The Beast, the Emperor and the Milkman: Q&A with Harry Pearson

This is not your first book on Belgium, is it?

I wrote A Tall Man in a Low Land in 1998 – that’s how long I’ve been around. That was my first book.

I read the blurb about it and there was a mention of the sadly defunct Underpant Museum in Brussels…

There was this guy called Jan Bucquoy, who also did a film called The Sexual Life of the Belgians 1950-1978. He was part of an anarchist group who stage a coup every year that ends in a pub. They march on Parliament, then up end up in the Mort Subite drinking. It’s all some strange situationist thing.


Where does your affection for Belgium come from, if ‘affection’ is the correct term?

It started with cycling, because my friend Steve, who is in quite a few of my books, was a big cycling fan. He’d been diagnosed with a hole in the heart as a teenager, and was told it was either cycling or swimming, and he thought swimming was boring. So he took up riding back in the early ’80s, when most people in Britain knew little about it. I remember going to his flat and he had a picture of Sean Kelly in the green jersey, and I thought it was because he was Irish. I didn’t realise it was the points jersey from the Tour de France.

He persuaded me it would be a good idea to go watch the Tour of Flanders. We went there the second year Museeuw won, stood on the Muur at Geraardsbergen. Ghent-Wevelgem was on a Wednesday in those days, so we went to that, and then on the Sunday went to Paris-Roubaix. There was always three races you could see over the space of a week, and then in between we drank a huge quantity of beer.

And that was when it all started, because we had such a good time. Probably because of the beer… I really liked the Belgians, they were really entertaining all of the time.

There are so many aspects of Belgian life and the Belgians that you gently rib in your new book – especially the music.

The strange thing is that there are quite a few bands from Belgium that are really good, but you never hear them. It doesn’t matter where you are. My girlfriend came over and she is an inveterate Shazam-er of tracks. She said “I’ve been here for four days and haven’t Shazammed anything I’ve heard!” Even if you are somewhere really trendy, they are still playing crap music.

You spent the whole Spring Classics season over in Belgium – quite a commitment.

I thought that’s the best way to do it. I live just outside Newcastle, so it’s not convenient for Belgium. I thought, I’ll spend all the money they have paid me just on living there. So I stayed in Ghent for eight weeks. And the good thing about that was I could see all the little races – they are the interesting thing in a way. The Ronde is like the Grand National now. But going to the little criteriums and town races was great.  

Le Samyn – “fantastic” (photo: Harry Pearson)

 One of my favourite chapters was on Le Samyn.

That is a fantastic race. It was one of the best day’s sport I have ever had. I met this really nice guy, Albert from Barcelona, who had given up his job to move to Belgium and watch bike racing. He must be the only person who has fled Barcelona for Flanders in February. He said to me: “It’s been my dream!” It’s like a complete reversal of all normality.

He pops up a few times in the book at various races?

He took several of the photos in the book, and I’m still in touch with him now. He is such a great guy, such an enthusiast for cycling, and especially the Classics.

 Read: The Tears of Van Hooydonck

The constant theme throughout the book was the dreadful weather.

My girlfriend came over – and this is proof that you love somebody – and we went to see Dwars Door west Vlaanderen and walked to the uncovered bus station in Ostend in torrential rain, got to the finish town, walked 500 yards to stand outside [double Tour de France winner] Sylvère Maes’s café for half an hour until the race went past in the blink of an eye, then got a bus to back to Ostend again. That was really wet. And the race wasn’t as interesting as Le Samyn either.

Albert from Barcelona, living the dream (photo: Harry Pearson)

I enjoyed the potted history of the country in the opening chapter which explains the Flandrians’ dislike for… well, anyone really.

Pretty well everyone has invaded. It’s a place that has national characteristics but I’m pretty sure it’s never been a nation, not like Scotland or Wales. It has never been independent. How could it belong to Spain? Or Austria? They are not even attached. It is an extraordinary thing. And then they briefly belonged to the Dutch as well.

You wrote a piece for us a few years back entitled The Last of the Flandriens on Johan Museeuw. Has anyone since qualified for the title? Sagan perhaps?

Boonen is obviously a massively successful rider, but like I say in the book, he’s like a different figure – but maybe he’s a figure from a modern age of Twitter and social media. But people like Yves Lampaert, who was photographed on a tractor, and drives it on his father’s farm. He’s the one who missed a whole Classics season because his girlfriend ran into his ankle with a supermarket trolley. A classic sporting injury! He’s a contender.

I also became really fond of Oliver Naesen, just from seeing his parents everywhere at the races. He just loves Flanders so much. He actually wanted to go back to racing cyclo-cross – that was his dream. From living in Umbria in Italy, he wanted to return to the flat polders of Flanders. It was the perfectly logical thing to do in his mind.

Oliver Naesen, Flandrien through and through (photo: Albert Plans Feixas)

Also Boonen is not from the heart of Flanders, more of an outlier like Rik Van Looy – a flashier character, has trouble with the tax office and all that. People from Antwerp are seen as a byword for arrogance to the rest of Flanders, it seems to me.

My favourite rider nickname you unearthed in the book is Gerrit “The Pedalling Fool” Schulte. Nobody wants to own that, do they?

I suspect it should have been “The Pedalling Jester”, but it was better that way.

What personal favourites of yours did you discover researching the book?

It has to be Eddy Plankaert. The whole of his lifestory. The orgasm at the end of the Tour Flanders is probably quite well known to cycling fans, but it’s the fact that he wrote about it in such graphic terms: “And not just a small one, either!”

I knew a woman who worked for Flemish World Service who interviewed him and asked what was his worst moment in cycling, thinking he would say finishing second in a big race or something. Instead, there was a lengthy description of having gastroenteritis and the shit running down his leg like a waterfall… Even the fact that he ended up on a comic strip as a cartoon character.

The Beast, the Emperor and the Milkman: A Bone-shaking Tour through Cycling’s Flemish Heartlands by Harry Pearson is published by Bloomsbury Sport

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