Fondue and Alpenhorns

It was the cowbells that got me thinking. The incessant clanging I've experienced over the last several 'cross races first had me considering how you shouldn't give your three-year-old a cowbell if you want to keep your friends or your sanity. But once I recovered from that fundamental error, I started thinking about how cowbells are a sort of a universally accepted cultural anomaly in American ‘cross.

Ask most American cyclocross aficionados what their standard reference culture for the sport is, and you’ll likely get a single answer: Belgian. And these days, that makes sense. For over a decade now, a herd of Belgians led by riders like Mario De Clercq, Sven Nys, Bart Wellens, and Erwin Vervecken have dragged the ‘cross peloton around the farm tracks of Europe by their collective knickers. From the Gazet van Antwerpen series, to the SuperPrestige, to the World Cup, to the World Championships, riders from one half of one small nation have dominated the discipline. There have been formidable challengers at the top end, of course, names like Pontoni, Groenendaal, Boom, and Stybar, but no other nation has come close to Belgium’s recent combination of strength and depth. Belgians have always been strong at ‘cross, but the last 15 years? Out of control.

And so, as cyclocross has boomed in the United States over the same period, Belgium has become the discipline’s defacto culture of record in these parts. Hit a cyclocross race on the right weekend, and you’ll see Flemish flags flying in Virginia, Leffe poured in Kansas, Sporza quoted in Oregon, and god-awful knit caps worn by fat, cigar-smoking old men in Massachusetts. That last one doesn’t really have anything to do with cyclocross, it’s just a problem I feel should be addressed. Anyway, many of the ‘cross faithful habitually try to recreate the Belgian experience, no matter how far removed from Ruddervoorde or Zogge they may be, from things as minor as dropping some faux-Flemish into pre-race chatter to more involved projects like constructing janky, cockeyed flyovers. Really, I think it’s only our more stringent open container and public urination laws that hold us back from complete authenticity.

But as the faithful, ubiquitous cowbell reminds us, or should remind us, the Belgian dominance of cyclocross wasn’t always so complete. It’s just that the era of greater parity was, perhaps, a bit before most of our times. Cowbell-as-cheering-device is, after all, a Swiss cultural phenomenon, one imported to cyclocross from Swiss ski racing culture back when its red-and-white clad riders were a dominant force on the international cyclocross scene.

After finishing second in the 1975 cyclocross world championship to Belgian classics legend Roger DeVlaeminck, Albert Zweifel won four consecutive world elite titles for Switzerland from 1976 to 1979, putting an emphatic dent in eight consecutive years of Belgian domination. The lower steps on those podiums added an exclamation point to Zweifel’s accomplishment. For his first three titles, Zweifel bested fellow Swiss Peter Frischknecht, who hailed from Uster, a town just about 10 kilometers from the longtime SuperPrestige and World Cup stop at Wetzikon. In 1976, Switzerland swept the podium, with André Wilhelm following Zweifel and Frischknecht. For his fourth title in 1979, Zweifel beat out first-year Swiss pro Gilles Blaser.

Though Zweifel’s Worlds wins and accompanying medal rides by Frischknecht, Blaser, and Wilhelm were undoubtedly the high-water mark of Swiss cyclocross, they were by no means the end of the country’s presence at the top level. Zweifel would net two Worlds silver medals behind Belgian star Roland Liboton in 1982 and 1983 before taking the title for a fifth time in 1986. And as with his first four titles, the man standing next to him on the ’86 podium was Swiss. This time, it was Pascal Richard, who would step up to take the rainbow jersey himself in 1988. When Richard pulled on his rainbow bands, he had to look all the way to the third step on the podium to find a countryman, Beat Breu. Dieter Runkel would net Switzerland’s final world title in 1995, with countryman Beat Wabel taking the bronze. Peter Frischknecht’s son, mountain bike superstar Thomas Frischknecht, returned to his cyclocross roots in 1997 to take the country’s last elite world championship medal, a silver.

Runkel, Frischknecht, and Wabel would carry the torch for Swiss ‘cross through the early years of the UCI World Cup, which began in the 1993-1994 season. After a slow start in the series’ first two seasons, during which Breu’s third place at the Eschenbach, Switzerland round was the nation’s only podium appearance, the Swiss got their legs under them again in 1995-1996, with Runkel and Wabel scoring third-place finishes at the Wangen, Germany and Variano di Basiliano, Italy rounds respectively. Runkel took the win in the fourth round in Prague en route to his Worlds win the following February. With the jersey on his shoulders, Runkel won the second round of the 1997-1998 series, again in the Czech Republic. The following season, Frischknecht would register the Swiss dynasty’s final World Cup win, scoring an upset win at the fifth round in Zeddam, Netherlands, ahead of Belgians Mario De Clercq and Marc Janssens. Wabel was fourth.

