Title: The Ronde – Inside the Tour of Flanders, the World’s Toughest Bike Race
Author: Edward Pickering
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Order: Simon & Schuster
What it is: The story of the Ronde van Vlaanderen as both a bike race and a cultural institution
Strengths: A lot of authors of cycling books will tell you that such and such a race or such and such a mountain is special – Pickering tells you that the Ronde is special, but only after having shown you just how special it really is
Weaknesses: I really wish book publishers wouldn’t print maps over two pages, especially when so much detail gets lost in the guttering
“The Briek Schotte era is gone, but cycling in Belgium is still strong and it’s more open than it was. You still have to love everything about that race, whether it’s the mud or the shit on the road or the cold and rain, or whatever you are confronted with.”
~ Alan Piper
Briek Schotte is, famously, the last true Flandrien. Born into a traditional farming family – five brothers, five sisters – the cycling bug bit him when he was ten and saw the Ronde van Vlaanderen pass by. Upon leaving school in his teens he got a job in a factory in Kortrijk, 30-odd kilometres south of his family’s farm in Kanegen, starting work at five in the morning. His afternoons were given over to training. Sometimes he trained before going to work. His training advice to others was simple: “Ride until you don’t know what village you’re from.”
Across the length of his professional career – 1939-1959 – Schotte won two rainbow jerseys from the World Championships and finished second in the Tour de France the year Gino Bartali took his second victory. He also won one stage in the Tour (the year Jean Robic took the final maillot jaune) as well as victories in Paris-Tours, Paris-Brussels, Dwars door Vlaanderen, and Gent-Wevelgem. The results that define him, though, all came in the one race: the Ronde. In 20 starts (across his whole career, 1939 was the only edition of the race he missed) he won twice (1942 and 1948) and was on the lower steps of the podium six times. Out of his other 12 appearances, he DNFed four times, finished in the top 10 twice and never finished outside the top 25.
In The Ronde – Inside the Tour of Flanders, the World’s Toughest Bike Race the Procycling magazine editor Edward Pickering (The Yellow Jersey Club, The Race Against Time) defines a Flandrien as being “a rider or individual who endures pain, fatigue and bad weather uncomplainingly [...]. A Flandrien is unflashy, tough, ascetic and works hard. In a bike race they are aggressive and honest in their efforts. As the roots of the description go back to the Flandrian farm workers in the 1800s and early 1900s who crossed the border into France to do seasonal work in the fields or factories, there is also an undertone of class to the term – a Flandrien is a definitively working-class stereotype.”
Schotte was all of those things. But he was not, of course, really the last Flandrien. In the years since Schotte hung up his wheels in 1959, many Flandrian hardmen have made their mark on the sport and, every generation, new contenders for the crown of the last of the Flandriens are identified. Take Johann Museeuw, who came close to equalling Schotte’s Ronde record – every year of his professional career (1988-2004) he rode the race – and, in one regard at least, bettered Schotte’s record, winning it three times. Talking to Pickering abut Flandriens he had this to say: “A Flandrien looks not so nice. You don’t have to be a very nice rider, but after a crash, if you come back, then you are a Flandrien. Now, it’s difficult to call riders a Flandrien – they all look nice on the bike with good clothing and sunglasses. Maybe I was the last.”
How can every generation have a new last of the Flandriens? What’s going on here is probably our resistance to change: everything would be so much better if things could just stay as they were. But they don’t. In the half century that separates Schotte and Museeuw so much changed. The Ronde that existed in Schotte’s day is not the Ronde that existed in Museeuw’s day (and, arguably, neither Schotte nor Museeuw’s Ronde is the one we have today). The sport of professional cycling as practised by Schotte is not the sport of professional cycling that was practised by Museeuw. Even Flanders and what it means to be Flandrian have changed. As has what the Ronde means for the people of Flanders.
Change, though, is at the heart of the the Ronde, fully embraced by the Ronde, a race that was born, in part, to help bring about change. The Ronde, Pickering explains, “was consciously developed as part of a movement known as wielerflamingantisme – literally cycling Flemish nationalism (the French term ‘flamingantisme’, which described the Flemish movement, is more often used than the Flemish Vlaamsgezind – the French term was initially derogatory but was adopted as a badge of honour). The Ronde’s founder Karel Van Wijnendaele used the success of Flemish riders between the wars to further promote the cause of Flemish pride and emancipation.”
The nationalist dream of an independent future for Flanders hasn’t yet come to be but the relationship between the constituent parts of Belgium today is radically different to what it was in Van Wijnendaele’s day: “after the [second world] war, the ascendancy of Flanders and the decline of Wallonia began. Heavy industry started to shrink and mines closed in the southern provinces, while the Marshall Plan for post-war European reconstruction led to heavy investment in Flanders. As Flanders has gained the ascendancy, the political power has shifted, with an increasingly confident nationalist movement bemoaning the net outflow of money from Flanders to Wallonia. Today, Flanders is the economic and cultural powerhouse, and Wallonia is suffering from post-industrial stagnation.”
