Until Philippe Gilbert proved himself the hardest of men with his great and unexpected victory in Paris-Roubaix, it hadn’t exactly been a vintage 18 months for the cyclists of Belgium.
The 2019 Ronde van Vlaanderen was one of only eight in the entire history of the race not to feature a single local on the podium.
For the Belgians – for whom a cycling crisis is never more than a few months away – it felt an agonising age since that the glorious April Sunday two years back when Gilbert was soloing away over the Kwaremont pursued by a chasing trio that included Olly Naesen and Greg Van Avermaet.
That Gilbert should be the man to bring the terrible drought to an end is not so surprising.
The 36-year-old is the most successful Belgian rider in the peloton. He has now won four out of five monuments (the Giro di Lombardia twice) and the rainbow jersey.
His escape to victory in that 2017 Ronde was so spectacular it even had the local cycling press reaching for the adjective that is the highest accolade of all: “Merckxian”.
And there’s something a little odd about that.
There’s nothing unusual about Belgians winning big races, of course. What marks Gilbert out is the part of the Kingdom hails from.
The three times Belgian Sportsman of the Year was born in Verviers. Verviers is in Wallonia, the southern, Francophone part of the country.
And Belgian cyclists from outside Flanders are about as rare as rocking horse manure.
Belgium is divided into three distinct regions: Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels-Capital (which as its name suggests consists of the Belgian capital and outlying suburbs).
Wallonia is made up of the provinces of Hainaut, Liege, Luxembourg, Namur and Wallonian Brabant.
Its major cities are Liege, Charleroi, Mons and Namur. Wallonia is roughly the same size as Flanders, but there are around two million fewer Walloons than Flemings.
As well as speaking different languages the populations are often on opposite sides socially and politically.
Back in the first half of the twentieth century Wallonia was the powerhouse of Belgian industry (and for a brief spell Belgium was the world’s fourth biggest industrial economy – topped by only the USA, Britain and Germany).
While Flanders remained a largely rural backwater, the landscape of Wallonia was dominated by coal mines, steel works and factories.
The area around Liege, Charleroi and Mons – known as the Borinage or the Pays Noir (Black Country) – was Belgium’s equivalent of South Yorkshire or County Durham.
Slag heaps, winding gear and brick chimneys filled the horizon and smoke and flames filled the skies. If you wanted to see the sun you had to take a train.
Immigrants from Poland and Southern Italy flooded in to the region to serve the blast furnaces and dig coal. Working and living conditions were appalling. Even visitors from the most deprived parts of the industrial north of England winced when they saw the Borinage.
The Walloons – particularly those from Liege – earned a reputation for firebrand, far left politics, trades unionism and industrial unrest. It was a widespread strike across Wallonia that lead to the abdication of King Leopold III – viewed by a sizeable minority of Belgians as a Nazi collaborator – in 1951.
Not all of Wallonia is grimy and grim, it should be said. The Ardennes forest in the south east is a vast unspoilt wildernesses of ancient woodland with hills high enough to justify a couple of ski resorts.
And areas such as the Pays des Collines (Land of Little Hills) in Hainaut have much in common with the pretty, rolling countryside of Flanders over which the Ronde van Vlaanderen travels.
The wild and hilly Ardennes forms the centre point of Liege-Bastogne-Liege and of Wallonia’s other major one-day race, Fleche Wallone.
Liege-Bastogne-Liege is Belgium’s oldest bike race. The first edition was run in 1892, fifteen years before Flanders’ Scheldprijs and over two decades before Karel Van Wijnendaele came up with the Ronde Van Vlaanderen.
Liege-Bastogne-Liege is the oldest of the five monuments earning it the nickname La Doyene (The Old Lady).
Leon Houa won the first three editions of the race. Houa would eventually abandon bikes for cars and die at the wheel during a motor race. He came from Liege.
As this suggests, back in the early days of cycle racing the sport was as popular in Wallonia as it was in Flanders, possibly more so.
Up Until World War Two French-speaking Belgium produced almost as many top class competitors as the Dutch-speaking part.
