Brussels -> Brussels
Stage 1 starts in Brussels, leaves town and then returns to Brussels.
Belgium has long been on my list of countries to visit but somehow it has yet to happen. Brussels itself seems like a bit of a massive thing to try to cover, so as I sort out exactly what this series will be, I am just going to cover some random interesting things I saw while watching the broadcast.
Muur van Geraardsbergen
The Wall of Geraardsbergen, also known as the Muur, is a fairly famous piece of road in the cycling world. It is a steep, narrow cobblestone road in Geraardsbergen, Belgium. Its a very familiar component in the Tour of Flanders cycling race, but is being used this year as the very first climb of the Tour de France.
The hill doesn’t cover much of an elevation change with a max height of about 100m at the summit, but it has an average gradient of 9.3%, and a max gradient of 20%. Definitely a challenge and not a hill I would want o ride up, especially in a pack.
Beyond being a super technical bit of the race, the entire area is just plain beautiful which is why I am including it. The cobblestones start in the town and continue up a hill that winds through the trees, crests the hill at the Oudenberg Chapel with views across the region, then curves around past Oudeberg Castle which is a beautiful old 19th-century family estate that was expanded upon through the generations and which now hosts events.
The Giants of Flanders
Something you may have noticed in the crowds lining the race route were exceptionally tall puppet-like people. These are the giants for Flanders. Who are the giants of Flanders you ask? They are a very old tradition that was widespread across Europe however, over time, and for many different reasons the tradition died out in most places. The exception being Belgium, Northern France and Spain where the traditions have been revived and continue to this day. In fact, the number of giants continues to grow.
Considered to be a living folklore, they are a tradition that began as early as the 15th century. These massive figures are hand made and managed often by municipalities themselves or by reuzengildes (giant guilds). Traditionally the skeletons are made of reed or willow branches though in modern times aluminum and styrofoam are used as well. The exteriors are made of papier-mâché and wood and other materials.
Each guild can have any number of giants, though each requires a number of people to handle and maneuver them. They are volunteers and work in unison to make the giants walk, dance and perform. The giants emerge every spring and over the summer there are numerous giant parades (reuzenommegang), in towns and cities across the region.
All told, across Belgium, there are hundreds of these giants. As many as 1500 even. Some of the more famous giants are hundreds of years old. One of the most famous is Jan Turpijn II of Nieuwpoort. Turpijn is almost 11 meters tall and weighs about 750 kilograms.
The characters were originally inspired by people in the Bible, but over time their association with religion lessened and now giants are often based on historical or famous local figures.
To some the giants are considered real people as they are literally born, baptized, they get married and have kids etc. They appear in the historical records as citizens of some of these towns.
In 2005 UNESCO listed the giants in their Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.