Plastic Bertrand – Fahrrad in Belgium

Belgium one cycling nation – Kassein or Pavé? / Belgien ist eine Nation von Radfahrern – Kassein oder Pavé?

The picture above is of World and Olympic Champion Nicole Cooke riding the Muur de Huy during La Fleche Walonne Classic

Name a famous Belgian
‘Plastic Bertrand’
 I replied – ‘nah, someone famous, name me a famous Belgian’? My inquisitor insisted. Being a cycle fan I had proceeded to let flow a long, long list of names of Belgian and Low Countries pro race riders adding, just to show off, a host of artists (Van Dyke, Rubens, Mondrian, Bruegel etc.). ‘Nah’, was again the reply. ‘Not even Eddy Merckx?’ ‘OK. Yeah, I’ve heard of him, but what does he do?’ ‘He rode a bike’ – ‘nah, that doesn’t count’.

When I was growing up playing ‘name a famous Belgian’ was code for Britain is best. For me it seemed such a shame to purposely think the lesser of others.

Belgium is of course more than just a wee bit of land to pass through before you get to somewhere important or nice. To cycling fans it’s a theatre of dreams and a large vault of history.

The country sits between France and the Netherlands and is bordered by Luxembourg and Germany. It’s not big and although it has a central Government most of the time there isn’t and influence is drawn from the two main language areas: Walloons (French) to the south and Flemish (Dutch) in the north.

Every country has a story to tell and Belgium with its many striking medieval towns and battle fields illustrates that for a relatively small area and population, it has been a busy spot on the European map.

Low Countries
From an assortment of fiefdoms in the 800’s (9th century) controlled (ish) by the French Court, The Hapsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire, the Low Countries became part of Burgundian Netherlands (14th/ 15th centuries) and then spilt after 80 years of fighting in 1648. The Federated Netherlands and the Southern Netherlands set a recipe for further conflicts right through until the warfare sparked by the French Revolution when the French annexed the Low Countries. After the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, the area was reformed as the Netherlands. In 1830 a revolution saw the creation of a constitutional monarchy in 1831 and the template for modern Belgium was formed.

Many of the wars fought in Europe up to the First World War were influenced by the power battles being played out between the European Royal Houses, the impact of the French and American Revolutions and conflicts were often run along Catholic and Protestant religious lines (The carnage of the 30 Years War). Belgium although one country in the 19th and 20th century was and remains split by language – the official tongue was French and Dutch was very much a second class language and marked people as such. This fracture through Belgium society was addressed to a degree as the Flanders area became more economically successful after World War One and Two, but it wasn’t until 1967 that a Dutch version of the constitution was made official somewhat a long time after the language was recognised in 1898. Language often became the instrument as well as the denominator of protest or political assertiveness.

Cobbles near Brussels – Wallonnia

Industrial Revolution
The Low Countries which includes Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg had for generations been associated with craft, design, intricate textiles such as lace making, instrument manufacturer, mechanical working, breweries, distilleries and art. Some of the greatest art the world has ever seen can now be found in the galleries and churches of the many medieval towns and cities lived in the past by skilled artisans. Belgium’s industrial potential was also spurred by Napoleon’s occupation and his need for uniforms and metal for guns in his fight with the Royal Houses of Europe including Britain – the French Emperor furthermore confiscated monastic lands and sold or rented them out to merchants etc. echoing a similar aspect of Henry Vlll’s actions that created a greater English bourgeoisie or middle class of merchants. (Non-aristocratic money)

The French speaking enclave town of Ghent situated within Flanders (French was the first language of Ghent University until 1930 and this was mirrored across society) had a huge reputation for cloth production and when a Spinning Jenny was smuggled out of Britain, the town utilised it to become a leader in Belgium’s industrialisation. Soon other areas followed as Belgium exploited their excellent communications (incl. canals), trading infrastructure and huge coal reserves in Wallonia, to become the first Continental country in Europe to industrialise.

The French speaking Wallonians reaffirmed their position as the ruling class even more, as the cities of Mons, Liege and Charleroi (to name just three) boomed with the Industrial Revolution (as was the case also across the French border in nearby Roubaix). The Industrial Revolution in Belgium followed a similar course as Britain’s, and Wallonia soon drew workers from the fields and from across Europe including economic migrants from Italy, especially in and around Liege. Money became further concentrated in the south whilst Flanders remained mostly agrarian and conservative in nature supplemented by textile and light industry. It is said that Belgian railways spread tenfold compared to that in Britain in this period.

