You might almost have thought he was racing. In the centre of Brussels, cycling fans chanted: “Eddy, Eddy, Eddy!” Belgium’s five-time winner of the Tour, Eddy Merckx, is one of cycling’s greatest representatives and although the 74-year-old hasn’t ridden for 41 years now it mattered little to all of those cheering on in Belgium’s capital. “Eddy is still such a hero for us. He was and always will be,” said Jan-Frans Lemmens, who stood with his bike waiting for the peloton of the 2019 Tour de France to start.
The 45-year-old, born in Brussel, is focused on only one thing today. He wants to watch the race from three different spots, and take in all of the atmosphere of the “Grand Départ” on Belgium’s cycling holiday. “It’s a magical feeling to have the Tour with us. I was always going to be here on the route. Cycling is a part of my life.”
That’s how it is in Belgium. Cycling is part of the culture. There are approximately 14,500 kilometers of cycling paths across the country, one that is only 280 kilometers long. On weekends, there are often more bikes than cars on the rural roads. And just watching others cycling is also part of the culture here. In the early year classic races on the rough cobblestone streets of Flanders, people stand and cheer. They’re at the cyclo-cross, a race that leads riders through mud, sand and sometimes even through pubs. They’ve even at the amateur races. People watch cycling, sometimes with a strong, blonde Belgian beer in their hand.
Jan-Frans Lemmens though, is drinking water. He still has a few plans today. He came to watch the Tour as a six-year-old with his father. “I caught the cycling bug immediately,” Lemmens said. When the cyclists fly by, Lemmens and his friends celebrate joyously. It’s clear how much of a fan he is. A few seconds later, the spectacle is over. Reports suggest Lemmens was one of 500,000 people in the Brussels district of Spalier watching for the Tour.
Even outside the city, in the streets of Flanders, the real heart of Belgian cycling tradition, hundreds of thousands stand on the roadside celebrating the Tour, the 20 Belgian cyclist (Belgian has the second most nationalists on the Tour behind France’s 34) and themselves. Take the legendary Muur van Geraardsbergen for example. It’s a short, steep cobblestone slope leading up to a small chapel, where, according to media reports, 10,000 people host an open-air festival for cyclists. The celebrations are huge when countryman Greg van Avermaet won the first mountain points, securing him the polka dot jersey.
Where does the Belgian’s love for cycling come from? Before the opening stage, pro cyclist Yves Lampaert is in a supermarket for a sponsor’s event. When asked, he didn’t have to wait long before giving an answer. “We have a huge history of cycling. We’ve had great cyclists in every generation, which motivates kids to get involved. There are so many clubs that support them and there are even lessons at school,” the 2018 Belgian champion told DW.
His team manager Patrick Lefevere goes even further: “Cycling is a lifestyle in Belgium. Everyone wants to be involved, everyone shares in the thrill. It’s a really special feeling to be a part of it all.” For his Deceuninck-Quickstep team, the fact the opening stage is in their home country is something really special. The team in blue worked all day to haul in runaways, to prepare for the sprint and with one big goal in their sights: the yellow jersey at the start of the Tour in their home country.
A Dutchman spoils the party
But in a hectic finish on the inclining stretch of the Avenue du Parc Royal, many plans were torn up. The Deceuninck-Quickstep team sprint finish was exemplary, but Italian sprinter Elia Viviani couldn’t stay with the lead group. Top favorite Dylan Groenewegen from the Netherlands fell and superstar Peter Sagen took the lead but ran out of gas in the final meters. Dutchman Mike Teunissen triumphed by the width of a bike tire. He inched past Sagen and ended a long Dutch drought: The last time a Dutchman wore the yellow jersey was 1989, a good 30 years ago. Belgium’s big party had no happy end.
The atmosphere at the finish wasn’t hampered though. Big crowds of fans circle the buses of the Belgian teams and try to get autographs or a photo. The sweat drips from Kevin van Melsen’s head while beneath him his legs slowly roatate. The Belgian is riding in his first Tour de France and a few minutes after coming through the finish everything he has just experienced along the 194.5 kilometers of his home country is still in his mind. “There were a remarkable amount of people on the streets. It was incredible,” the 32-year-old beamed. “In some small towns I could hardly understand anything because it was so loud. To see that amount of excitement really made me happy.”