The History of the Tour of Flanders: Tales from De Ronde

Eight tales from the history of the Tour of Flanders, from the Koppenberg to Tom Simpson and the race's founding father

When the men’s and women’s pelotons roll respectively out of Antwerp and Oudenaarde on April 3, bound for hundreds of kilometres of tortuous twists, turns and narrow cobbled climbs, it will be the 106th and 19th editions of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, arguably the finest of the Classics.

The route may change slightly each year, but the hellingen that pack the region and define the race are a given, guaranteed to produce worthy winners of a true Monument. In the Ronde, only the strong survive.

From Rouleur issue 61, first published in 2016, Paul Maunder delves into eight memorable episodes in the past of Flanders’ Finest.

Father’s Finest

The first Tour of Flanders, in May 1913, was both a marketing stunt and a piece of political agitprop. The preceding summer, a young sports journalist named Karel Van Wijnendaele had been asked if he would like to work on a new newspaper, Sportwereld. Van Wijnendaele, a former racer and fanatical cycling fan, agreed.

Another founding member of Sportwereld, Leon Van den Haute, was already developing plans for a bike race based in Flanders. Van den Haute was a businessman and organiser, and had been involved in other bike races in the area. The Tour of Flanders became an all-consuming passion for him, and in the months running up to the inaugural race he was completely dedicated to it. He designed the course, checked the condition of the roads, put out route markers and secured prizes.

If Van den Haute was the real organiser of the race, Van Wijnendaele was the marketing man. His vision was to create a vehicle to promote not only his newspaper, but also cycling and the Dutch language. Since the establishment of modern Belgium in 1830, Flemish culture and language had been suffocated by the French-speaking Walloons. There was nationalist resistance, much of it focused on works of literature such as Hendrik Conscience’s De Leeuw van Vlaanderen (The Lion of Flanders). Correspondingly, Flemish nationalism adopted the Lion as its emblem.

Van Wijnendaele wanted to emancipate the Flemish community by providing it with its own sporting heroes. The vision of a Flandrian war hero portrayed by Conscience was of a hard-working man: tough, with immense willpower, humble, proud of his family and community. Van Wijnendaele saw the opportunity to translate this vision into a generation of cycling heroes.

While Van den Haute designed the course, its outline was agreed by the whole editorial team at Sportwereld. Crucially it was agreed that the race should start and finish in Ghent.

At the time a French-speaking elite held power in this quintessentially Flandrian city. Van Wijnendaele wanted to get ordinary Flemish people out onto the streets, cheering on their own riders, in their own language, sponsored by their own newspaper, as a political nose-thumbing to the Walloon interlopers.

It worked. Over the course of its history, the Tour of Flanders has become inextricably linked with Flemish identity, politics and culture. In the middle of the 20th century, with Walloon industry going into decline, Flanders regained the supremacy it had 400 years earlier, when Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges were major industrial and cultural powerhouses.

The modern Tour of Flanders is both a celebration of that resurgence and a reminder of the values of the region. Although the idea for the race almost certainly came from Van den Haute, Van Wijnendaele has become known as the father of the race nicknamed Vlaanderens Mooiste - Flanders’ Finest. His vision resonated with the people in 1913, and it still resonates now. Cycling’s other monuments have tremendous history attached to them, but no other race defines a nation the way the Tour of Flanders does.

Beers for Van Lerberghe

Henri Van Lerberghe, runner-up in 1914 and winner in 1919, was the epitome of a Flandrian hero, at least according to Van Wijnendaele’s vision. The race director thought that a true Flandrian rode only with brute force, not tactics or any kind of finesse. Van Lerberghe, an ex-soldier by the time he returned to the race after the war, was tough, simple and stubborn. He put his head down and rode hard for as long as possible—not the most advanced tactical strategy, even in those days, but on the crumbling roads of post-war Flanders, it had its merits.

In 1919, Van Lerberghe turned up on a single-speed bike, and on the Kwaremont he lived up to his fantastic nickname, The Death Rider of Lichtervelde (so-called because he used to tell other riders that he would ride them into an early grave, or die trying). He pulled clear and set about driving on all the way to the finish, only to find his route blocked by a train that had stopped in the middle of a level crossing. Such a trifle wasn’t going to deny Henri his victory. He hoisted his bike onto his shoulder, stepped into the train, through to the other side and carried on his way. One likes to think he tipped his hat to an astonished old lady sitting in the carriage.

The finish in Gentbrugge was on a cinder cycling track. Van Lerberghe arrived 15 minutes clear of the nearest chaser and made the most of his laps of honour, riding slowly around the track, waving to the crowd, with a bottle of beer handed up from the race staff. When he finally got round to crossing the finishing line, he bellowed: “I’m half a day ahead. You can all go home now!” For his efforts he won three kilos of beef and two bottles of wine.

An English Gentleman?

