It goes without saying that there aren’t enough Duchies anymore. Perhaps they all got passed on the left hand side. If you didn’t get that joke, congratulations, you’re a young person. Go outside and play, while the grownups talk.
The Duchy of Brabant was a state of the Holy Roman Empire. I’m not sure who decided that shit was holy, but it was part of the branding. Perhaps I should have said the Holy Roman Empire™. I’d suggest, if the aforementioned empire were so holy, then it wouldn’t have fallen apart under modest torment from a diminutive French general, but then it turns out that France plays the foil in much of what I want to talk about vis a vis the Duchy of Brabant.
Christ, here we are in the third paragraph, and I’ve gone completely off the rails. What is this review even about?
OK, here it is. At some point in cycling history Belgium took over from France as the avatar of all things authentic on two wheels. Just spy those colors, black, yellow, red, on a pair of socks or a frame’s paint scheme, and you know someone is serious. The most serious. The most seriousest.
That flag, to bring this thing full circle (like a snake eating its tail) is a mashup of influences beginning with the Duchy of Brabant and ending with, ironically, France. Vertical bars? Yeah. I’ve seen those someplace before. Nice job, Belgium. Is this why you’re one of the Low Countries?
Time out for Trivia! Name three famous Belgians not named Merckx! Go on. I’ll wait.
I count myself lucky to have spent a little time in Belgium, mostly eating steamed mussels and pomme frite by the cathedral in Brussels or gazing moodily off into the distance from a hotel balcony in Antwerp. I’m quite the idler, me. And Belgium charmed me with its too rich chocolates and flaky croissants that would be the envy of the, ahem, French, if they weren’t also drowning in chocolate and pastry.
Fun Fact! Belgium leads the world in gout! (Totally made that up).
Here’s the thing. The French invented the goddamned bicycle, and the Tour de <insert country name> too. How did the Belgians replace them as the toughest, coolest, hardest riders on the planet? Eddie Merckx had something to do with it probably, what with winning all those races and brazenly using all the consonants in the alphabet like that.
While the French were having another railway strike or farmer’s protest, the Belgians were kermessing (a verb I just made up) their brains out, every village in the country throwing a dirty little race that rewarded strong legs and sharp elbows. Then they dreamed up these one day races that were less like cycling and much more like abuse. They said to themselves, “Gosh our roads are shitty. Rather than repaving them though, let’s invite the French to race bikes on them. That’ll be funny.”
And the French came and raced, and the Italians too, and then you had everyone riding the wrong bike on the shittiest roads in Belgium and calling it “Classic.” It’s a bit of brutal genius really. And we all wanted a little piece of that toughness/stupidity, so we could be part of the club of “real cyclists,” which is only a lot of additional bullshit, because if you ride a bike, then…what the F else are you?
Obviously, the Belgians have strong magic, which is fortunate, because they have ZERO good stand-up comics.
The truth is, we think of Belgium as a country, when in actuality it is two distinct and unfriendly regions stuck together with an independent capital, Brussels, which is actually more of a pan-Euro, city-state. In Flanders they speak Flemish, a dialect of Dutch, and in Wallonia, they speak French. My point here is not to give you some history lesson, but more to say, Belgium is not one thing or even one people.
If you watch a lot of cyclocross, you might have the impression that Belgium is peopled entirely by fat men in rain boots living out of camper vans. That actually reminds me of a comic series I was developing based on a mythical CX racer named Bernd Faerts. Faerts was widely acknowledged to be the best ‘cross racer in the world by anyone who knew anything, with the colorful wrinkle that he never actually participated in any races. In each episode, a young cyclocross initiate would be speaking to his/her coach and/or a fat guy standing near a camper van, and hearing what Bernd Faerts would do on race day. Faerts himself would be sitting on a bucket, over by the pits, smoking a cigarette and casually pinning on a race number he would not, in the end, ever need, while dropping pearls of wisdom for a small crowd of worshipful fans. At some point in each show, the race would happen, and Faerts wouldn’t be in it, but everyone would say afterwards that he would have won, if only he hadn’t missed the start stuck in a nearby porta-john.
As you can tell, I’ve put far too much thought into this, but such is the influence of Belgium on the cycling consciousness. Perhaps there is something holy about the place afterall, a Dark Ages je ne sais quoi that persists to the present day. It allowed a small quasi-country, raked by North Sea winds, to steal the great French inheritance of cycling culture and become the symbol for all that is rough and courageous on a bicycle.
Alsof er een entgelje over je tong piest!