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Heat-Checking Briek Schotte’s Ten Flandrien Commandments

When Briek talks Flandrienness, people listen

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Briek Schotte

Briek Schotte is universally hailed as the ultimate Flandrien — not the Lion of Flanders per se, but the embodiment of the characteristic of a Belgian cyclist, particularly one who likes racing in Belgium. He won de Ronde twice, along with numerous other big races at home, and had international success as well. He even died on the day of the 2004 Ronde, which is as Flandrien as it gets. If I had been alive and writing about cycling during the days of the Iron Briek, the end product would have been a disgrace to objective journalism.

But his transition to deity has not been without a few bumps in the road (I know), ten of which were on display at some hoity-toity London gathering this weekend whose purpose was to rope British fans into attending the Classics, emptying their pockets, and getting back on the train to London. There, according to a few Twitter images, were the “Ten Flandrien Commandments” authored by Schotte, or so the posterboard said.

Via Twitter

With a little digging I have determined that the words come apparently from the Iron Briek himself, via Peter Cossins’ The Monuments, published a couple years ago, and they go something like this:

1. Be content with what you have

2. With willpower and patience, you can go anywhere

3. Tired? If you're tired, you must sleep.

4. Never lose your freedom.

5. Remain yourself.

6. By looking you learn a lot.

7. Anyone who lets go is lost.

8. Never forget where you came from

9. Don't believe in dreams that cannot be achieved

10. He who speaks evil will reap evil.

Look, I get that every god-like figure should have some commandments, and so Schotte was more or less forced to give it a try, but I think we should consider these a bit more closely before we accept them as gospel. Let’s proceed in order.

#1. Be content with what you have

In Life: Generally sage advice. There is room for ambition to make the world a better place, but more often than not it leads to greed and unhappiness, when you would have been better off enjoying the place where you are and the people and/or bikes around you.

In Cycling: Complicated. At its worst, it’s a command that could lead riders to do inspiring things like race negatively in order to protect their fifth place in the young rider competition. So yeah, no.

At its most high-minded, it could mean know your role as a cyclist. This is as simple as knowing you’re a domestique or a captain (sometimes a complicated subject), but more likely it’s about knowing what type of races suit you. I have to think there’s a tinge of sadness to it, knowing that the Iron Briek — a one-day rider — once finished second in the Tour de France, to Gino Bartali in 1948. Bartali had dropped major minutes and was about to quit the race, which would have left the spoils to an uninspiring field, of which Schotte was the best of the lot. But civil unrest in Italy prompted Italian leaders to contact Bartali and insist he press on, for the good of the country. He did and, inspired, he won by 20 minutes.

Oh, and one final interpretation of this commandment -- and yes, I am having fun now. Maybe it’s a sandbagment! Like “I always say to my good Dutch friends, be content with what you have” right before he beats them again. Schotte was a racer par excellence, meaning he knew how to use cloaks and daggers.

Final Score: An excellent, if complicated, commandment. Follow at your peril. This is the Ronde van Vlaanderen of commandments: beautiful in ways that can sometimes be hard to appreciate.

#2. With willpower and patience, you can go anywhere

In Life: A home run. Everyone knows that willpower is a game-changer, but patience is an underrated factor, at least in the get-rich-quick environment of America. Older societies have a better handle on this, which is pretty much all the societies compared to the US. If you don’t believe me, just consider that in the time you read this paragraph another $3 billion of our currency was transferred to China.

In Cycling: This is Belgian Cycling in a nutshell, though of course it’s a universal truth. Old Spaniards know how to wait for the right moment in a race too. But if you’ve been watching Greg Van Avermaet at all, you know what I’m talking about.

Final Score: Probably the truest one on the list. Let’s call it the World Championships of commandments.

#3. Tired? If you're tired, you must sleep.

In Life: Isn’t this hard-wired into everyone from conception? I guess it’s not totally absurd to remind people of this, when we sometimes have a tendency to overdo it. But nobody is born not already knowing this, it’s more a matter of whether we accept it. I suppose having a Belgian cycling hero remind us isn’t the worst thing.

Maybe it’s a zen kōan? Maybe it’s a test to see whether people can accept basic truths, or whether they struggle against the realities of life. Being tired is an example of not only a fundamental part of life, but one everyone knows, and yet people still often neglect it. Is your mind clear enough to follow the simple commands of body and spirit? Or are you too cluttered and searching for some missing satisfaction to obey the rules of existence?

In Cycling: Still pretty obvious, but I get why he’d call this a commandment. Cyclists have sayings like “don’t stand when you can sit” and “don’t sit when you can lie down” to emphasize the need for doing as little as possible off the bike, during racing season. Everyone knows this (except Maitre Jacques). But sometimes an idea is so fundamental that even though everyone knows it, you still have to remind them over and over. [Insert anecdote of riders sneaking off to go clubbing the night before a race.]

