Pride of Wallonia

Philippe Gilbert (FDJeux) led Sunday’s brief rider protest at Paris-Nice, taking the podium along with first and second placeholders Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) and Rinaldo Nocentini (AG2r) to denounce the utterly inappropriate treatment of Kevin Van Impe (Quick.Step) at the hands of dope testers (see below). Spearheading such an effort is indicative of Gilbert’s recent ascendancy in the peloton, both in terms of stature among the riders as well as his prowess on the road in the five years he has been a professional. Now a two-time winner of Het Volk, Gilbert is a known threat and is among the riders to watch for a win in the upcoming cobbled classics.

What’s notable about Gilbert is not that he’s a solid classics rider from Belgium, but in which part of Belgium he’s from. Gilbert, now 25 years old, hails from Verviers, some 30 kilometers east along the E40/E42 from Liege. In other words, Gilbert is a Walloon, not a Flandrien. The French-speaking residents of Belgium’s southern sector have never shared the same love of and success at bicycle racing as their Flemish-tongued northern cousins, though the region has produced a few notable riders as well as La Doyenne, Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Maybe it’s the hillier terrain, or the relative lack of storied cobbled bergs that makes the Walloons more prone to soccer-playing than cycling. Or maybe it’s that the “Rooster of Wallonia” doesn’t conjure up the same heroic medieval imagery as the “Lion of Flanders” title applied to great Flemish cyclists.

During a trip to assist with VeloNews coverage of the Ardennes classics (Amstel Gold Race, Fleche Wallonne, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege) in 2005, I sat down to chat a bit about Walloon cycling with Christophe Brandt (then Lotto-Davitamon, now Silence-Lotto), who hails from Liege, as well as his teammate Axel Merckx. The resulting article, which never ran, appears below. The information in the article has not been updated since – most notably, Merckx the younger is now retired, and Maxime Monfort now rides for Cofidis.

Le Minority Report
Liege, Belgium

When asked on one occasion whether he considered himself Flemish or a Walloon, Eddy Merckx famously answered, “I’m a Belgian,” and left it at that. In doing so, he may have avoided a civil war between Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern half of the country, and Wallonia, the French-speaking south. Both were anxious to claim the great champion, who hailed from Brussels suburb Woluwe-St. Lambert. The capital city straddles the line between the two regions and afforded Merckx his diplomatic, if ambiguous, answer.

Though of similar size geographically, Flanders dominates the deeply divided country, both economically and culturally—a dominance that has historically extended to cycling as well. Despite hosting two of the most prestigious spring classics, Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, famous Walloon cyclists are hard to come by—1984 world champion Claude Criquelion was the region’s last great champion, and he retired in 1991. In fact, when most cycling fans think of Belgian cycling, the images that spring to mind are almost exclusively Flemish—the cobbled bergs, fanatic fans, black and yellow rampant lion flags, and surnames often beginning with “Van” or “De.”

With the weight of history against it, Wallonia may never surpass or even rival its northern neighbor in producing top-level cyclists. But Walloon cycling is on an upswing, both in numbers and results.

“Now just in Liege we have six or seven professional riders,” says Christophe Brandt, a 27-year old from Liege riding for Davitamon-Lotto. “So we try to train together, but this is the first year we have so many. There are three young guys who have just become professionals this year. I guess you can say we don’t have so many riders, but we have good quality riders.”

Brandt, together with 22-year-olds Philippe Gilbert (Francaise Des Jeux) and Maxime Monfort (Landbouwdrediet-Colnago), are part of a crop of young Walloon riders just beginning to make an impact in the professional ranks. Already in 2005, Gilbert has won the Tour du Haut Var and the second stage of the Tour of the Mediterranean, while Monfort won the first stage and placed second overall Frenchman Freddy Bichot (Cofidis) at the Etoile de Besseges. In 2004, Monfort also took the overall at the Tour of Luxembourg.

Currently, there are only 15 or so Walloons in the professional peloton, compared with over 80 for neighboring Flanders. But with Wallonia offering good roads, little traffic, and miles of rolling hills to train on, why does Flanders dominate its French-speaking countrymen, both in numbers of professionals and results?

“We have less culture of the bicycle sports. In Wallonia, we are more for football and everything like that,” explains Brandt. “If you want to become a rider in Belgium you have to go to Flanders to make the races and to learn to race.”

Brandt readily admits that the cycling-mania that grips Flanders’ fields year-round doesn’t extend to his corner of the country. “People like the big races. The little races, they aren’t so concerned with, so they only come for the big races. They only come for Fleche, Liege, and the Tour de France last year. But for the rest of the year, they don’t have so much interest in bicycling.”

Surprisingly, Brandt’s own family was no different. “The first time I went to see a race was Liege-Bastogne-Liege. I live six kilometers from the start. I come from a family that wasn’t interested in bicycles, but every year at this moment of the season, they go to see as a family Liege-Bastogne-Liege. That’s because, I don’t know, it’s something special. Every person living in Liege goes to see Liege-Bastogne-Liege. They don’t know the racers, they have no interest in racing, but they go to see the riders at Liege.”

Though he thus far lacks the victories of his younger compatriots—the high point of his palmares is a solid 14th place at the 2004 Giro D’Italia—Brandt showed this year that he may be the most likely to bring a win to the home team in the Wallonia’s Ardennes classics. Eighteenth at the Amstel Gold Race and 15th at Fleche Wallonne just prior, Brandt was clearly on good form for the race he holds above all others, Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

While Gilbert would retire early, and Monfort would ride to a relatively anonymous 70th place, Brandt was active throughout. He set off with three others over the 11 percent slopes of the Cote de Saint-Roch in pursuit of a five-man break. Though that move would be brought back quickly, Brandt was active again on the Cote de Sprimont, 29 kilometers from the finish in Ans, attacking a 30-strong chase group stacked with heavy-hitters and cresting the climb third behind leaders Vinokourov and Voigt.

He arrived in Ans in 16th position, 1:04 down on the winner, but no doubt thinking of next year. Brandt is proof positive that, though the public may not be as fanatic as they are in Flanders, Walloon riders value their own native classics every bit as highly as Flemish riders do the Ronde Van Vlaanderen or the Omloop Het Volk.

“I think I can fall dead if I win Liege,” says Brandt. “I’m from Liege. If I can win this race it’s the most beautiful thing I can reach in my sport. Also, it’s not a little race, so you have to be really, really good. But if it happens, I think it’s like a dream. It’s more than a dream.”

As for the Merckx question, it remains unanswered to this day, and Eddy’s son Axel (Davitamon-Lotto) isn’t giving away any of the family secrets. “I’m from the same place—I’m from Belgium first,” says Merckx the younger. “I was born in Brussels, and I don’t think of myself as French-speaking or Flemish-speaking, I just think of myself as a Brussels guy.” The two regions remain, as they did in Eddy Merckx’s day, culturally and linguistically divided, but at the very least, they’ll both always have Eddy.