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.


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