Final Score: Solid. The Kampioenschap Vlaanderen of commandments.

#4. Never lose your freedom.

In Life: This probably meant more to Germany’s neighbors in the 20th century than it does to most people now, but without getting political I’d say the idea’s importance is still quite fresh, even if we are all getting sucked into ridiculous arguments about what counts as freedom.

In Cycling: If you think he was referring to the sense of freedom one might feel while riding a bike, sure, but that’s almost certainly not what this is about. Leaving to wonder, what about a professional cyclist’s life involves freedom, or did back in his day? Pretty much nothing, right? So maybe this was a cry for help.

Final Score: Regrettable. Like the demise of the Vijfbergenomloop.

#5. Remain yourself.

In Life: Very poignant. Living authentically starts with knowing who you are and why it’s something to keep in mind. Failing to do so can lead to a lot of dissatisfaction. Winnar.

In Cycling: Is this all that different from #1? I guess so, but at times this list seems a good bit longer than necessary. Briek Schotte’s Four Flandrien Commandments might have been good enough, but for some 3000 years we’ve all been a little hung up on the idea that commandments come in sets of 15, I mean 10.

Anyway, Schotte was undoubtedly a good Catholic, like his neighbors, so he has to scare up a full set of 10, even if some of them don’t add much value. So yeah, if you’re a classics hardman, then ... go do that.

Final Score: Largely redundant, even if it sounds cool. The Scheldeprijs of commandments.

#6. By looking you learn a lot.

In Life: I love this one. Mindfulness is one of those little keys with which to unlock the secrets of life, and what Schotte is getting at here is Mindfulness 101. Be present, open your eyes, turn down the volume in your head. Look around and think about what you see.

In Cycling: Oh, very yes. Reading a race is one of those skills that not enough guys possess anymore. It’s what sets the great ones apart.

Final Score: Big. The Gent-Wevelgem of commandments.

#7. Anyone who lets go is lost.

In Life: Not to sound rude but what the fuck is he talking about here? I think this one is strictly a cycling notion.

In Cycling: This makes sense if you picture losing your position in a battle for space before a cobbled climb, or when the crosswinds hit. Racing from the back is anathema, especially in the Low Countries.

Final Score: Yeah OK. Don’t overthink it. Like Nokere Koerse.

#8. Never forget where you came from

In Life: Is this about identity again? Because he’s already covered it a couple times and it was overrated to begin with. I came from Massachusetts but mostly because my grandparents moved there.

In Cycling: I could say something snarky here but it occurs to me that if you don’t overthink it (again!), this is pretty huge. Cycling is all about long training rides, and if you can’t remember where you came from, you could be in for some serious misery. Once I went on a team ride on the other side of Lake Washington but had to bail before guys were done. Only I had no idea where I came from, except that my car was parked at a Starbucks and I had a Starbucks locator on my phone which included a maps feature. So yeah, never forget which coffee shop you came from. Or carry your BelgianRail pass with you at least.

Final Score: A solid workaday bit of advice, like Paris-Brussels.

#9. Don't believe in dreams that cannot be achieved

In Life: For the life of me I can’t work this out. Dreams are supposed to be maybe beyond our reach but actually not, right? By definition they can’t just be achieved... unless! So not believing in them is the opposite of what you want to do. Or at a minimum, you don’t know if they can be achieved until you first believe in them and see what happens. So this is pretty messed up.

In Cycling: Schotte spent 30 years as a Directeur Sportif, and here’s where maybe this notion came from. The cycling universe is flooded with fresh promise every year, another wave of youngsters ready to be the next Lion of Flanders. But as any decent FSA DS owner can tell you, that promise and $5 will get you a pumpkin spice latte (blech). Not everyone can make it, and even those who do will mostly end up as worker bees. The sooner everyone gets a handle on this, the better. At least in the FSA DS. Or you end up with a team full of underachieving Dutch guys who crushed it in the U23 ranks.

Final Score: The De Panne of commandments.

#10. He who speaks evil will reap evil.

In Life: I really want this to be true, but then I turn on the news...

In Cycling: What counts as speaking evil in cycling? Consulting with Dr. Ferrari? Equating EPO with orange juice? Maybe. But like I said, there’s ample evidence that Schotte felt hemmed in by the “ten commandments” literary device, and he’s long since run out of true commandments. So to wrap this up, just toss something up there about evil, and everyone will go home happy. Amirite?

Final Score: Limping over the line, collapsing by the roadside. But we’re done!

The bottom line is, when you’re the ultimate Flemish hard-man, you know a lot of very special things about this wonderful cycling discipline, but there are things which defy description for the masses. We can’t be him, so it doesn’t matter what he tells us, because we will never fully understand anyway. It’s a nice effort, but if you were planning to use this as your springboard to cobbles greatness, all I can say is, keep training.