February is drawing to a close, which in cycling circles means only one thing: it’s time for Opening Weekend – the annual curtain raiser to the cobbled classics campaign and, in most cycling fans’ eyes, the start of the ‘real’ racing season.
On Saturday, Tom Pidcock, Annemiek van Vleuten, and co. will sharpen their elbows and become reacquainted with Flanders’ famous cobbled bergs at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Still referred to by purists by its previous, more evocative title, Het Volk (in reality, both names were derived from local newspapers), semi-classic Omloop features some of cycling’s most famous climbs on its menu – including the fabled Muur van Geraardsbergen – and usually acts as an appetite whetting amuse-bouche before the more prestigious action to come in April.
Then on Sunday, the men’s and women’s pelotons take on the somewhat less challenging, more sprinter-friendly, but still pretty cobbly Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and Omloop van het Hageland, respectively.
So, expect lots of battling for position, explosive attacks, plenty of frites, and some of the most passionate (and drunk) fans anywhere in the cycling world.
> Flandriens, fries, and fighting for position: the beautiful brutality of the Tour of Flanders
And like any good cycling cliché, Opening Weekend is sure to incite the same old, untiring annual debates and hot takes.
‘Has Rider X peaked too early?’
‘It’s a long way to Roubaix.’
‘Put the Muur and Bosberg combo back in its rightful place at the Tour of Flanders’ (This one I can fully get behind.)
Another of Opening Weekend’s sacred traditions, which lasted for over a decade, was Tom Boonen’s annual attack on the Taaienberg, a short, sharp, and bumpy hill described by the three-time Tour of Flanders winner as “my climb”.
One of the greatest cobbled classics riders of all time, Tommeke famously never actually tasted success at Omloop, despite several close calls (and one embarrassing defeat to a heavily outnumbered Ian Stannard in 2015), though he did, however, manage to win the following day’s rendezvous in Kuurne three times.
But that annual surge on the Taaienberg, leg warmers ditched at the side of the road and roared on by the frite-munching, beer-spilling Belgian masses, always marked cycling’s first sign of spring.
Such was Boonen’s intrinsic relationship with that particular hill – nicknamed, of course, the Boonenberg – that last month, a bronze statue of one of Flanders’ greatest sons was unveiled near its summit.
Or, to be more precise, a statue of Boonen’s legs was unveiled.
Unfortunately, the peloton will have to wait another month to race past Belgium’s most famous set of pins immortalised in bronze, with the Boonenberg missing from this year’s Omloop route.
But, inspired by one of the more, shall we say, unique statues of a sporting icon we’ve ever seen, we decided to mark Opening Weekend by taking a brief tour of Belgium’s wonderful, and quite often weird, collection of cycling statues.
In Belgium there are, unsurprisingly, over 180 busts, monuments, plaques, and street names dedicated to the country’s greatest two-wheeled heroes, so we thought we’d limit our collection to some of the most eye-catching or unusual statues.
First stop, of course, is the Taaienberg…
Tom Boonen’s bronze legs
Who: Tom Boonen, four-time Paris-Roubaix winner, three-time Tour of Flanders winner, and Belgian techno song inspiration
Where: Maarkedal, near the top of the Taaienberg
What: A pair of standalone legs, obviously. But they are the most famous legs in Belgium after all
“It’s not your typical statue of an ex-pro,” Tommeke said of his unusual tribute. “I am very proud. When I saw this proposal, I immediately said this is the one.”
To create the bronze casts for the ‘Boonen Beenen’ (the imaginatively titled ‘Boonen’s Legs’), the 42-year-old former world champion – who said last month that he’s considering a return to racing, but on the gravel bike – had to stand on each leg for three hours.
Now that’s the level of commitment needed to become the joint-greatest Ronde rider of all time… And to puzzle any unsuspecting riders slogging up the Taaienberg.
Jef Demuysere’s ‘everything but the legs’
Who: Jef Demuysere, 1934 Milan-San Remo winner
Where: Wervik, West Flanders
What: A typical representation of the hard, relentless ‘Flandrien’ cyclist, just caught off at the thighs for some reason
So, how do you follow a statue of just a pair of legs? By heading to a statue with barely any legs, of course.
Nicknamed the ‘Flemish Bull’, Jef Demuysere had a stellar career in the 1920s and 1930s, finishing on the podium of the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia twice each, while taking stage wins in both grand tours and winning the Tour’s mountains prize.
