Ronde van Vlaanderen: a brief history of a Classic

RIDE #56, published in May 2012, featured an overview of the Spring Classics. (Buy it now as an e-magazine via the Zinio store.)

RIDE #56, published in 2012, featured an overview of the Classics. (Buy it now as an e-magazine via the Zinio store.)

In RIDE #56, there was a feature about the Classics of cycling with a focus on ‘Victory and History’ of the Monuments of Spring. The opening spread was titled: “Epic!” It featured a shot of the “modern ‘laatste van de Flandriens‘, Tom Boonen. The Flemish superstar won both de Ronde (aka. the Tour of Flanders) and Paris-Roubaix in 2012. 

The cobbled Classics are underway for another season with Boonen’s team-mate Niki Terpstra winning the Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, Gent-Wevelgem coming up on Sunday and then the Ronde van Vlaanderen being contested on 6 April. With in mind, it’s a good time to revisit the feature from 2012 written by Jean-François Quenet.


Here is a flashback from RIDE #56






In a season of superlatives – when bike races receive the billing of ‘Classics’ or, in some cases, ‘Monuments’ – several performances reminded us why these titles are part of cycling’s history. Milan-San Remo, Ronde van Vlaanderen, Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège… they make the stars shine!


The Originals


Jean-François Quenet delves into cycling’s history books, provides some background to the ‘Monuments’ of the sport and concludes that age has not wearied the true Classics…


In the 1990s, Britain organised the Wincanton Classic and later the Leeds Classic. You won’t find these races – once part of the UCI’s World Cup – on the calendar any more. The creation of great modern one-day races didn’t work. Fans never embraced something new being called a ‘Classic’, as if it was an abuse of words. It was also a mistake by former UCI president Hein Verbruggen to believe cycling would expand globally because of one-day races being organised. Recent history has proven that the right way to get the most renowned teams to race in unconventional places is the inception of stage races like the Santos Tour Down Under and the Tour of Beijing.

Many people have tried to invent new one-day ‘Classics’ over the years but all of them have failed.

There are some examples of ‘new’ races earning the prestige of the established European Classics, like the Amstel Gold Race contested in the Dutch province of Limburg. Unlike the big five, however, it’s named after a sponsor – a brewing company – and is relatively young. There are only a select few races worthy of the status of events like the five races that are known as ‘The Monuments’ of the sport. Milan-San Remo, Ronde van Vlaanderen, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Giro di Lombardia – these are the one-day contests that continue to headline this style of competition.

Four of the quintet are raced in the northern spring. The courses have varied over the years yet this year a big talking point before the racing was a big route change for ‘de Ronde’.

This kind of cycling is about heritage. Their location, their terrain and their history make them special. You can probably find dirt roads or cobblestones in China or Russia, but you can’t reproduce the passion of one million Belgian fans on the roadside. The beer they drink, the French fries they eat, the way they smoke the herrings, their language (different dialects of Flemish) and expressions (“ze zijn da!” to announce the arrival of the riders)… it’s the whole environment that makes the Ronde van Vlaanderen unique.

Part of cycling’s appeal is its heritage. With the advent of the WorldTour there is a place for new races which feature in this magazine but this year we also offer some commentary on the history of the four Monuments of the European spring.

There’s only one plain of the Pô leading to the Riviera and its capi covered by agricultural glass-houses on a wonderful seaside, and that makes Milan-San Remo impossible to photocopy, also because it happens on one of the very first days of the European spring and the nicer weather takes the people out of their houses – as they see the end of the winter like the end of a tunnel, the enthusiasm for a bike race is like nowhere else – it wouldn’t feel the same at another time of the year.

The calendar plays a big part in what the Classics mean. The first nickname of Paris-Roubaix was ‘la pascale’ (from Easter). At a time when cycling fans had religion at the centre of their concerns, it made them include the race and their faith in the same liturgy. The admiration of the riders still leads some to believe that their exploits are a form of resurrection.

Liège-Bastogne-Liège is mythical because of being so old, it’s Methuselah on a bicycle! The event was created in the 19th century (1892). Since then, two world wars have damaged the Ardennes, an undulating region favourable for battles, whether conducted on tanks or on two wheels.

The Giro di Lombardia is mesmerising and it traditionally puts an end to the cycling season with the magical landscape of the big lakes of northern Italy. If one of the Monuments is to be tarnished by the modernisation of the calendar with the UCI taking the WorldTour to China in October, it’s this Classic in autumn but it’s yet to be seen if fans and media will switch focus and accept the new vision, as the yuans and dollars to be collected in Hangzhou will never match the beauty of Como.

This is not business as usual. They are called Monuments because they are dominant. They’ve been there for ages. People travel the world to watch them as a testimonial from the ancient past. Their legend carries exceptional stories. Classics are a love affair.

– Jean-François Quenet




Ronde van Vlaanderen: a brief history


It’s the youngest of the Monuments, but many followers believe that ‘de Ronde’ – the Tour of Flanders – is the biggest and most important of all races. Jean-François Quenet explains its history…


– By Jean-François Quenet


Behind every great bike race, there’s usually an even greater man. It was no blasphemy to withdraw the Muur – the wall of Geraardsbergen – to highlight the Oude-Kwaremont that was passed three times this year prior to Tom Boonen’s victory in Oudenaarde, because at the top of what has become the new crucial climb there’s the statue of Karel van Wijnendaele – whose real name was Karel Steyaert. A mediocre cyclist, he founded the newspaper Sportwereld in 1912 – the first sports daily in Belgium. The two words he pronounced on 25 May from 1913 until 1937 of his compatriots starting the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) in Gent are part of Belgian sporting folklore: “Heeren, vertrekt!” – Gentlemen, go!

