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Anyone who has ridden the hallowed bergs and pavé of Flanders and Roubaix, or perhaps been eagle-eyed while watching TV race coverage of the Spring Classics in recent years, would have noticed the street portraits by Belgian artist Thomas Daem.
“I always was into graphic design and I made stencils when I was a student,” says Daem, the mastermind behind the Puncheur moniker. “I thought it would be cool to do something around cycling as the only thing you see when there is a race is just lots of just writing on the streets, simple text, but never something that really stands out.
“The idea came for Boonen’s last year, 2017, his last attempt to win his fifth Roubaix. I’d been out and done some basic stencils with my Dad, Jan, which was really cool since he is really into cycling — like a walking encyclopaedia — and that’s how it all started.”
The 3 metre by 2 metre pieces take some planning, and in the early days Thomas worked with what he could.
“I went to the grocery store to see if they had any spare cardboard I could use as stencil material, and there was a guy there who would hold all the flat ones for me,” he says. “For my day job I’m an IT guy for the Flemish Government of Flanders, and my boss at work, Bram, he is really into cycling too — we even do a lot of our meetings on the bike. Anyway, he’d let me print out the separate parts of the image at work then I’d put them together on the cardboard.
“I’ve since invested in bigger cardboard plates as it’s easier to work with when it’s the same thickness and strength, and now I print the eight or nine A0-size images out from the local print shop.”
Since the original Tommeke tribute, portraits of Peter Sagan, Frank Vandenbroucke, Johan Museeuw, Bradley Wiggins, and more recently Wout van Aert, have all qualified for a Puncheur painting.
“With Boonen it was obvious — he is more like a rock star here in Belgium but equally they need to be a rock star as a rider too,” Daem says. “Sagan, he brings colour to the peloton, just like Boonen did and just like Wout van Aert does now, with his ‘never give up’ style of racing. These guys are the true hardmen, which is a criteria too, and that is represented in our logo.
“It is art? I don’t know. If some people think it’s art then, OK, it’s art for them. I think it’s a lot of hard work but it’s fun to do, and if people like it then that’s a cool thing, obviously.
“On the top of the Paterberg we have been there three times now, the last time for the Bradley Wiggins portrait. When we were there the owner of the house at the top came out especially to meet us and come to say ‘hi’. He was glad he could finally see who was doing this.”
Although each concept is by Daem, bringing the portraits to the street requires help. Photographer Stefaan Temmerman together with ‘Bird’ and ‘C’ are part of the small dedicated crew. The Puncheur gang works at night, dressed in stealth black and with balaclavas or pixeled-out faces hiding their identity. It all hints at guerrilla street art being an inherently hazardous activity.
“The first time we did the Boonen portrait for the Tour of Flanders we used chalk spray, because we were a little scared of what the police or the authorities would say,” Daem says. “You are not allowed to paint on the streets and we didn’t want to go to jail for this.
“We did four images of Boonen: at the top of the Paterberg, the top of the Koppenberg, the Eikenberg, and at the start of Taaienberg, you know, the Boonen-berg. But it rained Friday night and they all washed away, so we went back with proper spray paint on Saturday night and did all four again. They lasted for almost a year.”
Daem and his team have indeed attracted some police attention over the years.
“The Boonen piece in Flanders was spotted by a Tom Boonen fan club and they asked me to spray it before the Moulin-de-Vertain secteur [of Paris-Roubaix] for their fan village there,” Daem recalls. “We went over on the Saturday and already there were a lot of fans who came up and asked if they could help and took images of themselves with our spray cans.
“Then we went to the Carrefour de l’Arbre, and that’s when the police showed up. The good thing was we had imagery from the Tour of Flanders we could show them, and they actually thought it was cool. It wasn’t like we were vandalising the street, and we always make sure we stay true to our code and avoid the official traffic markings on the road, and we never spray the actual pavé.
“It’s not just going with a jar of paint and some rollers, they could see we were putting a lot of effort into it. The police came back every 20 minutes and each time they came back they used the search lights on top of the car to check our progress, and were always like ‘good job guys, keep it up!’
“After that, we went to the Arenberg Forest, and there is always a lot of security there. When we explained what we wanted to do the security guy said he’d seen it the week before in Flanders, so he moved his car so we could spray there and he actually guarded us while we worked. He even turned on his car headlights so we could see.
“One of his colleagues turned up to see if there was a problem, so then we had two security guys helping us. It was cool.
With his 2020 Roubaix work now postponed, Daem’s focus will be on the Tour of Flanders this weekend.
“We’d really like to do the Wout van Aert piece on top of the Koppenberg, because he’s won the Koppenbergcross three times,” Daem explains. “I also think we might do the Roger De Vlaeminck piece on the Koppenberg too, because of the time with Maertens.”
Daem is referring to the 1977 Tour of Flanders, where De Vlaeminck was away with Freddy Maertens. After an illegal bike change on the Koppenberg, Maertens was disqualified mid-race, but was not withdrawn, so rode with De Vlaeminck the final 80 km.
“But if Roger is there we will have to do Boonen too, you know?” Thomas reasons, laughing.
Let’s keep our eyes peeled and see what we can spot on the weekend …
About the author
Born and raised in the cycling hotbed that is the Wirral, England, Russell Jones noticed early on that some of his cycling club teammates were much faster than him, quickly coming to the conclusion that he should probably quell any racing ambitions and just enjoy the riding. The fact that one of these club mates went on to be an Hour Record holder and win the yellow jersey may have skewed his judgement slightly.
After a solid 15 years working in the broadcast industry he decided to take the leap to become a full-time freelance cycling journalist, basing himself in another cycling hotbed, Waikato, New Zealand. There he is able to keep one eye on the racing scene while continuing his love for exploring the local endless country lanes.