It’s hard to argue against the assertion that Belgium, and in particular Flanders, is home to cycling’s most dedicated, and fervent, fans.
Take the almost religious levels of devotion reserved for the country’s last great transcendental star, Tom Boonen, for example.
In Belgium, Tommeke wasn’t just one of the most successful classics stars of all time, he was a national icon, celebrity, and sex symbol, whose posters adorned bedroom walls, whose every move was greeted with the kind of screams John, Paul, George, and Ringo would recognise, and who even inspired several questionable techno tunes bopped along to by the country’s nightclub-going teenagers.
But with that adulation came the realisation that Boonen was public property, his every move and mistake – and there were quite a few – scrutinised and dissected by a hungry media, while fans, and even his haters, all wanted a piece of him.
Boonen being roared on to victory by his adoring public at the 2012 Paris-Roubaix [credit: Owen Rogers]
Though 2022 Tour de France green jersey winner Wout van Aert (who, along with world champion Remco Evenepoel, has emerged as the next true superstar of Belgian cycling) is yet to inspire the intense devotion formerly reserved for Boonen, the Jumbo-Visma star revealed this week that over-zealous fans have started to invade his privacy at home in Flanders – to the extent that they camp outside his house in the hope of spending a few precious moments with their hero.
“It happens every week that people just ring the doorbell. I prefer to be left alone at home,” Van Aert, who outduelled long-term rival Mathieu van der Poel at today’s floodlit Zilvermeercross race in Mol, told Sporza.
“I notice that the attention on me is increasing. I always think it couldn’t get any worse, but then it turns out that it can.”
The 28-year-old, who has won nine stages at the Tour de France since 2019, continued: “People just ring at my door. There is no need for that. The chance that I will open the door is minimal.
“It happens regularly that people are at my door, even on a weekly basis. They call with a special request: for a sweater signing or they organise something special. Everyone has their unique story and I understand that, but it is not always easy. I prefer to be left alone when I am at home.”
Van Aert also noted that his fame has now stretched beyond Belgium’s borders, thanks to his success at the Tour de France and in the classics.
“It still surprises me sometimes,” he says. “I used to be known in cyclocross, but now it goes much wider outside Belgium.
“Perhaps not [worldwide], but certainly throughout Europe and that is always a special sensation. Abroad I had the feeling that I was ‘at ease’ for a long time, but suddenly I am also recognised there.
“As a rider you learn that it is part of it, that much attention, and I try to deal with it in my own way and to remain friendly, if possible, but I do notice that I have become much more assertive about it. I think I don’t have to do something or if I think they’re coming into my private sphere, I’m going to make that clear.”
So what does Van Aert do to maintain a sense of normality while living under the intense glare of the public?
“Usually I just don’t open the door,” he laughs. “Maybe you can write that, then maybe fewer people will come.”
Van Aert’s plea for privacy may also prove useful for compatriot and wunderkind Remco Evenepoel, who rocketed to Belgian icon status this year after winning the Vuelta a España, world championship road race, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
In November, Boonen offered some timely advice to the country’s newest star and his heir apparent: “Get away from Belgium as much as possible”.
Speaking at Rouleur Live, the four-time Paris-Roubaix winner, who famously moved to Monaco after winning the world title in 2005, advised Evenepoel to “take your family with you, train in Spain, relax a little bit, so there’s always a barrier in between the crazy Flemish people and yourself.”
He continued: “I didn’t like [being in the public eye]. Nobody likes it, I think. Why would you want to be famous? You lose all your privileges of not being famous. As a bike rider, I wanted to race bikes and be a good bike rider. I never asked to be famous, so I never liked it.
“I loved riding my bike and I loved being at races and having people enjoy those races, but I never liked the part of being famous.”
While Belgium’s cycling heroes may not be able to control what happens off the bike, they at least have a touch more influence over what happens on it. In between scolding fans who overstep their mark, Van Aert this week outlined his goals for the 2023 road season, which include prioritising the world championships and big cobbled classics over another tilt at the Tour’s green jersey.
“Green was a great adventure, but stage victories are more memorable and the World Championships [which will take place in Glasgow two weeks after the Tour] is the higher goal,” he explained.
“That’s why I don’t want to focus on the points for green from the start. That can become a goal during the Tour, but I will choose my days much more and in the final week you still have many opportunities. You can then make choices and it is much more sensible that way.
“I want to win the Ronde and/or Roubaix. So that goal has not changed. They are high, but also logical ambitions. And I am extra motivated after what happened this year.”
Ryan joined road.cc as a news writer in December 2021. He has written about cycling and some ball-centric sports for various websites, newspapers, magazines and radio. Before returning to writing about cycling full-time, he completed a PhD in History and published a book and numerous academic articles on religion and politics in Victorian Britain and Ireland (though he remained committed to boring his university colleagues and students with endless cycling trivia). He can be found riding his bike very slowly through the Dromara Hills of Co. Down.