He was also a Belgian national cyclocross champion and won Milan-San Remo in 1934, an impressive feat given the Italian hegemony over La Primavera at the time.
This statue, unveiled in 2007 to mark the centenary of his birth in his hometown of Wervik, captures the essence of both the era (note the goggles and the inner tube wrapped around the torso) and the hardworking, never-say-die Flemish flahute.
But for some reason, Demuysere is cut off at mid-thigh. Perhaps Jef and Tommeke could team up and create an unbeatable statue?
Iron Briek, but smaller
Who: Alberic ‘Briek’ Schotte, double world champion and Ronde winner, and the Flandrien of all Flandriens
Where: Kanegem, West Flanders
What: A smaller than life size tribute, by request, to the typically modest Flandrien
If anyone asked you to define Flemish cycling culture, you could do a lot worse than pointing them to a picture of Briek Schotte.
A double winner of both the world championships and the Tour of Flanders, and a second place finisher behind Gino Bartali at the brutal 1948 Tour de France, Schotte was one of the great cyclists of the immediate post-war era.
But more than that, he epitomised what Belgian cycling fans call ‘the Flandrien’ – barrel-chested, face weather beaten (like the farmers who cheered him on at the roadsides), with an ungainly, hammer-at-the-pedals riding style and a relentless attitude.
He also characterised the modesty at the heart of Flemish identity.
In Harry Pearson’s excellent exploration of cycling’s Flemish heartlands, ‘The Beast, the Emperor, and the Milkman’, a local told the author that when his hometown of Kanegem decided to honour him with a statue, Schotte replied: “Yes, but on two conditions: it must be no bigger than life size, and they must not put it on a pedestal.”
A true Flandrien, in every sense.
Odiel Defraeye, the conqueror of France
Who: Odiel Defraeye, the first Belgian winner of the Tour de France
Where: Roeselare, West Flanders
What: Defraeye riding high over his 1912 Tour route
As one of the first Flemish pioneers to win big outside Belgium’s borders, it’s perhaps no surprise that Odiel Defraeye – the first Belgian winner of the Tour de France in 1912 (who also triumphed at Milan-San Remo the following year) – is memorialised with a statue which also includes, you guessed it, a map of France.
Unveiled in 2012 to mark 100 years since his ground-breaking Tour victory, Defraeye’s statue in Roeselare also allows visitors the opportunity to ruminate on the Tour organisers’ border-skirting route plans a century ago. Can you imagine if Twitter existed back then?
Lucien Buysse, the man who cycled through walls
Who: Lucien Buysse, 1926 Tour de France winner
Where: Wontergem, a village near Deinze, East Flanders
What: A cycling variation on ‘Le Passe-muraille’
Another Belgian winner of the Tour de France, Lucien Buysse dominated the 1926 edition of the Grande Boucle – at 5,745 kilometres, the longest in the race’s history – despite receiving the devastating news that his daughter had died during the event.
Though he lived his whole life in East Flanders, Buysse excelled on the climbs of Wallonia and France. But that didn’t stop those commemorating his achievements from depicting him in the true Flandrien style: emerging from rock.
Eddy Merckx, everywhere
Befitting one of the very few riders to transcend Belgium’s often fierce linguistic and cultural divide, it’s perhaps no surprise that Eddy Merckx has been memorialised by a host of statues in both Flanders and Wallonia.
This rather unusual tribute (I suppose art is subjective) was unveiled in 1993 in Stavelot, on the slopes of the Côte de Stockeu, one of the defining climbs of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, a classic won by the Cannibal five times during his staggering career.
Meanwhile, this statue – in the Flemish Brabant municipality of Tielt-Winge (which also hosts the finish of Omloop van het Hageland) – depicts Merckx carrying the hopes of Belgium on his shoulders, and forms the centre of a 30km cycling route around the area.
And, finally, this one in Wolvertem captures the feelings of those riders tasked with keeping up with the Cannibal – he’s everywhere…
As I noted above, there are almost 200 tributes to cycling legends around Belgium, so let us know if we missed any particularly noteworthy ones out.
And then maybe we’ll put together a part two in time for the Tour of Flanders, complete with joint-Ronde record holder Achiel Buysse’s ‘rake for a head’ scrap metal memorial in Wetteren, while also tackling the mystery surrounding the removal of legendary classics rider – but divisive personality – Rik van Steenbergen’s statue in Waregem.
Meanwhile, just sit back, have a beer, eat some chips, and enjoy the return of the cobbled classics…
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