The Tour of Flanders

On 25 May 1913, cycling journalist, Karel Van Wijnendaele started the first Tour of Flanders with the simple words'Gentlemen, depart!'. No man could have imagined that his course would become the classic that it is today. Over the years, The Tour has been given the nickname, 'Flanders’ Finest', which is a well-deserved recognition for the sporting challenge presented by the race, as well as the beautiful scenery through which the peloton winds its way.

East Flemish mountains

It is the Flemish Ardennes that The Tour gives colour to. Until 2016, the race traditionally started in Bruges, but now it starts in Antwerp; however, it is only when the first 'mountains' of East Flanders start to emerge that the heat starts to get turned up. However, they can barely be called mountains; after all, they are only a few tens of meters in height. Yet they seem to have been given the names:   Koppenberg, Paterberg, the Taaienberg (the Dutch word, berg, is translated into mountain). Looking at them from a distance, you will only notice a notable slope in the landscape. But try to climb them on a bicycle and you will quickly find out why they call them mountains. The roads often lead straight to the top and often consist of a mosaic of cobblestones; stones that have been ravaged by rain, cold, wind and mud. The joints between the stones were once big enough to swallow an entire race wheel. You need to be an acrobat to restrain your wheels without falling, especially as part of a group hindered by continuous movement, wheel to wheel action, mud tracks and slippery piles of leaves.

A hundred years ago, it was already atour de force to cycle in these difficult conditions on a steel steed that weighed several times as much as today's technological wonders. It is a feat to ride The Tour, even now. The average speed of the peloton has almost doubled. The number of participants has risen sharply from 37 in 1913 to 200 in 2014. There is a staggering amount of money involved. Hundreds of thousands of spectators line the side of the road  and there are also ' approximately 160 million people glued to the screen around the world at the time The Tour is ridden. The Tour is a Flemish fairground ride and F1 drive, all at the same time. No other sporting event puts Flanders on the world map like this.

It was different in 1913 says Rik Vanwalleghem, sports journalist, author and director of the Tour of Flanders Centre in Oudenaarde. 'There were no foreign participants and interests in 1913, nor were there any sponsors, or even any spectators along the course. The riders didn't even ride as teams. Until the 1950s, ' the rider received no help and had to fix everything himself. If you broke your handlebar, you had to find a blacksmith's shop somewhere along the trail to weld everything together again yourself. In winter, these guys were trained by artisans so, during the race, they knew how to repair their 'bicycle' as quickly as possible.'

Flandriens

And this is how heroes were born, 'Flandriens' who worked hard on the land every day and then crawled onto their bikes on Sunday to win. This is how it was for Henri 'Ritte' Van Lerberghe, the 'death rider from Lichtervelde '. Ritte won a stage in the Tour de France in 1913, and finished second in The Tour of Flanders in 1914. But he became a legend after the First World War. For four years, Ritte had been a soldier  and wanted to start racing again. He arrived at the start of The Tour in 1919 without a bike; he borrowed a spare bike from an opponent, took a good look around and spoke the famous words, '"I'm going to ride you all to death, one by one."' Obviously they laughed at him, but not for long. Ritte created a gap of several minutes when he was 120 km from the finish line, and even climbed with his bike aboard a train that was blocking his way and got off the other side. Nothing could stop Ritte. Finally, he arrived in Ghent by himself, parked his bicycle at a pub, drank three pints of beer and rode slowly across the finish line with a lead of 14 minutes over Léon Buysse. Ritte called out to the audience at the velodrome: 'Ye may go home. I am half a day ahead.'

'A Flandrien rode by himself', says Rik Vanwalleghem. 'Head down, they simply rode until they were completely exhausted; not even knowing what area they were riding through.' Briek Schotte became ' a legend like this. 'Iron Briek was his nickname', continues Vanwalleghem. 'From 1940, he took part in the Tour of Flanders twenty times consecutively. He won twice. On one of the two evenings he won The Tour, he had to climb through a window to get back inside his parents' farm. His parents were already asleep and had locked the door. They did not know their son had won The Tour that day. This just goes to show how different the mentality was back then.'

