August in Australia translates to February in Europe, the last month of winter.
It’s a sunny 23°C (74°F) day in Brisbane today (like almost any other winter day) and a good time to talk about Northern Classics. Specifically, about The Lion of Flanders (De Leeuw van Vlaanderen), a title Flemish cycling fans christen badass riders with when they do badass heroics in Flanders.
The Flemish though, a people who understand and appreciate cycling the best of all people on earth, have not called anyone De Leeuw van Vlaanderen since Johan Museeuw who retired from the sport in 2004 with a badass ride in Paris-Roubaix, blowing up the breakaway he was in at Auchy-Lez-Orchies, catching Jaan Kirsipuu, then being caught by the chasers, dropping another bomb at Carrefour de l’Arbre which left only five men standing and losing it all because of a puncture with six km to go.
Doesn’t get anymore badass than this.
That was that and we haven’t seen another Lion of Flanders since. At least, the Flemish don’t think anyone deserves the title.
Six years ago I wrote a post where I asked why the Flemish keep the Lion of Flanders crown in a safe these days.
Just like with “The Next Eddy Merckx” moniker, it’s not about the number of wins.
Fabian Cancellara won Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix three times and just as many times E3 Harelbeke (for good measure). No one called him The Lion of Flanders.
It’s not about being a Flemish. Tom Boonen is Flemish with four Paris-Roubaix, three Ronde van Vlaanderen, and five E3 Harelbeke wins. No one called him The Lion of Flanders either.
The Flemish called Fiorenzo Magni, who won Ronde van Vlaanderen three time in a row (1949-1951) The Lion of Flanders though. It’s not about nationality then.
So, What’s the Deal with The Lion of Flanders?
I spoke to a Flemish reader of my newsletters about it and he confirmed what every cycling fan who loves watching the racing mayhem in Flanders every spring knows already — the Flemish give the Lion of Flanders title to badass riders only who do badass shit on road bikes.
It’s that simple. A simple truth from the simple people (writing this sentence, being a Russian, I feel a weird connection to the Flemish, but let’s not explore this rabbit hole for now).
There’s more to it though, some insights the reader shared with me I didn’t know about.
To start with, it’s all about the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Forget Paris-Roubaix (The Lion of Flanders Fiorenzo Magni proves that). I like that.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Paris-Roubaix (who doesn’t?) but, if you stop for a second and think, the title is about Flanders, a badass dude doing badass shit in Flanders in a badass race designed from day one for badass riders. You gotta do your batshit shenanigans in Flanders, not France. That much is clear.
Next on the list is weather. To earn The Lion of Flanders title, you gotta win your Ronde in a batshit weather. I mentioned the 23°C late winter weather in Brisbane with a view to set up a contrast to batshit weather in Flanders at this time of the year and all the way to April when they run Ronde van Vlaanderen in Belgium.
No one is saying, not my reader anyway, winning the Ronde is easy in dry, sunny weather but to spark the awe of the Flemish crowd, you gotta deliver the win when the cycling gods throw everything at you, including the weather. You gotta deliver a badass victory in badass conditions. Failing that, you’re a Ronde winner, maybe even a three-time winner and this is great but you’re not a Lion of Flanders. Sorry. Try again.
This weather talk reminds me of Andrei Tchmil, a badass Russian rouleur who won Paris-Roubaix in batshit weather but drew an unlucky dry weather card on the day he won Ronde van Vlaanderen. I wonder if we could travel back in time and swap the weather, would the Flemish call him The Lion of Flanders? He raced with a Belgian passport after all.
As an aside — his surname should be spelled Chmil, as in ‘choice’, because that’s the correct Russian pronunciation. There’s no T, the T confuses foreigners and makes it harder to pronounce this surname.
Another checkbox to tick on the Lion of Flanders list is a badass attack catapulting you to a solo victory. This is simultaneously classy and badassy. Double points for this. Oh and the attack has to come from a small breakaway of about 10 other badass rouleurs who barely stand on their feet at this point in the race.
You do that kind of thing because you’re a badass rouleur slaying a bunch of other badass rouleurs at their own game. This is badass. This why the Flemish will call you The Lion of Flanders after you cross the finish line. Alone.
Finally, some nice-to-have touches, optional but beaucoup valued by the Flemish (sorry for my French) — you gotta crash in the race or have a flat at least. Make it count, Flemish love that. Cross the line bleeding. You can’t go wrong here, the more blood, the better. A bloody face — you’re in. Just ask Tchmil (wait, wrong race).
Now on to the “the next Lion of Flanders, please stand up” part of the monologue.
My Flemish correspondent submitted the obvious candidate — Wout van Aert. He’s got it all. I won’t explain what he’s got, you know what he’s got. It’s all lined for him including an archrival in Mathieu van der Poel.
If all goes well, the stage is set for a slaughterhouse showdown between these two in years to come. We just need a batshit weather on one of those days and we might have a new Lion on the books.
Small caveat though. Wout is from the Antwerp province and a bona fide Lion should come from either East or West Flanders (Bruges and Gent regions). But, if the Flemish called an Italian The Lion of Flanders, I doubt they’ll mind too much a badass Wout van Aert from Antwerp.
The number two (there are only two) name on the list is Yves Lampaert. He’s a farmer’s son from West Flanders. Tick. You don’t want him in a breakaway with you after racing for six hours in Flanders because he’ll chop your head off the moment you think he’s dead. Guys like Yves, they’re never dead. And even if, per chance, Yves is dead he’ll chop your head off anyway because he’s a hard core Flemish. They make you earn your bread the hard way because they earn their bread the hard way.
This is it, just two guys for now. Time will tell. We want a new Flandrien though.
Correction — we want badass rouleurs slaughtering each other in batshit weather and if you, the Flemish, call one of them De Leeuw van Vlaanderen, we’ll thank you for that.
I’d like to acknowledge valuable insights my Flemish reader, Jan De Smet, gave me for this post.
If I got any of this Flemish stuff wrong, feel free to a) refer me to the Velominati Police and b) send me an educational email. I’m all ears.