High times for the Flemish at the moment. Today is their national day, an opportunity to take a day off work and to wave their rather scary looking flag.
The day commemorates the anniversary of the Battle of the Golden Spurs at the Groeningekouter, outside Kortrijk, in 1302 at which the Flemish defeated the knights of the King of France.
Almost 705 years later to the day and along comes another almost as momentous. On Monday the Tour de France came through Flanders, the stage concluding in Gent. It ended in a Flemish one-two, Geert Steegmans stealing in ahead of his more celebrated compatriot, Tom Boonen, to spark wild celebrations and much waving of the intimidating lion.
They were predicting that about 250,000 people would deluge the city, although in the end the rain deluged it more and about 100,000-150,000 turned up. The Witloof, wary of not being able to see a damned thing in a crowd of that size, headed instead for a smaller town - Deinze - just outside Gent. The town website - http://www.deinze.be/ - looked pretty. I had a good look around but I still have no idea where they took the photographs. Possibly Gent.
Although the peleton was due to pass by at 16.45 I arrived at about 13.15. Being three and a half hours early, I quickly found a vantage point beside a roundabout that I thought offered a decent combination of a view of the peleton arriving and also the likelihood of it slowing down as it passed by. There were about three of us at this point. I took out my book – the excellent Pornographer of Vienna by fellow Brussels resident Lewis Crofts - and started to read.
Engrossed in Egon Schiele’s artistic, and other, endeavours in Vienna, I failed to notice that I was gradually being pushed to the back of a considerable throng. By about 15.00 there were hundreds - perhaps even thousands - lined up along the sides of the road in either direction. Not the ideal position to be in as, at 15.15, the first vehicles from the 'caravane' began to pass. The 'caravane' is, I think, what everybody actually comes for. It is a procession of promotional vehicles from which employees of the firms sponsoring the tour throw sample products and other souvenirs out into the crowd. Never in my life have I seen such a clamour for miniature bottles of shower gel. Fifteen bodies in a writhing heap before one triumphant soul would emerge with a key ring. If anything was thrown in my direction I leapt out of the way. It all seemed a little bit commercial, a tad unfrench, until a car stormed past promoting a trade union.
The final cars in the 'caravane' were the official merchandisers. ‘Allez, allez’ they would cry, ‘c’est le tour de france, c’est la folie’, before proudly displaying all of the English they had learnt in England the two days before by continuing ‘don’t furget to buy yeur remembers for le children’. For twenty euros you could get your hands on a yellow bag ‘remembers’ containing a like-coloured tour de france t-shirt and cap. For about the same outlay you could also purchase a gaudy yellow umbrella with tour de france imaginatively emblazoned along it. I felt like shouting that the tour had left Britain so they could put their umbrellas away. Twenty minutes later the skies opened and I stood with about four other paraplu-less people under the nearest tree.
My despair was almost complete when not long afterwards, and before I could negotiate my cameras exit from my sodden pocket, a flock of 8 riders stormed past. Merde, I roared, to much amusement, possibly because of my accent or possibly because the cyclists were actually only a bunch of lucky cadets chosen to ride the stage well in advance of the pros. Ten minutes later another five cyclists whooshed past, stooped over their handlebars, panting for breath. I kept my cool this time, confident that the peleton could not contain people so clearly from four different generations.
Eventually, and not a minute to soon given that ducks might at this point have been considering package holidays to the sun, three helicopters reared onto the horizon. A frisson of excitement rose through the crowd. I abandoned my tree and knocked a few children out of the way - well they had taken most of the free stuff so I felt entitled - to get close to the road's edge. With half an eye out for irate parents bearing down on me with their shiny new umbrellas I managed to more or less miss the first three riders, who had amassed about a minute's lead on the rest of the pack. Zut alors, I wailed, regardless of my accent. Not to be denied again, I crouched down into professional photographer position, camera at the ready, for the arrival of the peleton. Four clicks of my digital camera later - and that is being generous as the final picture contains but a few shiny spokes of the back wheel of the bike that was bringing up the rear – they were gone again. The whole thing was over in about five seconds. I stood there, insistent that there had to be more, until there were only the original three of us left. Myself and two traffic cops.