More than just beer and chocolates …

The Tour of Flanders, with its cold, wet cobblestones, might be one version of cycling hell, but Belgium itself is cycling heaven.  Unlike England, cycling there is a respected sport, pastime and means of transport. Wherever you go, large town and small, there are bicycle shops that sell what I would call “proper” bikes. We stayed in a tiny town called Viane, just south of Ninove, where the Tour finishes. It has only one school and one restaurant, and it sustains a bike shop that sells everything from kids’ bikes with training wheels to bikes that would cost thousands and make a pro happy.
Everywhere that you go, main road or back road, there are generous cycle paths, clearly marked and well used by cyclists of every ability. There are no silly cycle paths that run for a few yards, then stop for whatever obstacle has caught the road engineer’s eye. These are cycle paths created by cyclists for cyclists.
The Tour of Flanders, a one-day event, even has its own museum, in the town of Oudenaarde, which is at the centre of the race area. We visited the museum and had lunch at the café there. Because it was the day before the race it was  very busy. Cyclists of every age, gender and hue stopped to soak up the wonderful atmosphere. We couldn’t miss one middle-aged chap who was sitting there – everyone wanted their photo taken with him. “Who is that?” we asked the waitress. “Johan Museeuw,” she replied, as if we ought to know – he is, after all, one of cycling’s greats. Everyone here knows him and reveres him. A short while later, while eating our lasagne, we see Museeuw cycling past the museum on his racing bike, wearing jeans, no helmet, and a plastic bag of shopping hanging from the handlebars. You wouldn’t see Sir Chris Hoy doing that, would you?
That night, back at our little restaurant in Viane, the owner’s wife, who speaks no English, is fascinated that we are able to converse when I talk in Afrikaans. My accent is obviously quite weird to her, but we can communicate, and when she hears we are in Flanders to ride in tour, she rushes off and returns with a picture of her, in this restaurant, with Tom Boonen, the Belgian champion who was to finish second in the pro event on Sunday. The pride is obvious. In Belgium, you don’t have to be a cyclist to love cycling, and cyclists.

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