My friends back home are always raving on about how great the cycling culture in Belgium is. A few even plan trips over to watch some of the bigger races and stay for a few weeks. I have seen all of the pictures and stories on the internet ; crazy Belgian cycling fans causing havoc on the sidelines as they sink beers while screaming at the bikes going past. Despite this, I never really appreciated what they were on about.
Last week I did a classics race in Belgium and got a taste of what its all about. When I arrived, the first thing I noticed was the number of people riding bikes. They were everywhere, even going the wrong way down one-way streets. I was told by my Belgian team mates that in Belgium, everything is okay if you are on a bike.
Before the race was even close to starting, fans had already swamped the team buses and the start area. The Belgian ProTour teams drew a particularly large crowd as fans pushed for water bottles, signatures or even a glimpse of their national heroes.
The race began with a 3km 'parade' around the town of Leuven and the entire course was lined with fans at least 4 deep. For the next 200km, it wasn't much different with people on the side of the road screaming. There was even the odd family stopping for a picnic to watch the race and VIP's sipping champagne seemingly in the middle of nowhere as the race went past. Cycling in Belgium seems to have more spectators than the most popular sport in Australia and it is not just a small portion of the population that appreciates it. There were small kids, families, obvious middle-aged cycling fanatics and elderly folk that cheered just as hard.
Since Belgium is such a cycling passionate place, every Belgium rider racing has high hopes of putting on a good show in their home country. The race is televised live, so getting into the early breakaway means that friends and family will see them racing. The team's 2.5 Belgian riders (1 is from Netherlands so he is pretty much Belgian) were keen to make the break and put in the effort to get away at the start. One rider almost made a gap until the peleton charged it back down. Eventually, a small group of 3 riders managed to get away and the peleton began to ease up. I found myself on the front line and took the opportunity to bridge the gap. Myself and two others joined the 3 leaders and established a lead of over 6 minutes.
As we made our way around the course, people were screaming out my name and urging me on. Apparently, back at the team bus, my presence in the break caused some more fans to come and see what we are all about and before the race was even over, we were on the website of one of Belgium's biggest newspapers!
The passion for cycling in Belgium is phenomenal and it is something that I encourage everyone to experience. If you don't like cycling, that's okay because there are 3 other things that Belgian's are passionate about that you are bound to enjoy... Beer, Chocolate and Waffles!