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Ride on: How Belgian cycling culture is booming
There is perhaps nowhere in the world more naturally aligned with the bicycle than Belgium. As one of the first countries to embrace the bike, Belgium has been a pioneer in developing it as both a popular pursuit and a professional sport. It has amazing and varied cycling routes, the most competitive one-day races in the world, and some of the most passionate fans. And it can boast brilliant cyclists including the greatest of all time, Eddy Merckx. Cycling has always been one of Belgium’s most popular sports, and one in which it has been a superpower.
Some 48% of the Belgian population use bicycles, but this is not the top of the world rankings: Japan is at 57%, Finland 60%, Germany 76% and the Netherlands 99%. Nor has Belgium the best infrastructure: the Netherlands and the Scandinavian nations are better at building dedicated cycling paths. But none of these countries have been nearly as effective at combining cycling for all with a competitive culture.
Indeed, an exhibition hosted by the Roeselare Cycling Museum is called Cycling is a Religion. Appropriately taking place in Roeselare’s Paterskerk church, the exhibition uses religious imagery and language to explain the sense of devotion that many in Belgium feel towards the bicycle.
A cradle of cycling
Museum curator Thomas Ameye says there are many reasons that Belgium is a cradle of cycling. “Cycling is in our genes,” he says. “Cycling started in France, but was soon adopted here, especially in Flanders.” Ameye notes other factors, including Belgium’s location in the centre of Europe, so it could easily adopt its neighbours’ cycling innovations. “It also helped that we had some great individual riders. A West Flanders rider, Odile Defraye, from Roeselare, won the Tour de France in 1912,” says Ameye.
“The advantage of being a small country is that when you organise a race of, say, 200km, you can spread over the entire territory,” he says. “A hundred years ago, each church had its fair, and cycling races became part of the festivities. So each small town had its own cycling race around the church. That’s how religion played its role in cycling.” Indeed, almost every village has a cycling club whose members may meet twice a week for a three-hour ride. The Tour de France has played a major role in Belgian bicycle culture.
Defraye’s 1912 victory began a seven-year winning streak for Belgians, with three triumphs for Philippe Thys, two for Firmin Lambot and one for Léon Scieur. Lucien Buysse and Maurice De Waele won tours in the 1920s, while the 1930s saw two more for Sylvère Maes and another for Romain Maes (no relation).
But the icon of cycling, the Pelé and Muhammad Ali of the sport, is Eddy Merckx. In a career spanning the years 1961 to 1975, he won 525 races, taking in three road cycling world championships, five Tour de France wins and five victories in the Giro d’Italia.
Over the years, 18 of 99 Tours have been won by Belgians, more than any other country bar France itself (36 victories), even if the last Belgian to win was Lucien Van Impe in 1976.
Belgian success today
Belgium still plays a major role in the world’s cycling circus. Many international teams employ Belgian ex-riders as trainers, psychologists or team managers. Britain’s first Tour de France winner, Sir Bradley Wiggins, was born in Ghent, as his pro-cycling father was based there at the time. Belgium has two professional cycling teams performing in the UCI World Tour: Etixx-Quick Step and Lotto-Soudal.
With 26, Belgian cyclists have won more UCI Road World Championship gold medals than any other nationality, with the most recent being Philippe Gilbert in 2012. The most promising talent lately has been Greg Van Avermaet, who won the Olympic road race gold medal in Rio last year, and at the time of writing was world number one on both the UCI World Ranking and UCI World Tour.
There are hundreds of organised road and off-road races each year in Belgium, and the top races attract thousands. The most important is the annual Tour of Flanders, or Ronde van Vlaanderen, which takes place on Easter Sunday: its route changes every year, but it always involves fast stretches on open roads, difficult sections over cobblestone roads and some very taxing climbs. The tour even has its own museum at the Ronde van Vlaanderen Centre in Oudenaarde.
Other important road races and classic one-day races in Belgium are the Flèche Wallonne, Gent-Wevelgem and E3 Harelbeke, all part of the UCI World Tour, as well as Paris-Brussels, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Grand Prix de Wallonie and Dwars door Vlaanderen.
Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the oldest classic cycling race of the season, is at the end of April, while the Gentse Zesdaagse or Six Days of Ghent in November is the most important track cycling event in the country. Beyond road racing, Belgium is also a magnet for mountain biking and cyclo-cross. Eric De Vlaeminck first won the cyclo-cross World Championships at the tender age of 21 in 1966, and then each year from 1968 to 1973.
Since its creation, 12 of the 21 UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup winners have been from Belgium, and Belgian riders have also accounted for two-thirds of all the podium places in the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships. Sven Nys – known as the Cannibal from Baal – is arguably the greatest cyclo-cross rider ever. But for most Belgians, cycling is just about getting out into the countryside.
There are hundreds of marked cycle routes of varying distances that make perfect day trips. And across Belgium, cycling is encouraged by authorities as a healthy, environmentally friendly way to get around. Pro Velo is a 25-year-old initiative in Brussels and Wallonia that promotes cycling, and gently pushes people to shift from using their car to choosing to bike.
Director Remco Ruiter says champions like Van Avermaet can have an inspirational effect. “Cycling for sport or for a hobby can potentially lead to a more regular use of bicycles in everyday life.”
This article first appeared in ING Expat Time