Thursday, October 7, 2010

Kermis (kermesse)

Poster for Hoeleden kermis. There are several races here.
Contrary to popular belief (at least in the US) a kermis is not a race. A kermis is quite simply a parish or town festival usually held in honor of the parish saint. Although Belgians are no longer very religious the country has an unmistakably Catholic legacy and the kermis is part of that legacy.

To most Belgians a kermis has little to do with religion. It is just the time of year when roving attractions come to town, when oliebollen, frieten and droogvis replace regular meals and a tent is set up to drink and dance. Kermis is when weeklong festivities bring life to an otherwise sleepy community.

Although the Catholic calendar has a saint assigned to each and every day of the year, and although some parishes are named after saints whose "days" fall in winter, all kermissen are held in spring, summer or fall.

A typical kermis is a one or two week affair and many places have more than one kermis per year. The village I grew up in had two. One "grote kermis" was held in spring, and the other, "kleine kermis" was held in late fall. The village had another (smaller) parish and that parish had its own kermis in the summer.

Kermis activities start in the late afternoon and in some places they go on well past midnight on many days. Drinking and dancing is a big part of it and sometimes things can get quite heated. Much of that depends on the weather of course. During the rare long hot summers, the kermis can be one to remember for years to come. When the weather does not cooperate the mood is usually much more subdued. In many ways a kermis is similar to a Spanish feria or village fair. And while the Spanish have their late afternoon bullfights, Flanders has its bike racing.

A decent kermis has one or more bike races. Take a closer look at the calendar if you doubt that. Depending on the size of the village budget and the enthusiasm of the villagers, that race can be  a pro race or, more likely, one or more amateur and youth races. The bigger races tend to happen on weekends, although it is not unusual to have one or more mid-week races during the summer school holidays (July-August). The bigger races eventually get a spot on the UCI calendar and sometimes that means they will get moved out of the kermis week. That happened to the pro race that was held every year in our "grote kermis." Since 1980 that race is held the week before the actual kermis.

Despite the recent clenbuterol and epo scandals, bike racing is every bit as popular as it ever was. Sometimes a big doping scandal can make a team more popular as happened to Festina after their infamous tour de France debacle. Even though Festina watch sales went through the roof after that happened, sponsors and their marketing departments in particular do get really upset when scandals hit. The larger sponsors, those with a world wide reach are the most easily affected. Local Belgian sponsors rarely flinch and if one pulls out, others are ready to take over.

Doping scandals do affect cycling's international image and that eventually trickles down to the local level. But the average Belgian couldn't care less. Belgian fans take the doping stories in stride and nearly everyone who knows about bike racing is convinced that all pros use "something." Talking about doping to Belgian race fanatics is like talking animal cruelty to Spanish bullfight aficionados. The only time these Belgians get worked up about doping is when their favorite rider loses to a despised competitor, who is then swiftly blamed for "cheating" and "unfair competition."

Unlike what happens in other countries, Belgian fans do not always root for the home team so these blames may hit Belgian riders as easily as foreigners. In Flanders, any foreign riders will nearly always top riders from Wallonia and especially Brussels. When Merckx -who was from Brussels- first appeared in the Ronde van Vlaanderen, the Flemish wanted anyone but Merckx to win the race.

That has not changed much. Today, racers like Cancellara have their only fan club in Belgium. That fan club happens to have its headquarters near where Tom Boonen was born. This makes for great rivalries during the spring classics. That is the time when Boonen fans will accuse Fabian of using mechanical doping, and the Cancellara fans will shoot back saying Tom is a crackhead and imply he may use cocaine to race.

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