The bloodthirsty mass roars. Slaves, ex-legionaries and gladiators: they’re fighting blood for blood in the pursuit of glory, honour and freedom. If they represent anything to the crowd, it would be heroism. Heritage and class are irrelevant inside this arena, where what counts are deeds, bravery and virtue. If you thought those images of gladiatorial arenas of Rome were confined to history books, then think again.

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Essentially two public holidays for Belgium, these two festivities saw us merrymaking with the nobility, …
…, dining like emperors …
… and paying stately visits to the aristocracy of cyclocross in their own strongholds.

Panem et circenses – Bread and games

The Romans undeniably knew how to look after their guests and the same applies to the Belgians – although we’d advocate re-purposing the saying into ‘beer and bikes’. (On second thoughts, frites would fit equally as aptly.) But are those two simple elements sufficient to please the population or is there a need for something more?

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A spectacle, they roar. Something so enrapturing that you can’t turn your head. Even thousands of years ago people wanted the same thing: action. Mobs roar with a hunger for entertainment, drama, theatrics. The protagonists are more than just role models or idols; they’re entertainers too.

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„To understand the fanaticism surrounding cyclocross in Belgium, you have to understand the Belgians.“

 

Why Belgians don’t need Oktoberfest

Who needs Oktoberfest when you’ve got cyclocross? Belgium has somehow managed to nail a position at the highly confounding intersection of elite-level sport and wild public holiday: chicken wings, beer and party tents are as much a staple of cyclocross events as max heart rates, lactic acid and alarmingly thin lycra in minus temperatures. Every single race is a fete, a wild mud-fest descended upon by the population to observe modern day gladiators doing battle in filthy conditions with the acrid taste of metal in their mouths.

Throughout winter the Belgians satiate their addiction for two wheels via cyclocross, a dependency fed in the summer months on the most iconic roads of Europe. At all levels the Belgians are addicted to cycling: from the woman who sells you your bread roll in the morning and knows exactly who the riders to watch are at the local under-14 Kermese, right through to the nation’s Sports Person of the Year frequently being none other than the Olympic Road Race Champion. Many argue that bikes and Belgium are more intertwined than beer and Belgium.

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„Cyclocross is no niche sport in Belgium: it’s a festival broadcast live on the main television channels.“

 

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Ludus pro Patria – Patriotic games!

These three words dominate the entrance to the World Cup Cyclocross event in Namur, and are representative of cyclocross in Belgium: sport unites nations and brings the population together. Exactly, the Romans knew their sh*t.

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Camping nation

If you thought the best way to spot a Belgian would be in their camper van in the warmer climes of Southern Europe, you are very much mistaken: come winter, their trusty camper vans decamp from car park to car park in the pursuit of a prime position at each cyclocross beer tent. It’s a little known fact to travel agents that cyclocross season chimes well with the country’s high season for camping. And it’s not surprising that this country doesn’t just churn out some of the best cross riders, but also the most hardy campers.

Ergo bibambus! – Fluent Belgian

With multi-lingual fractions of the country, a schizophrenic political system and characteristics that come as a job-lot with each part, this small, young country would perhaps be even more divided if it weren’t for sport and beer. Belgians are proud of what their Trappist monks and nuns created: outstandingly well-developed beer. Fact: Wine to the Romans is what beer is to the Belgians.

There may not be a unifying language, but they do have beer – take a closer look to see reality reflected in the beer glass.
There may not be a unifying language, but they do have beer – take a closer look to see reality reflected in the beer glass.

About the author

Robin Schmitt