Firmin Lambot, from Florennes, a pretty little town in rural Namur, stands alongside triple Tour winner Philippe Thys (who hailed from the Brussels suburb of Anderlecht, but lived in Florennes for much of his life) and Sylvere Maes as one of the great Belgian riders of the Inter-War years.
Lambot won his first Tour de France in 1919. France had barely recovered from the carnage of the Great War, only sixty-seven riders entered and the road surfaces were so appalling only eleven of those finished.
It was the first Tour that the yellow jersey was worn by the race leader (officially anyway, Thys claimed he was given a yellow shirt to wear when he lead the race in 1914) and Lambot was the first man to win it.
The Walloon ace was said to lack charisma but he was tough as cheap steak and hard as ship’s biscuit. He was canny on his bike and shrewd off it.
The first rider ever to secure sponsorship from outside cycling, he was paid a salary by the Kub Brewery.
Lambot was helped to victory in 1919 by a friend of his from Florennes, Leon Scieur who finished fourth.
The 1920 Tour was completely dominated by Belgians, none of them Flemish. The Bruxelloise Thys won by nearly an hour ahead of Hector Heusghem (from Ransart, a suburb of Charleroi); Lambot and Scieur (who’d won that year’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege) were third and fourth respectively. Another Walloon, Emile Masson came fifth.
Masson’s son Emile Masson Junior, born in the Province of Liege, would win Fleche Wallone in 1938, Paris-Roubaix in 1939 and the Belgian Championship in 1946 and 1947.
The following year the Walloons starred again. The Charleroi-based Louis ‘The Iron Man’ Mottiat (a double winner of Liege-Bastogne-Liege) won the stage into Le Havre, Scieur took the yellow Jersey at Brest, Heusghem won the stage into Luchon and Mottiat the two stages after that.
In blistering heat the race often slowed to touring pace and Scieur held on to the yellow jersey all the way to Paris. He was a mountain of a man – memorably described as being ‘as strong as steel and as healthy as a fish’ – who was said not to have ridden a bicycle until he was 22-years-old, and only then because his mate Lambot had insisted.
He did well in most of the stages and took home a large pot of money, which he used to buy a garage and a coal haulage business. Heusghem came second and a third Walloon, Hector Tiberghien, from Hainaut was fifth. He’d go one better in 1923.
Firmin Lambot won for a second time in 1922 at the ripe old age of thirty-six (he remains the oldest man ever to with Tour), Masson took a couple of stages, Heusghem briefly wore the yellow jersey and Felix Sellier (From Spy near Namur) finished third. He’d win Paris-Roubaix three years later.
During the 1930s Wallonian riders such as Ernest Mottard, Francois Gardier and Alfons Deloor would also carry off La Doyene. Deloor would finish second in the 1936 Vuelta, behind his brother Gustaaf who was actually born in Flanders.
And then Adolph Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland and for reasons that are hard to fathom ended the Walloons golden era. Not that the region didn’t still produce the odd exceptional rider.
Frank Vandenbroucke had boy band looks, raw talent and a cycling pedigree: his uncle Jean-Luc had ridden as a pro for a decade, finished third in the Ronde van Vlaanderen and won Paris-Tours in 1982.
Like his uncle, Frankie was born in Mouscron just across the border from Roubaix, but grew up in Ploegsteert, a tiny enclave of French-speaking Hainault surrounded by West Flanders.
He might have been a Francophone but his surname was Flemish and he was popular with fans on both sides of the divide.
During a tumultuous career FVB – as he was known throughout Belgium – won Liege-Bastogne-Liege (along with Gilbert the only Walloon to do so since the end of the War), Ghent-Wevelgem, the Scheldprijs, Paris-Nice and the points jersey in the Vuelta. Success did not bring happiness.
Afflicted by a personality disorder, addicted to cocaine, Vandenbroucke failed numerous drug tests, saw his marriage fall apart, was disowned by the cycling establishment, attempted suicide and ended up dead of a pulmonary embolism aged 34.