They had 324km to cover and they were all Flemish.

In the early years few foreigners contested ‘de Ronde’ (and Swiss Henry Sutter in 1923 was the only non-Flemish winner until 1949). The race was, at times, even held on the same day as Milan-San Remo. Van Wijnendaele’s mission was to teach his compatriots to read, as education wasn’t yet accessible to all, especially in the language of Vondel. He used a rich and colourful language to write about cycling, his passion.

“We write with the quill of our heart and the ink of our soul,” he put in one of his stories. His biographers describe him as “the hero of the muscular Flemish strength”.

No wonder why a century later, after the event was recently bought out by media businessman Wouter Vandenhaute who is behind the attempt at a breakaway league from the UCI with the likes of Johan Bruyneel, the Tour of Flanders remains the expression of a fanatical propaganda for Flemish nationalism.

In 1923, the word “Flandrien” was created to distinguish important Flemish riders who were particularly courageous and brave enough to face the wind, the rain and the cold as well as the surface of many roads that are still made of concrete instead of bitumen, so not exactly smooth for riding a bike. Albéric (Briek) Schotte was called “Laatste van de Flandriens” – last of the Flandriens. To highlight the importance of cycling in Flanders, the Tour of Flanders was organised even during WWII. Schotte was the youngest participant in 1940 and finished third behind Achiel Buysse and Georges Christiaens. In 1950, at the age of almost 40, he was the oldest participant and pulled out after breaking his frame.

In the meantime, Schotte won the race twice (1942, 1948), came second twice (1944, 1950) and three times third (1946, 1949 and 1952). He rode the Tour of Flanders 20 times. His first nickname was ‘Den Ijzeren’ (the ironman).




Still, more Flandriens were to come after the first “last” one. It could be said that the true legend of Eddy Merckx started with the 1969 Tour of Flanders. In the 53rd edition, the racing conditions were horrendous: strong winds were blowing from the north, it was freezing cold, and snow and rain fell during the 259km journey between Gent and Meerbeke.

Merckx had already won a world title (1967), the Giro d’Italia (1968), Paris-Roubaix (1968), Milan-San Remo on three occasions (1966, 1967 and 1969), as well as the Flèche Wallonne (1967) and Gent-Wevelgem (1967)… but he hadn’t yet won what are the two most important races for a Belgian, the Tour of Flanders and the Tour de France.

Facing not only the bad weather but also racing against an Italian mafia made of Felice Gimondi, Franco Bitossi, Marino Basso, Vittorio Adorni and Italo Zilioli, a 24-year-old Merckx broke away solo with 70km to go and all the climbs to come. His directeur sportif Guillaume Driessens didn’t agree; he told the rider that he was crazy and would never make it. But Merckx didn’t listen. He didn’t answer verbally but signalled his thoughts to his boss with two fingers. He insisted for 25km with a headwind and in pouring rain without gaining more than a minute of advantage on his chasers. There was pride and insanity in his initiative but by the finishing line, freezing and close to exhaustion, he won by five minutes over Gimondi, eight minutes over Basso and Bitossi… A legend was born.

“We know with certainty that we will never have the opportunity to cover another ‘Ronde’ like the 1969 edition,” wrote Willem van Wijnendaele in Het Nieuwsblad, the newspaper that organised the race (as, by then, Sportwereld had become a pull-out of the Belgian journal). The journalist added: “We have loved Eddy like never a bike rider has been loved before, let’s imagine to have hugged him at the finish.”

Merckx found humour in the reaction. “I think the relief was bigger for the organisers than for me,” he said. “This is my fifth year as a pro rider. I’ve won almost every Classic. Van Wijnendaele and co started to wonder if I’d ever win theirs!”

At the end of Merckx’s reign, “the muur” was introduced on the course. Its cobblestones are bevel-edged because, in the 19th century, it was surfaced to prevent handcarts from tumbling down the steep ramp. The race’s other mythical climb is the Koppenberg with its gradients at 22 per cent that forced many cyclists to walk and carry their bike. In 1987, a commissaire’s car rolled over the bike of lone leader Jesper Skibby who had fallen on the ascent. The incident took the Koppenberg out of the course for 15 years until the actual cobbles were renovated. But following the experience of 2002, the race couldn’t go there because too many cobbles had been stolen – that’s the downside of passion: a cobblestone of a mythical climb is a collector’s item! It’s actually a difficult race to follow for media and officials because accreditation stickers get stolen by the public. It’s fun to write about it, but not to experience the desperation of the ‘supporters’…

Fifteen years ago, a survey was conducted in all universities throughout Europe to know what Flanders was famous for. Flemish painters (from Rubens to Rembrandt) and the Tour of Flanders took the majority of the votes.

Since 1998, the ‘Ronde’ has started from the Grand Place of Brugge, an architectural wonder of the region. The host town has signed a new deal to extend its status until 2016. The local council has increased its contribution from 80,000 to 100,000 euros yearly. This is not a price for a bike race, it’s more than that. It’s a way to maintain some heritage. Tom Boonen is their modern “laatste van de Flandriens”.

– Jean-François Quenet




Author: rob@ride

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