Front page news – white stripes, wheeled terrorists, the Tour de France and the Prime Minister. Only in Flanders?

Last Friday I was taken to the front line of a full on cycling row that has erupted in Flanders, finally forcing the Prime Minister who was on a foreign trip on to the front pages of De Standaard to insist that he “would be looking in to it”

I have to share this storm in the tiniest of teacups because I don’t think we would see anything like this anywhere else except in the cycle sports mad world that exists around Ghent. And the story also has the dumbest punchline.

The background to the story is common enough. The community in Gavere, about 10km south of Ghent have complained that the “wheeled terrorists” have taken over their riverside and that they are constantly afraid. We have heard that before in many countries, most recently in the UK where there is a simmering row about the numbers of cyclists on canal towpaths or around the Olympic Road Race circuit at Box Hill.

However the difference here is the scale and the political fallout as the “terrorists” hit back.

Scheldt River path Gavere Flanders

The battleground is a long wide and perfectly smooth traffic free path that follows the Scheldt south from Ghent for miles making a perfect environment for cycling and walking.

But its strengths are its weakness.

The smooth asphalt is a beautiful temptation for roadies to fly along at speed and the width means that the sort of club groups that are common in Belgium can travel down it in big echelons, especially at the weekend. And we are talking big, I see groups of 30-50 riders where I live and round Ghent I guess numbers are huge.

And speeds are high, as we rode the three of us were doing close to 20mph at times and we were passed by faster groups.

So out of the blue a series of white “rumble strips” – the now notorious ribbelstroken have appeared across the path.ribbelstroken

The first row was apparently whether they were initiated by the municipality or by Waterwegen en Zeekanaal (waterway and sea canals) who manage the navigation. Had the mayor of Gavere exceeded his authority? Or does the fact that they are spread over a wider area implicate the navigation managers?

But regardless of the origins of the work the sports cyclists were soon up in arms that anybody would mess with their training route. With their influence it soon hit the pages of De Standard and ribbelstroken became a new hot topic. While we were out for a ride there was another newspaper photographer out for the evening getting background shots and pictures of the offending strips. His presence prompted a stop for a lively debate by the roadside.

By Monday it had got to the Prime Minister of Flanders Kris Peeters, far away in France on a visit to Le Tour. Another distinctly Flemish twist, when was the last time your Prime Minister nipped off to see the Tour in another country? Well it was all above board, he was there as a guest of DCM, the Flemish company that co-sponsors the Vacansoleil pro bike team in the tour, not a jolly of course.

He probably thought he was away from domestic concerns but in France he had the misfortune to be ambushed by Vancansoleil pro Thomas De Gendt who it turns out likes to use the offending route for his speed training.

I have to say that the prospect of one of the world’s top riders doing 50kmph down a riverside path probably confirms every local citizen’s worst prejudices about wheeled terrorists, but he certainly got the Prime Minister on the spot. So by Monday the ribbelstroken were right up there on the front page news of De Standaard right beside the pictures of Chris Froome and within the day the Mobility Minister was out there riding her bike up and down the towpath with the local cycling groups.

The punchline?

Well it looks like the Mobility Minister was discrete in her words when she said “It was not as dramatic as I had heard.”

Not dramatic? It was pathetic!

This is a country with some of the finest cobblestones on the planet. Cyclists go out of their way to race over the rumbly stuff. It is the world centre of cyclocross. And frankly Belgian road surfaces can at times be almost third world. Anybody who remotely considers himself to be a serious cyclist around Ghent should be laughing at the pathetic little ripples on the path.

In line skaters – yes, big disruption. Wheelchair users – definitely an issue. So yes the strips will be cut back to allow movement round the ends.

Ribbelstroken GevereBut the self-promoting hardest bike riders in Europe? Come on chaps, give us a break! Even the senior citizens ride didn’t bat an eyelid.

But the hard men of Ghent have spoken, apparently the experiment will not be continued.


Now that is what I call a weekend – cycling, Le Tour, British Lions and Murray

  • Stunning weather.
  • Great bike ride.
  • The British and Irish Lions beat the Aussies comprehensively at rugby.
  • Despite all my best intentions I am totally addicted to the Tour de France all over again. Incredible stage today, impossible not to watch.
  • There is a Brit in yellow at the Tour.
  • And some bloke called Murray won Wimbledon ending 77 years of famine.

How good is that?

