Thursday, 16 October 2008

Cycling - apparently not popular in Belgium.

Finches, just in case anyone asks

It's hard to know where to begin with cobbles, isn't it? Oh come on, would you know where to start? Right, so why should I?

Ask any racing cyclist where the heart of bike racing lives and they will reply “Belgium”, that is unless they reply, Italy or France, in which case you can ask for their second choice and keep going until they get to Belgium. At that point you can nod sagely and say “Well it's their national sport isn't it?”

Of course at this point you hope they don't know that much about Belgium, as, if they do, they might challenge you with the observation that yes, cycling may be popular, but does it really measure up to Vinkensport?

This is often a question I ask myself when I’m in Belgium. You see Vinkensport, or Finch Sport, is one of the world’s oldest sports, pre-dating competitive cycle racing by perhaps as much as four hundred years. Unlike cycling, there are no bikes, but then bike racing hasn't got finches, has it?

But you see Vinkensport is a lot like bike racing. In Vinkensport, male finches are made to sing and the one that sings the most in an hour is the winner. And in bike racing, there's Freddy Martens.

Freddy holds (along with other luminaries, or Eddy Merckx as he is known) the record for the highest number or stage wins in a Tour de France. That's eight over the course of a three week bike race, or if we apply the correct conversion rate of one stage victory equals one hundred songs, that gives Freddy and Eddy enough to win your average Vinkensport contest.

Up to their beaks in it.

Of course Vinkensport is also like cycling in so far as there have been doping incidents. The world record number for songs in Vinkensport is about 1200 (the exact number eludes me and life is too short to travel to Belgium and ask at the international school for Vinkensport in Ronse), but it turns out that, as so often with cycling, the winner in question was doped up to the beak.

Now, why should any of this be of interest to me? Well you see, if you ask someone who doesn't know anything about bike racing (or indeed someone who thinks France or Italy is the world centre for bike racing) for their opinion of Belgium, they will tell you that it's dull and boring. But how can this be? Any country in which people have spent nigh on 500 years sitting around waiting for a box of finches to sing clearly has something going for it.

Chocolate - really quite nice, if you've never tried it.

Another reason to love Belgium is, of course, its chocolate. Chocolate may not have been invented in Belgium, but the Belgians have seized upon it like something sweet and tasty and made it into an art form. Other reasons to love Belgium include the (now sadly closed) Museum of Underpants and, of course, beer. Apparently there are 900 breweries in Belgium (again life is too short.... blah, blah... Ronse) That works out, using the “Brewery to finch song and back to total population” conversion system, about one brewery to every 11,000 Belgians, or one per small town. No wonder they spend their days sitting around listening to birds sing.

Cobbles, cobbles and more cobbles.

So many reasons to love Belgium, but for me the biggest reason is cobbles. To me the heart beat of bike racing is Belgium and that heart sits on a road of cobbles. Whether or not that's actually true is a little open to question. Back in the mists of time, even before the time of Freddy and Eddy, most roads throughout Europe were clad in cobbles, but with the advancement of the smelly god that is tarmacadam, up came the cobbles and down went the tarmac. Fortunately for bike racers everywhere there was some resistance to this and nowhere was that resistance stronger than in Belgium. You see the average Belgian is blessed with a wonderful northern European sense of value. Not for them a Mediterranean acceptance that progress is inevitable, but it just won't be here until tomorrow. Oh no. The Belgians asked one simple question, “Do my cobbles still work?” The answer was of course, “Yes”, and so, with the exception of major roads, the cobbles were left to be. This had two benefits, which didn't reap an obvious reward until the 20th century: 1) the average tourist loves the look of your common or garden cobble and 2) if you're going to race a bike over a cobbled road, you need a combination of skills that by their mere possession make you a very good cyclist. These are immense strength, great bike control and a disregard for your own safety that borders on the insane. In fact, the crazier you are, the more success you will have; cue Freddy.

It is this combination of strength, skill and madness that has propelled Belgian cyclists to the forefront of world cycling. They have long punched above their weight and, occasionally, below the belt. Even now, when upstart nations such as America, Germany and even Britain have begun to win the occasional bike race, Belgium still holds its reputation as the heartland of hard cyclists who ride hard races on barking mad roads.

Mind the kids.

This reputation, then, is what's responsible for dragging cyclists from across the globe to race their bikes over cobbled roads, the like of which, if they encountered them at home, would result in a swift call of complaint to the local authority. And for those of us with slightly more of a grasp of reality, this reputation drags us to stand in muddy fields and watch bicycles being ridden very fast across the heads of small children.

“The heads of small children” is one of the colourful terms the locals use to describe their cobbles. Just as Eskimos are reputed to have over 50 words for snow and the British at least 42 words for rain, the Belgians have 61 words to describe their cobbles. I could list them all now, but let’s be honest here, they wouldn’t be much use to you and I suspect you'd think I had made most of them up, which, of course, I would have done, owing to the impoverished nature of my Flemish. Suffice to say then that there are 61. There were only 39 until Belgium joined the EEC, at which point they had to sign up to the Pan European treaty on the preservation and development of historic highways, subsection cobbles, subsection transport (as opposed to subsection transportation of jelly) and got lumbered with another 22. You think this is bad; you wait until you get to the subsection on rice pudding and blancmange. So blancmange apart, we find ourselves, drawn by a love of cycle racing, chocolate and singing finches, along with an appreciation of the obscure laws of Europe to a Belgian roadside. Enjoy.

(some of you may have seen this before......)

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