The Britain/Belgium juxtaposition
“His body ached, his legs grew tired, but still he would not give in.”
These are the words engraved on the tombstone of Tom Simpson, Britain’s last truly great classics rider, where he is buried in Harworth cemetery.
Simpson died ascending Mont Ventoux during stage 13 of the 1967 Tour de France, collapsing on his bike due to a mix of exhaustion, alcohol and amphetamines - a death equal parts tragic and iconic.
He was the first Briton to win the World Championships, as well as three of cycling’s ‘monument’ races; De Ronde van Vlaanderen, Milan-San Remo and Il Lombardia - the last truly successful British classics rider.
Despite Simpson’s incredible success, these races have traditionally been dominated by mainland European and in particular Belgian riders.
For a country similar to Britain in climate and geography, it is interesting to consider why, in recent times, they have produced such different breeds of rider.
Instead of competing in the classics, since the turn of the new millennium the UK have dominated the longer stages races.
This is particularly true of cycling’s most famous race - the Tour De France; with Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome winning four of the last five editions and Mark Cavendish behind only Eddie Merckx in all-time stage victories.
The face of cycling in Belgium, Maarten Vangramberen, believes however that there is no dearth in talented British classics riders and thinks it is only a matter of time before they capitalise in the one-day races.
He said: “They already have a lot of riders who have taken great wins like Mark Cavendish who has won Milan-San Remo.
“They have guys like Luke Rowe who can become better and better, and Ian Stannard who has already won the Omloop twice.
“One day they will have a big winner of the Tour of Flanders and maybe Paris Roubaix. That’s for sure.”
However, he also urged caution in relation to Britain’s purple patch for producing grand tour success, warning: “Maybe they have to wait for another 50 years after Chris Froome for another really good Tour rider.”
Sporza journalist, Carl Berteele, known for his motorcycle commentary, agrees with Maarten that Britain have the quality of rider required for classics success, but believes that a difference in culture and focus explains the juxtaposition between British and Belgian cycling.
Carl explained: “Geraint Thomas, Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe; these are fine guys who can do the classics but the culture of Team Sky is the big Tours. So it’s a matter of making a choice.
“We [Belgium] have again the classic guys who are winning and then there’s not enough attention to go to the big tours as a Flemish guy."
Carl further explained that, in order to win a grand tour like the Tour de France, sacrifices with regard to early season races need to be made, and that Flemish cyclists are not always prepared to miss their home races.
He said: “It’s not only those three weeks [of the Tour de France], it’s the preparation before and it’s the recuperation afterwards. That mentality is not something we have in Flanders.
“We don’t have that culture. It’s a pity, [a Belgian hasn’t won] since 1976, with Lucien Van Impe, so that’s a big gap and I don’t see it changing in the next few years.”
It seems then, that there are two main answers to the question of why British and Belgian cyclists’ successes differ so greatly in one-day and stages races; fortune and culture.
But which is more valuable? It is a debate that could be had till the cows come home and one, I’m sure, that would invoke passionate arguments on either side.
However, and somewhat unsurprisingly, when Carl was asked whether he would ever trade a Tom Boonen for a Chris Froome, his answer was a short chuckle followed by an emphatic ‘no’.