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February in northern Europe can be a desolate month. Blasts of icy air come down from the Arctic, the days don’t seem to be getting any longer, and the financial hangover from Christmas lingers. For fans of road racing though, February is a special time. This is when the new season truly starts. The training camps, with their carefully managed media infiltrations, are over—so, too, the photo-ops with a wallaby Down Under or a hawk in Qatar. This is the time to get serious. We are in Belgium for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad—formerly named the snappier Het Volk (“The People”). It’s cold, it’s probably wet, and yet there is a festive atmosphere because it’s the last weekend of February and winter is almost over.
Belgian cycling fans have had ’cross to sustain them over the winter months. But here in Ghent, the Omloop raises the curtain on the most glorious part of the cycling calendar: the cobbled classics. For the next six weeks, the WorldTour teams will do battle in one epic race after another: E3 Harelbeke…Ghent-Wevelgem…Ronde van Vlaanderen…Paris-Roubaix.
And though the Roubaix cobblestones are in France, the same Flemish spirit hangs over them. Flanders has come to represent the heart and soul of European cycling. Its races are tough, unpredictable and dangerous. But there is something else that provokes such an emotional response from us fans, something deeper than bike racing.
I think we respond to these races because something resonates in the way they look. These classics have developed their own aesthetic, their own icons and legends. Not only are the cobbles evocative, but also the low-slung horizon, the ditches and dykes, and the oftentimes-freezing rain. Today’s photographers are adept at creating images to perpetuate these legends. And we can trace this aesthetic back through the centuries, back to the art of the Northern Renaissance. In particular, to the “peasant” art of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Think of his “Hunters in the Snow” from 1565, a painting that has inspired so many other works of art. The snowbound Flemish landscape with its steep bergs is harsh and unforgiving, but the village toward which the hunters trudge does at least look warm and inviting. Human life here may be hard but it endures.
The modern landscape of Flanders is, on the face of it, pretty unremarkable: a lattice of fields and woods, dotted with scruffy villages and light industrial estates. In early spring, the light is low and watery, the air is often thick with foul-smelling fertilizer, and whatever silvery sunlight appears between the clouds is going to be short lived. Against this gloomy backdrop, a bike race is a vibrant thing, full of color, noise and life. The race itself slips through the back roads and is gone in a few moments but, as any cycling fan knows, the riders are only one part of the bike race.
When I think of the Ronde, the scene I picture is the Paterberg, the last of 17 cobbled climbs on the current course. Crowds bulge behind ropes, and sometimes as the motorbike cameras follow the dwindling peloton up the climb they will swing their cameras sideways to show the viewer a packed bar, set slightly back from the road. For Belgians, cycling means drinking—much as football did for the English before hooliganism and money corrupted the game. Watch the Tour of Flanders and you’ll see every village on the route in celebratory mood. This is why Flanders is the beating heart of road racing. Because the racing is so firmly embedded, not only in the landscape but also in the people: Het Volk. There are roadside food stalls, beer tents in fields, banners, costumes, decorated villages and above it all the incessant buzz of the television helicopters. Through this the tough men of cycling come charging.
To win the Ronde takes a special sort of rider. Over the years it has been dominated by locals. Men like Briek Schotte, who rode in 20 consecutive editions, winning twice, in 1942 and 1948. Men like Walter Godefroot, who as a teenager worked 10 hours a day as a carpenter and then went out on his bike because cycling was the only way to get himself out of the working class. The Flandrian is characterized as a man of fighting spirit, a man prepared to defend his battle-scarred land, a man of the people.
In Bruegel’s time, Flemish society not only endured, it prospered. During the 16th century, in cities like Ghent and Bruges, the weaving trade supported the growth of an affluent and sophisticated middle class. This in turn supported the development of art and architecture, which still influences artists and designers today. The Northern Renaissance, centered in Antwerp, was a response to the Italian Renaissance, and it was equally innovative. Bruegel and his peers, for instance, were the first to paint landscapes.
There is another Bruegel painting that better illustrates why events like the Tour of Flanders are so meaningful to Flemish society. “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent” of 1559 was one of many works examining the life of peasants: their weddings, dances, festivals and rituals. Currently residing in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the painting is set in the market square of an unnamed Flemish town and shows the transition between Carnival, the last winter feast, and Lent. Half of the painting, adjacent to the village inn, is taken up with the debauchery and indulgence of the peasants celebrating Carnival. There is drinking and dancing, and in the foreground a fool is riding on a beer barrel with a pork chop attached to the front. There are beggars and bonfires and women carrying waffles. The hilarity and excess of carnival is contrasted with the other half of the painting, adjacent to the church, where we see the self-denial and sobriety of Lent. The churchgoers bear ash-marks on foreheads as signs of their penitence.
Debauchery and indulgence contrasting with sobriety and penitence? That sounds a bit like a Belgian bike race. The fans get drunk and eat frites and waffles, while the sober and tortured (at least by lactic acid) riders pass by in a procession, their faces smeared with ash and mud.
Is this stretching the symbolism a little too far? Perhaps. But isn’t that the strength of great art, that it can be endlessly re-interpreted? Bruegel never knew what a bicycle was, never mind a professional road race. But if he was alive today I think he’d be out there on the Paterberg, watching the fans, soaking in the atmosphere.
Manfred Sellink, director of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp and a renowned expert in Bruegel, agrees—but offers a deeper analysis: “Bruegel might certainly have been interested in these aspects of a cycle race. But Bruegel would as always add layers, providing more questions than answers. Are the riders really sober and penitent; is it vanity that pushes them to aim for eternal glory? Some might even sell their soul to the (doping) devil to secure their place in eternity. Some of the riders are rich beyond the imagination of the spectators.”
Carnival, according to Sellink, was a short period when the common people were allowed to let themselves go, when anything seemed possible, including turning over the hierarchy of power. Of course, that never happened. After Carnival, the same power structures were present, solid as ever. Isn’t that just like a modern sporting event, where for one day we’re all equal, then on Monday morning we face the reality that nothing has really changed?
Cycling gives the impression of being a democratic sport, a sport of the people. It runs on public roads, through communities and farmland. In places like Flanders it has become completely unified with the landscape, and therefore with the people who live there. But there are always layers, always politics. Bruegel was not a peasant. He dressed up as one to blend in and observe the peasants’ rituals. But he was part of the urban, sophisticated elite that emerged in the mid-16th century in Flanders. In many of his paintings his position as observer is elevated, so that he’s looking down on his subject matter. If Bruegel went to see the Tour of Flanders (and he almost certainly liked going to such mass-participation events), he might have mingled at the roadside with the common man, waving a “Flemish Lion” flag and drinking a Leffe—but in his pocket he’d have tickets to the VIP tents. And if he supported a rider, would it be down-to-earth local boy Stijn Vandenbergh, or Tom Boonen, darling of the Belgian media and resident of Monaco?
This year, Lent ends on April 2 and the Tour of Flanders is three days later. So, wherever you are, watch the race with a beer in your hand, enjoy the chaos but have a think about where you sit—peasant or elite, sober or indulgent? And when the race hits the Paterberg, tune out the commentary (or better still put on some medieval chamber music!), squint your eyes a little, and imagine the pixels of your digital television as brushstrokes in oil paint. You might just spot a 16th century painter in the crowd. He’ll be there in his Tom Boonen T-shirt, watching carefully.
Paul Maunder is a novelist and freelance writer @pmaunderpaul