[Gallery images of Ronde van Vlaanderenstraat, near the Oude Kwaremont. Photos by Patrick Verhoest.]
Oh, let’s see what’s next on the docket.... Why yes, it’s the Tour of Flanders. Cycling’s mooiste. The most beautiful race on Earth. A race revered even by Americans, by which I mean they can say the name without inserting a Simpson’s reference.
At stake is nothing less than eternal glory. Unless wheel-sucking is involved, in which case you can kiss your glory goodbye, but otherwise it’s eternal glory. Plus supporters clubs, ginormous beers, and maybe, just maybe, a chance to become the next Lion of Flanders.
Did you know! That you can only become a Lion of Flanders by winning de Ronde van Vlaanderen a lot? No? Good, because that’s hot garbage. First off, the current record is shared by several riders — Boonen, Cancellara, Magni, Museeuw, Leman and Achiel Buysse, and only one of them (Museeuw) is called the Lion of Flanders. Worse, the original cycling Lion of Flanders was Cyrille Van Hauwaert, and he barely won anything, just a Paris-Roubaix and Milano-Sanremo. Sure, his excuse for not winning the Tour of Flanders is that it didn’t exist until the last couple years of his career, but still. It sort of makes you wonder who’s in charge of handing out the Lion of Flanders title, and what sort of standard do they apply. Because if Van Hauwaert is the original, you know who’s the new Lion of Flanders? John Degenkolb. Unless you add in Van Hauwaert’s Belgian championship, which Degs won’t be winning anytime soon. Which puts us back at square one.
Museeuw is the other Lion of Flanders everyone knows about. His credentials include winning a lot, winning the Worlds and Nats, and winning Flanders and Roubaix three times each. But Boonen did each and every one of those things, and more, with a smile on his face and without being a convicted doper. And I have never, ever heard anyone call him the Lion of Flanders. But then, he’s from Antwerp, so...
Anyway, the very, very, very first Lion of Flanders was Robert III, a/k/a Count of Flanders from 1305 to 1322. His specialty was crusading, but he crashed out of one particular crusade and got locked up by some French king in a tower where they served no more than three different excellent styles of beer. [This was 650 years before the Geneva Conventions on torture.] Eventually he got out and ruled over the County of Flanders, which is basically Oost-Vlaanderen and West-Vlaanderen on today’s map, plus a little bit of France. He lived happily ever after, except for the PTSD he experienced every time he walked into a 7-Eleven or publick house or whatever and saw the wall of 300 excellent beers. In 1838 Hendrick Conscience (first-ballot HOF name) wrote a novel about him called The Lion of Flanders. It’s considered a historical work, which means that no more than 30% of it is true.
Did you know! That the Lion of Flanders flag is the official symbol of the Flemish region?
Yes, everyone knows that.
OK, but did you know! About the red claws and tongue?
Yes, if the claws and tongue are black, it’s the flag of the Flemish Movement, a political movement about blah blah blah. Again, everyone knows already. They hand out the black and yellow ones to foreigners, like in America if we gave out Yankees caps at Ellis Island. How were they supposed to know? But yeah, the Flemish Movement seems to like the race, which in fairness was founded in reaction to too much French control of cycling, but that is defo not a problem anymore. So it’s possible to love Flanders and de Ronde and want nothing to do with the separatists.
OK, I guess, but did you know! Why the claws are black on the Flemish Movement flags and not red?
Aha! Well, the all-black lion version is the Flemish battle flag, and the Flemish movement uses it because the regular version with its red claws resembles the Belgian flag, and the Wallonia flag is a red rooster against a yellow field. Thus, red symbolizes both Belgian unity and Frenchness, neither of which are found in the Flemish Movement platform, except maybe with little :( frowny emoticons next to them.
There’s also some history (there’s always history...), because the very oldest depiction of a Lion of Flanders in color is from the 13th century, and it’s all black, but by the 14th century, as painted in the Gelre Armorial (which is a book, don’t ask really) it has red claws. So in other words, nobody knows what the original intent was. And that’s not a “nobody knows” that I like to toss out there when the real problem is that I don’t know something; in this case, really, nobody seems to know. Best guess is that even back then, three-color printing cost a lot more than two-color.
So yeah, Belgians argue about flags. With one exception that everyone can agree on as what should be the official symbol of Belgium.
Back to the race. Last year was the 100th edition, which is a pretty neat trick to pull off in 104 years, but as I said in another post, WWI and II had drastically different arcs when it comes to wiping out the Belgian classics. One involved riders hanging around with time on their hands, the other involved destroying every inch of soil on a weekly basis. So anyway, it’s been doing its thing pretty much every year for as long as anyone can remember. Literally. The last year before the Tour of Flanders was invented was 1912, and in order to remember 1912 you would have to have been born before say 1908. Which would make you 109 years old and all the superfoods in the world aren’t going to help you remember that far back.
