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The Tour of Flanders: a nation's obsession

In-depth
15 Oct 2020
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The 2020 Tour of Flanders will be unique... not least for the lack of fans

Words: Joe Robinson Photography Offside

Around 750,000 cycling-mad men, women and children make the yearly pilgrimage to the straats of Flanders every April to catch a fleeting glimpse of the Ronde van Vlaanderen.

To put that in perspective, Belgium has a population of 11.4 million. That means come Tour of Flanders day, 1 out of every 15 people in Belgium are roadside. Boil that down to just the Flemish half of the country and it is more like 1 in every 9 Flandrians out watching the race.

Of course, with the crowd coming from all corners of the globe – the UK, USA, Italy and even Colombia – the above maths is not quite right, but considering over one million then tune their televisions into this Monument every year, it does offer some perspective as to how popular this race is to the people of Flanders.

The Tour of Flanders is a national holiday – a day for the people of Belgium, Flanders in particular, to go outside and celebrate their national sport of cycling.

Yellow flags resplendent, with a black lion and red tongue, are hunkered into the ground at every corner. The smell of triple-cooked frites dominates your nostrils as the spill of Juliper and Kwaremont beer stick your feet to the floor.

The cry of 'UP! UP! UP!' and 'ALLEZ! ALLEZ! ALLEZ!' echo up the cobbled bergs as the peloton of alien-like beings pedal one stroke at a time to the top. Eventually, one of these superhumans defies the rest to become champion.

Except for this year. This Sunday these roads that are usually roaring with cycling acolytes will be empty. We're in the grip of a worldwide health crisis and cycling, like everything else, has been gravely affected.

Fans will not be permitted at the end of the race into Oudernaard. Nor will they be allowed on the race's Cobbled Climbs. The Muur, Koppenberg, Paterberg and Kwaremont will be empty. The roads between will be sparsely peppered with groups of six or less.

For the first time since 1918, the Tour of Flanders will not be raced in the spring but instead under the crunching brown leaves of autumn. Will it change things? Probably, who knows.

Either way, we thought nothing could beat some beautiful images from our friends at Offside to remind of us of how great this race is and how beautiful it will be in years to come.

Tour of Flanders in pictures