One hiccup was an economic slump during 1840/50 in Belgium caused by the splitting away from the Netherlands (fighting/revolution) and the failure of the potato crop – disease and hunger led to financial houses that had developed during the first boom years, to suffer a monetary crisis until the founding of a Central Bank restored confidence.

Wallonia’s metal working skills and coal reserves created huge wealth, but is also widened the economic gulf between it and Flanders – by 1850; Belgium produced around 200,000 tons of iron.

Karl Marx called Belgium the most bourgeois of European nations.

The Kemmelberg – Flanders

By any other name – Cycling not war
As was the case in Victorian Britain, Belgium also saw great poverty and exploitation, in spite of the creation of great wealth, and more people having money in their pockets. Also like Britain those with disposable incomes showed great interest in leisure pursuits such as sport, entertainment; theatre and newspaper sales soared.

In tandem agitation for better workers’ rights and better conditions pushed reforms, including the recognition of the Dutch language. Belgium became a leading crucible of emancipation movements across Europe, although it took Belgium until 1949 to give all women the vote. Much of this aspect of the Industrial Revolution was written about by Emile Zola in his novel Germinal based upon 19th century living and social conditions of miners and their families in the Northern French coal fields such as Roubaix. I touch on this in my report regarding the Kent coal fields.

Cycling in Victorian England boomed, and at times the ‘Dash for Cash’ overreached itself, leading to short term ventures that saw many velodromes fail, except at Herne Hill in London or at Roubaix in French Flanders.

The new and exciting bicycle not only increased the mobility of first middle and upper classes, it also came eventually within reach of previously side-lined people, and promoters saw bicycle racing as a great way of pushing their towns or industries into the public mind. The French led the way – in 1891 they held Paris–Brest–Paris and Bordeaux–Paris. Whilst Britain isolated itself from European cycling as the fledgling Bicycle Union was formed in Britain in 1878, becoming the National Cycling Union in 1883, which then banned mass start races on the road in 1890 (repealed in the 1950’s).

For the Belgians cycle races became more than just about promoting a town or such like – it became a metaphor for the tensions between Wallonia and Flanders.

The oldest classic or ‘monument’ on the road race calendar is Liege-Bastogne-Liege set in the Ardennes region of Wallonia and was held for the first time in 1892. It was joined by a second Ardennes race with the introduction of Fleche Wallonne in 1936. A third Ardennes classic is the Amstel Gold (1966) held in the Netherlands.

Liege-Bastogne-Liege was held for three years before it halted between 1895 and 1908, this gap being mostly caused by riders electing to take part in the more lucrative French and Italian races because Belgium was seen then as a cycling backwater. The Dutch speaking Flemish region had to wait until 1913 for the first edition of the Tour of Flanders.

Dean Downing and the Rapha Condor Team have ventured into France during the Circuit des Ardennes 2008 – Wallonia/France

National Identity
Many cycle races such as the Giro d ’Italia (1909), Tour de France (1903), the Vuelta Espana (1935) offer an expression of nationhood and other similar races such as the Tour of the Basque Country (1924) and the Circuit des Ardennes (1951) which do the same but more locally – the latter race pops back and forth across the Belgian-French borders reminding all that the region has its own identity regardless of national borders.

Cycle races have a long history of asserting regional and national identity.

The Tour of Flanders was purposefully pitched as a Flemish race to ‘unite the Flemish people’ and although the region may have lagged behind Wallonia it wasn’t without resources. The race launch was combined with a new Flemish (Dutch) language newspaper – the print media and cycle races also have long and close association. Tour of Flanders co-founder Karel Van Wijnendaele said: “We also wanted to publish a paper aimed at the Flemish people in their own language and give them confidence as Flemish.” Peter Cossins in his book Monument says that the choice of French speaking Ghent as a start point of the first edition was “provocative”. Ghent had been part of the industrial success of Belgium, but although Flemish the city was French speaking.

One more edition of the Tour of Flanders was held before the outbreak of World War One and when it did return in 1919 it was to an area devastated by war. Liege-Bastogne-Liege was similarly placed.

