Beers, bikes and bartender fans – a beginner’s guide to watching a bike race in Belgium

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The tone was set for the day’s race when the Belgians ‘favorite son, Wout van Aert, entered Monsignor Ladeuzeplein’s fan zone for the drivers’ signing before the race – but little could have prepared me for the intensity of watching the World Championships in Flanders.

After a 20 year hiatus, the world championships returned to Belgium for 2021 and the crowd reaction as van Aert took the stage was unlike anything I had ever seen or heard in a race. bike.

Not only was Flanders hosting the world championships, but van Aert was the bookies favorite for the men’s race. And they supported their rider with all the fervor you would expect from a partisan and passionate cycling crowd in the spiritual home of cycling.

I was lucky enough to be in Leuven for the 2021 UCI Road World Championship and I decided to immerse myself as much as possible in the Belgian cycling experience.

Although I have competed in more than a few road races in my time, my goal is always to bring you, dear readers, the best galleries of professional bikes and new techniques from the sharp end of the sport. This means that I spend my time harassing stressed mechanics on team buses and sweating in a press room.

However, Covid has changed the entire setup of major races, with team access almost entirely cut off.

This time, I was in Belgium for a bike launch (that’s all I can say about it for now …), and between my clicking around the most beautiful banks outside of Leuven, I ‘had managed to catch snippets of the junior, under-23 and women’s races, but seized the opportunity to spend a full day watching the elite men’s race on Sunday.

It turns out that there is no better place to watch a world championship than in Belgium. Here is what I learned from three days in Flanders.

Worlds are a real test of endurance

The morning action took its toll on this fan at 1pm.
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

The World Championship road races are notoriously long – 268km in the case of the 2021 elite men’s race – and a real test of endurance for the best runners in the sport.

Turns out it’s not just a long day for runners, though.

Crowds with a chronic fear of dehydration were already emptying local beer shops seven hours before the final laps of the race were scheduled to arrive in town. The main viewpoints on the road were secured with the same enthusiasm.

This commitment to both drink and watch during the day is remarkable – for the everyday Belgian cycling fan, this is a one-day event that clearly requires remarkable endurance.

Preparation is the key

2021 UCI Flanders Road World Championships

As I half climbed streetlights like an idiot, these people had clearly been a bike ride or two in their time.
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

An estimated one million spectators were in Flanders to watch Sunday’s race.

In addition to filling up with beer from the start, the best-prepared Belgian cycling super-fans had also brought chairs or ladders to ensure they got a glimpse of the action.

A folding chair was also a must have accessory for anyone whose ability to drink seven percent Belgian beers is more like the endurance of an hour-long cyclocross rider than a six-hour road world champion. time.

Dress for the occasion

2021-1 Flanders UCI Road World Championships

More the merrier, the merrier.
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

Costumes also play a big role in the culture of the viewer.

At the bare minimum, stacking as many free cycling caps as possible seemed to be de rigueur for the worlds.

But those with a high personal sweat threshold have gone so far as to bury themselves in elaborate and, in many cases, beer-themed outfits.

2021 UCI Flanders Road World Championships

I can’t imagine how bad this costume would smell at the end of a long day of screaming and drinking.
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

Horse rider fan clubs are the real deal

2021 UCI Flanders Road World Championships

Traveling from Slovenia to catch just a few seconds of racing shows an extraordinary commitment to the sport.
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

Apart from the obvious hordes of avid Wout van Aert fans, I also immersed myself in the completely alien concept of rider fan clubs.

Legions of dedicated Sonny Colbrelli and Peter Sagan fans traveled from their home countries to line the roads with matching flags, T-shirts and hats.

2021 UCI Flanders Road World Championships

You will inevitably end up on Eurosport or Sporza with that.
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

However, the best of these roadside displays was the huge effigy of what I guess was Silvan Dillier, who took center stage among a large cohort of Swiss fans near Leuven station.

These efforts are not without payoff – elaborate displays of support are almost guaranteed to alert you to a cameo appearance on Eurosport, which must rank very high in the prize list from the dedicated cycling fan.

Remco and Wout gaan voor goud

2021 UCI Flanders Road World Championships

Enterprising fans have doubled their drinking and spectator requirements.
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

For those of you who haven’t seen a great European road race, it’s hard to describe the party atmosphere it all creates along the route.

The predominantly Belgian crowd was pretty well lubricated by midday and in a jubilant mood, with fans young and old easily motivated in a deafening chant of ‘Wout van Aert‘- despite the fact that hardly anything is happening anywhere they sit.

About van Aert, while the multidisciplinary Belgian is clearly one of cycling’s biggest stars, I hadn’t really realized how much of a name he was in his home country before arriving in Leuven.

In fact, there is not a single athlete who is revered to the same level in the UK. He was elevated to a near-god status which is usually reserved for entire teams, not individuals.

Van Aert’s fame only increased when I set out to research the “Wout van Aert song” that I had heard all day – only to find that there are, remarkably, more. ‘a.

Some of them have accumulated over 180,000 views on YouTube.

This last success of Kletse Kieten was however the most significant of the day. It was blowing up balconies all over town and I don’t think I’ll ever forget the slightly bizarre clip. Watch it for yourself.

As Mark Cavendish and Chris Froome have become household names here in the UK, I challenge you to find a song dedicated to either, let alone one that is (almost) worth the effort. ‘to be listened to.

If you’ve never attended a bike race in Belgium, go ahead!

2021 UCI Flanders Road World Championships

What a place to have a home if you are a fan of cycling.
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

Outside of the official fan zones, almost everyone with a house along the course seemed to be using the race as an excuse to party, with those downstairs opening their windows for passing fans to watch the action. on TVs in the living room.

The atmosphere was electric from start to finish – something everyone has no doubt missed during the largely spectatorless racing calendar of the past 18 months.

Of course, cycling is not immune to the influence of idiots, and Julian Allaphalippe, who went on to win the rainbow jersey in a thrilling race, would have been partly motivated by the abuses that he suffered along the way.

While my experience was limited to the center of Leuven, these fans were in the small minority.

LEUVEN, BELGIUM - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans cheer during the 94th 2021 UCI Road World Championships - Men Elite Road Race a 268.3km race from Antwerp to Leuven / # flanders2021 / on September 26, 2021 in Leuven, Belgium.  (Photo by Alex Broadway - Pool / Getty Images)

While Wout van Aert didn’t get the result he or his Belgian fans wanted, it didn’t do much to turn off the atmosphere.
Alex Broadway – Pool / Getty Images

Either way, it didn’t matter that van Aert didn’t rank as well as many had expected.

A few hours after the end of the race, Belgian fans were still chanting his name with as much enthusiasm as at the start of the day, proving that for many the result was secondary to partying, having fun with friends and enjoy the remarkable spectacle of road racing. .

May this last a long time and I can’t wait to be back.

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