Since Frischknecht’s win on January 3, 1999, no Swiss man has climbed on any step of a World Cup elite podium, and by the end of that season, the Belgians and Dutch had nearly taken over. At the Wortegem-Petegem round of the 2001 season, all of the top 10 elite finishers were Belgian. The sport is not all World Championships and World Cups, of course, but the results of series like the SuperPrestige show much the same trend.

Despite the diminishing returns in a sport that also used to boast more French, Italian, and German contenders, Switzerland retained its depth and interest in the sport, continuing to fill out its start allotments with hopefuls and usually hosting a World Cup round. In the years following Frischknecht’s win, Switzerland was still capable of placing four riders in the top 20 of any given event, and likely at least one in the first ten. But the very tip of the spear was gone. For a decade now, the nation’s standard bearer has been the very capable Christian Heule, a remarkably consistent finisher in the top-10 range, and capable of a top-5 on his best days. He was joined for several years by Simon Zahner, an early ‘cross talent currently with the BMC road team. Zahner seemed to be on the way up before presumably choosing to concentrate on the road. In the elite ranks, twenty-five-year-old mountain biker Marcel Wildhaber (Scott-Swisspower MTB) looks to be the brightest hope for the future, putting in his time in the 20s and 30s over the last few seasons before having what could prove a breakthrough ride at this month’s Pilzen, Czech round, where he finished 12th.

So how did one of the cyclocross’s biggest legacy nations drop from prominence, leaving only the incessant dinging of cowbells behind? I won’t pretend to know. Maybe, for anyone but the Belgians, it simply makes more sense to make your money on a mountain bike or on the road, not in a niche halfway between. Maybe the lack of top Swiss road teams to pay the summer bills undercut the support system. Maybe the sanitization of international cyclocross courses since the late 1980s has reduced the value of the Swiss technical precision in the slop. Maybe something changed in the 1990s in ‘cross, too, but we’re not going to go into that now. Maybe I’ll look into it further someday.

But maybe the trend also isn’t forever. Maybe the World Cup circuit’s recent return to Aigle after the three year absence of a Swiss round will spark some interest again, boost the participant numbers and level of domestic competition enough for a few super-talents to emerge. Maybe Andy Rihs, head of the Phonak and BMC empires and Swiss cycling's patron saint, can somehow help Switzerland regain its rightful place in its onetime specialty. Or maybe they just need a little more cowbell.


  • You can see why some of the Belgian customs tend to stick over those of other cyclocross cultures. Frites and horseburgers are easy to eat on your feet in a crowd, especially compared to fondue and schnitzel. And even though they’re both cheap, Bavik is better than PBR.

  • Maybe the Swiss ‘cross decline is due to morale issues. Namely, they have to stop naming everyone “Beat.” Among Switzerland’s international ‘cross representatives: Beat Breu, Beat Wabel, Beat Blum, Beat Morf…

  • What do I mean by “sanitization of international cyclocross courses”? We give you the 1988 World Cyclocross Championship from Hägendorf, Switzerland, won by Pascal Richard, with Beat Breu in third.

  • With its longterm peformance, the current dominance of Zdenek Stybar (Fidea), and great riding by riders like Peter Dlask and the elder and younger Simuneks, the Czech Republic can rightly be called one of the top nations in cyclocross. Question is, like cowbells from the Swiss and public urination from the Belgians, what cultural artifact will the Czechs contribute to the sport?

  • So who do we blame for cowbell proliferation in the United States? Tim Johnson. OK, maybe it’s not all Tim's fault, but he’s definitely involved. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000’s, Saturn sponsored the country’s best domestic road team, as well as a juggernaught ‘cross lineup featuring Johnson, Frank and Mark McCormack, and Bart Bowen. Somewhere in there, Saturn decided that cowbells were better marketing gewgaws than cardboardish off-brand water bottles, and the team distributed thousands of bells at road and ‘cross events to deafening result. By 2002 or so, the Mercury team (which started out wanting to be Saturn before deciding it really wanted to be TVM) also started handing out cowbells, so I suppose we can blame them, too.

