“In Belgium, cycling is a religion and God is Eddy Merckx.” Dries Verclyte, who manages cycling markets for tourism group Visit Flanders, is only half joking as he tells me and my travel companions this during a ride through the Flemish Ardennes.
We were partway through the Vlaanderen Mooiste Sportive – an amateur event that follows the route of the Tour of Flanders, one of the world’s grittiest and most prominent one-day races.
Paused atop a crest south-east of Oudenaarde, we gaze in awe at a mural of a bike racer proudly displayed alongside a mounted crucifix – the handiwork a cycling fanatic who worked with the property’s former owner.
This striking juxtaposition captures the essence of how countless Belgians view the sport and it is little wonder Merckx, who dominated cycling in the 60s and 70s, is a deity in his home country.
Coming from Australia where cycling is often viewed as being on the margins, I am in perpetual awe of just how much the sport is embedded in Belgium’s culture. Bicycles are part of the country’s furniture and travelling through the Flemish region it is rare not to see people on bikes, from lycra-clad racers to locals in dress pants winding through historic streets.
Faces of cycling champions famous for conquering Belgium’s rugged terrain, including UK’s Sir Bradley Wiggins, are spray-painted on roads and statues of riders are dotted through its rural landscape. Pubs are filled with riders sipping the ever-popular Kwaremont beer, named after infamous cobbled climb Oude Kwaremont featured in the Tour of Flanders, and watching cycling races on several screens.
Pedalling the Vlaanderen Mooiste Sportive beside emerald pastures dotted with over-muscled cattle and stone cottages, I imagine a peloton humming in full flight amidst hordes of devoted fans.
It’s September and Belgium’s Spring classics are behind them for another year but I can spot racers training for winter cyclo-cross events.
I heave myself up famed steep cobbled sections and my appreciation for just what it takes to succeed in this brutal sport is amplified. I can barely turn my legs up the Muur van Geraardsbergen after 100km of riding, but the carnival atmosphere at this famous berg’s peak is enough to distract me from my burning quads.
A blue finish arch frames the chapel at the peak of the climb, also known as the Kapelmuur, and spectators cheer us on as we grind up the relentless incline.
The Muur, a cobbled hill 26km south-east of Oudenaarde, was Tour of Flanders’ decisive and penultimate climb for decades and featured in this year’s Tour de France. Crazed fans waving Flandrien flags line the narrow stretch of road along the 1.1km climb during major races throughout the year, in admiration of their cycling heroes.
I feel lucky to be riding a locally made steel bicycle, its robust frame absorbing the shock of an often unpredictable road surface. Riding up this and other cobbled climbs at the heart of Flemish cycling fulfils a long-awaited ambition for me and my Australian cycling comrades.
Days later we ascend the Kemmelberg, the highest point in West Flanders at 156 metres, south of the historic war town Ypres and about 130km west of Brussels.
In a hilarious lapse of judgement, I topple sideways as I struggle against the 20 per cent slope; with one foot on the ground and the other stuck in my pedal I vow to try again. My second attempt is far more conventional than the first as I shift into an easy gear and plod methodically up one of the steepest hills I have ever ridden, cresting its tree-canopied peak with a smile.
But once is not enough – to gain a full experience of the Kemmelberg one must go up from both sides, we are told. We rattle down the sharp decline and turn around at a junction flanked by light green fields, tackling its steepest section with fighting spirit.
Cycling through West Flanders enhances my appreciation for the style of champion raised in the region. Its punchy climbs and long flats exposed to its often-harsh elements gives Flandrien cyclists a reputation for exhibiting sheer grit and strong character. The undulating topography of the Flemish Ardennes also links to its bloody past, particularly as a battle stage during the First World War.
A memorial atop the Kemmelberg commemorates the 1918 Battle of Kemmel Hill when the Germans attacked the French troops stationed there before the Allies fought back. A cemetery at the base of the climb marks the deaths of more than 5000 French soldiers and is among numerous WW1 burial sites in the area.
Ypres’ affiliation with war and bloodshed is inescapable; perched along its picturesque rural roads are the graves of tens of thousands of war dead and century-old war bunkers are common sights. In the town’s centre, the famous Menin Gate memorial bears the names of more than 54,000 Commonwealth soldiers who perished in Belgium in WW1 but have no known graves.
The region’s powerful connection to Australia is illuminated along the Western Front of Belgium and France, where about 46,000 of the 60,000 Australians killed during WW1 died. The scale of loss hits home as we visit Tyne Cot cemetery, which houses more than 1000 Australian war graves, and are told several soldiers could be under individual headstones.
The contribution of cyclists to the war effort is immortalised at Oudenaarde’s Tour of Flanders Centre, where we learn about Belgium’s Carabinier Bicyclists. Soldiers in these companies used foldable bikes to navigate battlegrounds and scope out enemy territory.
Sitting on a stationary bicycle wearing a virtual reality headset I learn about Belgian cyclist turned spy Paul Deman, who had won the 1913 Tour of Flanders before war interrupted his racing career. Deman smuggled documents across the border to the Netherlands on his bike but was eventually caught by the Germans. He was sentenced to death, but the war ended before he could be killed.
The Flandrien rider resumed racing after 1918, winning several races including fabled cobbled classic Paris Roubaix in 1920.
Learning about Belgium’s fiercely brave soldiers and the resilient Ypres population who rebuilt the town entirely after the war, I could see the nation’s passion for cycling as a reflection of their fighting spirit. For large numbers of Belgians, bike-riding is in their blood; and the never-say-die approach so pervasive in the nation has made it home to some of the world’s greatest cyclists and most colourful bike races.
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