Beer and Cycling Culture in Flanders, with Philippe Maertens and Kristof Ramon

A conversation between Philppe Maertens, the Press Chief at Lotto Soudal, and Kristof Ramon, a cycling photographer. The duo discuss beer and cycling culture in Belgium, as well as Van Aert vs. Van der Poel.

Philippe Maertens

Philippe Maertens

"I am a bioengineer, but in 1989, I started working as a sports journalist, mainly covering cycling. This coincided with the launch of the Flemish television VTM. In 2007, the financial crisis hit and several colleagues were laid off, so I wrote a book about cyclo-cross. At the end of the year, Johan Bruyneel called me and asked if I wanted to join his team. It was right around the time of the switch from Discovery Channel to Astana. I was there with Contador and the following year with Armstrong, then four more years at Radioshack (with the merger with Leopard), and six at Katusha, and today was my second day in the Lotto - Soudal structure".

Kristof Ramon

Kristof Ramon

"I am a photojournalist specialising in cycling. So much so, that I have set up my own agency, through which I receive assignments from magazines and brands. I know many colleagues who have been in the profession for years, and everything has changed. The environment is different, especially because of social networks. Now, in my opinion, the most important thing is storytelling — telling a story through your photos, and not just capturing the action of the competition itself".

Philippe Maertens (PM) - I have about 1,320 bottles of Belgian beer at home, of which I still have about 200 to drink, and a few, albeit a small percentage, are related to cycling... it all started with my love of whisky, when I set up a bar at home. The top of the cabinet was too high, so I decided to put beer bottles in it. In fact, I had already stored about 50, when in fact there was only room for 20. So...

Kristof Ramon (KR) - You bought a new house?

PM - Hahaha, no. I have a small house, I live alone, so I still don't have space problems. But every month, not to say every week, there is a new release (just as some disappear), so it's a never-ending collection.

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In my opinion, IPAs, at least here [in Belgium] are in the doldrums. It seems like all the breweries have jumped on the hoppy bandwagon and you see the 'double-hop' or 'triple-hop'... but I think their time has passed and now, again, it seems to be the time for sour beers. You know how these trends go, as they come, they go.

KR - I've lived in Leuven all my life, and I even worked on the other side of the canal, in the Vaartkom, in the Stella Artois brewery when I was a student for a month doing a bit of everything. I was 19 years old. I did the night shift because it was double the pay. And that was enough for me to go to France and Spain. I remember before I went on holiday, I took my car and I took a few. Then I went back and got some more... and when I came home, I had a boot full of beer. It was the only time in my life I've ever stolen anything when I was working (laughs). I also worked in a Biercafe and I can tell you, the beers that are served the most on tap are the Pils. We could serve up to five kegs a day.

PM - So that's when you degraded and became a photographer?

KR - Yes, but that was much later (laughs). Actually, before that I was on TV, and that was my darkest period. But back to the subject, it's important to note that Leuven has always been, and still is the beer capital of the world. It may sound like a joke, but it's not, because the biggest brewery in the world (formerly Interbrew, now InBev) was located precisely where we are right now. It is therefore logical that both of us have always been surrounded by beer. One of the things that makes you typically Belgian is beer, in the same way that cycling is in our genes and is part of our identity.

PM - Beer is part of our culture and Belgium, we can say, is the only country in the world where cycling is as or more important than football. And although they have nothing to do with each other, we can say that, for example, beer is very present in cyclo-cross competitions. The fans start drinking beer at 10 in the morning and not only until 4 in the afternoon when the race ends, but until 10 at night. 

KR - And dancing, very bad music...

The duo discuss whilst drinking beer

PM - All over the world, beer is becoming a phenomenon. Just as Belgium was famous for its diversity of styles, thanks to the writer Michael Jackson (not the singer), who popularised Belgian beer all over the world. There are now many countries that can brew very good beer, but aren't overtaking us, such as Denmark and its Mikkeller.

KR - In the past, many breweries sponsored cycling teams. That's because of our history, the way we are. If you go back a hundred years in time — coinciding with the start of De Ronde — when the myth of the Flandrien, of the Flemish as a self-sacrificing, hard, patient people, who never had much money. The only way to escape that poverty was precisely through cycling. When they started making money and winning races (which they did), the best way to celebrate back home was in a café. And in the cafés, there is no wine like in the southern countries. In the cafés there is beer, and of very good quality.

From Poperinge, the hop capital of Flanders, to Oudenaarde (the birthplace of the Oud Bruin), another city with a long history of brewing. It is there that we could say that this myth was forged, an area that is the heart of cycling, and although it may not be a very big region, almost all of the best cyclists in history have come from there. But that culture is also disappearing because the small towns in the area are becoming empty. However, 50 or 80 years ago, the real Flanders crossed borders and there was also talk of French Flanders. There, you can still find small villages which are very similar. You can still feel the essence of the old Flanders and they still speak Flemish.

