Tour de Flanders – Revisited

Now for something completely different….

Like everyone, the lockdown for coronavirus has driven me crazy. As soon as legally possible, I snuck away from work and rode the route of the first Tour de Flanders. Below is a little something I wrote about the experience, and here are some pictures. And if you’d like to see the route I took, you’ll find it here.

Off-road between Nieuwport and Ostend

Recycling the 1913 Tour de Flanders

What went through Paul Deman’s mind as he waited for his execution? Did he remember the thrill of winning the first-ever Tour de Flanders? Did he worry about the family he was leaving behind? Or did he curse his 14th and final secret mission to The Netherlands before he fell into German hands?

I like to think that Deman remembered towering clouds in a baby blue sky, hung above the green fields of Flanders that he loved to ride.

Thoughts while cycling come as frequently as pedal rotations, and as randomly as the air curling past. My thoughts rolled through Flemish history this June as I retraced much of Deman’s route in the 1913 race. Flanders, Belgium’s Dutch speaking region, has been both the battlefield and business capital of Europe. Now, it is a wealthy and economically vibrant region.

One day after Belgium eased coronavirus quarantine, I cycled from my home outside Brussels to join the original route near Zottegem. Deman and others took just over 12 hours to ride the 324 kilometers, or nearly 200 miles, round trip from Ghent. With a slightly varied route, I took six days. Flanders has thousands of kilometers of  cycle paths, and I used an app called Komoot to map and guide me.

The Tour de Flanders began as a way to sell newspapers while capitalizing on a 1912 Belgian victory in the more famous Tour de France. Rarely the same route, the Tour de Flanders now runs roughly 250 km, often over cobbled hills. But that first race covered a largely flat course. Thirty-seven riders left Ghent May 25, 1913 at 6:15 a.m.

Roughly 107 years later, on a day of low-hanging clouds, I reached the Scheldt River and headed south to Oudenaarde, end point of the race since 2012. Paved paths line the historic border waterway– to the west was once France, to the east had been the Holy Roman Empire – and led straight into town. There, the UNESCO-designated Town Hall dominated the main square, not far from the Tour de Flanders museum and its modern displays.

I rode a touring bike with 27 gears which, with my bag of clothes and gear, probably weighed 50-60 pounds. The fixed-gear cycles of 1913 weighed almost that much alone, and yet Deman averaged almost 27 km/hour.

The next morning on the Scheldt heading to Ypres was sublime. Greens of all hues unfurled among the fields and foliage into the low rising hills, and a rising sun cast long shadows across the river.

The route passed by Rekkem, a French border village where Paul Deman was born. Despite quarantine’s easing, the border here between Belgium and France was closed – lightweight fencing abruptly closed roads, like photos from early East-West division in Berlin.

I arrived at Ypres’ Hotel Ambrosia to a very happy manager. I was his first customer in three months, and the only guest that night. That evening, I attended the Last Post at Menin Gate, a solemn tribute to the 90,000 Commonwealth dead – who themselves were part of about 300,000 soldiers who died in this region. Normally attended by hundreds of visitors, the moving ceremony has been performed each night at 8 p.m. since 1928 (with a pause during WWII). With the coronavirus’ chill, only about 40 people attended the evening I was there.

Returning to the hotel, I passed the Biking Box bar and popped in. I found owner Kurt Titeca engaged in rapid Flemish conversation with two patrons – both longtime friends. As an American and a tourist, I was immediately invited into the conversation with questions about US politics, the virus’ impacts and, of course, why I was traveling. My plan to recreate the 1913 Tour de Flanders sparked great joy. Kurt, who also runs area bicycle tours, offered to escort me out of town the next morning so that he could get in a ride of his own. Offer accepted.

It was cold and drizzly the next morning – the type of day I would never have ridden before moving from South Carolina to Belgium in 2016. But I’d learned that Belgians – especially Flemish – don’t change their plans because of weather; they change their clothes. So, I was ready when Kurt arrived, accompanied by his 17-year-old daughter Yasmira, both on sleek racing bikes.

