For such a small European region, the imprecisely-defined northern half of Belgium known as Flanders has produced an astonishing number of great cyclists. Beyond winners, however, Flanders is known for producing a particular type of champion: the Flandrien.
According to Cycling in Flanders a Flandrien, more than merely someone from Flanders, “is a cyclist with an unprecedented attack instinct; a cyclist who rides through all weather types, never hangs his head”.
While much has been written about Johan Museeuw (the Lion of Flanders), Eddy Merckx (the Cannibal), and Roger de Vlaeminck (‘Mr Paris-Roubaix’), here are nine notables with whom you might not be so familiar.
Briek Schotte – Winner of the Tour of Flanders in: 1942, 1948
Journalist Albert Baker d’Isy called Briek Schotte ‘The Last of the Flandriens’. A premature prophecy, as it turned out, but one that set the bar for any who aspired to follow. Schotte was a rider prepared to put in the hard training miles, one who wouldn’t pack it in as soon as the going got tough, and whose commitment to the Tour of Flanders was total.
Schotte rode the race on a record 20 consecutive occasions, from 1940 to 1959, winning twice and finishing on the podium six more times. His racing philosophy was simple: ‘No words, just deeds’, while his ‘Ten Commandments’ have also stood the test of time. They include, “be content with what you have”; “with determination and patience you can go anywhere”; and “never forget where you come from”.
Rik van Steenbergen – Winner of the Tour of Flanders in: 1944, 1946
A 19-year-old slip of a lad at the time of his 1944 Tour of Flanders victory, Rik van Steenbergen remains not just the youngest Ronde champion, but the youngest winner of any Monument.
It came about through a mixture of early attacks, which earned him the right to be in the final nine as the race reached Gent, and calamity, as one after another his opponents crashed their way out of contention. Still, if his first victory owed a lot to luck, his second two years later, following a solo attack launched with 5km to go, silenced any who might have questioned his talent.
Rik van Looy – Winner of the Tour of Flanders in: 1959, 1962
If van Steenbergen was ‘Rik I’, Rik van Looy was ‘Rik II’. A rare example of the sequel being better than the original, Van Looy is the only rider on our list to have won all five Monuments – sorry Roger. He’s also the only rider full-stop to have won every major Classic on the calendar. Take that Mr. Merckx.
To say Van Looy was not the most popular rider in the peloton, or even his Faema team, would be an understatement. He liked to laud his talent over his colleagues, and was prone to dispatching them to the team car to fetch him a mid-race bottle of Stella. Still, he was a favourite of the fans in Flanders and, with the palmarès to prove it, talented he mostly assuredly was.
Fred De Bruyne – Winner of the Tour of Flanders in: 1957
He might have been known as ‘Mr Liège-Bastogne-Liège’ but Alfred De Bruyne was as much of a Flandrien as any of his contemporaries. Starting out with the Grand Tours in sight, he ended up as a member of the elite, Belgian-dominated dozen to have claimed the Cobbled Classic Double – Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders in the same year.
His neighbour in retirement, Raphaël Géminiani, said of him: “Fred De Bruyne was a master of the classics; intelligent, crafty, devious but very strong and an excellent tactician. He wasn’t a sprinter like Van Looy or Van Steenbergen but he had a good fast finish which meant he got in the results of the biggest classics.”
Eric Leman – Winner of the Tour of Flanders in 1970, 1972, 1973
Another member of the elite three victories club, Eric Leman won the first of his wearing the colours of his local Team Flandria. Leman was a famously “strategic” rider, to put it in more flattering terms than some used at the time. He had a nose for the right moves to follow, which allowed him to husband his own resources, only going it alone when he could be sure of making it stick.
That 1970 victory came about in just such a fashion, as he took advantage of a fatigued Eddy Merckx who had been forced to spend the race chasing down breaks. The finale came down to those two and one other Belgian, Walter Godefroot. Leman made his move with 250m to go and, as the fastest sprinter of the three, had time to celebrate before crossing the line.
Eric Vanderaerden – Winner of the Tour of Flanders in: 1985
Lummen-born Vanderaerden arguably did not fulfill his early promise, which saw him take Tour de France stages, several classics, and a national champion’s jersey all before the age of 25. His 1985 Ronde victory, however, proved Vanderaerden was every inch the Flandrien.
It was a day that lives long in the memory, with biblical weather conditions rendering many of the climbs unrideable, and forcing even the most talented riders to shoulder their steeds. Only the strong would survive – just 24 of the 174 starters reached the finish – with Vanderaerden, going solo on the Muur, the strongest of these. “You have to be a little crazy to do things like this”, he remarked at the end. Indeed.
Edwig van Hooydonck – Winner of the Tour of Flanders in: 1989, 1991
April 2 1989 was another one of those race-days when it seemed only a true Flandrien could win the Ronde. Rides through all weather types? Check! Never hangs his head? Aye. An unprecedented attack instinct? Hell, yeah. As the rain poured and the peloton closed, Edwig Van Hooydonck won thanks to a perfectly timed surge on the final climb, the Bosberg. He was only 22.
Van Hooydonck would take a second and final Tour of Flanders in 1991 but refused to capitulate to the EPO era which came to dominate the sport in the 90s. Van Hooydonck retired from cycling in 1996 at the age of 29.
Read: The tears of Van Hooydonck – the two-time Flanders winner burnt by the EPO era
Peter Van Petegem – Winner of the Tour of Flanders in: 1999, 2003
In 1999, after the first of his two victories in the Tour of Flanders, Peter Van Petegem said of the Ronde: “If you want to win it you have to be cool, relaxed and attentive. The last thing you should do is throw your powers away too soon.” The manner of Van Petegem’s second victory, in 2003, proved this was more than idle words.
He made his major move on a short climb which punches its way out of the town of Brakel. The Tenbosse was only included for the first time in 1997, so while Van Petegem’s rivals could be forgiven for not being familiar, he was brought up in Brakel, and knew exactly what he was doing. Another attack on the Muur whittled the pack down to him and Frank Vandenbroucke, with Van Petegem beating his fellow Belgian in the sprint finish.
Tom Boonen – Winner of the Tour of Flanders in: 2005, 2006, 2012
Alright, so we might be stretching the “lesser known” tag with this one, but Boonen merits a mention as Museeuw’s anointed successor. In 2002, after finishing third behind Museeuw, Boonen played down the comparison: “I am only Tom Boonen and it will take a great deal of time to try to equal what Johan has achieved in his career,” he said.
By the time the sun set on his own time in the sport, fifteen years later, Mol-born Boonen had amassed the same number of Flanders victories as Museeuw and one more Hell of the North.
The Monuments: The Grit and the Glory of Cycling’s Greatest One-day Races by Peter Cossins, is published by Bloomsbury (2014)