering the costs of such huge success since 1930, with traffic jams and a proliferation of roadside food stands. The race’s dramatic elements were a chief concern of the Tour of Flanders founder.

Journalist Karel Steyaert (who also went by the name Van Wijnendaele) was impressed with the epic newspaper reports of Paris-Roubaix and Paris-Brussels when he first came up with the idea for his own race in 1912. Just as the Tour de France would support the reputation and sales of Henri Desgrange’s L’Auto, in 1903 the Ronde’s mission was to launch the national sports newspaper Sportwereld. As Sportwereld’s editor and an admirer of Desgrange, Van Wijnendaele wanted drama, riders struggling in the rain and mud. The smallest mention of bad conditions in the pre-race weather predictions was enough to put a smile on his face.

According to Willie Verhegge, a poet who lives in Ninove, just a few pedal strokes from today’s finish line, the perfect soundtrack to the Tour of Flanders is Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D minor.

This Ronde lover, haunted by riders “who never die,” writes cycling-inspired verse.

On the topic of cobblestones: “Heads of stone, bald, stunned / In ground buried like small dead / Whose mouth grimaces in the cold.”

On the Mur de Grammont: “The wall strikes with its stone claws / Cuts down the young people like war / And suddenly stops being a wall / When the battle at the summit has been fought / And the last man has found, carefully, the old forms of his body / Then the hill cries for past pain.”

When he is not writing, Verhegge rides a bike. He inherited Richard Virenque’s bicycle when the French climber rode for the Belgian-based Quick Step team. Sometimes, as he suffers in the hills, Verhegge crosses paths with Van Petegem, Klier, or Kevin Van Impe out training.

“The Tour of Flanders, yes, it’s poetry. The beauty of the landscape, the Flemish Ardennes, the most beautiful spot in Flanders. Even when the sun is missing.” His first vivid memories date back to the 1951 race. The itinerary sent the riders by his family’s farm, on the Edelare: “I’m four years old. I hold my father’s hand very firmly. The motorcycle riders arrive in their black leather jackets. To me, they are devils. Then comes Fiorenzo Magni, il leone delle Fiandre. He’s bald. Covered in mud. I still see him approaching my house. . . . I drew my love for cycling from his metal bidon [water bottle]. What can I say: there is poetry in this.”

Verhegge’s poems are like small chapels in the history of the Tour of Flanders, and they are now etched into small stone monuments planted by the side of the course, as in Geraardsbergen. “Traces of his passage, that is what a poet must leave behind,” said Verhegge, quoting René Char: “Only traces lead to dreams.”

Indeed, traces and dreams give the Ronde its unique character and make the minds of Flandrians turn to this special race in early spring year after year after year.