The tone had been set for the day’s racing when Belgium’s favourite son, Wout van Aert, entered the Monseigneur Ladeuzeplein fan zone for the pre-race rider sign-on – but little could have prepared me for the intensity of watching the World Championships in Flanders.
After a 20 year hiatus, the worlds returned to Belgium for 2021 and the crowd’s reaction as van Aert took to the stage was unlike anything I’d ever seen or heard at a bike race.
Not only was Flanders hosting the worlds, but van Aert was the bookies favourite for the men’s race. And they were backing their rider with all of the fervour you’d expect of a cycling-mad, partisan crowd in the spiritual home of cycling.
I was lucky enough to be in Leuven for the 2021 UCI Road World Championship and decided to immerse myself as fully as possible in the Belgian cycling experience.
While I’ve been to more than a few road races in my time, my focus is always bringing you, our dear readers, the best pro bike galleries and tech news from the pointy end of the sport. This means my time is spent hassling stressed out mechanics at team buses and sweating away in a press room.
However, Covid has changed the whole setup of major races, with access to teams almost entirely cut off.
This time, I had been in Belgium for a bike launch (that’s all I can say on that for now…), and in between rattling around the finest bergs of outer Leuven, I had managed to catch snippets of the junior, under-23 and women’s races, but grabbed the chance to spend a full day watching the men’s elite race on Sunday.
As it turns out, there’s no better place to watch a World Championships than in Belgium. Here’s what I learnt from three days in Flanders.
The worlds are a true test of endurance
World Championship road races are notoriously long – 268km in the case of the 2021 elite men’s race – and a true test of endurance for the sport’s finest riders.
Turns out it’s not just a long day for the riders, though.
Crowds with a chronic fear of dehydration were already emptying the local shops of beer a full seven hours before the final laps of the race were scheduled to roll into town. Key vantage points on the route were secured with equal enthusiasm.
This commitment to both daytime drinking and spectating is remarkable – for the everyday Belgian cycling fan, this is a full-day event that clearly requires remarkable endurance.
Preparation is key
An estimated one million spectators were in Flanders to watch Sunday’s race.
As well as stocking up on beer early on, the best prepared of Belgium’s cycling super-fans had also brought chairs or ladders to ensure they caught a glimpse of the action.
A fold-down chair was also a must-have accessory for anyone whose aptitude for drinking seven per cent Belgian beers is more like the endurance of a one-hour cyclocross racer than a six-hour road world champion.
Dress for the occasion
Costumes also play a big part in the culture of spectating.
At the bare minimum, stacking up as many free cycling caps as possible seemed to be de rigueur for the worlds.
But those with a high personal threshold for sweating went as far as entombing themselves in elaborate and, in many cases, beer-themed outfits.
Rider fan clubs are the real deal
Outside of the obvious hordes of fervent Wout van Aert fans, I also immersed myself in the thoroughly foreign concept of rider fan clubs.
Legions of dedicated Sonny Colbrelli and Peter Sagan fans travelled from their home nations to line the roads with matching flags, T-shirts and hats.
However, the best among these roadside displays was the enormous effigy of what I assume is Silvan Dillier, which took centre spot among a large cohort of Swiss fans by Leuven’s train station.
These efforts are not without reward – elaborate displays of support are almost guaranteed to blag you a brief appearance on Eurosport, which must rank highly in the palmares of the dedicated cycling fan.
Remco en Wout gaan voor goud
For those of you who haven’t attended a major European road race, it’s hard to describe the party-like atmosphere all of this creates along the route.
The predominantly Belgian crowd was fairly well-lubricated by midday and in a jubilant mood, with fans young and old easily motivated into a deafening chant of ‘Wout van Aert’ – despite basically nothing happening wherever they were sat.
On the subject of van Aert, while the multi-discipline Belgian is clearly one of cycling’s biggest stars, I hadn’t realised quite how big a name he was in his home country until arriving in Leuven.
In fact, there isn’t a single sportsperson who is revered to quite the same level back home in the UK. He has been elevated to a near god-like status that is usually reserved for whole teams, not individuals.
Van Aert’s stardom was only elevated further when I set out to find the ‘Wout van Aert song’ I had been hearing all day – only to discover there is, remarkably, more than one.
Some of these have amassed more than 180,000 views on YouTube.
This latest hit from Kletse Kieten was the standout from the day, though. It was blasting out from balconies all over the city and I don’t think I’ll ever forget the slightly weird music video. Watch it for yourself.
While the likes of Mark Cavendish and Chris Froome have become household names here in the UK, I challenge you to find a song dedicated to either, let alone one that’s (almost) worth listening to.
If you haven’t been to a bike race in Belgium, go!
Outside of the official fan zones, nearly everyone with a house along the route seemed to be using the race as an excuse to have a party, with those at ground level opening up their windows for passing fans to watch the action on living room TVs.
The atmosphere was electric from start to finish – something that has undoubtedly been missed by everyone during the largely spectator-free racing calendar of the past 18 months.
Of course, cycling isn’t immune from the influence of idiots, and Julian Alaphilippe, who went on to take the rainbow jersey in a thrilling race, is said to have been partly motivated by the abuse he received along the route.
While my experience was limited to the centre of Leuven, these fans were in a small minority.
In any case, the fact that van Aert didn’t place as well as many had expected didn’t matter.
Hours after the race had concluded, Belgian fans were still chanting his name with as much enthusiasm as the start of the day, proving that for many, the result was secondary to partying, having fun with friends and enjoying the remarkable spectacle that is road racing.
Long may it last and I can’t wait to be back.