The Northern Classics: A Vicarious Spectator’s Guide

Unscientific observations of the United States cycling community indicate that there may be some misconceptions on how to properly celebrate the northern classics.

Not to worry, we’re here to help.

While the assumption that beer is an appropriate accompaniment to fine, cobble-laced bicycle racing is correct, the drinking selections of many of my countrymen seem to be a bit off. It seems that, in these parts at least, Versus coverage (or, if you’re one of the lucky five subscribers to win the viewing lottery) of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix sends the local leg-shavers scuttling off to Whole Foods for a bottle of Westmalle, Chimay, or Corsendonk to enjoy during the festivities.

This is simply not correct.

I’m not saying you can’t do it, and most any time you’re not operating heavy machinery is a good time to enjoy a fine, monk-blessed (or monk-blessed-style) brew. But such hoity-toity selections don’t maintain the proper parallelism to those hearty fans enjoying the races in person, and thus, you should consider a revised menu. Sure, there are likely dyed-in-the-wool-shorts Belgians who, when the first minutes of the Ronde broadcast crackle across the airwaves, uncork an Orval, carefully pour it into the proper glass, and raise a toast to the early breakaways. There are probably also Americans who serve vintage Bordeaux and fois gras at their Super Bowl parties, but that doesn’t make it normal.

No, the Ronde, like Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix to follow, are races of the people, and should be celebrated as the people celebrate. And that means production beer, not anything with a cork or “tones” to be analyzed by expert palettes. Besides, these races can be six hours long – how do you expect to be conscious for the finale if you drink more than a couple of glasses of 10% alcohol-by-volume beer? So, to go native, that means going with such Budweiser-gold selections as Bavik, Jupiler, and Maes. 500ml tallboy or draft, take your pick.

Finding any of those is usually less than a block’s walk in any town in Flanders, but on this side of the Atlantic, distribution presents a bit of a problem. After all, parent company InBev lists Jupiler as a “local brand,” and Maes and Bavik also seem content to stick with the home market. But while InBev keeps Jupiler to itself, it also provides the solution to our quest for an appropriately cheap, bland, high-volume Belgian beer stateside -- Stella Artois. Stella was, and is, much like its fellow Belgian “just beers” for years – it tastes basically the same, and the brand’s tasteful lighted signs decorate the exteriors of countless Belgian cafes. But recently, for whatever reason, it was singled out to become, in InBev’s words, a “global brand.” Probably because Stella Artois is more fun to say than Bavik or Maes. So unlike its contemporaries, you can get it here. Price-wise, it’s positioned at the same level as the other standard imports over here -- about the same $7 per bottled six-pack as Heineken. More than it’s worth, really, but a small price for bringing some authenticity home to your classics viewing party. Finding the appropriate branded glassware (we’re not complete heathens, after all) so close to the Ronde may be difficult, but fortunately Stella comes bottled with some dressy white paper around the neck of the bottle.

The mighty InBev also provides us with a more unusual but still culturally appropriate selection in Hoegaarden, a Belgian white beer. It’s widely available in grocery stores here, and is a good choice if you’re somehow obligated to invite the sort of guests who whine about “not liking how beer tastes.” It’s quite light, with sort of a lemony flavor to it. In a departure from the European correct-glassware tradition, it’s served in crappy plastic cups at the Six Days of Gent. So if you'll be serving people beer in crappy plastic cups, there’s some additional low country authenticity to be mined there.

If you’re willing to sacrifice a bit of low-brow (that’s low-brow, not Löwenbräu) authenticity, other suitable selections are available as well. If you simply must go a touch upscale, you can settle on a Leffe, which is still an abbey-style brew, but is produced on a larger scale and is fairly widely available at places like Trader Joe’s for reasonable prices per six-pack. And finally, if you find the allure of that big 750 ml, corked bottle irresistible, a nice Duvel is a good compromise. Duvel retains the correct golden color for mass consumption, while packing a bit more kick and more refined flavor. But it's still produced by a large, heartless corporation, as it should be. Delicious.

So now you have the proper, or close enough to proper, brew for your northern classics party. With a little planning, you may even have the correct glassware next year, which will add an air of authenticity to your party even if you and your friends can’t generate the nearly impenetrable cloud of cigarette smoke necessary to achieve total accuracy. But when should your party begin? Some would argue you should crack the first bottle a half-hour or so before the broadcast comes on – a bit of a pre-game warm-up, a nice, smooth cruise along the tarmac before the jarring of the cobbles begins. But again, to remain faithful to tradition, history dictates that you start drinking around 10am or so on the day of the event. To prove we’re not total sticklers for the rules, though, I suppose we can go by your local time, rather than mandating a correct Central European Time start.