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In Flanders Fields: A Historical Perspective

The Ronde van Vlaanderen, Gent-Wevelegm, and Paris-Roubaix make up the opening week of the big Northern Classics. These ancient races have created as many heroes as they’ve destroyed, and can only truly be understood in person. We offer this humble attempt to explain why…

The Ronde Van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) is the most important race on the Belgian calendar. In fact for the Belgian people it ranks above the World Championship RR. Such is its long and storied history, that each year race day grabs national attention in the same way as Super Bowl Sunday in the USA or the World Cup Soccer final.

One week after the Ronde comes the Queen of Classics, the Paris-Roubaix. Sandwiched between the two is the Ghent-Wevelgem. Each of these three races feature horrific stretches of cobbles and more often than not is treated to foul weather with powerful and bone chilling winds blowing in from the North Sea.

The famous – and back-breaking pave – signature of Paris-Roubaix.

Each of the three events fulfills its own role: the Ronde is most important to Belgians, while Paris-Roubaix is the best known internationally and Ghent-Wevelgem ranks as one of the most prestigious of Belgian races. As two of the ‘five monuments’, the Ronde and P-R are century old events that have evolved to become crown jewels of cycling competitions. Together the three comprise the Northern Classics, which unite a people and a region with a history transcending international borders. Victory in any one of the events is sweet; to ride strongly in all three is a dream of the peloton’s strong men. But beyond such triumph lies a greater honor, a more subjective determination reserved for perhaps one Belgian rider each generation: to be crowned the Lion of Flanders.

The Hell Of The North
If the Ronde is characterized by its famous cobbled bergs (relatively short cobbled climbs) then Paris-Roubaix is characterized as a cruel race where luck often plays as much a role as team and individual prowess. There are 26 named sections of pavй (cobbles) with the first section coming at Troisvilles at just about the 100km mark. It is always a brutal crush to get onto this opening section of pave first, for already the first crashes and punctures will hinder those not at the sharp end of the race. From here on we experience the true nature of the ‘Hell of the North’ as the race rattles and slides its way to Roubaix which is still about 160km’s distant. This year the infamous Forest of Arenberg section has been removed from the race route due to a portion of the road sinking – no doubt a result of the deserted subterranean passages that riddle this once major coal mining region.

The dark deep woods of Arenberg will return this year after successful restoration efforts over the past year.

Flanders, the Lion of Flanders, and Hell of the North, are synonymous with the great Northern Classics. Only the locals truly understand that for a rider to be known as the Lion of Flanders is the ultimate compliment and one that he must carry with great pride. To appreciate this you need to go back to around the 12th Century. This was the time of the crusades when the lion passant (the descendant of the dragon) became the symbol of pagans and rebellion against the church. But the lion rampant was also adopted by the Christian knights. How the lion rampant also became the symbol of Flanders is open to speculation and there are many romantic stories surrounding it. However it is generally thought that there was a relatively mundane and very practical reason. The lion rampant, a potent and evocative symbol, became a favorite in heraldry design. In this case the symbol fitted well with the triangular shields of the period. Over time the lion became the symbol of Flemish people and today we recognize the black beast on a yellow background fluttering on thousands of flags lining major race routes.

Most people think of Flanders and Belgium as the same. Flanders actually comprises the flat coastal plains that stretch from Holland (The Netherlands) down to the area of France between Calais and Dunkirk. Inland the region stretches back about 60 miles. In centuries past the whole region was variously occupied by Spain, Austria, France, Germany and the Netherlands. Within today’s Belgium, Flanders represents about half of the country and goes inland to just beyond Brussels. The other half of Belgium is the French speaking Walloon region best known to cyclists for the Ardennes and its Liege-Bastogne-Liege classic. Flanders (Vlaanderen in Flemish) continues south over the border from Belgium and into France to become Flandre. This portion of Flanders occupies the two French ‘departments’ that comprise Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

The Flanders region of Belgium is steeped in history – and beautiful towns like Brugge make a great base for chasing the Classics.

Historically Flanders is noted for its culture, art and textiles. In Belgian cities like Ghent and Bruges magnificent architecture from the 16th and 17th Centuries survives in abundance. Just over the Belgian border in French Flandre lies Roubaix, another city noted for its art and culture which at one time was the textile capital of the world.

After the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo (just south of Brussels) in 1815 Belgium was handed over to the Netherlands to rule. The Belgians did not take kindly to this and following a major revolution they finally, after centuries of external rule, took control of their own country on 20th January 1831. So modern Belgium includes parts of Flanders while the Hell of the North generally refers to the WWI ravaged landscape of the French portion of Flanders.

Paris-Roubaix starts in Compiegne, where the French surrendered to Hitler in 1940.

If we move south to the start of Paris-Roubaix, the historical and geographical links now become clear. The Queen of the Classics actually starts in Compiegne about 50 miles north of Paris. Compiegne of course was the site of the humiliating German surrender on November 11th, 1918. On exactly the same site and in the same railroad car, Hitler accepted a vengeful surrender from the French on June 21st, 1940.

From Compiegne the race heads about 100km north-east to Troisvilles and its first appointment with the pave. From there it is a sinuous route to the finish over the ‘Hell of the North’. This journey traces almost exactly the line of the Western Front from the Great War (WWI). Starting from the coast between Dunkirk and Ostend, the front went south towards Compiegne before curving off in an Easterly direction through Verdun and on to Germany.

Contrary to popular belief, the term ‘Hell of the North’ was not coined to describe the infernal nature of Paris-Roubaix race. Rather it was first used in 1919 when the race resumed after the war. At the time the landscape was nothing but craters, mud and devastation resulting from one of the biggest catastrophes in human history. About 9 million uniformed soldiers died between 1914 and 1918. The Paris-Roubaix passes right through these killing fields with names like ‘The Somme’, ‘Arras’ and ‘Vimy Ridge’ in France and, just over the border from Roubaix, Ypres and Passchendaele. When journalists and race followers first saw this landscape in 1919 it was described as the ‘hell of the north’. .

The route to Roubaix passes through battle fields from the Great Wars, and sites like this are common.

About 85 years have passed since the Great War but still the gruesome remains of that great struggle are still regularly uncovered. Just a couple of years ago the Paris-Roubaix was diverted from an area where about 50 tons of WWI poison gas containers were being delicately removed. Shells, weapons and human remains are continuously being unearthed by farmers.

Virtually a whole generation of young men perished in The Great War. Among them most of the great pre-war cycling champions. So as today’s modern racers battle over pave, mud, dust and unpleasant weather conditions spare a moments thought for the history of this region immortalized by the words of the most famous WWI poem written by Canadian Army Physician, John McCrae (who also perished):

In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Thanks to the guys at CyclingRevealed.com. Check ‘em out for more great cycling features.

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