Cycling in Belgium

The Beast, the Emperor and the Milkman

Harry Pearson loves the sport of cycling, and is fascinated by the region of Flanders. Put them together – and add a liberal sprinkling of sharp observations and dry humor – and you have a most enjoyable and highly informative book.

Sunday morning in Flanders: ding-a-ling

Anyone anywhere in Flanders on a Sunday morning quickly realizes that the Flemish love their cycling. Not only are the dedicated cycleways full of cyclists, so are many main roads, back roads, farm tracks, canal towpaths, forest paths …

Mums and Dads take their babies and toddlers cycling with them in all sorts of bike trailers, front bike seats, rear bike seats, trailer cycles and cargo bikes. Three-year-olds are kitted out with helmets and knee-pads and mounted on trikes. Teens simultaneously pedal and text, selfie, chat and listen to the latest sounds on their headphones. Groups of garrulous pensioners can be heard approaching from afar before you see them, and as they cycle on past you, it’s sometimes possible to catch snatches of the latest births, deaths, marriages and affairs.

You will also encounter fanatical representatives of the hundreds of amateur cycling clubs in Flanders; their members resplendent in their multicolored Lycra suits, garishly advertising the local plumber, butcher or baker. And well before the first leaves emerge on the trees, fluo-vested stewards will appear at road junctions, stopping or re-routing cars to ensure that racing cyclists are not impeded.

The Flemish clearly have the cycling gene

Yes, the Flemish love their cycling, and in “The Beast, The Emperor and The Milkman“, Harry Pearson looks into the history of Flanders and concludes that cycling is part of the Flemish identity and psyche. It’s in their DNA. He also uncovers some reasons why Flemish cyclists are so good in competitions and have been for a hundred years or so. For such a small region (it’s not even a country), it’s remarkable that Flemish cyclists have had 18 wins in the Grand Tours, 46 at Paris-Roubaix, and 20 Road World Championships.

One of the reasons for these successes is, according to Pearson, because the Flemish “like toughness, obduracy and fortitude; guts, nuts and phlegm.” Such characteristics come to the fore in an endurance sport like cycling. So when the rain is thrashing down, the wind is cutting you in half, the temperature is sub-zero and the greasy cobbles are painful whether you fall off your bike or stay on it – these are the perfect conditions for the Flemish to show how tough they are. And this is why the big Flemish cycle races are not held in the balmy days of May or September, but in February and March. In these months, if the cobbles don’t knock you off your bike, the rain and the wind will. Unless you’re tough and obdurate.

The history of cycling in Flanders

Pearson goes back to the origins of cycle racing in Flanders, beginning with the Ronde van Vlaanderen when it was founded in 1913. Starting and ending in Ghent, it wound through various Flemish cities and villages on a pain-inducing 320 km route that was clearly designed by a psychopath (a cyclopath? 🙂 ).

Farm tracks, cinder paths, gravel driveways, cobbled streets, sharp turns, muddy single-tracks – and worst of all, the legendary “Muur van Geraardsbergen”. This iconic 910-meter-long climb of the Ronde van Vlaanderen has an average incline of 9% – and a maximum incline of 20%! Oh, did I mention that it’s cobbled? No wonder that the French teams refused to allow their Belgian riders to take part in the first Ronde as they were fearful of severe injuries.

The Muur © Hans Westerling, Photo News

16 races in 6 weeks

Since then, a multitude of races have been added. The book covers the author’s experiences as he attends all of the Spring races in Belgium in one year (2017); an impressive feat of perseverance and logistics. These begin with a cyclocross event in February.

“Cyclocross is one of those things that at first glance appears a trifle nuts, but which on closer inspection is revealed to be totally insane”

Harry Pearson, The Beast, The Emperor and The Milkman

He then moves onto the road races and crams them all in within a period of six hectic weeks. Click on the names for more info on each event and to find the latest dates: those listed refer to 2017 when Pearson attended them.

