Tuesday, April 03, 2007

What Goes Around: The Tour of Flanders


Cycling means everything in Flanders, and on Sunday it reaches a ritual apotheosis of worship. Paul Stump goes round the weird world of the Ronde

The Tour of Flanders? Except to war grave junkies preyed on by chancer coach-trip cowboys and descendants seeking closure for lost uncles and grandads among the fallen Tommies, to anglophonic ears this concept sounds the antithesis of a good Sunday out. Who, except in the days when Jowitts and Armstrong-Siddeley saloons were mobile evidence of one's aspirations, would have 'toured' the Lincolnshire Wolds, Warwickshire, Flint? Nobody. But this is Belgium, this is cycling. This is Flanders. Nothing is quite as it seems elsewhere.

And so this Sunday, roughly a million people, half the population of this unguessable province, will line its country roads to witness the Ronde Van Vlaanderen, the 200-mile bike race that for Flemings, especially at a time when you can taste virulent national separatism and xenophobia in every litre of De Koninck, is the Derby and the FA Cup Final rolled into one day-long rolling beano.

Flanders, for all the toytown neatness of its villages which hint at the Protestantism of their northern Dutch neighbours, is the land of Breughel and Brouwer, of peasant dances and leapfrogging nippers. The spinning tops and hide-and-seek is now chip vans and watching for the arrival of the TV helicopter following the race. The Catholic effects of Spanish occupation for a century which helped form the characteristic stepped gables of their architectural vernacular, and of the Dukes of Brabant, are never quite purged. If a million spectators and more are on the pavements then half that number will pedal their fietsen, bikes of all ages, whether of carbon fibre or cast-iron, with or without gears, along the course before the passage of the race. Sometimes all of it. Flemish TV simply shuts down to cover the spectacle.

This year the spectacle will be more charged than ever. Tom Boonen, a rangy 26-year-old from the Antwerp burgh of Balen, is going for a third consecutive victory in the first and perhaps greatest of road-racing's spring classic one-dayers. Nobody has achieved this before, not even Merckx. Those three words denote, for cycling aficionados, shorthand for 'the absolutely fucking impossible'.

Nobody who saw the superhuman spurt with which Boonen blew away his rivals with 10km of 2005's race is ever likely to forget it. It made him a hero in Belgium, a deity in Flanders. Boonen is tall, blond, blue-eyed, apparently drug-free, massively glamorising the sport among the young, from a region of Flanders where the violently racist Vlaams Belang ( Vlaams Blok) nurtures its spiritual blood-and-soil proto-spiritual fictions. A lad with a farmworker's brick-shithouse build, he'd be any Nazi's poster boy. Antwerpers turned out a 25% vote for the VB's demotic brand of unreason in 2005, storming to the title of race hate capital of Europe. The likeable Boonen, like many Flemings, will have nothing to do with them; but the fact remains that, by physiognomic and geographic coincidence, his triple crowning would be hijacked by the VB. Nationalist hype, even of the mildest kind, already dubs Boonen as 'the new Merckx', a status he rightly rubbishes. But such is Merckx's standing in Flanders (even after transgressions, i.e. bringing up his son Axel and daughter Sabrina to speak French, calling himself Eddy instead of the Flemish diminutive Ward, so as to engage with Belgian's Wallonian south) that such anointment, even if it is by the pudding-faced votaries of the inane faith called nationalism, means something. Cycling here is itself a faith. It is both a celebration of what it is, and what it meant to be Flemish in the days of Breugel and of Verhaeren. Paul Beving, a Walloon, wrote that 'the Ronde is as much a part of Flemish popular heritage as [the religious festivals of] the processions at Veurne and Bruges, the Kattestoet (Festival of the Cats) at Ypres or the blessing of the sea at Ostend'.

It is said that when it rains there (which it often does), at least one raindrop will always fall on the head of a future great of cycling. William Fotheringham's stirring account of the life and death of Britain's greatest road racer, Tom Simpson (Put Me Back On My Bike) offers a quote from a Belgian supporter, '..."it is a neurosis". He pointed to the sky as if implying that... the love of things two-wheeled comes from above.'

In 2005 Belgium saw the publication of a valuable little portfolio of photographs by the Brussels-based Stefan Vanfleteren. The title's relation to its contents say it all. Title; Flandrien (Flemings). Content; cycling.

