This week Belgium lost a very popular 26 year old racer named Wouter Weylandt due to an accident in the Giro d'Italia. The impact on the cycling community was equally enormous.
While it may surprise many of you, there are a lot of parallels between bullfighting in Spain and bike racing in Belgium. I pointed this out before when I discussed the kermis and the role of the bike race in the kermis rituals.
While many like to see a bike race as a competitive event where young men try to outdo one another, its origins are quite different. The bike race as originally conceived was a battle of man against the unforgiving forces of nature with survival and domination as its ultimate goal. Henri Desgrange, founder of the Tour de France, thought the ideal race was one with one finisher, one survivor. His Tour de France sent riders over long distances, bad roads, and unforgiving mountain passes to find the hero who would prevail in the end.
The bike race in Flanders, as exemplified by the Ronde is a struggle to survive. A struggle against the dark forces of nature that, in this part of the world are represented by fog, rain, sleet, snow and impassable cobblestone roads. This is punishment on a grand scale.
|The battle of man against nature|
It is also the daily battle the denizens of Northern Europe fought for centuries in order to survive. The opening scenes of the Ronde video in the Ronde van Vlaanderen Centrum show it very clearly. When the pale sun rises over foggy meadows exposing the wet, icy cobbles you can see that the stage is set for an epic (to the death) battle of man against nature.
The motto of the exhibits stresses blood, guts and glory. This is not so different from the bullfight where the matador confronts death in order to tame the wild forces of nature, in that part of the world represented by the toro bravo, the wild bull.
Both festivities carry an enormous cultural significance in their respective communities. Unfortunately these days many people choose to focus on extraneous details and good looks while ignoring the deep symbolism these events carry. Bike racing in Flanders is first and foremost about survival, honor, character and grit. It is like one Sports Illustrated article said, like boxing in America.