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“And, of course, it’s the Tour of Flanders tomorrow,” crackles a Flemish voice blaring out over the radio in a gigantic supermarket on the outskirts of Gent.
The radio DJ is reading the news bulletin. And the top story of today, from a country of 11 million people, is that tomorrow there will be a bike race.
Welcome to Belgium, the land where when you get to the front of the long queue in the aforementioned hypermarket the cashier politely explains they don’t accept Visa, Mastercard, or American Express. Because, at all times, Belgium is unapologetically Belgium.
At the end of April, a collective hangover descends over the nation. For the month prior, the nation has been utterly consumed by beer and bike racing.
In Antwerp, the day before the start of the Tour of Flanders, the Thomas De Gendt fan club is out in force before it’s even midday, already swimming their way through glasses upon glasses of Omers and Westmalle Tripels. At the finish line, in Oudenaarde, a young man dressed from neck to toe in a bear costume has imbibed so many frothies that he’s asking random strangers if they know the whereabouts of any (or all) of his keys, phone, and friends.
Two weeks later at Paris-Roubaix, at the second cobbled sector of the day, a crowd gathers around a right-angled corner. A tent is erected, kegs are connected, and the beer starts flowing once more. Old women hug the barriers, jabbing anyone who dares stand in front of them and block their view.
The frenetic, insatiable hunger Belgium has for cycling is not news, everyone knows the country lives and breathes the sport. But as popularity ebbs and flows in other nations such as Italy, Spain and the UK, is there a method to the madness that keeps the sport in such rude health? One explanation could be the fan clubs, a bottom-up system of support that provides the sort of localised and organic structure any sport needs to thrive. More importantly, the whole thing sounds like a medium-to-large amount of fun.
“Where I live,” Ag2r Citroën’s Oliver Naesen begins. “If you draw a circle of 15km around my house you would easily find, hmm…35 or 40 professional cyclists.”
For the Former Belgian champion, cycling’s heartland is his home. When he steps out of his front door, he’s 18 km from the Muur van Geraardsbergen and 30km from the Kwaremont.
“I wave at everybody because I know every other cyclist is going to recognise me,” Naesen explains. “And if someone comes and rides next to me I understand this is the charm of the sport, the approachability. You will never go to the Barcelona stadium and play a bit of football with the team. But you can go training with any of the strong Belgian riders. I see the same faces all the time. People are very used to us, we’re not stars, I don’t think anyone is impressed when they pass me, ‘oh, I saw Oli today.'”
Characteristic humility from the WorldTour pro who previously worked as a laundry delivery driver before gaining a contract to race full time. And it sounds pretty idyllic, until some idiosyncratic Belgian-ness creeps in.
“Sometimes people knock at my door just to have a chat because everybody knows where I live more or less. Sometimes people are in my garden to see what it looks like.”
Do you mind when people do that?
“That’s maybe the limit,” Naesen laughs. “Home alone I wouldn’t mind but when my family is here it’s a little different. I would hope that the awkward feeling comes across as sort of a line to draw [of acceptable behaviour]. It’s always positive, always a question behind it. ‘I have somebody who knows you from when you were younger and could you please make a little video wishing him congratulations on his retirement?’ It’s always nice. They’re always nice people.”
This everyday nature of road racing is otherworldly for those who haven’t been brought up in it. As an outsider, you can be riding down some random village in Flanders and there will be a bar. You may have to look twice, due to the understated nature of these venues, to check whether it’s a watering hole or just someone’s house. But outside there will be a poster or sign, denoting the bar of the Jurgen Roelandts fan club. In Berlare, in deep Flanders, you’ll find a white end-of-terrace house where the Naesen-iacs belong.
“You can see the membership goes up and down with your performances, but that’s 100% human,” Naesen explains, laughing. “If I were younger and [just] a cycling fan, if the guy I was following got destroyed week-in-week-out I would also maybe think twice. But if you have diehard [fans] those people really become friends.”
Naaesen continues his lesson: Kermesses, local circuit races, always finish in front of a bar or cafe. The organiser is always a cycling fan and they follow their local riders through the younger categories to the pro categories as time moves on. That’s often how fan clubs begin.
“Our fans are always in the same bars having a beer and chatting about how the races were and what we could have done better or what we did well. It’s like football fans, the talk about it is endless. And then the period when you’re going really well it’s like ‘ah, let’s make a fan club’ and in every career of every Belgian professional this happens. That’s why we all have a fan club.”
At least once a year, fan clubs will have a ‘feest’. A party with a sit-down meal and entertainment. Everyone buys a ticket and the proceeds go towards that rider for the next season, to help them pay for all the things they need, to remove a barrier to progression. It takes a village to raise a professional cyclist.