Brandtish realism is Vanfleteren's chosen, and superbly-executed, idiom. Forklift drivers and hod carriers gape at the screen in the Supporterscafe Peter Van Peteghem in the great cyclist's home village, Brakel. The ribbon lanes that form the course of the Ronde and Paris-Roubaix snake sadly across coal-black beetfields under the sky of a God in a sulk. Rain and snow always seem to be threatening or just past. Cyclists appear as near-death-knackered, irreparably muddied. This is the land of which the VB have made a myth, of indomitable hard cases like Boonen's ancestry of one-day hard men, born champions that were born of toil, Van Looy, Van Steenbergen, Museeuw, Maertens, de Vlaeminck. The faces are as weathered as the road aggregate, memorial of a time before Flanders was one of the richest areas in Europe. How difficult it is to forget, in a land which seems 95% rural, and has those medieval triumphs Bruges and Ghent as tourist cynosures, the harrowing industrial symbolism of Verhaeren's Villes Tentaculaires (this most Flemish of writers made his name in the language of the national antipode, French). But then again Belgium is tiny, Flanders is smaller (you can cycle across it in half a day) and thus town and country are often as one, or seem to be, the ease of the commute between one and another a possible rationale for the velophilia. Terraces of houses are plonked down in fields as though beamed down from the streets of Anderlecht. Little of it has been gentrified, bourgeoisified. Belgian dormitory suburbs are hardly sub-urban at all. Brussels' nobs live in townhouses, or in Groenendaal and Uccle; Ghent's live in St Amandsberg; a few k's from town.

This beautiful book tells it all. It is more visually expressive of Belgium and of Flanders than the most extravagant coffee-table tome. It is full of tiny topographies and approximate geometries, like those of crumbling repointed bricks in gable ends, like the cobbles whose greys are as manifold and all equally threatening as the sky over Poperinge in March when the clubmen will be out training in the sleet. Vanfleteren also snubs the Little Flandrians by making some of his most powerful images those of the desolate fieldscapes of the Paris-Roubaix, L'enfer du Nord, the Hell of the North, the pig of a race in the Nord département across the frontier over even rougher roads than the Ronde that usually takes place a week after it. For a Fleming to win this - as Boonen did in 2005 - it is the ultimate repository of bragging rights for Flemings over French.

But Vanfleteren's heart is in Belgium. Wait, watch (they don't in Flanders. Too much ale, too many frites). Here they come again. In Z-Peugeot shirts, Molteni tunics, pros and wannabes, out from the tyre-squirt slipstreams of lorries thundering on the straightaways full of spray and headlights that go straight away for ever save when they half-moon it round settlements like Buggenhout and Westerlo. In Schellebelle and St Eloi and Schorisse the rain-bleared cobbles lead always to cafes with names like t' Sportwereld and De Klok. The brilliant yellow of the Flemish flag, with its embossed black lion, is indissoluble from the Ronde, as it is from these images; like the psychedelic lycra of the clubmen and the Sunday touriste-routiers, they are splashes of colour in a land with more shades of dark green and brown than anyone can count. This countryside, the colour of Gannex and duffel (significantly, a Flemish settlement near Antwerp) isn't touristy - the Ronde's sole concession to foreign gawpers is the morning roll-out of the race in Bruges' incomparable Grote Markt.

Then there are the hills, yes, hills, spiky, small and aggressive, like chippy retorts to the belief among foreigners that Flanders is flat, and by implication lacking stature. There are 15 of them on the Ronde; as Tim Hilton writes in One More Kilometre And We're In The Showers, 'whose names should be known by every schoolboy.'

Molenberg. Wolvenberg. Kluisberg. Knokteberg. Oude-Kwaremont. Paterberg. Koppenberg. Steenbeekdries. Taaiberg. Eikenberg. Kapelleberg. Leberg. Berendries. Ten Bosse. Muur-Kapellmur. Bosberg.

Oak Hill, Mill Hill, Stonebrook Lane, Church Hill. Simple names. But they are the stations of the Flemish cross.

The Koppenberg is 1 in 4, with cobbles innumerable and bone-jarringly obtruded, an oolitic bubblewrap, an icerink in bad weather, a dustbowl in good. Most cyclists get off and walk. If you can ride in the Ronde and get up without getting off, you're a man in the eyes of a Fleming. The road is as narrow as a gnat's, so much so that the sprightly Dane Jesper Skibby was almost squashed flat by his support car when he slipped off on the hill in 1987.

The Muur in Geraardsbergen, a corkscrewing climb ('the wall' just about sums it up) of almost comparable steepness through streets of ramrod-upright, tall houses, and where the race is usually decided, is always full of hysterical supporters.

Vanfleteren's estaminet interiors are kippered, the tables worn with slapped-down cards, resolutely proletarian, whose smartness pertains to another era, like a very old man's best suit. A Derny (a motorised pushbike with a sound like a bee in a biscuit tin) sits in the hall of the St Hermes in Edelare; the piped-on perm of the sexagenarian landlady of the Leeuw van Vlaanderen (done special for the nice young man with the camera) is aped by that of her toy poodle, popping its head above the formica tabletop from the banquette. Both cafés overlook the Ronde on race day; that is why they are in the book. That is maybe why they exist; for Vanfleteren, it is why the Ronde, and by imagined extension, Flanders, exist.

Boonen's form, over the last 12 months has been, by his standards, indifferent. But if he trebles up on Sunday, there's no telling what such a cathartic event could mean for Belgium, where Flemish separatism inflames the right and is now even singeing the left. Belgium, this strangest of countries was, significantly, born in the unlikely circumstances of a performance of Auber's opera La muette de portici in Brussels in 1830; its dissolution might just be triggered by a similarly electrifying and improbable spectacle.

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