At each one, Pearson good-naturedly describes his tribulations getting to some fairly obscure places on the bus, the colorful locals he meets, the grueling races he watches, and more than a few local pintjes he consumes in the bars he frequents, and all while doing his best to understand Dutch.

Dutch is a language that seems to include far more vowels than are strictly necessary.

Harry Pearson, The Beast, The Emperor and The Milkman

What’s clear is that in covering all these races, Pearson himself displays considerable toughness, obduracy and fortitude. I must ask him if he has some Flemish blood mixed up with those Middlesbrough genes.

The titular Beast, Emperor and Milkman are the nicknames of three Flemish cyclists who stand out in the Flemish cycling hall of fame.

“The Beast”: Roger de Vlaeminck

In a career spanning nearly two decades, Roger De Vlaeminck excelled at the Spring Classics and in the early season stage races. Indeed, the “Beast of Eeklo” is regarded by many as the greatest Classics rider of all time. He notched up more than 160 victories, and is one of only three riders to have won all five “Monuments of Cycling”: Milan–San Remo, Tour of Flanders, Paris–Roubaix, Liège–Bastogne–Liège, and Giro di Lombardia. (As further proof of the strength of cycling in Flanders, the other two are also Flemish: Rik van Looy (see below) and Eddy Merckx).

“The Emperor”: Rik Van Looy

Rik Van Looy was the first cyclist to win all five of cycling’s “monuments” mentioned above. In other one-day races, he won the prestigious Paris-Tours race in 1959 and 1967, Ghent-Wevelgem in 1956, 1957, and 1962, plus the Flèche Wallone in 1968. In the Grand Tours events, Van Looy won the Points Jersey in the 1963 Tour de France and the Mountains Jersey in the 1960 Giro d’Italia. The career of “The Emperor of Herentals” spanned 18 seasons and brought him 419 professional road victories.

“The Milkman”: Frans Verbeeck

Nicknamed after his job before he became a pro cyclist, Frans Verbeeck had a reputation for toughness. He would be outside training on a heavy bike in all weathers when all his competitors had retreated indoors. It paid off: in 1969, he won six races, and in 1970 he won 22 races. However, the cyclist to beat at that time was the great Eddy Merckx. Try as he might, Verbeeck never achieved his mission in life: to beat Merckx (“The Cannibal”).

A tribute to all Flemish cyclists

In his book, Pearson dives into all sorts of stories about each of these three. But his book is really a tribute to the hundreds of other Flemish cyclists who have contributed to the strength of Flemish cycling over the years.

Many of them are household names in Belgium and in other cycling-crazy countries: Briek Schotte, Karel Van Wijnendaele, Eddy Merckx, Edwig van Hooydonck, Peter van Petegem, Raymond Impanis, Johan Museeuw, Philippe Gilbert, Greg Van Avermaet, Tom Boonen … too many to mention.

Another victory for Tom Boonen

Pearson also touches on the dark side of cycling. Alcohol, drugs and doping scandals have never been too far from the saddle. Rik van Steenbergen won nearly 1,000 races but ended up with a gambling addiction and was briefly in jail. Freddy Maertens won more than 50 races in a season and two World Championships, but became mired in debt and alcohol.

But on the whole the book is a joyous examination of Flemish cycling.

“It has been said the Flemish love of cycling is so deep as to be a form of lunacy. If that’s true, then the heart of the insanity is the Ronde van Vlaanderen. In Flanders this race is the sporting event of the year. It’s Wimbledon, the Grand National and the FA Cup final all rolled into one, with a dash of Saint Patrick’s Day. It’s a festival, a second Christmas.”

Harry Pearson, The Beast, The Emperor and The Milkman

For more information on the book, click the image below:

14 replies »

  1. Sounds like a good read, Denzil. Do you cycle at all? 🙂 🙂 I have a love/hate relationship with them (cyclists AND bikes). Peacefully walking along and they almost whizz over your toes, without even an excuse me… 🙂 All the very best to you in 2020!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I cycle but am not a cyclist. So I’m more the guy in the slow lane who frequently stops and takes photos than the speed merchants who, as you say, can be rather brusque.

      Like

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