About a century and a half after the first bicycling race was held in the Parisian suburb of Saint Cloud, my friend Allison and I found ourselves standing near the top of a steep hill overlooking a cobblestone road, screaming at the pack of colorful jerseys fighting their way to the summit. We were surrounded by cycling fans of all nationalities, though mostly Belgian, all shaking their fists at their favorite cyclists, all waving flags or spilling drinks or stomping feet, all craning their necks to try to catch the last glimpse of the disappearing peloton. Once the athletes swept around the corner, Allison and I turned to look at each other. We were mirror images of exhilaration.
“How cool is that?” I asked breathlessly.
She shook her head rapidly. “I’ve never seen anything like that! And everybody’s so into it!”
“Into it” is a severe understatement for the frenzied excitement most Belgians tend to feel while watching a cycling race, televised or live. We were in Huy, which has been the finish line of one of the oldest Belgian spring classics for many decades. La Flèche Wallonne, the race we were watching, takes three loops around Huy and consequently three loops up the Mur de Huy, a steep cobbled hill with a 9.3% gradient. At the end of the third loop, the leaders push towards the finish line at the summit of the hill. After the awards, the town stays at the finish line late through the night, drinking, eating, dancing, and laughing in their Belgian and Walloon costumes or in their cycling maillots. It’s a very unique feeling, for an internationally renowned sporting event that attracts press, athletes, and spectators from around the world, to still have a very small-town, very cozy, very Belgian feeling.
It might seem a little bizarre that an entire country goes wild for one of the world’s most unknown, misunderstood, and perhaps unpopular sports, particularly due to its doping controversies. Belgium’s own history with cycling is almost as long as the history of cycling itself. Before the turn of the twentieth century, Belgium had already established a Royal Belgian Cycling Association. Cycling became the national sport not long after, soccer being considered more elite. Cycling was a sport in which anyone could participate — get a bike, find a road, and go. Eighteen of the ninety-nine Tours de France have been won by Belgians; only France has won more. The Tour of Flanders is perhaps Belgium’s most storied race, having celebrated its one-hundredth anniversary in 2013. Eddy Merckx is easily Belgium’s best known athlete, most famous and celebrated cyclist, and arguably the greatest cyclist in the history of the sport. Cyclists tend to specialize, finding it difficult to jump from sprinting to climbing to time-trialing. Eddie Merckx has won events in all specializations numerous times. He is one of an elite club of men to have won five Tours de France, four of those in a row.
This spring’s Flèche Wallonne wasn’t the first cycling race I’ve ever seen. My immediate family has been obsessively following cycling for nearly a decade; when I arrived in Belgium in 2009 and discovered how close I was to the sacred Flemish cycling site of Geraardsbergen, I knew I’d be going to see the Tour of Flanders. Geraardsbergen was a seven minute train ride from my home town of Lessines, and on the first Sunday in April my third host mother dropped me off at the station, armed with a Belgian flag, my Belgian national champion’s jersey, a bag of sandwiches and water bottles, and a round trip train ticket. I got there early in order to plant myself on the Muur de Geraardsbergen, a renowned cobblestone hill which almost always allows the first one to the summit an easy coast to victory. I lay my flag on the grass next to a family huddled around their radio and they smiled at the sight of an American girl decked out in Belgian attire. They turned up the volume on their radio so I could hear the race updates, as well. I met a Dutch girl whose favorite cyclist, the Swiss Fabian Cancellara, was mine as well; to our unparalleled delight, he made a crucial move on the Muur right in front of us, passing Tom Boonen and cruising down the other side to the finish line some kilometers later. I made it into an AP photo of Tom Boonen cracking, contradictorily waving my Belgian flag while screaming encouragement at Cancellara’s retreating bike. Later that spring, I also went to Liège to watch the depart and the arrival of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, a race that leaves from Liège, circles through Bastogne in the south, and loops back up to Ans, a small town just next to the main city.
One of the things about cycling itself that I find the most beautiful and intriguing is the way it showcases the power and the limits of the human body. Not everyone can simply hop on a bike and go almost two hundred kilometers in five or six hours. In fact, almost no one can. Cyclists are elite endurance athletes, capable of pushing their bodies to the breaking point in order to edge their competitors. As mentioned, riders have their own specialties in which they shine as the moment arises, ranging from sprinter, climber, time-trialist, and domestique (the cherished workhorses of the peloton). The winner of a day-long spring classic usually will not be the winner of a week-long tour, and will certainly not be the champion of a month-long grand tour such as the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France, or the Vuelta d’España. They are encouraged to play to their strengths, just as much as any other athlete. Cycling also combines the best elements of both team and individual sports. Each team designates a leader at the beginning of a race for whom the other riders, particularly the strong domestiques, will work.
Another thing I love about cycling is that, unlike many other international sports, it is nearly impossible to have fan rivalries. Teams are not based on rivalries but on sponsors, which can change from year to year. With them may also change the riders on the team. A true fan appreciates certain riders scattered through the peloton and is interested in their strengths, weaknesses, history, and experience. In my opinion, this makes cycling fans some of the friendliest and most inclusive sports fans in the world.
I explained all of this to Allison as we sat on my oversized Belgian flag. We’d taken an early train from Brussels to Namur, then Namur to Huy, walked a half hour to a space close to the summit, and collapsed onto the green grass to soak up the spring sun and enjoy the laughter, radio static, and smells of sausages and hamburgers coming from a nearby grill. The hillsides began to fill up with different flags, jerseys, and groups of people, all claiming the perfect space from which to watch the peloton go by. “I had no idea it was so… complicated,” she admitted as I finished a long-winded explanation about drafting (no pun intended).
Most people don’t. Doping controversies from the past two decades have also tarnished cycling’s reputation, making it harder for the sport to attract new fans. But the essential parts of the sport have not changed — the ambiance, the endurance, the enthusiasm, the connections between fans and riders. And with the removal of Lance Armstrong’s presence from the sport, cyclists have found it much easier to focus on what is most important to them: riding their bikes.
|Anna Weber is an English and French double major at the University of Vermont and is spending her junior year in Brussels, Belgium with the CIEE Advanced Liberal Arts program at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. She has traveled to Greece, Italy, France, the Netherlands, and Germany, but will always call Belgium home. Read her Spotlight to find out more about her time in Belgium!|