Monday, January 28, 2013

A brief history of bicycle racing in Belgium

Bicycle racing (Dutch: wielrennen, French: cyclisme sportif) is by far one of the most popular sports in Belgium. It is also a sport in which Belgium can be counted among the superpowers of the world. Here's a quick history of bicycle road racing in Belgium.

The Tour de France has played a major role in Belgian bicycle culture. At the beginning of the 20th century, support for cycling was diminishing across the country. Then, in 1912, Odile Defraye from West Flanders became the first Belgian and second foreigner to win the Tour de France. The next two Tours were also won by a Belgian, Philippe Thys from Anderlecht. Thys won the Tour a third and final time in 1920, becoming the first person ever to win the Tour three times.

Odile Defraye, the first hero of Belgian cycling.

Philippe Thys.

Over the years, 18 of 99 Tours de France have been won by Belgians, more than any other country with the exception of (surprise, surprise) France (36 victories). The last Belgian to win the Tour de France was Lucien Van Impe in 1976.

Odile Defraye's Tour de France victory directly or indirectly inspired the creation of the biggest annual Flemish sports event, the Tour of Flanders (Dutch: Ronde van Vlaanderen, French: Tour des Flandres). Retired cyclist Nico Mattan (b. 1971) from Kortrijk once said of the race:
Many great names of Flemish cycling live on the route of the race. This closeness doesn't exist in any other country. That's what gives our identity.
The course of the Tour of Flanders has changed dramatically over the years, but one defining feature has always been its cobbled hills, of which there are currently 17 (including repeats). One of the most famous is the Muur van Geraardsbergen (English: Wall of Geraardsbergen/Grammont, French: Mur de Grammont), which was a staple of the Tour of Flanders until 2012. It is 1075 m (3527 ft) long with a steepness of 9,3% and a height difference of 92 m (302 ft). The hill was made a heritage site in 1995.

Since 2004, The women's Tour of Flanders  (Dutch: Ronde van Vlaanderen voor Vrouwen) has been held every spring on the same date as the men's race.

Cyclists climbing the Muur van Geraardsbergen
during the women's Tour of Flanders in 2006.

The most recent winner of the Tour of Flanders (2012) was Tom Boonen, who had previously won the race on two occasions. Boonen is the most successful Belgian cyclist of his era, which has made him Belgium's main male sports idol.

Tom Boonen celebrates his fourth Paris–Roubaix victory, in 2012.

And finally, we take a step back in time. While most Belgians will instantly recognize names like Rik Van Looy and Tom Boonen, the name Eddy Merckx may ring a bell even to a Norwegian who's never set his foot in the Low Countries.

Merckx (b. 1945) is arguably the greatest road cyclist in Belgian history, and many consider him the greatest cyclist ever. To put things into perspective, he is the Wayne Gretzky, the Michael Jordan and the Diego Maradona of cycling.

In a career spanning the years 1961 to 1975 Merckx won 525 races, earning him three road cycling world championships, five Tour de France wins (the highest* number of wins ever, a record matched only by three other cyclists), and five victories in the Giro d'Italia. In 2005, the people of Flanders voted him the 3rd greatest Belgian of all time.

Eddy Merckx in 1973, the year he skipped the Tour de France because the
French audience was in an uproar over the possibility of Merckx matching
the Frenchman Jacques Anquetil's record of five wins. Merckx returned to the
Tour in 1974 to take his fifth and final victory in the race.

*What's that? Lance Armstrong? Never heard of him.


Friday, January 18, 2013

Belgian war correspondent killed in Syria

The Doha Centre for Media Freedom has so far documented 72 professional or citizen journalists who have died during the Syrian civil war. The 73rd entry will be a Belgian.

Today Didier Reynders, the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs, confirmed the death of Yves Debay, 58. He was killed by sniper fire in Aleppo.

Debay was born on Christmas Eve in 1954, in Elisabethville in the Belgian Congo. He joined the Belgian Army at the age of 21 and eventually became a tank commander. He fought with the Rhodesians against guerilla troops in the Rhodesian Bush War of 1964-1979. In 1985, he became a war correspondent. He has covered wars in Lebanon, the Persian Gulf, the Balkans, and Afghanistan. His recent assignment to Syria would be his last.

Yves Debay (1954-2013). Source

We will most likely never find out who fired the deadly shot. Anti-government militants have released images of Debay's body, along with claims that he was killed by government troops.

Sources: (Dutch)

Fighting and dying in Africa

In July of last year, northern Mali fell into the clutches of anti-government Islamist groups. In October, the UN Security Council unanimously passed a French resolution approving an African-led force to assist the Malian army in combating the Islamist militants.

While only French troops have so far been directly involved in the fighting, several countries have committed personnel and equipment to the operation. These countries include Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The Belgian contingent consists of 75-80 staff members, two C-130 transport aircraft, and one or two Agusta A109 Medevac medical evacuation helicopters.

Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport plane of the Belgian Air Component
photographed at McChord Air Force Base, Washington, 2009. Source

Agusta A109 helicopter of the Belgian Air Component
at Florennes Air Base in Namur, Belgium, 2012. Source

France has already sustained its first casualty in the conflict. On 11 January, battalion commander Lt. Damien Boiteux, 41, was hit by small arms fire in his Gazelle helicopter during an attack on a rebel column near Sévaré. Although the other pilot was able to fly the helicopter back to base, Lt. Boiteux later died of his wounds.

French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault at the coffin of Lt. Damien Boiteux,
the first European casualty in the Northern Mali conflict. Source

Meanwhile, hundreds of Africans have been killed and about 374,000 have become refugees in a conflict that will continue to affect the region for many years to come.

Also this week, a group of militants with relations to Al-Qaida crossed the border from Mali into Algeria and captured a BP-owned natural gas field, In Aménas. The militants were reported to have killed two foreign nationals and were holding 41 foreign nationals - among them eight Norwegians - hostage. A spokesman for the group said that the purpose of the attack was to get revenge on the countries that had intervened in Mali. After an unsuccessful rescue operation by the Algerian military, some reports indicated that many of the hostages have been killed. The hostage situation remains unresolved.


Sunday, January 13, 2013

News and links, week 2

Friday, January 11, 2013

Jukebox Friday: Roberto Bellarosa - Love Kills (Belgium's 2013 ESC contribution)

My apologies in advance.

Roberto Bellarosa was born in 1995 in Huy, a town in the Belgian province of Liege. He shot to fame in April 2012 when he won the reality singing competition The Voice Belgique. In November it was announced that he would represent Belgium at the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest in Malmö, Sweden.

The song itself would fit nicely into the second half of an Enrique Iglesias album. Sadly, in this performance Bellarosa seems to be struggling to hit the high notes, and the rest of his performance can best be described as uninspired. Let's hope it goes better in Malmö.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

News and links, week 1

Happy New Year! Here are the Belgium news and links from the first week of 2013 (and everything I didn't have time to report during the holidays).
Gerard Depardieu. Photo source