To be honest I am almost as pleased by the bike ride as anything else. I had a 60 mile day with the Belgian club I have started riding with and I the brilliant weather it was outstanding. I avoided the calamities of my last ride and we saw our all the best of our local countryside. And once again it was almost car free! (Club Cyclotouriste d’Ottignies Louvain-la-Neuve)

Cycling Ottignies Brabant Wallon

The first few kilometres took us out of the dips and valleys of Walloon Brabant and then we rolled through the flatlands to the south with just a few ripples in the landscape. The villages were looking great, not least the beautiful chateau at Sombreffe which could have been almost anywhere in more celebrated landscapes in France.Wallonia Cycle Touring

On the way back we followed a similar pattern, to the point where one of the riders muttered that everything was a bit easy today. It looked awfully like we were going to get back about 30 minutes early, until the ride leader threw in about 40 minutes of climbing on a lot of the short, sharp climbs of in the area around Ottignies – we seemed to go up and down a lot of times and by the end my legs were hanging. But it was the sort of satisfied pain that comes with a good day out.

Cycle Ottignies

New Tour de France and Italian classics promo videos side by side

Bless the twittersphere and blogosphere.

How else would I be pointed to the new promo videos from the great tours and the Italian classics if links were not popping up all over the place today.

Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, Strada Bianchi, Milan San Remo, Tour of Lombardy in four minutes.

As one blogger put it “goosebumps”

Bring on the season.

Normal service will be resumed shortly

I was told by a cycling colleague here in Brussels that I am “unusual”.

He explained that he found it really rare to find someone who was working in cycling advocacy and transport cycling who was also connected to cycle racing.

I suppose this means I should apologise to my regular blog followers who had signed up to this thinking they were reading about about cycling culture and travel. Instead you have just had a series of raves and rants about British success at the Tour de France.

Actually I’m as surprised as you are!

When I started this blog I expected to put up the occasional post about racing because it is part of my world and my roots in cycling. But when Eurosport commentator David Harmon said on during Tour de France commentary on Saturday “I never expected this in my lifetime” I was with him. Despite loving the success of the British track cycling team in the last 12 years and cheering all Cavendish’s wins on the road winning the overall in the Tour is something that is almost impossible to conceive for a British fan. Amazing being in Brussels this week and getting big celebratory handshakes off an Italian and being gifted a copy of Monday’s L’Equipe with Bradley Wiggins on the cover by an American.

I don’t feel unusual, but if I look around my community I guess I am. I have used bikes for both sport, travel and transport throughout my life, but in a country with only 30,000 racing cyclists and a transport mode share of 2% you are part of a fairly exclusive community to do either cycle racing or transport. In the high transport cycling countries like the Netherlands and Denmark the racing cyclists are of course a tiny minority even if the orange jerseys are part of a continuous successful racing tradition. And in reverse in Belgium, France or Italy – here the sport is king in terms of media and profile and they are struggling to rebuild a transport culture even if the numbers of daily cyclists actually outnumber the racers.

So I hope you will forgive me. “Normal service will be resumed shortly” probably means sometime after the Olympics, because despite my moaning and groaning about the tickets I will be by the roadside on Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday with fingers crossed for the British team.

But for the moment let me enjoy my Tour de France moment. We have had to adopt almost anyone who spoke English as a champion for so many years – Irish, American, Australian and then a Canadian at the Giro d’Italia leaving the British celebrating crumbs from your table.

My Dad and I were sharing our reactions on Sunday and he immediately flashed back to his first entry into cycling in the early 50s when names like Coppi and Bartali were exotic gods read about in obscure magazines with black and white photos. Tim Hilton’s book “One more kilometre and we’re in the showers” (reviewed in the library) tells the story of being a cyclist in that period and paints the picture really well.

My own personal journey into Tour mythology starts at age 6 when I recall my dad freaking out when he was told “Simpson is dead”. I had no idea who, where or why Simpson mattered, but I still remember his response. We were of course by the roadside at a race start point at the time – it was a fixture in my childhood.

Then grainy TV coverage – just 10 minutes per week on World of Sport to cover the whole Tour for so many years, but much better to get the poster pages from Cycling magazine or Miroir du Cyclisme. I had a great picture of Merckx climbing in the classic Molteni colours on my wall for many years – British success was rare.

And the visits to the great event – Paris twice as a teenager, Alp D’Huez as a student and then two Tours in the UK were mainly exotic foreign fare. Sean Yates leading the peloton up Ditchling Beacon in 1994 was brilliant, as were the million people that came to London in 2007. But travelling hundreds of km across France to St Brieuc to watch Chris Boardman in the Tour prologue was more typical. He never even made it to our spot on the course, crashing out and fracturing his ankle on the wet road after less than 5km of a three week event.

I rode L’Etape du Tour in 2001 over the Aspin and the Tourmalet, then watched Lance destroy the field once again over the same terrain.

Other occasional heroes – Barry Hoban, Robert Millar, Sean Yates, Graham Jones, Paul Sherwen and the ANC Halfords team.

