Last weekend I took a short cycling trip over the Flemish border to the nearby town of Overijse to watch the elite cyclocross, referred to by the TV commentators as the “classico” because it has been run on the same site for over 50 years. The continued delights of Belgian life, world class bike racing on my doorstep again.
However this cycling trip had a twist, because it has allowed me to write a story about some local history that I have been curious about ever since I started house hunting here in 2012.
Before we first moved here I looked at some possible houses to rent around Overijse and Hoeilaart. While travelling around on my bike I couldn’t help but notice numerous large greenhouses scattered across the rolling landscape, a few in good condition but many of them derelict and fading. It is like a whale graveyard, some of them recently beached on the hillsides but others weathered away to skeletons.
I guessed, wrongly, that I might be looking at former market gardens that would provide fresh vegetables or flowers to the tables of Brussels, perhaps wiped out by the modern horticultural powerhouses of the Netherlands and Flanders?
I only found out the reality when I was given a wonderful book for Christmas last year. “La Ceinture Verte de Bruxelles” is a guide to the green ring around Brussels with a detailed history of the towns and features of the area. And therein I foundthe connection to Sunday’s cyclocross.
When I looked up the website for the event to find out the location and timings I found that it is officially called the “DruivenCross” which translates as Grape Cross (“Cross des Raisins” in French), an odd name you would think for a muddy field sport in Flanders.
It is explained by the fact that Overijse was the heart of an extraordinary industrial bubble that boomed and almost died in just 80 years. Between 1880 and 1960 the valley of the Ijse was home to the Flemish grape industry which at its peak produced 11 million tonnes of grapes per year for export all over northern Europe, even reaching the USA before the First World War.
Their secret was that in 1865 an inventive gardener called Felix Sohie worked out that he could profitably grow grapes in a heated greenhouse on his employer’s estate, making this luxury product available to markets out of reach of fresh grapes. Within just twenty years the hillsides from Overijse to La Hulpe were covered in greenhouses and the market was so important that a steam tramway was built to connect the grape harvests to the railways for export. A kilo of fresh grapes was such a luxury it cost a day’s salary for a manual worker so it was inaccessible to most of the population.
It was a true economic boom. Grand houses were built as the owners got very rich, but almost everybody in the community had a stake through employment or commerce.
The GrapeCross was first run in 1960, unfortunately timed to follow the decline of the industry throughout the following fifty years. Ending customs tariffs with France, increased oil and coal prices and then the improvements in road transportation that allowed fresh Mediterranean grapes to reach northern markets in good condition each contributed another blow that effectively wiped out the Flemish Grape. According to my book just 47 people were occupied in growing grapes in the area by 2001.
However the greenhouses stayed on, either as relics or converted to satisfy all but the most ambitious domestic gardener, some of whom have also maintained the vines as amateurs.
Ghosts of this almost vanished industry live on. The growers keeping the tradition alive were awarded special protection status in 2008 when the Flemish Brabant Table Grape was given protected designation of origin by the EU, putting it alongside Champagne or Parmesan Cheese.
It is a lovely area to ride a bike too, so I thoroughly enjoyed my ride over, it may be only 14km in a straight line but I wandered about for about 25km before I rolled into Overijse for the cross.
Not exactly hard to find as it had a typical Flemish set-up, actually starting in the former station square where those carriages carried the grapes to harvest and then weaving its way around steeply sloping parkland and sports fields on the edge of town. It was a fantastic course, far more interesting than many of the others I see on TV. There was hardly a flat bit on it and an endless series of tricky corners that were as much mountain biking as cross, a really mixed test of all cross abilities.
A lovely family atmosphere of course, especially as Sint Niklass had come last night and put in an extra appearance for the kids on the day. (However I could get a bit sick of twee piped Christmas folk songs between the races)
As a Brit I particularly enjoyed the elite women’s event because the two Englishwomen Helen Wyman and Nikki Harris were at the front of the action all day and for a long time it looked like Helen would win it.
However with a couple of laps to go she was joined by Belgium’s Jolien Vershueren who is so tiny she probably weighs about as much as one of my legs.
On this hilly course she was able to break away near the end but Helen and Nikki got 2nd and 3rd, both are currently on a great vein of form which I hope they can carry through the rest of the season.
In the men’s’ race the lead changed a few times over the hour but in the end current world champion Mathieu van der Poel rode away from the rest, yet another amazing ride by the crop of 19 and 20 year olds that are blowing the old guard away in cyclocross in the last two years. (If you are a sports cycling fan and you haven’t clocked this young guy yet – watch him on the road in 5 years’ time. Son of Dutch road rider Adri van der Poel, grandson of French superstar Raymond Poulidor, he is a very special talent)
As I rode home after my afternoon’s entertainment I was treated to a glorious sunset which capped off an enjoyable day, reflecting on the dimming past of the Flemish grape industry and the sparkling future stars of cycle sport.