Cycling has few permanent shrines devoted to its history. It’s tragic. Just how tragic became apparent to me when I visited the Tour of Flanders museum in Oudenarde, Belgium. Sure, it’s a celebration of the pantheon of winners of the Ronde, but like any good museum, it’s a study in the event’s many facets. From the locations the race passes to the bikes, the posters produced every year, the museum has documented the race’s many eras and personalities. It is also completely and unapologetically Flandrian.
The only way to digest many of the museum’s displays is with the aid of the recorded guide because all of the displays are printed in Flemish—only Flemish.
The museum is said to be the second home to the great Freddy Maertens. He’ll often conduct tours of the museum himself. The friend who took me to the museum was walked through the museum by Maertens himself. Alas, the day we arrived he was in the hospital with heart trouble.
I like that. The Ronde van Vlaanderen is their race. No one else can claim it in any way and as one of the five monuments, it is one of the greatest spectacles of cycling. To win Flanders is to honor history itself.
One of the final exhibits in the museum is a series of a dozen images by Kristof Ramon. I knew the shots were his even before I saw his name. The full-frame images, shot in black and white film, bore his unmistakable creative signature. The dozen images are the progression of the day at the Mur de Grammont.
The first image is of grassy hill. Gradually, people arrive. The hill fills with cycling fans. We even get one shot of a fan riding up the famed cobbles. The arrival of a press photographer in his yellow vest signals that the show is about to start and then in a single image we see the racers. The final three frames are the fans descending, umbrellas open to the rain.
It’s this collection of images that most touched me. Initially I wasn’t sure why chills ran through me as I looked at the pictures. But I realized what I found so touching was that it’s a celebration of the fans, how the fans make the day and while what we see in photographs are tiny slices of seconds, those fractions are possible because of the people who spend the whole of their lining the course for the chance to see their favorite rider pass in a similar fraction of a second.
That’s devotion. Giving up eight or ten hours for what seems like the briefest of moments. Those shots demonstrate what a cultural phenomenon the race is, and that the museum held up this mirror to the fans who line the course is as necessary a tribute as any of the bikes or trophies.
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