Dave D and fan

A fan who had travelled to meet David at the 2006 DD Challenge

When Channel 4 started covering the Tour every evening at peak time we learned so much more about the race under the smooth tutelage of Phil Liggett and later the ramblings of David Duffield on Eurosport. I certainly would not have dreamed that I would work  with Phil and David later on, nor that the occasional commentator that worked as CTC’s Mountain Bike Officer would go on to be the same David Harmon who was moved by Bradley Wiggins last week

The current generation of riders changes everything for us fans, culminating in the yellow jersey this week. It’s been a long road, so forgive me for a week or two.



On Sunday I wore yellow

“Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles de Gaulle, Jacques Chirac, Bernard Hinault, Brigitte Bardot. Francois Hollande your boys took a hell of a beating!”

In honour of one of sport’s legendary commentaries and to commemorate British success in the Tour de France. See you all on the road on #yellowsunday

“Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles de Gaulle, Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, Bernard Hinault, Brigitte Bardot, we have beaten them all, we have beaten them all. Francois Hollande can you hear me? Francois Hollande your boys took a hell of a beating!”

Going to tweet this over to Eurosport – sadly as an international broadcaster I’m sure David Harmon is far too professional these days to yell this when Cavendish hits the front on the Champs tomorrow, but one could dream.

Bjørge Lillelien, Norwegian sports journalist and commentator made the original when he commentated on Norway’s 2-1 victory against England in a World Cup qualifier in Oslo on 9 September 1981. At the end of the match, alternating between English and Norwegian, he proclaimed (in Norwegian) “We are best in the world! We have beaten England! England, birthplace of giants”, before taunting a roll call of famous English people.

“Lord Nelson, Lord Beaverbrook, Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden, Clement Attlee, Henry Cooper, Lady Diana, vi har slått dem alle sammen, vi har slått dem alle sammen [we have beaten them all, we have beaten them all]. Maggie Thatcher, can you hear me? Maggie Thatcher […] your boys took a hell of a beating! Your boys took a hell of a beating!”

Wikipedia has a good list of other parodies and a link to the original commentary which is brilliant.


On Sunday I shall wear yellow

An appeal for every cyclist in Britain to wear yellow in Sunday!

With acknowledgements to the wonderful Jenny Joseph poem “Warning, when I am old”

On Sunday I shall wear yellow,

And celebrate Wiggo even if yellow doesn’t suit me,

And I shall spend my money on a celebratory coffee and cake,

I will ride around and there will be no time for gardening.

I shall sit in my saddle and ride till I’m tired,

Wheel around the countryside and wave to the rest,

And know that we can shout about cycling,

And make up for the years from Anquetil to Armstrong

The challenge is on – if Bradley Wiggins wins the Tour de France on Sunday can we get every Sunday cyclist in the country to wear at least a dash of yellow? I have been folllowing cycle racing for over 40 years and this one has to be celebrated, even the BBC have noticed!

Can cycling’s poets come up with a better poem that starts with the opening line “On Sunday I shall wear yellow”?

The original: From “Warning” Jenny Joseph, 1961

When I an old woman I shall wear purple,

With a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me,

And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves.

And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter,

I shall sit down on the pavement when I am tired,

And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells,

And run my stick along the public railings,

And make up for the sobriety of my youth.


Music, cycling, chat…

Wet day.

A bit hungover (blame the Vancouver Cycle Chic party) .

Got to pack for my cycle tour.


So I clicked over to my favourite radio show, Radcliffe and Maconie on BBC 6 Music to listen to one of last week’s shows. Discovered Wednesday’s guest: Genuine cycling nut, good egg and former Housemartins & Beautiful South singer Paul Heaton was on talking about the 2,500 mile performing tour he did by bike around the UK performing at small venues. Most refreshing, feel better now, might go for a bike ride.

Listen again to the first hour of the show on for the next 4 days. (Until 3 June)

And an excuse to put up some more Tour de France related trivia.

Kraftwerk’s Tour de France – the last song played in the segment.

Come on Bradley!

Tour de France watching for breakfast – totally guilt free!

I have been trying to get my head round watching the Tour de France from British Columbia. Particularly this year because of the British interest with Wiggins and Cavendish. So I just sat down with the official Tour web site and the trusty time zone calculator to discover that Wiggo should be donning the yellow jersey for the first time around 8.30 am tomorrow.*

And after that the stage finishes should all be around the same time each day. Amazing – able to watch the sport without the slightest guilt that I am wasting the day, not sold out because I am watching not riding, not having to do the ironing to justify watching sport all afternoon. And then I can go ride my bike afterwards.


*Over-optimism may be creeping in with the joy of this discovery.

Tour de France at the Halfway Inn, Kent, England

Tour de France at the Halfway Inn, Kent, England