Oudenaarde may be looking to build a legacy of its own as it prepares to host the finish of the Tour of Flanders for the first time, but the town has also been a curator of the rich heritage of the race since 2003. The Centrum Ronde Van Vlaanderen, a museum documenting almost a century of Tour of Flanders history, stands proudly in the centre of town, just off the cobbled market square.
Perhaps nowhere else in the world are cycling and cultural identity so closely entwined. Like so many great races, De Ronde began as a promotional tool for a newspaper – in this case, Sportwereld – but it quickly developed into an enduring symbol of the region itself. Accordingly, the museum devotes ample space to Karel van Wijnendaele, the journalist who dreamt up the race, a man for whom the newspaper and its race were a means to give his people “confidence as Flandrians.”
Out on the road, of course, the Flandrians responded in kind. With no fewer than 67 Belgian victories to date, it’s no surprise that the achievements of local heroes dominate the extensive display in Oudenaarde, with iron men from Romain Gijssels to Johan Musseuw, by way of Briek Schotte, Raymond Impanis, Rik Van Steenbergen, all remembered.
The artefacts and exhibits on display range from Museeuw’s bike from his final Tour of Flanders in 2004, to Eddy Merckx’s gloves from 1974. The foreign riders who marked the history of the race are not forgotten either, of course. Pride of place is given to Tom Simpson’s Gitane from 1962, the year after his own victory in the race, while Fabian Cancellara’s jersey and helmet from 2010 are accompanied by a satirical cartoon reflecting the emphatic nature of his Easter Sunday victory.
As well as the array of jerseys, bikes and equipment on show, including the jerseys Tom Boonen wore en route to his back-to-back triumphs in 2005 and 2006, the museum is replete with presentations illustrating the facts and figures of the great race. The vital statistics of Flanders’ hellingen are all outlined, and those who grew up with the Muur as the emotional heart of their Tour of Flanders will wistfully note that the famous climb is afforded particular prominence in the museum, even though it no longer features on the route.
Some interactive features are also included on the tour. Visitors are encouraged to simulate parts of the race on a turbo trainer, while fans can also mount a podium to pose for a picture alongside cardboard cut-outs of Tom Boonen and Peter Van Petegem. Among the great and the good to clamber up the podium were UCI president Pat McQuaid and former TVM fastman Jeroen Blijlevens.
Poignantly, Freddy Maertens, one of the greatest Flemish riders never to win De Ronde, is an employee of the museum and provides guided tours on request. Indeed, the walls of the museum seem to breathe the history of the race that defines cycling’s most fervent heartland.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, therefore, that a list of the twelve greatest Tours of Flanders of all-time features twelve Belgian winners, from Gaston Rebry in 1934 to Stijn Devolder’s 2008 triumph. The first winner in Oudenaarde can expect to join them in the pantheon.