As to that 100th edition, I beg, beseech, implore you to watch De Ronde 100, which I mentioned the other day. If you haven’t already, then maybe you don’t have time. [Warm.] Or maybe you don’t listen to me. [Warmer.] Or maybe you didn’t figure out how to fake your way into a Belgian login. [Bam!] Whatever the reason, rectify it. This will be running full-time at PdC House in Ronse starting sometime Saturday afternoon.
It’s hard to summarize de Ronde in a few sentences, but that’s all I have before your eyes glaze over in response to the command etched into your brain about not reading yet another Tour of Flanders overview. It’s a beautiful tour of the Flemish region. It’s a very tactical race. It contains a bit of every form of Belgian quaintness you can possibly stomach — sharp corners, skinny roads, cobblestones, steep climbs, even skinny roads with cobblestones past a windmill (alright already).
It favors the strong, but the slightly less strong are sometimes not far behind.
Did you know! Only those who are in top condition can say that the Ronde is not hard? For everyone else, it is the Way of the Cross. Yes, you probably knew that, because no less a character than Andrea Tafi said this, and journalists everywhere either scribbled it down or copied and pasted it and put it on an infinite loop. Il Gladiatore is from the generation we would all like to forget — basically people my age. But apart from the degraded state of cycling in the 90s, he was a fun person to have around. This is a particularly brilliant quote, dripping with respect for the subject and a very Italian “I can’t stop thinking about the Church” filter applied.
It’s also fucking spot on (sorry Father). The Stations of the Cross could not be a better image for a series of intermittent challenges that slowly wear down your body and soul. Even the number — 14 stations, yo — is about right. This year’s Ronde has 15 distinct climbs, albeit with some (shamefully) repeated. Thankfully, Jesus only walked the stations of the cross one time before his DS crucified him for finishing three hours down on a pair of unknown thieves. Had his journey been an annual one, the organizers would have started working in some extra circuits of Mount Cavalry.
[Apologies! If it helps, I was raised Catholic, so I get to make a limited number of Jesus jokes. My mom went to a school run by nuns, so she gets an unlimited supply.]
Man, we are off track. Anyway, Tafi was a Flanders legend and one of the sport’s classics tough-guys, one of nine riders to win the drastically different Paris-Roubaix and Giro di Lombardia. His Flanders win in 2002 was his last great accomplishment, and so typically Tafiesque, where he attacked and attacked until everyone in the sport was broken, even people who weren’t racing. The winning move happened 4km from Meerbeke (old course (sniff)), and L’Equipe dubbed it the “Attack of the Year.” So yeah, whatever he was, he had a Belgian classics mentality that everyone could love. He was also born in the village of Fucecchio, which is very nearly awesome.
I could go off on a bunch of anecdotes, but I’ve already written a book about the race, and even if you don’t read that, you’ve read enough anecdotes about the Tour of Flanders to choke a Belgian draft horse. Tafi’s quote and his exploits sum it all up very nicely.
Did you know! This year’s course will be somewhat unique in a few very important, but ultimately not race-shaping, ways? Yes, because you read Broerie’s very detailed course preview which he published in November when the course was announced. The take-home points are:
- The start has moved to Antwerp, which is hugely unimportant, by which I mean it’s both huge (symbolically) and unimportant (race-wise);
- The Muur van Geraardsbergen is back! [Here is your Muur is back music.] It comes with 100km to go so it’s a bit of a red herring, but what a herring. [Pandering to Jens now.]
- There are seven (!) Dorpen van de Ronde this year, up from the usual one: Sint-Niklaas, Hamme-Zogge, Berlare, Aalst, Erpe-Mere, Herzele and Zottegem. Most of these towns are dripping with race history, so I guess that’s what’s up.
- The Tenbosse, Parikeberg and Pottelberg are the other new climbs, but none very decisive.
- The end of the race will probably look a lot like the last four or five editions.
Anyway, read Broerie’s piece for more details.
This year promises to be a very competitive event, and who’s going to win is the subject of Andrew’s post from yesterday. One thing I will say is that it will be someone who is in top condition. Not because Tafi said so (well, yes, but not only because of that) but because everyone is in top condition nowadays, at least when they take the start in Flanders. The race has become more and more competitive as time goes on, or at least I become more and more aware of how competitive it maybe already was, so the guys at the end will likely be selected from the top shelf of hardmen.
Maybe it will be one of the four former winners of the race, like World Champion Peter Sagan or I-didn’t-know-he-was-still-around Stijn Devolder. Maybe it will be the new guy-that-everyone-thinks-will-win, Greg Van Avermaet. Maybe it will be a foreigner of any sort, interrupting the run of homegrown success that has been the real headliner in Belgium (Philippe Gilbert just won Driedaagse De Panne, so the streak is intact!). Maybe it will be another Belgian success, of such magnitude that we all live to see another Lion of Flanders crowned. Tune in Sunday... and look for the big orange \o/ banner on the Oude Kwaremont!