Paul Deman (1889-1961), from Rekkem in West-Flanders, the first winner of the Tour of Flanders in 1913. Photo from about 1922 | Roeselare, KOERS – Museum van de wielersport, AC05570

Arts & Sciences
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The Tour of Flanders

The Land of the Road Race

‘Flanders’ finest’: with that expression Flemings are not referring to a person, a landscape or a painting, but to a cycle race. That says something about the popularity of cycle racing in general – and the Tour of Flanders in particular.

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The first starting gun for the Tour of Flanders rang out on 25 May 1913 in Ghent. The cycle race through the provinces East- and West-Flanders grew quickly to become the annual high point of the cycling calendar. That had to do with the often tense course of the race, assured by the tough cobble strips, and, after the Second World War, by nasty hills like the Koppenberg, the Wall of Geraardsbergen and the Oude Kwaremont. In addition the popularity was increased by clever publicity. Sportwereld (Sporting World), the paper that took the initiative, marketed the Tour as a Flemish symbol of sporting prowess and heroism.


Roeselare, KOERS – Museum van de wielersport, NEGT0236009, Maurice Terryn

Evening criterium for professional racing cyclists in Poperinge, 1970. The cyclist in the photo is Walter Godefroot, who won the Tour of Flanders in 1968 and 1978. The fact that cycling racing was so strongly present in daily life, was partly due to the many local races. Up to the end of the 20th century almost every town or village had its own carnival race.

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The Land of the Road Race

Football, tennis, athletics… A lot of sport goes on in Flanders, recreationally and professionally. But cycle racing is the only sport recognised as ‘typically Flemish’, both in Flanders and outside.

The causes of that status lie in the past. At the end of the 19thcentury it was mainly richer bourgeois who embraced cycling. Cycles were expensive. But after 1900 prices dropped and the sport had a breakthrough with the wider public. There were races everywhere, organised by local associations and sponsored by the business class. They could be sure of plenty of spectators, as watching was free.

Around the First World War Belgian racers clocked up international successes too. In France they won prestigious races like the Tour de France. A real sports industry emerged. The cycle teams of the big French cycle manufacturers employed Belgian pros, while the growing sports press provided a stream of cycling news.

Sport struck deep roots in life. Many people tried their luck as racers. Sportwereld, founded in 1912, constantly emphasised that. Editor-in-chief Karel van Wijnendaele was pro-Flemish and wanted to strengthen the identity of Flemings. He wrote about cycle racing as a true people’s sport, in which Flemings showed themselves at their best. His words had influence, many people started to see cycle racing as a ‘Flemish sport.’ The success achieved by Flemish racers in the 20th and 21st centuries, strengthened that idea even more.

Focal points

Briek Schotte.

Wikimedia Commons

The statue of Briek Schotte in Kanegem in West-Flanders by Jef Claerhout (1996).

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Briek Schotte, from Farmer’s Son to Cycling Hero

Albéric ‘Briek’ Schotte, a farmer’s son from Kanegem in West-Flanders, was one of the most successful racing cyclists of the 1940s. Besides two world championship titles he twice won the Tour of Flanders. Racing was a passion for him, but also way of getting on in the world, since winning races brought in more than working in the fields or in the factory. That stimulated many other young men from poor backgrounds to try their luck as pro cyclists.

Schotte conformed to the ideal image of the ‘ordinary Fleming’: simple, honest and courageous. His riding style seemed to exemplify those virtues. He worked hard on the bike, often attacked and performed well in rain and storms, certainly on the cobbled roads of Flanders and Northern France, which were difficult to ride. That won him the honorific title of ‘flandrien’. Sportwereld launched the term in 1913 to refer to racers always keen to attack from West- and East-Flanders. The enduring popularity of the term ‘flandrien’ shows that cycle racing in Flanders is tied up with the formation of a national identity. The press in its reporting sings the praises of successful Flemish racers as heroic achievements that reveal something of the ‘Flemish national character’. During races like the Tour of Flanders or the cobble classic Paris-Roubaix Flemish-nationalist activists distribute Flemish Lion flags to the spectators.


Belga Image, 932942

The Beerschot football team. After the First World War football grew into a mass participatory and spectator sport.

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From the Elite to the Masses: Sport in Flanders

The sports we know today mainly originated in the 19th century. First it was the urban bourgeoisie who started playing sport, under the influence of neighbouring countries like Great Britain and France. They had the time and the money to devote themselves to sailing, fencing or football. From the 1890s on they founded sports clubs and national federations to organise their favourite sports better.

After 1900 sport reached the masses. Boxing and wrestling had wide success. Besides cycle racing football particularly grew rapidly in popularity after the First World War. Clubs sprang up in many villages and towns, while top teams like Antwerp FC, Beerschot AC, Club Brugge, SK Lierse and Union Sint-Gillis attracted many spectators.

In 1971 sport became one of the first responsibilities of the new Flemish Government. Flemish sports policy relied heavily on ‘Sport for All’: getting as many people as possible doing sport. Thanks to increasing prosperity, Flemings had more time and means to do sport for their health, for social contact and for their pleasure. The number of people involved in sport rose sharply. In the 21st century it was mainly activities like fitness and running that became popular. They fit in well with the more individual, flexible way in which people want to pursue sport nowadays.

Cyrille van Hauwaert.
Roeselare, KOERS – Museum van de wielersport, A00521

Cyriel van Hauwaert (1883-1974), nicknamed ‘The Lion of Flanders’, was the first Belgian to win Bordeaux-Paris in 1907 and a year later also Paris-Roubaix and Milan-San Remo.

Alphonse Steurs.
Hofstade, Sportimonium, SMVVL00282

The well-known wrestler Alphonse Steurs (1875-1955) from Morkhoven (Antwerp Province) on a poster from the 1920s.

Roeselare, KOERS – Museum van de wielersport, NEGT0363022

Particularly after the Second World War cyclocross became a much-watched cycling discipline in Flanders. Erik De Vlaminck (1945 -2015) from Eeklo became seven times world champion. Here we see him in action in Koksijde in 1971.

Ivo Van Damme.
Belga Image, 7661

Ivo Van Damme (1954-1976) won two silver medals at the Olympic Games in Montreal in 1976. The Belgian records which he set for the 800 and 1500 metres still stand. The top tournament Memorial Van Damme is named after him.

Een volleybalwedstrijd in de sporthal van Mortsel. In de jaren 1970 stimuleerde de Vlaamse overheid de bouw van lokale sportinfrastructuur. Op veel plaatsen rezen nieuwe sportcomplexen uit de grond.
Hofstade, Sportimonium, SMVVE01972

A volleyball game in the sports hall in Mortsel. In the 1970s the Flemish government encouraged the building of local sports infrastructure. In many places new sports complexes mushroomed.

Marieke Vervoort.
Belga Image, 1847166

Marieke ‘Wielemie’ Vervoort (1979-2019) from Diest was one of the best-known sportswomen with a disability. She won medals in the wheelchair races at the Paralympic Games of London and Rio de Janeiro.

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