Legendary cobblestones

Today, it is a totally different story. The Flandriens have made cycling our national sport. Schotte, Van Steenbergen, Van Looy, Leman, De Vlaeminck and Merckx pulled the route over the country's borders. And when sponsors started spending big money on cycling, the whole world was able to watch how Vanderaerden, Planckaert, Van Hooydonck, Museeuw, Van Petegem, De Volder and Boonen attained almost mythical status in Flanders. The heroes of yesteryear became demigods. Their Olympus is called Kwaremont, Koppenberg, Bosberg,  Scherpenberg, Taaienberg, Paterberg, Wolvenberg, Molenberg, Valkenberg, Kanarieberg and Kruisberg.

Every year, tens of thousands of cyclists from around the world explore The Tour route. The Flemish Ardennes havebecome Flanders’ Finest landscape; the legendary cobblestones and protected monuments. Numerous Bed and Breakfasts 'can be found among the green hills. Cycling and walking networks make the whole region visible for those who love peace, panoramic views, leafy forests and babbling brooks. Do you enjoy taking a holiday close to home with the feeling that you are far away? Take a look at www.toerismevlaamseardennen.be and come and enjoy.

 

The Tour in facts and figures

'KOARLE'

Karel van Wijnendaele, better known as Koarle brought the newspaper, Sportwereld, as well as the Tour of Flanders, to life. His love for the sport of cycling was a mission. Karel was a journalist and his words came straight from his heart and stomach, which made him very popular. In the 1920s, he took his Flandriens along the cycling tracks in New York and Chicago; in the years that followed, he gave The Tour an international reputation.

CYCLIST AND MECHANIC

Until the 1950s, riders had to take care of their own repairs. These riders rode The Tour with two spare tires around their necks, small tools in their pockets, and a pump. The repair of a tyre could be expected to last two to three minutes. If a saddle, pedal, fork or handlebars broke, it was worse. The race was then finished

The first Tour,

37 Flandriens cycled the first hellish journey of 324 km,
which was won by Paul Deman.

6kg of spaghetti

The amount of calories consumed by a typical rider corresponds to
18 pasta portions. He can also lose 5 to 6 litres of fluid in sweat.

STEAK AS BREAKFAST

In New York, Flandriens were called "the raw-flesh-eating men" because they ate so much steak before racing. Briek Schotte: "A few hours before the race, we had steak for breakfast with some lightly buttered bread and a coffee. I've never known anything other than steak. We brought our steaks with us in our suitcases and cooked them in a café near the start."

A FLANDRIEN?

The term originated in the Flemish cycling races held during the inter-war period when cyclists had to fight a constant battle against the poorly-laid cobblestones. Teamwork did not exist. A Flandrien rode as an individual and pushed on his pedals until he no longer knew where he was. Flandriens were very strong and fought from start to finish.

5 monuments

formThe Tour (of Flanders) with Milan-San-Remo, Paris-Roubaix,
Liege-Bastonge-Liege and the Tour of Lombardy

5 triple winners

Achiel Buysse, Fiorenzo Magni, Eric Leman,
Johan Museeuw and Tom Boonen

KOPPENBERG COBBLESTONES

Artist Vladimir Tanghe once counted the number of cobblestones on the steepest part of the Koppenberg: 66,240 cobblestones over 2760 rows at an average of 24 stones per row. On the entire hill there are even more cobblestones.

THE PATERBERG

Along with the Koppenberg and the Oude Kwaremont, the Paterberg is one of the toughest hills. The Paterberg is a smallsteep road whose cobblestones have been a protected monument since 1993. Average gradient: 12.5%. Steepest part: 20%. The top is 48 m high.

The youngest winner,

Rik van Steenbergen, rode The Tour in
1944 at the age of 19.

The oldest winner

Andrei Tchmil won in 2000
when he was 37 years old.

THE MUUR VAN GERAARDSBERGEN (ENGLISH: WALL OF GERAARDSBERGEN

is a monument from Flemish cycling history. The Muur is often the penultimate hill and often decides who wins the race. The steep hill is 1075 m in length and the highest slope is 20%. The cobblestones on the Muur are laid horizontally, which makes climbing more difficult.

26.22 km/h

The slowest Tour was held in 1926

43.58 km/h

The fastest Tour was held in 2001

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