After a few years in the doldrums since the great days of Eddy Merckx, Belgian cycling is on an upswing, with a array of young talent once more inspiring the fans of the cycling-mad nation. Gerrit Deleu looks at the riders who are restoring Belgian cycling pride.
"Name ten famous Belgians." This is a well known party game in the UK and considered one of the most challenging questions one can ask. Lately it has become slightly easier thanks to successful tennis players Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne, both on their way back to the top now after a fallback due to health problems. Other than them, most people get stuck after Jean-Claude Van Damme and Tintin. Cycling fans get a bit further of course, and will give you the name almost any Belgian would give you if you asked him or her about their most famous countryman: Eddy Merckx.
Merckx is an icon, symbolizing the importance of cycling in this little country in the centre of Europe. This is where the cradle of bike racing stands, and the sport has a great and long history here. Many of the longest-running races on the international calendar are Belgian, and the number of cycling champions this country has produced is completely disproportionate to its tiny population of just 10 million.
Apart from perhaps Italy, there is no country in the world where cycling is this popular - and where its popularity continues to grow, as shown by the still-increasing number of races that are covered live on television. Last month for example, the Belgian audience could not only enjoy daily live broadcasting of Belgium's own national tour and the Giro, but also of the Tour de Romandie, well known of course among cycling fanatics but not really a major general sporting event. The Belgian public TV channel VRT is therefore very experienced in broadcasting bike races and has built up quite a reputation. The UCI has now asked VRT to organize and direct the live coverage of the team time trial in Eindhoven, a new ProTour event that the UCI wants to showcase how ProTour organization should be.
Unfortunately however, Belgian cycling has been going through a crisis in the last couple of decades. Its name and fame has become a largely historical one.
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