Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Cycling Landscapes: Yi-Fu Tuan...

Some time ago I began a study of cycling landscapes. Largely because I knew this would be a complicated and involved exercise, I put it off until just recently. A key in the process of the study has been to determine how best to organize and relate the information. I have decided that a good place to start may be to examine the work of various scholars who have studied and commented upon the meanings of place and, personal and cultural representations of landscapes, and then turn those studies back around to see if and how they relate to cycling.

The first scholar from whom I quote is Yi-Fu Tuan, the noted Chinese-American geographer, and professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Professor Tuan is best known for his work in what he terms, Humanistic Geography.

"Perhaps any large feature in the landscape creates its own world, which may expand or contract with the passing concerns of the people, but which does not completely lose its identity." 

Walking the Koppenberg (Watson, 2002)

Applying this to the world of cycling means that a landscape need not be visibly associated with the activity year-round in order to maintain a connectivity. If the association is strong enough a landscape which, for instance, sees a race pass by a single day each year can never-the-less be imprinted in the lore and beliefs of the local, regional or even national culture. Consider the nation of Belgium in this, and particularly the region of Belgium known as Flanders. Mur de Grammont, Muur van Geraardsbergen, the Koppenberg, Kemmelberg, Kluisberg, Molenberg, Oude Kwaremont, Taaienberg, Valkenberg, Bosberg. Do these names mean anything to you? What images spring to mind when you hear the names? If you follow the sport of bicycle racing you know that they are a part of several classic and semi-classic races during the Spring. You know that, although short in length, their cobbled surfaces, made slick by rain, and their painfully steep grades are the stuff from which legends are created, and tested yearly for their worthiness. Many of the greatest names in the history of the sport were literally made, and etched onto the annals of sport, on these hills.

For Belgians, the import of these hills is even more significant. Writing in the mid-1900s, Paul Beving noted that "La Ronde" [Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders)] is as much part of the heritage of the Flemish people as the processions of Veurne and Bruges, the festival of cats at Ypres or the ship blessing at Ostend. This cycle race is the most fabulous of all the Flemish festivals. No other race creates such an atmosphere, such a popular fervour." (Wikipedia)

The men who win these races are often known as "hard men" due to the difficulty of the endeavor, the dedication required to attain victory. It helps if the victors are Belgian, but is not requisite. Whoever ends up on the podium has completed a so-called trial by fire across the Belgian Ardennes countryside. And it is no coincidence that the regions' numerous hills which see battles between racers today, were the sites of monumental battles and devastation during two World Wars, nor that we use the same term [devastation] to describe what these same hills wreak upon the peloton. Whether it is the hills which define what it means to be a "hard man", or whether it is the men who's determination give the hills their terrible reputation, is questionable. What is clear is that neither would be the same without the other. Many of the greatest names of the sport have made their reputations as "hard men" by their exploits on these hills. Rik van Steenbergen, Rik van Looy, Eric Leman, Eddy Merkx, Walter Planckaert, Roger de Vlaeminck, Walter Godefroot, Jan Raas, Hennie Kuiper, Eric Vanderaerden, Adri van der Poel, Claude Criquielion, Sean Kelly, Johan Museeuw, Peter van Petegem, Andrei Tchmil, Tom Steels, Andrea Tafi, George Hincapie, Tom Boonen, Stijn Devolder, and many others earned their reputations by racing up the cobbled slopes of the Flanders region. What should be taken from this is that while other races contribute to the definition of a "hard man" (most notably Paris Roubaix) the majority of such races are run in Belgium, and that the majority of the names listed above are indeed Belgian as well.

Two additional quotes point to the importance of the racing over these hills and their ties to Belgian identity. The first is from the great Belgian hard man, Johan Museeuw, "as a Belgian, winning Flanders for the first time is far more important than wearing the maillot jaune in the Tour." And then from Nico Mattan, "many great names in Flemish cycling live on the route of the race. This closeness doesn't exist in any other country. That's what gives our identity." So, the hills which feature so prominently in the races of southern Belgium, are in fact intricately tied into the identity of the races and the landscape both. It is not difficult to understand that the races would not carry the same import were the hills to be removed or even removed of their cobble surfaces and paved smooth. For even though the grades reach upward to 25%, it is without question the uneven cobbled, slippery when wet, surface which bestows their terrible reputation. As 2-time victor of the Ronde, Peter van Petegem says: "It's possible for weaker riders to survive on a Tarmac climb, but not on a cobbled one."

For myself, one of the most vividly dramatic and lasting impressions of the Flandrian hills took place during the 1987 Tour of Flanders when Jesper Skibby, during a solo breakaway and while on the 25 percent grade Koppenberg cobbles, crashed. His speed steadily decreasing on the steep cobbled surface, Skibby faltered and was bumped by the the race directors' car, causing him to topple over. With the race approaching from behind and no way to get around the fallen rider, the driver either panicked, or was told to continue, and ran over Skibby's bike, narrowly missing his legs. Cries of shock, pain and anger, from Skibby and the nearby spectators, can be discerned from the series of photographs and video taken of the event. A larger view of the iconic image by Graham Watson can be seen here.

Clearly the hills of the Ardennes, of Flanders, in Belgium over which races such as the Tour of Flanders, Ghent-Wevelgem, Fleche Wallone, Omloop het Nieuwsblad, Grote Scheldeprijs, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, and others, pass each year fit the description presented by Yi-Fu Tuan. A race need not be in the process of ascending them for the hills to be imprinted into the local culture as cycling landscapes. The spectators, both fans of the sport and casual observers, who annually line these hills to watch the races pass by, can recall incidents that were witnessed, and relate them to the specific hills long after the events occurred. These cobbled roads have a life greater than their materials and locations. Their character is defined and enhanced by the actions of individual cyclists who yearly challenge one another upon them.

Below are links to earlier segments in this series:

Cycling Landscapes: Introduction

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