Tales from the Peloton , March 25, 2008
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 Flandrien 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!
The first part of the museum experience is a quick movie. On entering, you're guided into a fifty-odd seat auditorium with a triple screen arrangement. The twelve-minute film takes you through nearly one hundred years of the great race, featuring some wonderful black and white footage from the early years as well as the bright colours of more recent years. If you sit at the back you can take it all in better, but if you sit at the front you get drawn in and almost feel part of the action. Personally I could sit in there and watch it over again all day...
Once the movie is over, the doors to the main part of the museum open, directing you through a series of interactive exhibits, accompanied by your chosen hero. A barcode on ticket swiped on screens throughout the Centrum tells a tale about the events that led to his victory and the conditions that he faced on his way to final victory.
Ride the cobbles; climb with Van Petegem
As well as the electronic information, you are given a chance to take in the full Ronde experience for yourself. A static Eddy Merckx bike allows you to ride the cobbles – although sadly it only bounces the back wheel, which doesn't quite give you the whole story. There is also a static bike set up on an interactive trainer that gives you the opportunity to ride up the Oude Kwaremont – one of the Ronde's most legendary climbs – in the company of Peter Van Petegen, or it does if you can keep up with him!
As the Centrum doesn't actually have a collection of its own, most of the exhibitions of memorabilia are made up of fans collections, which are loaned to them on a long-term basis. Alongside these though, are exhibits based on the various elements of the race – and how they've changed over the years – like the ideas around nutrition, and the technology of riders' bikes and other equipment. Other exhibits show what an enormous logistical exercise it is to broadcast the race live, both on TV and radio. Also, if you thought a cobblestone was much the same as any other, you'd be wrong, an exhibit shows the difference between the different local stones used, as well as the Scandinavian granite that is being used nowadays.
Shop 'til you're dropped
On exiting the museum, you are returned to the ground floor of the building via the Centrum's Shop. This shop sells virtually everything the Belgian cycling fan needs, from a huge variety of books, cycling memorabilia and fan products, as well as a number of different replica kits from ProTour and other local teams.
As well as the current pro teams' kits, the Centrum has produced a range of its own Retro jerseys. The ubiquitous Molteni, Flandria and Brooklyn jerseys of Merckx, Maertens and De Vlaeminck sit alongside less internationally famous Watney's and Groene Leeeuw. If you have a hero from the sport's past like Kelly, Simpson or Raas, their jersey is here for you!
No race in the world is complete (and we're checking UCI regulations to see if it's legal) without a lion of Flanders flag.
Feed Zone – Brasserie de Flandrien
As well as the museum and shop, the Centrum is also home to the Brasserie de Flandrien. In keeping with the rest of the place, the walls are covered in pictures, souvenirs, old posters and newspapers from the history of the Ronde and bike racing in general.
The Brasserie's menu – or 'Bevoorradingslist' (Bevoorrading being Flemish for feed-zone) – includes such delights in the 'Grote Musette' as Spaghetti Boononaise, Vispannetje Museeuw, or a Bord Kannibal. If you fancy a dessert you can have a Coupe Koppenberg ice cream.
Naturally, in a country famous for its beer, the Flandrien has its own brew. Flandrien is a refreshing dark beer, but look out; its smooth taste disguises its 7% strength!
Are you hard enough to be a Flandrien?
Since the Centrum was completed in 2003, 75% of funding has come from admission charges, a membership scheme – known as De Flandriens – and its own cycling events. The 'Word Flandrien' is a cycle tourist event for all the family that 10,000 people attended in 2007, and the 'Retro Ronde' is an event for vintage cycles similar to l'Eroica in Italy. In addition, the Centrum has also marked out three cycle routes that take in all of the climbs and cobbles used in the race – every year the 'Gouden Flandrien' (Golden Flandrien) challenges riders to complete all three at once – much tougher than the race parcours itself.
Every year, more and more visitors come from all over the world. The Centrum was host to 52,000 paying visitors to exhibition in 2007, and looks set for more in 2008. If you find yourself in Flanders this spring – or indeed any other time of year – you could do worse than set aside an afternoon to pay a visit too.
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