For more established riders, this money can be given to charity. A way to give back after the help they received earlier on their careers.
Alpecin-Fenix’s Julien Vermote has his fan club, ‘De Vermoteurs’, who hold an annual barbecue. Because membership is free, everyone and anyone is welcome. All of the money, usually about €1,500, is given specifically to a small charity that could really use it.
Vermote’s fan club isn’t by any means traditional. Along with the lack of paid membership, there is no bar or cafe from which it is based.
“I started it with some friends,” the fantastically-named Jonas Flamez tells CyclingTips from the side of the football pitch where he works, coaching ungainly hordes of children equipped with shin pads and metal-studded boots. Unfortunately, Jonas’ surname is pronounced in two syllables, and not like ‘flames’. “We went to school with Julien,” he explains. “Then he became Belgian champion in cyclocross. We started following him for fun, drinking some beers, then it escalated when he became a pro at Quick-Step…fun times.”
“We told him at his birthday, it was a present. ‘We’re going to start a fan club and we’ll follow you at some bike races’. He was very pleased because he’s not the most well-known name in cycling. But everywhere we go, they know us.”
There is no specific bar, the closest one will do, Flamez says, and usually, if it’s only six or seven of them gathered to watch a race, they’ll go to someone’s house. However, when it’s a big race, a bus will be hired.
“We just ask friends to come along with us. We all play football so when we go to the cycling we’re just like football fans, we chant.”
What is the wildest day out the group has had?
“It was the time trial in Belgium for the national championships in 2013,” Flamez recalls without missing a beat. “It was our first time with the bus and he got the bronze medal, we didn’t expect it. I didn’t work the next day.”
Vermote has endured a tough couple of seasons, left without a team at the end of 2020, he was then forced to fund his own training into the next year before finally getting picked up by Alpecin-Fenix. The 32-year-old then got Covid, which derailed the rest of his season. Throughout all of that, his fan club was there for him.
“I think it was in Gent-Wevelgem in 2021 I was still without a team and they organised a breakfast box,” Vermote remembered. “I mean, this box didn’t change much for my contract but for my motivation to know they were still there to support you it was really nice. They also made a special card in the box with some phrases to keep the motivation high, and this surprised me. During that period it was a little thing but it was really nice, I will remember it forever. Even now when I see this card I think back to that hard time, and I smile.”
Flamez explains that even in Kortrijk, where he and Vermote grew up, there are countless fan clubs. There were many for Tom Boonen back in the day, a vacuum that has been filled by Wout van Aert. More curiously, there was also one for the Italian Giovanni Visconti and, more controversially, a Mathieu van der Poel supporters group.
“They started a week ago,” Flamez says of the Belgians now rooting for a Dutchman. “For me, it’s also a bit difficult because I’m a big Wout van Aert fan but now Julien rides for Mathieu.”
“Ah it’s okay,” Vermote says of Flamez’s fondness for Van Aert. “It’s normal in Belgium.”
Amongst the team buses at Paris-Roubaix Femmes avec Zwift stand two old men with ginormous BikeExchange-Jayco flags.
Roland and Hubert are big Emma Johansson fans, and when she left the Australian team for Wiggle their allegiances were split. When the Swede finally retired, they went all-in with their support of the team.
“With women’s cycling, it’s accessible,” Hubert explains. “You can stand next to the bus. With the men they earn so much money they don’t care about support. That’s important.”
After his recon of the Roubaix cobbles, Fred Wright is standing outside the Bahrain-Victorious bus. He is taken aback when someone asks for his autograph and photo.
“It was nice,” Wright says of the moment. “It was a very Belgian guy saying to his kids, [Wright adopts an uncannily accurate Belgian accent] ‘he was seventh in the Flanders, very good!’ That made me laugh.”
While his teammate Sonny Colbrelli boasts an impressive fan club and Matej Mohorič’s eccentricity has given rise to his own contingent of Belgian supporters called Matej’s Mates, it seems the Belgian way of supporting will remain a niche export for the time being.
“Mine’s quite a big one,” Owain Doull says of his fan club. “It’s my mum and dad.”
“They always turn up with a big Welsh flag, that says ‘Llywelyn ap Doull’, who was the last king of Wales. Normally my grandma comes as well but she’s getting a bit old now so she’s been subbed out for my girlfriend.” While it may not be the biggest fan club, the one-in, one-out policy makes for an envious exclusivity.
As May approaches, Belgium sinks back down into the sofa, ready to watch the rest of the cycling year unfold abroad.
They’ll be raring to go again by Opening Weekend next year, though. Just be warned that if you get on board Jonas Flamez’s bus, you probably won’t be making it to work on Monday.