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How cycling can define a country

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The Tour de France is a wicked test of physical and mental prowess that only Belgium could love so acutely.

Eddy Merckx Repairing Bicycle Photo by Pierre Vauthey/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

Belgium claims to be the most cycling-obsessed country in the world, which says a lot about Belgium. This year, it is hosting the Grand Départ of the Tour de France, the largest competition in a sport rooted in a form of madness, and in mad people comfortable communing with the weirdest parts of themselves.

In many ways, Belgium embodies the Tour better than its eponymous nation. France likes to wield the Tour with a subdued sense of duty. Belgium, a country lopped onto France’s head like a brain slug, wields it like the sack of firecrackers that it is. Belgium regularly gets Tour stages, but not regularly enough to get used to the novelty. Saturday in Brussels will be the first Belgian start for the Tour de France since 2012, and the city is filled to the cracks with decorative yellow and green and polka dot nods to the race.

Belgians are certainly more passionate about the sport on the whole, up to creating a robust state-sponsored development system that offers stipends to riders who may never sniff a pro contract. Early in the sport’s history, provincial races were so popular and narrowly focused that everyone knew their fastest local butcher, fishmonger, or paper boy. A Belgian cyclist named Eddy Planckaert once rode so fast he claimed he reached a divine state and ejaculated.

Belgium also produced Eddy Merckx, and no one has ever been better than him. The Cannibal won everything there is to win. Briefly: Five Tour de France titles among a record 11 grand tours, every one of cycling’s five one-day monuments at least twice, and three world championships. That success more than 40 years ago still motivates Belgium to fling its most physically gifted youth at a beastly sport.

All this is to say that there is something special about cycling even if it may seem dull and alien to some. And if you don’t get it, that’s OK. Even Belgium, now, is in the process of figuring out why the hell it was ever attracted to the sport. Mike Carremans is the curator of the VeloMuseum, which covers 150 years of Brussels’ cycling history. It opened in September and was supposed to end last January, but was so popular that an extension was granted through the 2019 Grand Départ in Belgium.

Carremans says that 15 years ago, cycling’s popularity in Belgium had been waning, “It was folklore. It was something you’d do while visiting your grandparents,” but has since gotten hip again, if not quite returning to heyday levels. Velodrome stands have carnival atmospheres, where young folk drink and party while cyclists race round-and-round-and-round into wee morning hours. And lately academics have flocked to the sport to document how it sunk roots into Belgium, and what that says about the country.

Carremans isn’t a traditional researcher. He was a burly, jolly painter before he became a burly, jolly academic for this project. He has a thick black beard beneath a thin Rollie Fingers-mustache beneath a set of glasses that his eyes light up whenever he remembers a piece of lore he’d like to tell you. VeloMuseum was in part an excuse to examine his own passion for cycling. He took on the VeloMuseum project, he says, because “I never got a driver’s license,” and as a tribute to his late father-in-law, who used to pepper him with cycling stories — “I really regretted that he didn’t live to see this project.”

Brussels is in the process of rebuilding itself as a cycling city, a distinction it carried until the 1958 World’s Fair, when, according to Carremans, it destroyed its biking infrastructure for car parking. On the day before the first stage of the 2019 Tour de France, the city will rename a street after Willy De Bruyn, a transgender cyclist who was born Elvira and dominated women’s cycling in the 1930s before coming out as a man and undergoing gender reconstruction surgery in 1937.

Despite achieving cycling stardom, De Bruyn struggled to hold on to jobs after he came out. He would continue to research and publicly discuss intersexuality, however (Carremans claims as part of a traveling circus show), and eventually opened a bar in Brussels that advertised using his image and two facts: “World champion cyclist” and “Became a man.”

Not all the details of De Bruyn’s story are comfortable by modern standards, but they highlight a common trait among the best pro cyclists: They’re fully themselves. Explaining why might be a matter of physiology. To win a race like the Tour de France, you need to be able to live with one’s mind. Otherwise, mental stress leads to adrenal stress, which leads to the body’s severe deterioration at the end of three hellish weeks. The best tend to have some combination of naive, monastic, masochistic, or sociopathic personality traits. Whatever the mix, they’re able to obfuscate or repurpose the immense pressure that comes from outside their bicycles.

It’s fitting then that the Belgian cycling boom took place between the two World Wars, when cycling became a cheaper, more democratic sport at a time when everyone needed hard distractions from everything else. During World War II, pro cyclists were some of the only people who were allowed to travel around and outside of the country for competitions, the Germans believing that people could use something fun to do besides being occupied.

Those cyclists became part of the resistance by dismantling their bike frames, stuffing them with travel documents, letters, photos, and fake IDs, and reassembling them to ride off and distribute the contraband from town to town. Italian cyclist Gino Bartali was one of these couriers, a three-time winner of the Giro d’Italia, and two-time Tour winner, who risked his life under Benito Mussolini’s regime. Bartali’s story was only publicized after his death in 2000.

“When people were telling him, ‘Gino, you’re a hero’, he would reply: ‘No, no - I want to be remembered for my sporting achievements. Real heroes are others, those who have suffered in their soul, in their heart, in their spirit, in their mind, for their loved ones. Those are the real heroes. I’m just a cyclist.’”

My favorite story that Carremans told me is about three Belgian cyclists during World War II who took off ahead of a train full of Jews being transported to Auschwitz. The trains only stopped when they saw a red light, so the cyclists hid until the train approached, brandishing a lantern and a red piece of paper. Once they had fooled the train into slowing down, they popped out from their hiding place, opened a cargo door, and released more than a hundred captives.

Carremans can — and did — talk for hours about cycling. There’s no end to the stories, and it’s in their accumulation that one begins to get any sense how such a strange sport can actually matter to a country, even one roughly the same size Maryland. The answer isn’t divinity — though any individual might feel that way — but unity. Cycling is a tool to conquering an environment, a way to live with oneself and with nature, and so a way to live among humanity.

Over time, across a winding path, cycling became an example in Belgium of how anyone can learn to live alongside their darkness. That is its saving trait as a sport — that even when it’s deathly dull to watch, there’s no way to defeat the sense of awe that anyone is disciplined or crazy enough to take on mountains.

And even if cycling wanes as the primary obsession in a cycling-obsessive country, it will persist as a guiding light. It’s too late to kill cycling: The stories are all too damn good to die.