The only British win in the men’s Tour of Flanders was by Tom Simpson in 1961, and it was controversial. Simpson, in only his second year as a professional, had never ridden the Ronde before, but he adapted well. After the overwhelming favourite Rik Van Looy, in the rainbow bands of world champion, crashed out at the foot of the Kruisberg, the race was wide open. Simpson and Italian rider Nino Defilippis bridged from the peloton to a breakaway group, then sprang clear on the Grotenberge, the final climb.

For many years after the race, Defilippis complained bitterly that Simpson tricked him twice: firstly by pretending to be tired, secondly by pretending in the final sprint to have gone too early, only to surge past Defilippis and take the victory.

The truth about that final sprint is murky, because high winds had blown the finis banner down at Wetteren. The organisers posted a man with a red flag on the line, and most accounts say that Simpson sprinted for that marker, whereas Defilippis timed his sprint for a different, earlier flag.

Afterwards, the man from Turin protested and his team asked Simpson if he would consider equal first status. “Not on your life!” he recalled in his autobiography Cycling Is My Life. “They told me that an Italian had not won a classic since 1953, but I replied that an Englishman had not won one since 1896!”

Briek Schotte’s Ten Commandments

When Briek Schotte died, many considered it to be the end of a dynasty. Schotte was the last of the Flandrians, a throwback to the heroic period before the Second World War. Born in 1919 near Ghent, Schotte rode in 20 consecutive editions of the Ronde. He won twice and finished on the podium six more times. He loved racing in cold, wet conditions and covered his legs with candle wax for protection. During the war he would go to illegal slaughterhouses to buy steak. A typical race day breakfast was steak, eggs, buttered bread and coffee.

Schotte travelled to races by train, his contraband meat packed in a suitcase, and would often cycle home afterwards. Part of his reputation was built on his skills as a mechanic. The atrocious roads played havoc with bikes, and Schotte is reputed to have repaired a brake with wire torn off a fence, and mended a punctured tubular with needle and thread borrowed from a spectator.

A L’Equipe writer described his riding style: “Fierce in battle, sometimes slow to get going, but terribly effective at the end of races. He can deal with heat and bad weather, taking advantage of an ascetic’s life and his commitment to training. Finally, he knows how to suffer more than the rest. Very stretched out on the bike, his chiselled face flush with his bars, his blue hat pulled down to his ears, he can be picked out from afar.”

He died on the day that Steffen Wesemann outsprinted Leif Hoste to win the 2004 Tour of Flanders. These are Briek Schotte’s ten commandments for being Flandrian. It’s not a bad way to live.

  1. Be content with what you have
  2. With willpower and patience, you can go anywhere
  3. Tired? If you’re tired, you must sleep
  4. Never lose your freedom
  5. Remain yourself
  6. By looking, you learn a lot
  7. Anyone who lets go is lost
  8. Never forget where you come from
  9. Don’t believe in dreams that cannot be achieved
  10. He who speaks evil will reap evil

Generation Game

Matt Brammeier is a very canny rider. In the 2015 Tour of Flanders, he got himself into the early break, then to general mystification sprinted hard through the village of Sint Eloois Winkel after 34 kilometres. The reason? Former professional Nico Mattan was offering a prize for the first rider through—his weight in Stene Molen beer. After the race, MTN-Qhubeka manager Brian Smith maintained that Brammeier had only been following team orders by getting into the break, but then went on to admit: “Like all cyclists, he likes beer.”

Brammeier’s intentions were made clear when a picture emerged of his handlebar stem notes—alongside the list of hellingen was a picture of a foaming beer mug, marked 34km. And in a further tactical masterstroke, Brammeier shared his prize out between the team mechanics and helpers, who are now friends for life. All of which is in keeping with the race’s history of offering weird and wonderful prizes.

The straitened years during and immediately after the Second World War meant that organisers could only offer whatever goods they could lay their hands on. There was cycling kit, razor blades, bottles of wine, golf trousers, a mattress, cigars and a coffee table. In 1947 the first three French finishers were awarded ten kilos of coffee to take back over the border.

In an echo of the maglia nera and lanterne rouge, the Ronde has a tradition of rewarding last place. In 1948 the last rider into the finish at Eeklo was awarded 100 Francs. The following year, the last four riders were given bottles of massage oil. Was there just a hint of irony about this prize?

Climbing Ladders

In the 1970s, many of the cobbled roads of the region were being resurfaced and rendered unusable for the Ronde, leading to worries that it was becoming too easy. To preserve the race’s identity, the organisers added some new climbs, one of which was to become infamous.

It starts out innocently enough, but grows more sinister as gravity begins to pull at you. As the cobbles take you into the trees, your lungs are strongly advising you to stop, and you still haven’t reached the worst part. The Koppenberg is one of the most feared, famed, loved and loathed climbs in cycling.

