Belgium has racing in its blood – here’s five ‘under the radar’ races to check out

Belgium as a country may be divided by language and politics but cycling is the one thing that unites it.

In Eddy Merckx it has arguably the most famous cyclist of all time. Then there are The Tour of Flanders and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, two of the five monuments in the cycling world.

Add to these two races the likes of La Fleche Wallone and Ghent-Wevelgem and you can see the cycling culture and races in Belgium are full of history and prestige.

However, scratch below the surface of these and you will be rewarded with some truly beautiful and diverse races throughout the whole of Belgium.

Each race has its own identity and story to tell, proving there is not an area of Belgium that does not have cycling in its DNA.

Le Samyn 

The first race of the season in Wallonia is Le Samyn. It is also the first event in the season long Belgian Cycling cup competition sponsored by Napoleon Games.

It can trace it’s history back to 1968 when the race was known as Grand Prix de Fayt-le-Franc after the area the race was held in at the time.

In 1970 the race had a name change to honour its first winner Jose Samyn who was  tragically killed in a race the previous year. 

These days Le Samyn starts in the town of Quaregnon. The route then heads to the finish at Dour via vast open roads that run through the surrounding countryside along the way.

During the course of the day the race heads over some 16 cobbled sectors. This has lead to some in the Belgian press giving the race the nickname of “le petit Paris-Roubaix”.

Just like Paris-Roubaix each sector at this event has its very own star rating to reflect the degree of difficulty.  

It is these cobbled sectors that give the race its identity and given that it takes place in late February/early March the weather also has its say in proceedings.

For those that long to see a wet Paris-Roubaix this is the race for you. The 2017 edition of Le Samyn was raced in atrocious conditions but that is part of the attraction – whether wet or dry it is a good old fashioned, honest race that keeps true to its roots with excitement guaranteed.

At the end of the race there are two laps in and around the finishing town of Dour. Each circuit is approximately 25 kilometres long and the riders take on four cobbled sectors each lap. 

The last sector of cobbles comes just two kilometres from the finishing line and often has a bearing on the result. The name of the cobbled road is laced in irony. Called Rue de Belle Vue, it is 500 metres of pure bone shaking hell.

Le Samyn may not have the history of the older and more famous Paris-Roubaix but it more than makes up for that with pure cycling pleasure for the cycling fan.

Dwars Door Het Hageland

This is a race like no other.

It may be a relatively new event on the cycling calendar – its first edition was raced in 2001 – but it is steadily building a strong reputation within the cycling community as a race you have to attend.

Set within the Hageland region, in the Eastern part of Flemish Brabant, the organisers have designed a course to be both testing for the riders and at the same time to show off the area in all its natural beauty.

The aim has always been to make Hageland a cycling tourist destination to rival the more traditional lanes of Flanders.

And it is the race’s parcours that give it its uniqueness. During the race the riders can expect to ride on cobbles, gravel roads, country lanes with grass growing in the middle, forest paths through dense woodland and canal tow paths.

All of this crammed into approximately 200 kilometres of riding.

The race date itself also makes this event highly desirable for fan and team alike. Held on a Friday afternoon a week prior to the Belgian National Championships, it attracts a quality line up of riders all wanting to not only win the race but to hone their form for the following week. 

The centre of Diest has a huge big screen in the historic Market Square which makes for an all-day long carnival atmosphere and a great start to the weekend for any fan watching from the roadside. It is also easily accessible as Diest is only 60 kilometres from Brussels.

It is the finish that is the real show-stopper on this day’s race.

In all there can be up to five laps of a circuit around Diest. The finish line itself is perched high above the town centre at the town’s famous citadel. The citadel is reached by a long, steep and twisting cobbled climb which ensures an exciting war of attrition to the finish.

This is one race that truly rocks the boat as to what a bike race should be.

Nokere Koerse  

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One of the many things the cycling community do very well in Belgium is to honour its heroes. The origins of this race are testament to that.

In 1938 Jules Lowie won that years Paris-Nice. His hometown of Nokere organised a race to honour this achievement and so the Grand Prix Jules Lowie was created. The first edition was run in 1944 and won by the then world champion Marcel Kint.

There has been a name change to the race to that of Nokere-Koerse but the memory of Jules Lowie rightly lives on.

Lowie was a resident of Nokere and passed away in Deinze and it is these two places where the race is run between.

The route passes through the heart of Flemish cycling history. It takes in Waregem and Oudenaarde before making its way to the local circuit on and around Nokere. And it is on these local loops the race has its true identity the climb of the Nokereberg.

The Nokereberg is a 400 metre cobbled climb that rises through the sleepy village of Nokere.

With a maximum gradient of 7% it is not a truly steep climb by any stretch of the imagination.

