The pretty market town of Oudenaarde sits at the heart of the scenic Flemish Ardennes, just a stone's throw from many of the region's legendary bergs – and the start point of the women's Ronde. Just off the main square sits a museum dedicated to the race that puts this region on the map each spring. Cyclingnews' cobble-aholic Ben Atkins takes us on a tour.
The Centrum: Cycling's cathedral
According to the museum's director Rik Vanwalleghem: "Bike racing is a religion in Flanders: If bike racing is a religion, then the Ronde Van Vlaanderen is the main service of the year." So, in the early 1990s, various journalists and local politicians had thoughts about a permanent exhibition on the race so that people could enjoy it the whole year round. In 1991 a book was published about the history of the Ronde and it won an award for the best sporting book of that year.
That prize – of approximately €2,500 – became the beginning of a fund specifically to pay for the building of a centre. To extend Vanwalleghem's simile a little further: If bike racing is a religion, it now has its cathedral.
As well as donations from individuals and fundraising events, they also sought money from the local government. After all, in an area seeking to promote itself to the world, "the Ronde Van Vlaanderen is a big ambassador for Flanders". For this reason, the Centrum receives funding from the Flemish Tourist Board – although they'd obviously like more! On top of this, the Centrum is also a genuine educational resource for the schools in the area. As well as the bike racing, the culture, geography, geology and even the botany of the area are explored within the exhibits – we never had field trips like this when I was at school!
Choose your hero
With your admission ticket, you choose one of twelve Flandrian heroes as an "alter ego" to take you around the various exhibits. The choice is between Johan Museeuw, Walter Godefroot, Rik Van Steenbergen, Edwig Van Hooydonck, Eric Leman, Briek Schotte, Eric Vanderaerden, Eddy Merckx, Gaston Rebry, Jan Raas, Rik Van Looy and Henri Van Lerbergh. More recent heroes Tom Boonen and Peter Van Petegem are to be added soon, as if the choice wasn't tough enough. As he was the directeur of our own Pro Continental team last year, this Cyclingnews correspondent felt duty bound to select Eric Vanderaerden this time.
A thirteenth legend is also present at the Centrum these days. Since the early part of this year, former double World Champion, and Flemish legend Freddy Maertens has become part of the museum's staff. He had worked at the National Museum of Cycling in nearby Roeselare for many years, but recently moved across to the Centrum Ronde Van Vlaanderen – incidentally one of the few major Flemish races that he never won, but he probably doesn't need reminding of that!
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