  • The headline I finally slapped on this thing doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it? And frankly, it’s a little bit too Rick Steves for me. But in starting to write a little something about cyclocross, one thing stood out: all the good headline references and puns have been taken. Gin and trombones. Mud and cowbells. Chocolate and waffles. Frites and mayo. Cyclocross. Crosshairs. Crosscheck. Cross Czech. Crosswind. Cross dressing. Cross-industry marketing opportunities. There just aren't any good 'cross references left to make. Oh, wait, there's one. Feel free to use that.

Of Brittany, Booze, Brits and Bruyneel

Weekend Tour de France coverage? Well, my friends, that’s what the big sites get paid for, and here at the Service Course, we’re a non-profit. Not in the “helping people with diseases” or “relentlessly lobbying Congress” or “laundering money” senses of non-profit, but non-profit in the sense that we’re actually not making any money. So until major cycling brands, outdoor “lifestyle” companies, and maybe state-run oil monopolies start mailing us envelopes padded with crisp, clean Euros, we’ll probably keep taking the weekends off.

But our stringent no-weekends policy leaves us a bit behind today, as we’ve skipped right over the first two stages of the Tour de France, which along with today’s Stage 3 ran through the cycling hotbed of Brittany. (By “hotbed” we mean that Bernard Hinault is from there, which is really all you need to qualify for the descriptor. If you don't know who he is, suffice to say he's cycling's Chuck Norris.) Rather than talking about Alejandro Valverde’s (Caisse D’Epargne) win in the boxing match that was the Stage 1 finale, or why Quick.Step, of all teams, doesn’t know what wind and hills can do to your leadout, we’re going a different direction.

Just before the Independence Day holiday, the Unholy Rouleur (friend of the Service Course, prolific commenter, and prized wheel in a paceline) contacted us to suggest that we make a joint effort to bring our gentle readers a bit of relevant French culture during this annual three week romp. Since we’re both crap pétanque players, and we’re not much on impressionist painting, we decided to concentrate on food and booze, which both of us encounter far more often.

So we’re getting a late start, but taking a page from the Tour riders of old and Jan Ullrich, we’re going to ride ourselves into shape as the race goes on in hopes of a strong second place finish on the Champs. While the Rouleur looks into the gastronomic delicacies native to or popular in the locales each stage passes through, I’ll be doing the same for the liquid end of the spectrum, starting with Brittany.

I should start by saying that I don’t believe I’ve ever been to Brittany, though there was a family vacation over there when I was in high school that I’m still a little foggy on, so maybe I have. Anyway, my uninformed impression of France’s westernmost province, just across the English Channel from the U.K., is that it’s full of hearty, slightly cranky people who wear wool sweaters year round, and that it always feels kind of like fall there. And in that way, it’s a lot like upstate New York, with which I’m far more familiar. What else do these two kindred regions have in common you ask? Apples. Shitloads of apples.

With such an abundance of the forbidden fruit itself, it follows that the typical fermented drink of the Breton is apple cider, which sources tell us is available in a number of permutations – sparkling, still, sweet, or dry, and with levels of alcohol ranging from a modest 3% (I believe in France this is called “baby food”) on up to skull-cracking levels. It’s apparently served cold in a distinctive earthenware bowl, which should make absolute authenticity in serve-ware even more difficult than finding a correctly branded Belgian beer glass. Maybe your kid can make you one in art class, or there’s always French Ebay.

There are certainly a number of different brands of Breton cider, including some that are apparently available in Canada, because when it comes to French stuff, those guys have connections. I can’t for the life of me tell if any are available here in the United States though, so if you’re watching TiVo-ed coverage of today’s stage this evening, you might have to settle for a bottle of Woodchuck and call it good, though it may taste more like you’re trying to get an American high school girl drunk than watching a French bike race.

Of course, abundance breeds ingenuity, and like Americans with corn, the Bretons will apparently try to do damn near anything with their cider, like using it for chain lube, cooking chicken in it, or making it into powerful brandies (though it should be noted that the most famous apple brandy, Calvados, is usually identified with the Normandy region south of Brittany, also big cider country). We don’t know if you can do any of that with Woodchuck, though, so if you have tips on where to score some genuine, apple-based fermented Breton products in the United States, give us a shout. At least we can be prepared for next year, and if Tom Danielson and the cycling press have taught us anything, it’s that it’s never too early to start preparing for next year’s Tour.

