Welkom in de derde wereld - Mid-winter across Europe - CycleBlaze

January 2, 2007

Welkom in de derde wereld

Aalst, Erpe, Hundelgem, Oudenaarde, Kluisbergen, Avelgem, St-Denijs, Wattrelos, Roubaix

The funny thing about Belgium is that it is one of the richest and most influential countries of the world. Leave aside that two world wars have been fought there - or perhaps not, because that is the cause of what is to follow - the country is the home of NATO, whose idea it was, and to the administrative headquarters of the European Union, which it fostered from the start.

And yet you only have to ride the dreadful slabs of crazily angled, frequently broken and always badly sealed cycle paths to see that Belgium yearns to join the Third World. And not just the cycle paths, of course. They're just a symptom. The air of weary scruffiness does it as well. Where Switzerland looks as though it was painted just before you got there, Belgium best fits the book trade's adjective "distressed".

Scruffy place, Belgium... but they do ride bikes there.
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When I lived there, close to the Dutch border, I had an English friend who lived on the other side.

'You know," he used to say, "there are times I get tired of the Toytown neatness of Holland, where you know the roads are just the same width and the schools are just where you think they'll be and there's a letter box on every corner. And then I have to go to Belgium and recover on a diet of peeling paint, roads where the tar is wearing off the cobbles, and high streets which have a house, a garage, an abandoned space with an old car in it, two more houses, a butcher's shop, a car dealer, another space and then a house. "And then that gets too much and I have to go back to Holland."

And yet, and yet... It's pretty much true what they say, that you never meet an unfriendly Belgian. And very rarely one who doesn't know as much cycling as you do.

"Verdorie," said the man in the café where I'd sheltered from the persistent rain and wind, "there's a bunch of pros going by."

I looked through the rain-dribbled window and saw a little bunch of four, maybe five, brightly clad backs disappearing up the narrow cycle path beside the road. I hadn't seen them but the man in the café window could identify them instantly.

They're funny, these groups of racing cyclists. Until a year ago, a group however large had to stick to the paths regardless of the size of either the group or the path. Now they don't have to if there are more than 15 riders. This became especially dramatic where, as often, the cycle path is just half the pavement usually used by pedestrians. Through shopping streets, for instance. Broad-bottomed women with shopping bags and flappy-trousered men with cigarettes stuck to their lip would walk casually on one side of the pavement while a peloton of 20 or more training cyclists thundered by on the other. All that divided them from each other, and from a considerable drain on the Belgian health service, was a fading paint line. And yet it worked well. And it still does.

Had the weather not once again been so appalling, I was going to ride on further and find the grave of a British soldier cyclist who'd been shot in the first world war. They had cyclists' battalions back then, a cheaper and faster alternative, people thought, to carrying troops by horse or primitive trucks. Pretty soon the battalions proved their uselessness and the cyclists were used to run messages. And in some cases, they just ran away. That's what had happened to this man, who doesn't seem to have had an honourable record before then either, and the army did away with him at dawn.

"Died of injuries" was how the generals put it, through tact or embarrassment, and the man's name is listed with all the more honourable victims of war named on his home town's memorial. While no lawyer could quibble about the army's statement of the cause of death, the truth was different and it took decades to emerge. By then attitudes to the men who suffered in the trenches and took a chance to slip away had changed and the name was allowed to remain.

Even at midday, though, the day was so dark that there was no chance I'd get to the war cemetery and find the grave. And so I remembered that I wasn't far from Oudenaarde and that Oudenaarde was the start of Belgium's biggest bike race - the Tour of Flanders - and that it had a museum to the fact.

The Tour of Flanders museum: closed when I was there but still with a copy of Eddy Merckx's team car parked outside.
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"Yes, sure to be open", the café man said and I set off to find it. It was shut. The market square with its rich Flemish architecture and cobbled streets was packed by market shoppers but the concrete and glass block of the museum was unwelcoming. And not just for lunch but for the whole first half of January. If ever you're in Belgium in the spring, do try to get to the Tour of Flanders. Never mind the race: just watch the riders warming up in that big market square. And observe that most of them aren't competitors but posing wannabes who want to be mistaken for better than they are. The joke is to wave at them, as though they've been recognised, and see them languidly acknowledge your greeting as they concentrate on their "warm-up".

The more daring even offer their race programmes for a signature. The posers always sign. And when the real riders actually line up and set off, they vanish with a look of embarrassment and dream of doing the same in a year's time.

You can follow a signposted route round some of the roads that the real riders take. But if you just want to ride out of town towards the French border, you can do it on a smooth and broad path that runs beside the Schelde, a river noticeably narrower than it is downstream in the port city of Antwerp. I followed it for an hour, passing and crossing with huge barges from Holland and Belgium.

At the end of the path, I turned off for Roubaix and found, when I asked for directions, that I had crossed briefly into French-speaking Belgium. But it wasn't clear-cut because soon afterwards I stopped at a village shop for food, addressed the shopkeeper in French because she had just been talking French to another customer, and found myself being answered in Dutch.

The future of Belgium hangs on that language border. Belgium isn't yet 200 years old but for most of that time the people of the Dutch-speaking north were subjugated often cruelly by the French speakers of the south. They were denied new books in their language, refused lessons in the tongue of their parents. And in the first world war things came to a head when French-speaking officers (as almost all of them were) ordered their Dutch-speaking trench fodder into war in a language they didn't understand. The soldiers petitioned the king and what had been underlying bitterness foamed into nationalism.

Since the 1960s, the coal mines and steel mills of the French south have closed. The open spaces and ready hands of the north attracted the new industries of electronics. The south dwindled, the north prospered. The positions had reversed. Nationalist feeling in the north flourished on this pleasant revenge and revelled in the relative poverty of the old oppressors. Since the people of the north speak French only as a foreign language and those of the south refuse to learn Dutch at all, the split could only intensify. Belgium is now a federation of independent regions, one for the north, one for the south and one for the capital of Brussels, which is largely French-speaking but marooned in Flanders.

There are persistent calls for independence in the north. Just before this ride, television in the south broadcast that the north had indeed declared that independence. Belgium as a nation no longer existed.

It was a joke - a very peculiar joke - but it scared the wits out of a lot of people. It also showed just how easily it could happen.

TOMORROW: A day in Hell.

Today's ride: 92 km (57 miles)
Total: 360 km (224 miles)

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