The Lion’s First Roar
Only France has won more Tour de France stages than Belgium, and the majority of Belgian winners come from Flanders. Only fitting then that the first Belgian stage winner, 110 years ago this year, was as Flemish as they come.
His name was Cyrille Van Hauwaert and he is seen now as the first Lion of Flanders, the title bike fans in the Flanders region of Belgium bestow on the very best of their riders. However, back in 1909 they weren’t given such a flattering name by French cycling fans and the press. It was a name that stuck for a good few years as well.
The French called riders like Van Hauwaert, Flahutes. The same word they gave to long cloth bags that labourers carried the food they ate at work in. The bags were secured on their backs by two shoulder loops, a bit like rucksacks are today.
Many Belgian labourers were employed on a day to day basis, and they rode old bikes or tramped around Flanders and Northern France looking for their next job, a baguette and maybe a bottle of cold coffee in their flahute bags to sustain them. They were a tough breed, and so were Flemish cyclists. Flahute was meant more in admiration than in insult.
Van Hauwaert was the son of a brick-maker from Moorslede in West Flanders. Like so many Flemish kids since an old bike gave him freedom to explore, then later on to race and make his mark in the world. He became a tough competitor, but Van Hauwaert had the soul of a poet. Many cyclists have, inside a hard shell maybe, but it’s there nonetheless.
Van Hauwaert wrote an autobiography when he stopped racing, and this passage from it will resonate with anybody who as a kid discovered the joy and freedom of exploring the countryside by bike. He recalls setting off one day in his mid-teens to visit the nearby town of Turnhout. But once there Van Hauwaert saw it was the same distance again to Bruges, so he pressed on. Then after enjoying beautiful Bruges, a city sometimes called the Venice of the north because of its extensive canal network, he carried on west into an area he didn’t know. He describes what he saw like this:-
“The road climbed, and on top of a small hill I saw ahead of me the vast green plain of the sea, which merges far in the distance into the blurred line of the horizon. Neighbours told me about the sea when they returned from excursions to it by rail, but I was so proud that my little bike had carried me to see this magical site.”
Van Hauwaert was the Belgian national champion in 1909, and he finished 5th overall in the Tour de France. The rest of his palmares reads like a Flemish champion’s should. He won Bordeaux-Paris in 1907 and 1909, Milan-San Remo and Paris Roubaix in 1908, but his career was short.
Once he made enough money from cycling Van Hauwaert launched his own bike brand in Brussels, selling them from a shop he called Cycles Lion des Flandres. His business was successful because Van Hauwaert worked as hard at it as he did his cycling. He clocked up thousands of miles in training, and when he won Milan San Remo in 1908 he rode from Belgium to Milan to ensure he was ready for the race. He died in 1974 in Zelik near Brussels at the age of 90.