Many fantasise, even fetishize to some extent this home of cycling.
It’s understandable with a religious like following of the sport, it creates an atmosphere like no other for a push bike rider.
Not only does it boast an endless list of professionals, but the amateur racing also thrives in local towns and villages.
Rich in history, the Flandrian is something we all as bike riders aspire to be. Names such as Merckx and Boonen were just a few that I learned from a young age. This world I pictured in my mind, I dreamt to be a utopia for cycling, bike paths paved in gold, cycling heroes celebrated, car parades like those we give returning footballers. All of this true, until the day you arrive.
Later in my life, I was somewhat half-promised at the age of 16, there would be a place for me to stay if I ever wanted. A chance to make something of myself. I was going to follow, unbeknownst to me at the time. in the tracks of many an aspiring bike rider.
Stories and rumours of riders like Adam Blythe turning pro winning thousands of euros a month would make me daydream and wonder if I could do the same thing; if there was a life for me in Belgium.
Much of this, more so that promise, made me make the jump, head first without armbands.
Being thrust into the deep end was somewhat cushioned by staying fellow compatriots. Constant guidance and advice was handed down to me by former pros, guys in the World Tour and world champions.
This still didn’t make it any easier at the race.
To go deeper into it, even signing on was somewhat a performance.
The presentation of papers and documents you must hand over is usually a parade that every foreign rider has to go through. Then a payment of €10 is given, no more no less for two and a half hours’ worth of racing in the gutter, hanging on for grim death to wheel in front.
Every sign on carries familiarities, usually situated in a town or village cafe where time seems to have stood still you find the same faces both of the riders and the people that live ‘voor de koers’.
Akin to rocking up at the pub to see the same locals clutching their pint.
These people, who seem at first to follow every race conceivable, often make me wonder where they find the time to do much else such as, I don’t know, work?
You’re are often met with one of two reactions by these stalwarts, the Belgian stare being one, which seems to last an eternity, piercing eyes and a look of bemusement, like bike rider at bike race is the last thing they would expect or the latter, an over-friendly reaction to your presence, in which they may offer you everything under the sun, food, shelter – even money!
Welcoming and intimidating all at once.
Once out of the musty cafe where time has stood still, the racing is the racing, straightforward with little regard for anything but who gets over the finish line first.
Respect goes out of the window and an amateur is soon found out. Either through the relentless pace or more than likely the ridge of death. The ridge is a small crack in-between the concrete slabs that make up the majority of Belgian roads.
Most people will harp on about the infamous cobbles and wind found in Western Flanders but little is known about the ridge of death until you find your wheel stuck in it.
The sound of carbon against concrete will send shivers down your spine, along with shouts of angry riders lambasting the foreigner for his stupidity. There is no remorse, or sympathy from the other riders, just another cow to the slaughter.
You might find a bit of solace in the broom wagon. If you are fortunate enough to find yourself picked up by one, expect to be driven around the course like a co-driver in an Irish Rally, hurtling at great speed around the lap toward the start/finish line where you will be chucked out to find your own way back to whence you came.
Hopefully, after a week or two, you might have found yourself a supporter that can always help somewhat and take pity on your plight or offer the directness that would normally receive a smack in England, with the simple word of “and?”. “And WHAT?” is the thought in my head.
This directness of the Belgian people will often take you by surprise and leave a bitter taste in your both but may appeal to some.
It summarises the often brutal and direct nature of Belgian racing – if you’re good you’re good, if you’re not you’re not, there are no excuses, despite the many you’ll try after a race.
Flanders and its various provinces each have their own personality.
Each region will have its own set of characters, teams, and riders.
Wherever a race is held it becomes apparent it involves more than just one a few keen followers but the whole town.
The place is most certainly not flat if there is a hill expected to go up it, down and up the other side several times being powered past by someone 20kgs heavier.
Any ideas of what a cyclist should look like soon go out the window with the racing being so pure it soon negates any bullshit.
The technology has moved on, but no amount aerodynamic advancement will ever catch up with a middle-aged veteran putting you in the gutter for 120km. You can try and follow your coach’s advice but where are they when you’re being muscled out of the bunch by a lad from the Limburg whose racked up more kilometres last week than you did last month.
Pleasantries are almost non-existent, why would there be? It is a bike race after all.
Cycling can be seen to be some distance away from athleticism, especially when it comes to the culture.
As much as people will try and perfect what they are doing on the bike it still boils down to entertainment, entertainment for a whole town or the village in this case. The riders being the clowns of the circus.
There is a vast amount of show and drama behind each race. Family feuds, money lost and won, love even. In Belgium it becomes even more life-consuming. Its life exemplified. Chuck in a bit of adrenaline from the race itself and any situation can get out of hand quite quickly.
I’ve bear witness to several post-race scraps, more often than not between the riders’ parents even grandparents. This life and culture that surrounds racing in Belgium is what brings people back, once you see the passion that the people carry for the sport, you want it too, and you may try to replicate it, but as soon as you return home to England the life you just lead has no relevance.
Trying to explain why a rider’s sister is rubbing down her brothers’ legs before the race is a futile exercise.
Those ideas of a Flandrian isn’t the stereotypical tough attitude, that you once thought was true, but moreover, the obsessive nature that filters into every aspect of their life.
Even when an amateur announces his retirement it is met with a celebration – their service in the race is rewarded for the hours and endless kilometres of entertainment.
Supporters clubs are abundant, and it is not exclusive to the top pros but amateurs as well. Local riders will often raise money for the season by hosting an evening meal in the town hall, which not only provides them with the means to race all over the country but also creates a community around them.
It’s testament to the Belgian obsession with the sport, but also speaks volumes about the community itself, traditional and like time has stood still.
This has been going on for almost 100 years and will continue to do so.
Riders will forever go abroad to chase their hopes and, to live a life half promised by the ones who have left.