On the other hand, the phenomenon of beers with cycling motifs, I would say, is more recent — about 10-15 years ago, and all thanks to marketing.

As in the case of Kwaremont, brewed for no more than 10 years by a brewery in the region (Brouwerij de Brabandere), but big enough for marketing purposes to realise the potential of this beer and connect it with racing.

PM - In fact, they also sponsor races?

KR - Yes, most of the races in Belgium nowadays.

PM - In the same way that in Asturias, they open a bottle of cider on the podium. Here, they celebrate with beer, almost always with a big glass full of Kwaremont. In cyclo-cross, for example, the winner gets a barrel of Primus beer for the photo. But they don't take it home because they can't use it there, so they get the same amount of beer in cans for the celebration on the bus.

Until a few years ago, there was a cyclocross race which was known as the Bollekescross, in reference to a famous Antwerp beer (De Koninck, which is popularly called Bolleke because of the type of balloon cup in which it is drunk). Of course, the winner is given a full cup... and he has to drink, eh?

Ramon and Maertens laughing

Van Aert vs. Van der Poel?

PM - They have a great relationship, because they've been racing together since they were kids. I'm absolutely convinced that if Mathieu hadn't existed, Wout wouldn't be as good a rider as he is. And vice versa. Because their rivalry makes them better. If they had won absolutely everything since their beginnings, their motivation would probably have dried up. Mathieu started winning everything when he was very young, Van Aert came later, and this benefited Van der Poel because it helped him to set himself new challenges.

Over the years, I've been able to treat them and watch them. I've always been more impressed by Van der Poel, because everything comes easy to him. Van Aert has to work a lot harder. Van der Poel may seem nicer and Van Aert, more serious and difficult to deal with at first, but he's also a very nice guy.

KR - Absolutely. In my opinion, Mathieu is more playful, and maybe he needs to feel the adrenaline more. But that's his personality. And in Wout's case, he's also a very genuine, friendly and easy-going guy.

PM - In Flanders, in the past, we have always competed a lot with the Dutch: in football, in cyclo-cross. Our best riders competed with Adrie van der Poel, with Groenendaal... and the public booed them. With Mathieu, no one would think of doing that.

KR - Because he's Belgian (laughs).

PM - In fact, Adrie was also Belgian, more or less...

KR - But weren't we going to talk more about beer? Come on... my favourite style is Geuze.

PM - I like many styles. In fact, when I drink a beer, I write a little card with its name, the brewery, and add a comment. I prefer to do it that way, rather than with an app like Untappd, especially if you're in a bar and you have to grab your phone to upload the beer to the app in the middle of a conversation. At home, my fridge is always full of beers.

KR - So you must have two fridges?

PM - (laughs) No, no... but always when I come home, from a three-week event like the Vuelta, for example, and I open the fridge, I always end up grabbing a Duvel. It's my welcome beer at home. And when I'm on the road, I always try to drink local beer.

KR - I don't write anything down, I just drink...

Belgian beer

PM - In the peloton, many riders drink wine after stages, but beer almost never. As a general rule, there are no arguments between riders about whether their country's beer is better than the other. But they all show great respect for Belgian beers. In Lotto-Soudal, we have a young rider, Stan Dewulf (now at AG2R Citroën), who brews his own beer.

KR - There is another big beer enthusiast in the peloton: John Degenkolb. During the season, he collects beers from each country and always waits until the end of the season to drink them.

PM - I'm actually starting to brew beer myself. Every Wednesday afternoon this year, I'm attending a full course. In fact, this week we're going to the Stella Artois brewery where they're giving us a class on how to serve it and the different types of kegs.

KR - In my case, one of my best friends fathers, Freddy Delvaux, the "best nose in Belgium", and his brother Filip, are two of the most respected teachers and brewing authorities in the world. After 15-20 years working here at InterBrew, they bought a historic brewery, the Brouwerij de Kroon, to develop their own project. In addition to brewing their own beers, of course, they also have a Biercentrum where they teach courses. Freddie was a professor at the university.

PM - Yes, we met in the Bioengineering faculty when I was studying there (I started in 1984). He was in charge of the malting and brewing lab.

KR - And then he started with the beer courses. In fact, he was the first 'Bierprofessor' and his son Filip is following his legacy, while his other brother is in Colombia shooting documentaries about cycling. So everything is connected.

Here in Leuven we have a great festival, the Zythos. I remember the first time I went on crutches after I had an accident with my bike, I came back with a backpack full of beer. My pain was gone! (laughs)

PM - At E3 Harelbeke, I was on a climb, ready to give bottles to the riders, and I was unlucky enough to arrive very early. The people around us were buying us beer. I remember a couple, or three of them...

This piece was originally published in Volata magazine

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