However, it is the repetition of the climb that grinds the riders down.

The road is wide and the cobbles packed tight and uniform as it winds its way through the picture postcard village and leads the race to the finish towards the top of the climb which is just shy of the road junction with the main Waregemsestraat.

The finishing line is something of a unique location in itself as the village maintains the white finishing line painted on the cobbles all year around. 

This is a race favoured by powerful sprinters which makes for an exciting finish. It is not uncommon to see sprint trains power their way onto the final cobbled climb which makes for an unusual an exciting finish to the race.

Three Days of Bruges-De Panne   

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Set on the Belgian coastline just a stone throw from France border lies the popular seaside resort of De Panne.

In late March the town is the setting for the finish of the newly named Three Days of Bruges-De  Panne race.

It is an event whose name is somewhat misleading. Created in 1977 as a three-day race it has had a turbulent history.

This year the race was held over just one day. There was also a one-day woman’s race that followed the men’s race the next day.

The route itself uses all that West-Flanders has to offer. Starting in the beautiful Grote Markt in Bruges, where the Tour of Flanders used to start, the race rolls out from under the shadows of the 12th Century belfry  onto the many cobbled streets in and around Bruges. What follows is 200 kilometres of good, hard racing.

The organisers make use of the many cobbled roads that litter this part of Flanders as the race heads South-westerly towards the day’s hill sections. The climbs negotiated include the Monteberg, Rodenberg, Vidaigneberg and Sulferberg. 

The major climb of the day is the Kemmelberg which is located just outside the town of Kemmel. Its cobbled road surface winds its way upwards through surrounding trees which afford spectators some shelter. There is no such hiding for the riders on the Kemmelberg’s maximum 22% gradients. 

This climbing zone marks the most southern part of the day’s racing. From now on all roads lead north to the coast. On the way to the finish the route practically hugs the French border, passing the city of Poperinge along the way.

The final part of the race consists of two laps in and around the coast and surrounding area. Each lap passes through De Panne, Koksijde, Adinkerke and Veurne.

The main test on each lap are the vast open polder strewn flatlands that give this part of Belgium its identity. Amongst this environment there is one road in particular that can rip the race apart.

The W.Cobergherstraat runs north to De Panne and is exposed to the elements. This is where a rider can use the strong winds so prevalent in this area to make a last gasp break for victory and race into De Panne for the win.

Given the close proximity De Panne has to the ferry ports at Calais or Dunkirk this is one easily accessible race to come and experience at first hand.  

E3 Harelbeke          

The E3 Harelbeke comes just nine days prior to the biggest race in the Belgian cycling year, the Tour of Flanders.

Often taking part on a Friday afternoon it is a great opportunity to catch top riders racing in more relaxed surroundings.

It is not just the proximity to the Tour of Flanders that make this race so appealing for the riders.

The parcours of both races are very similar. So similar in fact that the Flemish media have given the race the nickname “The little Tour of Flanders”.

However, nothing should be taken away from E3 Harelbeke as it is a race within its own right and deserves to be seen as such. It is one of the many independently-organised races in Belgium that can really hold its own against the bigger races.

First raced in 1958 it is one of the newer races on the Flemish cycling calendar but has cemented its place as one on the most important races to win. 

Just a look back at the winners of the race over the last ten years confirm this. Those winners’ names are like a list of modern day cycling royalty – Fabien Cancellara, Tom Boonen, Peter Sagan, Geraint Thomas, Michael Kwiatkowski, Greg Van Avermaet and Niki Terpstra.

Proof that this is not a race to be taken lightly. 

Normally raced over 200-220 kilometres and starting and finishing in Harelbeke the riders can expect to take on short narrow roads and steep climbs on their way to the Eastern most point of the race at Ninove.

From here the route heads back via Geraardsbergen to the last 90 kilometres of racing in between Ronse and Oudenaarde.

It is here the race comes into its own as the riders take on a quick succession of climbs that really test their legs. This is where local knowledge really does count. 

Amongst the climbs that feature regularly on this race are the famous Paterberg and Oude Kwaremont.

These climbs feature heavily in the Tour of Flanders but from a roadside fans perspective this race does not feature the huge VIP tents that restrict views of the race, making watching the riders compete over these iconic climbs a pleasurable experience.

Because the VIP tents are absent it does mean that the riders can be affected by crosswinds on the climb.

The last climb of the day’s racing is traditionally the Tiegemberg which often comes some 20 kilometres from the finish, meaning an exciting finale as riders power their way to the finish back in Harelbeke.

Darrell Heale is the founder of the excellent Flahute CC website which provides comprehensive previews of all the Belgian races. He can be followed on Twitter by clicking here.

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