Its first inclusion was in 1976 and what happened in that race set the tone for the climb’s ongoing reputation. Five riders—Francesco Moser, Roger De Vlaeminck, Marc Demeyer, Freddie Maertens and Walter Planckaert—crested the hill on their bikes. The rest were reduced to trudging up in their wholly unsuitable footwear. Among them was Eddy Merckx, who later declared: “It’s irresponsible to keep this hill in the race. You might as well make the cyclists climb ladders with bikes round their necks.”

The difficulty lies not only in the cobbles and the gradient but in the trench the road sits in. Banks of earth rise up steeply from the gutters, and overhead the trees knit their branches together, condemning the road to constant gloom. The cobbles there never seem to get properly dry. They’re either a bit slippery, very slippery or completely unrideable.

Despite Merckx’s complaints, the Koppenberg became an annual feature. While it rarely decides the winner, it does play a role in the whittling down process. Coming just after the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg, two of the hardest climbs in the race, over 200 kilometres into the race, the Koppenberg weeds out anyone not on top form. If you’re not at the front, you’re entering yourself into a lottery.

In 1984, only two riders, Phil Anderson and Jan Raas, made it up the climb on their bikes. The following year Raas wasn’t so lucky. Caught in the melee, the Dutchman vented his frustration by punching a photographer in the face.

After the Jesper Skibby incident in 1987, where the Danish cyclist crashed whilst alone in the lead, then promptly had his bike crushed under the wheels of an official’s car, the Koppenberg was removed from the route. Resurfacing allowed it to be reinstated in 2002, and it’s been a near-fixture ever since.

Every year we wait for that first wobble, that first foot unclipped, and the ensuing chaos. Photographs of riders pushing or carrying their bikes cyclo-cross style have become part of the legend of the Tour of Flanders. While the strongest of our heroes power up over the cobbles, the rest of the peloton are humbled. It’s pure theatre.

Ludo

Start your career as a professional road cyclist in your late twenties? Highly improbable. For eight years, Ludo Dierckxsens worked as a painter in a DAF trucks factory, combining the daily grind with amateur racing. He was a talented rider but wary of the insecurity of being a professional cyclist. Then a wave of redundancies swept through his workplace. Dierckxsens survived the cuts but the experience of seeing his mates laid off made him re-evaluate.

Speaking to Samuel Abt in 1998, he said: “When that happened, I had the opportunity to go with the pros and I thought, ‘Even though I still have my job, from day to day you can lose it.’ So I joined a pro team and I’m very happy I did.”

After serving his time riding Belgian kermesses with Saxon, Collstrop and Tönissteiner, Dierckxsens moved onto a bigger stage with Lotto, and his attacking style—along with his trademark bald head—won him the attention of the media and fans. He was a kind of brutalist version of Marco Pantani. He was clearly enjoying himself, and his raw strength made up for what he lacked in style.

Dierckxsens finest moment came in the 1999 Tour de France, when he won alone into Saint-Étienne, resplendent in the Belgium champion’s jersey. Unfortunately his finest moment soon turned into his lowest. At the doping control afterwards, when asked if he’d taken any controlled substances the tester should be aware of, Dierckxsens mentioned using a corticosteroid treatment earlier in the season. His Lampre team were upset at not being aware of this, and promptly sent him home.

As a Flandrian, Dierckxsens loved the Ronde and he was often an animator. In 2001, aged 36, he was in the decisive breakaway and led over most of the hellingen with a smile on his face. When his Lampre leader Max Sciandri came up from behind, Dierckxsens stayed with the frontrunners and helped his captain. But there was no fairytale finish: Sciandri started his sprint too early and finished eighth. Ludo finished ninth. Dierckxsens went on racing until he was 40 and has remained a popular, genial figure on the Flemish circuit.

Flandrian bike racing fans like their heroes to be men of the soil, or of the factory. They respond to riders who work hard, are approachable, honour family and tradition. Dierckxsens fitted that mould. Publicly he never regretted his late start, but one wonders how often, whilst spinning along in the peloton, he thought about those years he wasted in the DAF paintshop.

Wrong way Ronde

Not known for its progressive views on gender equality, the Belgian cycling establishment did itself no favours when the 2005 Women’s Tour of Flanders ended in utter chaos. On a sunny and blustery day, the peloton had raced hard over the 112km course. Coming into the final kilometres, team-mates Mirjam Melchers and Susanne Ljungskog were clear of a 20-strong chasing group, having jumped away over the top of the Muur de Geraardsbergen.

But while Melchers and Ljungskog lined up to fight out the victory, an official car took the chasing group off the course and into the suburbs of Meerbeke. They eventually emerged beyond the finish and rode back through the finishing line the wrong way. The mistake was exacerbated when officials decided to award World Cup points to Melchers and Ljungskog and disqualify everyone in the chasing group. Oenone Wood, who lost her World Cup leader’s jersey, summed it up perfectly: “It’s totally shit.”

The following week the World Cup moved on to the Flèche Wallonne but race officials managed to remember to go up the Mur de Huy, rather than down it.

This article was first published in Rouleur issue 61 in 2016. Click here to subscribe.