Alberic Schotte was the first and the last. The first of the Flandrians, because no one will ever quite match up to the man Brits inevitably call “Brick”, the last because every Flandrian is the last, or so the Flemish cycling fans worry. As a small region straddlingBelgiumandHolland, inhabited by a linguistic subgroup used to being trampled on by bigger neighbours,Flandersis a place of nostalgia tinged with paranoia. What’s coming in the future may not end up being as good as what was: hence the fact that every great Flemish cyclist is “the last of the Flandrians”. The worry is that there may not be another one about to come along…
“Brick” epitomises the Flandrian cycling culture of insularity and hardness with a dose of Catholicism. Schotte was a peasant farmer’s son, who was taking his first Communion at 10 when he was taken out of the church to watch the Tour of Flanders pass. By the age of 18 he had never been to the sea or ridden on a train or a bus, and when he travelled toParisto join the Mercier team in 1939, he was terrified when the train went into Lille Flanders station, then reversed out. Before turning professional, he would get up at3.30amto begin work at the factory at five so he could race at 1pm. The Pythons would be proud: If you tell the kids of today that, they surely won’t believe you.
The insularity of it all. Johan Museeuw, the current “Last of the Flandrians”, when asked if the yellow jersey of the Tour de France was the greatest feat of his career, said sternly, no, it had to be his first win in the Tour of Flanders. Museeuw, for all the drugs hoo-ha (because of the drugs hoo-ha?) and the regular professions that he was going to quit, was as hard as the next man fromBergenop de Slagmolen. Gangrenous knee? Coma from a motorbike accident? Flesh wounds…
And there is the borderline insanity of it. Not merely the nuttiness of racing up cobbled climbs in rain (preferably sleet) and the even-nuttier process of getting to the front to lessen the chances of falling off on the climbs. The small-scale, human bonkersness: the farmer who was jealous that his neighbour’s land included the Koppenberg, so he built his own Berg, the Patersberg. The 2,000 people who bought an April Fool story that the K’berg was going to be turned into tarmac, to the extent that they mounted a demonstration.
Roger De Vlaeminck, never wanting to grow old, popping out on the chaingang in his fifties to see how he matches up to the local boys, in between stints in his personal menagerie of ducks, deer and you name it… The first Tour of Flanders, in 1913, set the tone: it finished with a lap of a pond in Mariakerke, theGhentsuburb that was to be Tom Simpson’s home. One of the competitors, naturally, was so knackered he fell in the pond.
It’s about language. Harry Pearson (arch-chronicler of Belgian nuttiness) on De Vlaeminck: “He speaks Italian, a bit of English, a smattering of Spanish…but he regards French as the language of the enemy”. It’s about nicknames: the Beast of Eeklo, the Gypsy (De Vlaeminck’s family were not Romanies, but itinerant market traders), the Emperor, the Boss, the Black Eagle. It’s about money, the need for money that would drive Rik Van Steenbergen to smuggle watches home (six on each wrist) from post-war racing trips toSwitzerland.
Insular the area may be, but hard work can qualify foreigners as Flandrians. Eddy Merckx (from French speakingBrussels) made it on results. Andrei Tchmil, Sean Kelly, Tom Simpson, Allan Peiper just went there and learned the language, showed they had the toughness to take the rain and the wind and the cobbles. And Fiorenzo Magni counts because he made the 23-hour rail journey fromMilanpost-war and rode his first Ronde with no support at all. Oh yes, he won three of them. In a row.
Back to Brick. Schotte’s palmares is what every Flandrian would want: two Tours of Flanders, two Ghent-Wevelgems – one by three minutes ahead of a chasing group that included Ferdi Kubler and Raymond Impanis – two Paris-Brussels, two world titles, so rumour has it, on a bike fitted with 1930s kit because he didn’t believe in new-fangled stuff.
Appropriately, given that he is the Ur-Flandrian, Brick ended up managing Flandria (think red jerseys, think sideburns, think Freddy, think seriously bad lifestyle choices, think Mark De Meyer, Walter Godefroot and Sean Kelly). And in case you don’t think he was hard enough, Brick was Kelly’s role model. Given that Kelly is every cyclist’s role model (apart from that stuff about no sex before races), that means we should all be getting up at 3.30. Set your alarms.
This column first appeared in Rouleur magazine. For more information visit www.rouleur.cc