The Versus Report

Just a quick timing note: six minutes. That’s how long the trusty TiVo counter tells me it took for the Versus commentary team (via Paul Sherwen) to bring up the Astana exclusion during the Stage 1 pre-race show. (Looking at prior postings, it seems like we can officially dub the six minute mark of the Versus broadcasts “Astana Time.”) I shouldn’t complain too much though – unlike their on-air griping about it during the spring classics, that dead horse now has at least some relevance to the race at hand. It is funny though, given all of Versus’ carefully crafted “Take Back the Tour” branding of this year’s race, that the Astana situation seems to be one instance where the commentary team blows right past the “new cycling” party line to support several well-entrenched members of the old system. The other instance is the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on Erik Zabel, who is featured on the "Take Back the Tour" rewind-of-shame advertisement, but spoken of adoringly by the coverage team.

I guess Bruyneel and co. paid the Versus bills for long enough to earn some loyalty, moreso than Landis and Ullrich, anyway. But now the tables have turned, and Versus is giving Bruyneel a little payback, in the literal sense – apparently, he’ll be providing some sort of commentary on their coverage over the last couple weeks of the Tour. Sherwen, at least, is very excited. And I agree, it should be great – we’ve been missing those “with Lance we blah, blah…” and “like Lance, Contador is blah, blah, blah” comments for the past year, and it will be great to hear them vigorously applied to a race that none of those people are involved in. Seriously, if this special guest star gig is going to work out, he’s going to have to come up with some new material.

You know what else the Versus crowd is loudly and repeatedly excited about? TWO AMERICAN TEAMS! Indeed, according to everyone’s license and registration, that’s certainly the case, with both Garmin-Chipotle and Columbia maintaining a reliable forwarding address in the United States. Sure, there are only four American riders among those two American teams, and indeed in the whole Tour, but who’s counting? Yay, America! Yes indeed, the U.S. nationalism, coming as it does from a couple of royal subjects with heavy ties to Africa, can be a bit forced, and it’s laid on way too thick, but I’m going to go out on a limb and not be bothered by it.

Cyclists, who along with their oppressed spouses and captive children, make up most of Versus’ Tour viewing audience these days, tend to be a studiously iconoclastic bunch – typically not a good target for the “root for the home team!” mentality that Versus adopted during the Armstrong era and continues to push (and which I’m sure is straight out of the NBC Olympic coverage playbook). But it also feels like sometimes, we as cyclists doth protest too much. It’s only a bike race, not a trade embargo or a war, and if you want to root for a team because they’re registered here, or because they ride a bike you have or like, or because you like their kit’s combination of blue and white better than every other team’s combination of blue and white, I say have at it. It doesn’t make you uncultured or a redneck – those suave but passionate Italians we cyclists admire so much are busy doing the same damn thing. So maybe it’s just the lingering Fourth of July beers talking, but there are worse things in the world than flying the flag over a bike race.

Do I think it’s necessary to interview Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Chipotle) after every stage? No, probably not, but he’s a good rider, and pretty well spoken, so what’s the harm? And Will Frischkorn (Garmin-Chipotle) went from winning the Univest Grand Prix in Pennsylvania last year to riding the Tour de France this year, and that’s not too shabby a transition to make, so I don’t mind hearing from him either. After all, the media always needs an angle, and no matter how oblique it is, you’ll sure notice it’s absence if they stop trying to find it. That said, if they could stop constantly referencing Lance Armstrong every time George Hincapie (Columbia) appears on screen, I’d be much obliged. Not because I’m unpatriotic or don’t like Hincapie, but because it just gets really, really old, and after 14 Tours, George deserves to have his name mentioned in a sentence of its very own.

Italian Graffiti

The 2008 Giro d’ Italia is underway, marking not only the start of the grand tour season, but also the beginning of prime road graffiti season. For whatever reason, this quaint chalk-and-housepaint element of road racing culture has never migrated north to the spring classics in a big way, save the sterile, municipally-stenciled string of “Huy”s on the final climb of the Fleche Wallonne and the surprisingly prolific writings of the Phil Gilbert fan club on the climbs just outside of Liege. Yes, the pavement décor is a little sparse up north in the chilly early spring, but as the professional caravan motors south to the boot of Europe for the Giro, the blossoming of the graffiti marks another sure sign of seasonal transition.

