Tuesday, April 17, 2012

La Flèche Wallonne and Brabantse Pijl: Separated at Birth

Gentle readers, those of you who speak French and/or Flemish/Dutch may have noticed the symmetry between the two races La Flèche Wallonne (or Waalse Pijl) and Brabatse Pijl (or Flèche Brabançonne). These two races have symmetrical names in the two languages. How did this come about and what can we learn about Belgium from this elegant symmetry?
Belgium, its Communities, and a few races.
In two previous articles (click here for Fleche Wallonne/FW and here for Brantse Pijl/BP), we talked about how some of these one-day races came into being and how they came to be placed to each other. Today non-Belgians tend to think of Belgium in terms of the two communities, Flanders and Wallonia (there is actually a third community for German-speakers, but it is very very small). Both communities are described in terms of their primary languages, and both have their capital in Brussels.

One may think that this division were natural and historical, but the truth of the matter is the Belgian Constitution was reformed to define a federal state comprising of these communities only in 1970 - that led to the formation of the Communities in 1980 - which in terms of lifespan of pavé kinderkopje blocks is not that long ago. Prior to this reform, Belgium was a unified government with little official distinction by language. But things came to a head in that famous summer of 1968. As the Catholic University of Leuven provided instructions in both Flemish and French, it was suggested in a television show that the Leuven the town that houses university could also be placed within an expanded bi-lingual Greater Brussels region. Demonstrations (and frequent throwing of pavé on administrators' buildings) led to the re-definition of Katolieke Universiteit Leuven as a Flemish-speaking institution and a sister university Université Catholique de Louvain as a French-speaking institution.

With the linguistic borders now formally established, the old historical regional boundaries were simply overran. The Ronde van Vlaanderen referred not to Vlaanderen the community not region, but to the two original provinces West-Vlaanderen and Oost-Vlaanderen, both of which are on the western edges of the Vlaanderen community. The Ardennes forest is split, between Vlaams-Ardennes and Walloon-Ardennes. The Vlaams-Ardennes is where de Ronde van Vlaanderen runs, and Walloon-Ardennes is where FW and Liège-Bastogne-Liège runs.

The old Duchy of Brabant is literally split in pieces between Flemish Brabant and Walloon Brabant in Belgium, after losing its northern top North Brabant which went to the Netherland.

So as you can tell by this point, the split is indeed painful and complicated.

On to la Flèche Wallonne, Belgian newspaper Les Sports wanted their own cycling race and started la Flèche Wallonne, or the Walloon arrow, in 1936. Unlike the other big Walloon race Liège-Bastogne-Liège, FW didn't really have a prescribed route, and has undergone significant revisions in its life.

Between 1950 and 1964 both races were even run side-by-side for some time: FW on Saturday and LBL on Sunday, in the Weekend Ardennais. Amazingly, two riders managed to win both during this period: the Swiss Ferdi Kübler and the Belgian Stan Ockers. After 1964 FW was moved to the Wednesday prior to LBL, in homage to the older, more prestigious race and also for its own survival as back-to-back racing was arduous to the riders. Over time, both races become synonymous with the sharp hills of southern Belgium and shed more and more of their cobbled stretches. Their shared identity and fate continued to be linked up to today.

Compared to FW, Brabantse Pijl is very new: it only started in 1975. It used to finish near that tiny sliver of Flemish region south of Brussels, with a few laps that includes climbs toward the finish. But these climbs are never used in de Ronde. By nature of it finishing in a circuit, it takes on its own unique personality.

However, the name Brabant is an important one for the identity of Belgium. Indeed, its historic identity owes much from the Duchy of Brabant, and its national anthem is Brabançonne.

How will these two races evolve over time? FW is owned by ASO, the same company that runs the Tour de France, LBL, and several other top races. On the other hand, BP is owned by Flanders Classics, an organization that also runs de Ronde, de Omloop, and many other Flemish races. As we have noted, races evolve over time, often due to need to synchronize with other races nearby geographically and in schedule.

What do you like about Flèche Wallonne and Brabantse Pijl, and how do you think they will evolve? 

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