As Flanders has changed, so too has the Ronde. The hellingen that today define the Ronde’s character were not part of the race Van Wijnendaele created in 1913: for the first few decades of its history the real stars of the race were the rough roads and the wind. Around the same time Paris-Roubaix went in search of cobbles, the Ronde went hunting for bergs and across the length of The Ronde Pickering explains the rise and fall of some of the individual hellingen. Take as a for instance the Muur van Geraardsbergen, the Ronde’s Alpe d’Huez:
“When the Muur was taken out of the Tour of Flanders for 2012, there was widespread criticism, partly because the climb was seen as part of the fabric and iconography of the race. Some people in Geraardsbergen took it particularly badly – a group of fans staged a mock funeral for the climb, walking up to the top of the Muur carrying a coffin. Modernisers, unsentimental fans and contrarian provocateurs argued that the Muur was less traditional than some thought: after all, it had never appeared before 1950, and the established route at the end had only been used for 14 editions.”
Climbs come, climbs go. The race changes, just as Flanders changes: “if you go in search of a dividing line between new and old Flanders, you won’t find it. Instead, the change exists along a continuum – a thousand decisions along the way nudged Flanders into what it is now; if any of these had gone differently, the result might be different to a small or large extent, but there would still be progression.” You may not be able to draw a dividing line between the new and the old Flanders, and many of the ways the Ronde has changed over the decades are only visible in hindsight, incremental adjustments that allowed the race to change as the region and the sport of cycling changed around it. But every now and again, a dividing line between old and new can be drawn: in 2012 the Ronde entered a new era, the finish of the race moved from Meerbeke to Oudenaarde and the organisers, Flanders Classics, introduced a circuit-based route. Climbs that used to be important were deprecated, climbs that didn’t used to matter so much became the crux of the race.
It’s appropriate then that Pickering frames his telling of the Ronde’s history in the story a single edition of the race, an edition of the race in which the “tension between history and the future, between old Flanders and new, found perfect expression”. That edition is the 2011 Ronde, the last to be run on the old route. Like many cycling books, The Ronde sees its subject bigged up. We are, at this stage, used to seeing cycling books telling us that this mountain is the best mountain of all mountains (usually the Alpe) or this race the best race of all races (usually the Giro). So when Pickering claims that the 2011 Ronde was “one of the best bike races of the last 25 years or more” you might be inclined to think he’s engaging in hyperbole. But 260 pages later, as Pickering’s account of the 2011 race draws to its conclusion, you’ll be inclined to agree with him, for Pickering does something few cycling authors bother to do: he shows you why what he said is true.
Holding a reader’s attention across a 260 page account of a single day’s racing is quite the effort, especially when you know from the off who the winner is. Pickering pulls it off. How? A lot of that is down to the fact there’s few cycling journalists working in the English language who are better at reading a race and explaining to readers what happened than Pickering. The form of individual riders, the strength of individual teams, the relationships between different riders, the nature of the parcours, the weather conditions, all of these and more – all the way down to the way different riders corner – Pickering can mix together like few others, giving you a masterclass in tactics and race craft.
Using the 2011 Ronde and digressions into stories from previous editions, Pickering gives you a detailed explanation of how the day’s break gets away (and an honest acknowledgement that the break is not usually there to win) and you get plenty of explanations of why some attacks succeed and others fail (and, at the end of all those explanations, an admission that sometimes the right attack fails while the wrong one succeeds). You get told why the counter-intuitive notion of a strong rider breaking away into a headwind makes sense and you get to see why it’s important to have team-mates behind putting the brakes on in the chase. You get told why a false flat is an opportune place to make a move (though riders are taught not to ease up at the top of a hill “because reacccelerating if somebody attacks is physically expensive”, time and again they still ease up and a rider goes up the road without an apparent extra effort). You get told an awful lot of stuff that is important to how the 2011 Ronde played out but which will also be important every time you watch a race in the future.
One of the clever things about The Ronde is how Pickering’s account of the history of the race and the region, which weave in and out of the story of the 2011 Ronde, mirrors his telling of the story of that race. Both are shown as a continuum: the story of the 2011 Ronde isn’t reduced to a trite ‘the moment the race was won’, it’s a complex web of a thousand decisions along the way that nudge the race into how it is finally resolved. The two - Flanders and its Tour - are as inextricably bound together in Pickering’s telling of their stories as they are in reality. Making The Ronde one of those rare books that succeeds in showing you why the race matters, and doesn’t expect you to just take the author’s word on the matter.
Topping all of that, for me, is that The Ronde is also one of those rare books so confident in the strength of its story that, at times, it seems almost willing to undersell the race it celebrates. Here’s Rik Vanwalleghem – the director of the Ronde’s museum, the Centrum Ronde Van Vlaanderen – explaining the importance of the race to Pickering: “Every human population needs certain symbols where they come come to gather. There are historical reasons that in our case it’s a bike race, but in the USA you have the Superbowl, in the Middle East you have camel races on certain days of the year. It’s a sociological event. In the first place, the meaning for the people of Flanders is that on the day of the Ronde, you have the luxury of nothing else mattering. Human beings need a totem, to acquire a social identity. It’s partly an accident it’s a bike race, but it if hadn’t been the Ronde it would have been something else.”
As cycling fans, we should be grateful that it was a bike race. And as cycling fans we should be grateful that, every now and then, we get a book as good as The Ronde.