The Italians have made an art out of road graffiti, just like they have made an art of clothing, automobiles, living, bicycle racing, and, well, art. From simple block-letter names to heartfelt scrawlings to carefully planned and proportioned works, and with sentiments ranging from the poetic to the profane, Italians lead the way in truly inspired race course paint. (In fact, maybe it’s the descendants of all of the immigrant Italian miners in the Belgian Ardennes who account for the street painting present in those classics but lacking in the Flemish races. Maybe the urge to roll paint onto asphalt is something in their blood that hasn’t been totally bred out by living in that French-speaking land for a hundred years. Or maybe paint just doesn’t stick to wet cobbles very well.)

Sure, in July the Tour de France will bring about grand and international gestures of support for riders, teams, or entire nationalities, played out in paint and chalk, banners and flags, and paper mache and hay bale sculptures. But like the Tour de France and nearly everything associated with it, those displays often go a bit too far in their quest to be a spectacle for spectacle’s sake. And as a result, any sentiment they’re intended to convey seems to ring a bit hollow.

The Giro d’ Italia, on the other hand, is certainly a spectacle, but it is a spectacle because of its focus on bicycle racing, not because it is achingly desperate to be the center of attention. The same applies to those messages to nobody and everybody that the race’s tifosi apply to the streets of Tuscan towns and high alpine passes. Like the Giro that inspires it, the beauty of its road graffiti lies in its relative simplicity, its authenticity.

In fact, so endearing are the roadway decorations of the tifosi that they’re apparently spreading beyond the realm of cycling and making their way into general Italian culture, as American ex-pat writer and photographer James Martin describes here. It's like a bizarre ode to simplicity: some people use instant messages, the Italians just paint it on the road.

The Northern Classics: A Vicarious Spectator's Guide, Part II

Narrow roads, cobbles, rain, wind. Riding in the gutter for kilometers on end, throwing elbows to get into position before every climb. The classics are the stomping grounds of the hardest of the hard.

And nobody’s harder than Martha Stewart.

After all, Johan Museeuw may have overcome a shattered kneecap and a motorcycle wreck on the way to collecting three titles apiece in both the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix, but even the mighty Lion of Flanders has never done hard time (yet) or ruled a multimedia empire with an iron fist. And I hear his apple popovers are crap.

Sometimes we need to look outside the sport to get the vital information we need, so who better than Stewart, the Cougar of Westport, to step in as a culinary guide to the realm of the tough? Don’t let her usual persnickety treats fool you – if you dig around enough, she provides some solid takes on favorites from the land of the kasseien.

In Part 1 of our classics viewers' guide, we reviewed proper beverage selections for classics viewing. But even drinking regular strength beer as opposed to 10% alcohol-by-volume monk fuel, you’ll need something solid to soak up the booze. Again, we suggest you go native by treating yourself to a generous helping of traditional Belgian frites while you take in the heroics of the north. And again, we suggest you shrug off the unfair social judgement associated with drinking beer and eating fries at 10am.

Now, anyone can run down to McDonalds for a quick frites fix, but as with cycling itself, you’ll get a better experience if you put in a bit of work ahead of the big event. For those willing to invest the effort, Martha has generously provided us with the traditional Belgian recipe for both the frites and the accompanying mayo.

Making the frites is a little involved, with some time required to soak the cut potatoes and double-fry each batch. Though fry-o-lator ownership and a cycling habit are an unnatural combination, a purpose-built machine can make things a bit easier. However, a pot of oil and an appropriate thermometer can work just as well. Making the mayo is pretty easy, and it’s a more flavorful alternative to the Hellmann’s if you’re undeterred by seeing what mayonnaise is made of and you can get past the idea of consuming mayonnaise you’ve made yourself.

Both of the referenced formulas are pretty tried and tested. I’ve followed these very instructions several times with good results, but they’re pretty similar to every other recipe you’ll find for the same things. My only recommendations are to go long on the cooking time for the second frying, cut the fries a bit thinner than recommended, don’t skip the soaking in the interest of time, and pay attention to the oil temperature. Also, leave yourself enough time to get everything done – you can keep the frites warm in an oven if necessary, and it’s not a process that goes well when rushed. Other than that, just don’t burn yourself with the oil or poison yourself with the mayonnaise and you should be all set.

Tradition dictates that you eat your frites from a paper cone, blob of mayo on the top, with a tiny wooden fork. We’re usually sticklers for tradition, but when you’re eating them over your own living room carpet rather than the work-polished stone of a public square, a plate or bowl will do just fine.

Bonus Service Course Training Tip: Plan on riding an extra 70 kilometers or so on Monday to offset your little Sunday celebration, and throw the fry-o-lator out immediately following Liege-Bastogne-Liege. It’s for your own good.

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.