World War One
The German occupiers of Belgium pursued a policy of Flamenpolitik, a policy that treated the Flemish people as oppressed by the Wallonnie and to further foster division promoted a pro-Flemish agenda and this included making Dutch the official language of schools in Flanders. Additionally groups sprung up to promote Dutch speaking across Belgium life and mirror French as a national tongue. Calls for separatism as is the case now, were loud but not top of the agenda.

I rode the Ypres Salient and the climbs of the Ghent Wevelgem race including the Kemmelberg climb in 2013.

Belgium post WW1 was a broken nation and required International relief – it was smashed and facing huge levels of homeless and refugees. The Wallonnie area had lost much of their industrial infrastructure after it was ransacked by the Germans. Nonetheless the city of Antwerp hosted the 1922 Olympic Games, and Belgium signed a custom union with Luxembourg. The Belgians also took control of two German regions and accepted other goods as reparations.

The fundamental result was despite tensions within Belgium it remained as one although this issue was to be tested once more during WW2.

Inter war
The inter war period saw both cycle races develop, resulting in them becoming expressions of regional identity and social festivals that celebrated their differences. Liege-Bastogne-Liege saw Belgian stars grab the headlines (other than in 1930 when German Hermann Buse won) and newspaper sales would explode during race periods. At the Tour of Flanders a Belgium clean sweep was denied by Swiss rider Heiri Suter in 1923.

It was in this period that Belgian cycle sport began to come of age, at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour of Flanders, Belgian riders dominated. It wouldn’t be until after World War Two that the races became more than a simple regional contest – it would be interesting to discover the regional background of the Belgian winners and competitors during this period.

The Kapelmuur – Flanders

Tour of Flanders – No stopping for War
The German Blitzkrieg swept through the Low Countries in 1940 and at the beginning of the Nazi occupation of Belgium some 70,000 Jews lived there and a total of 28,900 of them perished between 1942 and 1945. Resistance to the occupation did occur – the City of Brussels refused to distribute Stars of David to denote Jews and others, individuals resisted also. Some did join the Nazis through such groups as the Flemish DeVlag and Vlaamsch Nationaal Verbond (VNV) as well as the Catholic Walloon Rexist Party

The Nazi regime resumed the policy of Flamenpolitik , the Tour of Flanders continued throughout the War and was actively supported by the Nazis whilst Liege-Bastogne-Liege was not allowed to be held until 1943 and then with heavy restrictions. In 1944 Flanders became a full member of the Third Reich.

The close association of the Tour of Flanders with the Nazis drew criticism after the war, and in 1945 the more left leaning newspaper Het Volk introduced the Het Volk Omloop in 1945 to make a point. This newer Flanders race remains on the modern race calendar although it is seen as a semi-classic. The Tour of Flanders survived the controversy, it helped that although many Belgian journalists and newspaper men were sanctioned after the war for collaboration, including the Tour of Flanders lead man Van Wijnendaele, he was able to prove that he had assisted the allied effort (he helped downed airmen to escape back to Britain) and any perceived wrong doing was subsequently limited.

Post WW2 Belgium became a foundation stone of the European Union and with it Belgium’s economy grew with the further help of Marshal Aid. Despite religious and regional moments of tension – once again Belgium remained one nation, but also at the same time remained divided.

Post WW2 cycle racing in Belgium attracted more riders from outside the Belgian regional bubbles, Italians won, as did the Dutch, and the French – the latter having ignored the Tour of Flanders up to then. The greater integration of riders from across Europe into the races mirrored the political, economic and social cohesion that was developing across Europe in this period.

In 1961 a general strike in Wallonia reflected the downturn in the industrial heartland of Belgium and flagged up the now failing industries in cities such as Mons and Liege. In modern Belgium unemployment in the French speaking Wallonia area had outstripped that of the Dutch speaking Flanders.

With a backdrop of industrial downturn and assertive calls for reform, the Belgian nation became federal in the 1980’s and today the regions of Flanders, Wallonia and the city of Brussels have self rule. This has meant that secessionist talk was silenced to a degree. The greater power of the regions has also meant that a Central Government cannot at times be found. Belgium, once a brutal colonial power (The Belgian Congo owned and run directly by the Royal House was widely condemned by other powers including Britain) is today having to face up to major social inclusion issues.

