“Follow me please,” says Peter De Koeper. “Here you can see the white cross is signed by Stefan, here is a viewing spot, so when we are carrying it you can see out. Then here in the end we have the entrance. Currently, you can put your shoulders on it and then you can lift it.”
It’s 9:30am and I’m standing inside Stefan Küng. Not the real one, of course, but a 20ft giant effigy made of aluminium and polystyrene. Entry is around the back, through a gap in his jersey. There indeed a small viewing spot that offers some degree of forward visibility, though not much.
Two heavily padded struts allow Giant Stefan to stand up, rotate, wander around and bop along to Europop, all courtesy of his pilot. Although coming in at around 20kg and with his centre of gravity rather high off the ground, this Stefan won’t be winning any prizes for style any time soon.
Giant Stefan is the property of the King Küng Freunde, a fan club for Groupama-FDJ’s Swiss Classics specialist based in the tiny Flemish municipality of Hamme, the hometown of Greg Van Avermaet. Its race day at the Tour of Flanders and the peloton will pass right under Giant Stefan’s nose.
But why is there a giant effigy of Stefan Küng in the middle of deepest darkest Flanders, hundreds of miles from Switzerland? Tom Vijt, the fan club’s PR manager and vice president, explains.
“We always used to go to the buses at races and we saw Greg Van Avermaet with a lot of fans. We saw Daniel Oss with a lot of fans. And then we saw Stefan Küng, without a lot of fans,” he says. “At that moment we thought we should make a banner reading: Viel Glück Stefan und Greg [Good Luck Stefan and Greg]. Stefan was happy about it, though it was a bit like, ‘are they laughing at me or supporting me?’”
What started as five friends soon grew to 20 and has now snowballed to 160 members across Europe and the world. “Last week we received a mail from Italy saying, can I be a King Küng Freunde?” says Vijt. “Of course you can!”
Giant Stefan itself came about because of Hamme’s folk tradition of building large models of notable local residents or tradespeople worthy of a caricature. Küng, however, is the first foreigner to be bestowed the honour of being immortalised in giant effigy form.
“When we started the local newspaper came to us and asked us, what is your goal? We said we had two goals: bringing Stefan to our village and making a giant version of him.”
In both aspects, the King Küng Freunde have passed with flying colours. Their project manager Peter (“this is his only project…” adds Vijt) was temporarily laid off from work during the first Covid-19 pandemic lockdown so he bought an unwieldy amount of polystyrene and set to work. Two hundred hours later, approximately, Giant Stefan was born. He now lives in the club manager’s garage (much to the club manager’s girlfriend’s chagrin because it means she can no longer park her car).
“The body was not much work but the head was a difficult one,” says De Koeper. “The head was a cube of polystyrene and I had to carve it off with a knife and other tools.”
The Real Stefan has also paid a visit to the King Küng Freunde’s HQ (the De Vier Gekroonden pub in Hamme), with his fan club treating him to an achingly catchy rendition of their ‘Stefan Küng’ song a few days before the race. Mission accomplished (and Stefan Küng is now living in your head rent free).
Küng Küng Küng Stefan Küng Küng Stefan Stefan Küng pic.twitter.com/7brYpmqrPe— Équipe Cycliste Groupama-FDJ (@GroupamaFDJ) April 1, 2022
The Tour of Flanders is the biggest day in the club’s calendar, a chance to see and support Real Stefan on home turf. But there are a few rules. Firstly, members must wish to see Real Stefan win the Tour of Flanders and must passionately believe he will do so. However they should never, ever place a bet on him.
“Oh no no no,” says club president Roel De Corte. “You can’t mix your wallet with your heart.”
Second: relationships with other fan clubs must always be good-natured. “That’s Flanders,” says Tom Vijt. “You encourage your own rider but if someone else wins, you still applaud. We are no hooligans.”
De Corte adds: “if he doesn’t win, we are sad for five seconds, we think about how much we love him, and then we get on with our lives.”
But of course Real Stefan is going to win (see rule one) and when he does, members drink Palm beer. If Palm is not available, they drink Kwaremont. On the evidence of this morning, alcohol consumption isn’t entirely contingent on him winning (even though he will).
“We’re gonna wave to the riders,” says De Corte of his club's race day plans. “And then we’re gonna get drunk. And if he wins, he [real Stefan] comes to our village and we’re gonna get even more drunk.”
I step out of Giant Stefan’s cosy red interior to watch the race with the King Küng Freunde and smile at how this welcoming group of friends are keeping the traditions of their village and their race alive (not to mention keeping the local breweries in the black).
As the breakaway passes by without Real Stefan, all eyes focus intensely on the incoming peloton. Swiss flags sway in the breeze and songs ring out. Finally, a Groupama-FDJ jersey zooms by on the left and waves his hand in the air. A huge cheer erupts amongst the King Küng Freunde; Real Stefan has acknowledged Giant Stefan and the King Küng Freunde. He is very much in the race. Five hours later, after a spirited and impressive performance he crosses the line in fifth place.
“Yeah sure,” I saw them, Real Stefan says at the finish line in Oudenaarde. “I said this morning, I might not be the best rider in the world, but I probably have the best fan club in the world.”