Christmas in Flanders

Words and images by Clive Pursehouse; Photo of Sven Nys by Daniel Ziegert

Photo: Daniel Ziegert

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We usually dream of Flanders come Spring. It’s a classic place with classic roads and famous races that open up the serious racing season for the pros, and us fans. Yet Flanders during the holidays is absolutely wonderful. Christmas time offers an assortment of opportunities to experience the country’s year-round history, warmth and charm. There’s the warm frites and high spirits along the course tape of muddy cyclocross tracks in Zolder the day after Christmas, or the Sven Nys GP race on New Year’s Day. Wander the winding snow-covered cobblestones of Leuven after Saint Nicholas Day, and pedal beautiful brisk rides through the rolling hills of the Flemish region of Heuvelland. Visit Flanders for the Holidays and you’ll understand why this place is truly “classic”.

The Plugstreets and the Christmas Ceasefire

The Heuvelland region in West Flanders is beautiful and tranquil. The parcours of Ghent–Wevelgem has been traversing the fields and hills of Heuvelland since after World War II. Though early iterations of the race included the Flemish Ardennes, it has been largely staged in the former battlegrounds now known as Flanders Fields. In fact, in 2015 the race officially became known as Ghent–Wevelgem-In Flanders Fields to commemorate the regional history. This past year, in recognition of the 1914 Christmas ceasefire, a new element was added around Ploegsteert Wood: racers hit three sectors of the plow streets, or plug (ploeg) streets.

The addition to the Gent Wevelgem parcours is not a mere gimmick to be dismissed. The narrow, hard-packed dirt lanes cut deeper into the region’s farmland and past the memorial of the Christmas ceasefire, between sectors one and two. On Christmas Day in 1914, troops from each side gathered in No Man’s Land to exchange pleasantries and even gifts. A football [soccer] match between the German and British troops began near the Ploegsteert Wood, a wooded area along the British front line.

“Crossmas” Time

Winter in Flanders doesn’t mean the bicycles get put away; for the cyclocross faithful, it is indeed the most wonderful time of the year. The cross circuit in Belgium means a double dose of racing nearly every weekend. The best crossers in the world converge on tiny towns like Essen along the border with Holland, or Overijse just outside of the capital of Brussels.

Cyclocross is not the official sport of Flanders but there are years when it garners greater television ratings than the world’s most popular sport of football in this part of Belgium. Watching a cyclocross race in Flanders is a bucket list experience. Whether it’s the constant off cambers at the race track Zolder, or the ridiculously lumpy mudfest in Baal or any race on the Flemish calendar. What you’re witnessing is Flemish cycling culture at its apex.

Whole communities come together to put on the races, from closing down the city center for campervan parking to coming out in the thousands to cheer on their favorite riders. The beer tents often come complete with a marching band, and the after party offers the podium finishers the opportunity to thank the community for their support. Cyclocross in Flanders is not successful based on marketing genius and slick public relations. It’s successful largely because of committed communities. It’s these communities that support the courses in their town, and the logistics on race day. It doesn’t hurt that fans are frequenting the Jupiler trailer and screaming their lungs out for the riders.

Leuven’s Christmas Market

The European Christmas Market tradition dates back several centuries; the oldest is Vienna’s December market dating to the late 13th century. The markets open in early December, after Saint Nicholas Day, and in conjunction with the celebration of Christmas during the four weeks of Advent.

In Flanders, December means cyclocross, but it also means city centers filled with Christmas Markets. The markets range from pop up shops, to open air cafes to ice skating and ferris wheels. The earliest kicks off in West Flanders city of Bruges in November. The Christmas Market in Leuven, a short drive from the Zolder cross course in Heusden-Zolder , may be the jewel of the holiday markets in Flanders. (Leuven also hosts Cyclocross Leuven, since 2011, in early January.)

This medieval city is injected with a youthful exuberance, given that it’s home to the largest and oldest university in the Low Countries.  The University of Leuven was founded in 1425, and it continues to keep this ancient city hip and trendy as students from around Europe and the world come to Leuven to live and study. There are world class restaurants, fantastic hotels and countless bars that serve Belgian beer. The town’s energy is obvious at the open air Christmas market, which dwarves the markets of larger Flemish towns for both its sheer size and enthusiasm. Grill smoke, hot gluhwein and beer animate the crowds of locals drinking and visiting with their neighbors. Shoppers pick their way through stands of artisan crafts from glasswork to jewelry to chocolates. There’s a carousel and Santa for the kids, and plenty of mistletoe to keep things interesting, the Leuven market is bustling until midnight.

A visit to Flanders around Christmas means cold wintry weather, but the riding is always classic, and it’s the best time to experience the intensity of Flemish cross fans. It’s also the perfect season to experience a region known as much for its history and culture as it is for its cycling heritage. The food and festivities, and friendly Flemish hospitality make Flanders a can’t miss destination no matter the season.

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