Belgian politics is highly fragmented but in general it is united not by political allegiance but by a wish to stay as one nation and a member of the European Union.

Nonetheless the nation keeps running and the split down language lines has simply been made official and part of the machinery of state. Don’t suppress – incorporate!

A race car burns out its clutch on the Muur de Huy – Wallonia

Cobbles and Tarmac
How does all this history or even the language schisms make itself relevant to us cyclists?

Cycling in both Wallonia and Flanders has a rich heritage and this goes someway to bridge the divide – whether French or Dutch speaking cyclists; they pedal just the same. For us cyclists this means that Belgium is an open door with bergs, hellingens or cotes (hills), pavé or kassein (cobbles) and we can ride roads which have an amazing heritage built over the decades.

What you do need to understand is that local sensitivities can see you treated disdainfully if you try to speak French in Flanders, better to talk a mix of English and German, but not French. Many Flanderian’s will quickly respond in English. In Wallonia, speaking French or English will do you OK, but waving a Flandrian flag in their face is not cool. Belgium is not just Flanders and some of the older Belgians wherever they live, may see variations of the Flanderian flag that might remind them of the Nazi occupation, so be careful what flag you wave – is it of a group that remains associated with the failed German Reich? Check before you buy.

Away from the rusting post-industrial landscape that mirrors such places as Manchester or Stoke in Britain; Liege, Mons or Charleroi, Wallonian roads can be steep and mostly have been smoothed by tarmac. It all seems much more ordered and landscaped than the north. In Flanders there are steep cobbled climbs (hellingen). The land is more field like and seems uncoordinated with a mismatch of architecture in what I call ‘urbanside’ – fields are sandwiched in between the man-built environment. It’s not that there is no greenery but rather it’s just that it seems to be passed quickly like being on a train. And there are of course there are concrete slab roads that can suck wheels or at least rattle your fillings although these can be found in all regions.

The two great Wallonian Ardennes classics: Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Fleche Wallone feature very few cobbles whilst the Flandrian classics: Tour of Flanders, Ghent Wevelgem and Het Volk Omloop revel in them.

I prefer riding in Flanders simply because of the greater number of cobbled climbs (Hellingen), nonetheless cobbles still survive in Belgian towns and settlements across the language divide, whilst tarmac mostly rules in Wallonia.

Although Belgium is an open door for us cyclists, do not take it for granted that you are completely respected and safe – Belgian cycling has been forced to address big issues in recent years such as paying greater insurance fees because of fatalities in races among riders and members of the public. In addition, as a top Belgian UCI race commissaire recently said: ‘the Belgian public are not as patient or accommodating as they once were’.

Last, but not least, further attractions are the long sandy beaches that run up the coastline and British TV (plus other nations) so even if you spend months living there when riding you can catch up with BBC favourite ‘Strictly’.

P.S. Plastic Bertrand mimed his greatest hit and its a well known fact that Belgium is better in black and white.

Oude Kwaremont – Flanders

Spring Classic Chronology
Liege Bastogne Liege  – 1892
Paris Roubaix – 1896
Tour of Flanders  – 1913
Ghent Wevelgem – 1934
Fleche Wallone – 1936
Het Volk Omloop – 1945
Amstel Gold – 1966

The Monuments
A great book about the classic bike races is The Monuments by Peter Cossins –

A few sources from amongst many –

Race sign on at the Circuit of the Ardennes – Wallonia/France

The beach at De Panne (near Koksijde) – Flanders

The Kemmelberg – Flanders

Dirt road near Brussels – Wallonnia

The Kemmelberg – Flanders

More Pictures and in colour – GO THERE
They include: Three Days De Panne (where Mark Cavendish won), Gavarre and Koksijde Cyclo Cross, Fleche Wallone, Kapelmuur, Oude Kwaremont, Kemmelberg, Brussels cobbles and ‘green’ roads, Nicole Cooke on the Muur d’Huy, Andrew Hillman a great soigneur, Circuit des Ardennes with Rapha Condor, Koppenberg cobble envy and TV watching at the Wyman’s, German cross champion René Birkenfeld, Ghent lights, Ian Fields shoe collection and Ypres.

Just some of the pictures from my trips to Belgium – I wish I could find my shots from the 1990’s Houffalize World Cup mountain biking.