Another classy Walloon rider was Claude Criquielion, a man whose career was arguably best remembered not for the races he won, but for the one that he didn’t. Criquielion came from just outside Lessines (birthplace of surrealist painter Rene Magritte).
The little town is in Hainaut, but ‘Criquie’ was born to the west of it, placing him just a few miles from the Flemish border and one of Flanders’ most celebrated hills, the Kapelmuur at Gerrardsbergen.
To hear the Flemish tell it Criquielion was not really Wallonian at all, just a Fleming who happened to speak French.
Criquie was world champion in 1984, won Fleche Wallone twice and was the only Walloon rider to have won the Ronde van Vlaanderen (but as I say, the Flemish kind of regarded it as a home win) until Gilbert’s solo escape two years ago.
However, it was the events in Ronse, West Flanders in the world championship road race of 1988 that people tend to remember. Criquielion was part of a two man break with Canadian Steve Bauer.
With only a few hundred metres to go and the two riders sprinting hell-for-leather towards the line Bauer appeared to lean across and flick an elbow at Criquielion, sending him into the barriers.
The Walloon fell in a tangled heap. In an instant all the differences between Francophone and Dutch-speaking Belgians was forgotten and the whole crowd began to howl and boo.
Bauer did not profit from the crash, distracted, he allowed the Italian Maurizio Fondriest to burst through and take gold.
Meanwhile Criquielion, boiling at what he saw as cheating, refused to remount. Instead, to loud chanting of his name from the united Belgians, he dragged his bike across the line with one hand, waving the other in protest.
Bauer was disqualified and had to be given police protection from furious Belgian fans. Criquie threatened to sue him for $1.5 million, but his case came to nothing.
The rage did not abate, however, and for decades afterwards, Belgian fans turning up at races across Europe with banners calling for justice for their wronged idol. He died in 2015 without ever getting any.
And then came Philippe Gilbert, the only one of the top post-War Walloon riders who nobody could claim was ‘a bit Flemish’.
His birthplace Vervier is deep in Liege province and one of the few places in Belgium where the locals drink cider.
Gilbert’s success however brings us to the question of why, while Flanders continued to produce top class riders, it’s French speaking neighbours did not.
It’s a tough one to answer and I’m not sure there’s really any one explanation.
Economics must surely have played a part. Since World War Two Flanders has become increasingly successful and is now one of the wealthiest regions of the EU.
Meanwhile Wallonia’s heavy industry has slowly collapsed.
Unemployment in Wallonia is more than twice that in Flanders, and long-term unemployment is rife. While poverty traditionally produces great sports people, these days you need bundles of cash from sponsors to run even a small cycling team and there is simply more of that in the north.
It might seem that football, which didn’t really become professionalised in Belgium until the 1960s, has played a part. Areas of coal, steel and socialism are traditionally hotbeds of soccer after all.
It’s true that in the past seven decades clubs from the two largest Flemish cities, Antwerp and Ghent, have won the Belgian League title only twice, while over the same period clubs from Liege have won a dozen championships.
Yet that only tells part of the story, because of the current “Golden Generation” of Belgian footballers the vast majority are Flemish (even the extremely French sounding Thibaut Courtois comes from Limburg), the notable exceptions being Eden Hazard and Nacer Chadli.
Ultimately it is probably nationalism and history that holds the key. Thanks to their more modern industrial economy the Walloons got into bike racing earlier than the Flemish and had a head start that carried them through the first fifty years or so.
But cycling was only ever a sport to them, whereas to the Flemish it quickly became woven into their sense of identity, a means by which they announced themselves to the world.
Despite the success of men like Lambot it never really took hold in quite the same way in Wallonia – a region that arguably lacks that strong, unified sense of itself that is so obvious in Flanders.
Perhaps Gilbert’s brilliance can inspire a revival of interest in bike racing amongst a new generation of young Walloons. It would be nice to think so.
Main image/Gilbert image courtesy of Deceuninck – Quick-Step – Tim De Waele / Getty Images.