They sped away, bouncing off cobbled streets and expertly fielding corners as I worked to catch them. We hit the Ieperlee, a canalized river that flows into the Yser, and turned east. We moved quickly along curving paved paths that had once divided armies – to the right, the smooth water and then farmland where Germans had hidden; to the left bushes, trees and the occasional house on the Allied side. The rain let up about the time Kurt slowed. “I want to show you something,” he said. We walked toward a small graveyard, and he turned toward a bunker. We were at the Essex Farm Cemetery and the bunker was the claustrophobic dressing station where Canadian physician John McCrae wrote “In Flanders Fields”, shortly after burying a friend.

Following a brief ride, we arrived at another bunker. Peering through barred windows, I could see a small door with a pointed arch and Arabic letters. A nearby plaque said this bunker housed WWI soldiers from French North Africa. Kurt and Yasmira turned back to Ypres, and I headed east to the coast.

Trip DuBard (BeneluxConnect), Kurt and Jasmine

The land spread out flat before me and the air soon began to have the fresh feel of the ocean. The route rolled by fields, villages, and lonely train tracks. I took a slight detour to De Panne on the Atlantic. The oceanfront was dominated by ugly buildings and an enormous statue of a man framed by a concrete rectangle, his back to the ocean and looking inland. Here, in 1831, Leopold I of Germany arrived to become king of the newly created nation of Belgium. Later that century, his son Leopold II would cruelly rule the Congo. And now, as I rode through the region, protests echoing Black Lives Matter were leading to the removal of the son’s statues.

Back on the Tour route, a 20 mph wind defended Nieuwport’s entrance, where I spent the night. A cycling friend advised me to leave the coast and instead go inland. “Follow the water,” he said. So, the next morning I rode past the canal locks hand-cranked open on Oct. 29, 1914 by Belgians so desperate to stop the WWI German advance that they flooded a portion of their own country. The canals led to striking vistas of vivid, wind-stirred green fields, cirrus-traced skies, slow-flowing water, old men canal-fishing and bumpy dirt paths. It continued that way until I hit the highways leading into Ostend. While there, I found the former home of Marvin Gaye, who wrote “Sexual Healing,” during the 18 months he lived in Ostend from February 1981.

The 1913 Tour took a sharp cut southeast from Ostend to Roeselare then back north to Bruges.  I cut the corner and went directly to Bruges riding along a canal built in the 1600s to link the economies and armies of Ghent and Bruges to the Atlantic. Winding smoothly under a protective tunnel of trees, the path guided groups of colorfully clad sports cyclists, elderly couples and children on training wheels. One study found that at least half of Belgians cycle, but that seemed low to me, especially given public transport’s decline in the coronavirus era.

But while Belgians may have been out and about, tourists were not. In Bruges, which normally receives about 70 times more annual visitors than its roughly 120,000 residents, the lanes, parks and canals were nearly empty. Few restaurants were open, and natives – not tourists – gathered to dine and drink local beer in the lengthy, pre-solstice sunsets.

Empty Brugge

At this point in 1913, Deman and his five main competitors had fewer than 50 kms to get back to Ghent. As for me, I would keep going past Ghent to Sint-Niklaas and Aalst, before connecting with Zottegem again and heading home.

The Ghent velodrome was long ago demolished, but what a finish it must have witnessed when the Tour arrived that evening. As the six main riders entered, two collided and fell, and Deman fought off the others to enter cycling history.

Soon after, British Intelligence asked Deman to cycle secret documents more than 100 kms each way across German territory and into The Netherlands. He did so repeatedly, but in September 1918 was caught.

Awaiting a firing squad, Deman was beaten and interrogated but once again beat the course. Before the Germans could act, the Armistice was signed, and American soldiers freed Deman. He later won the 1920 Paris-Roubaix and 1923 Paris-Tours cycling events, and was awarded heroism medals by the British, French and Belgians. Deman lived in Belgium until his death in 1961, aged 72, at his home fewer than 20 kms from Oudenaarde, where the Tour ends today.

Between Brugge and Ghent

Brexit Brings The Netherlands New Companies

Roughly 1 in 5 of the new nearly 400 new companies arriving in The Netherlands last year came due to Brexit, a new study says.

The study, released by the Dutch foreign investment agency NFIA, says a total of 140 companies have entered Holland due to Brexit, and will create an 4,000 jobs as a result.

In 2019, 78 of the record 397 firms moving to The Netherlands did so because of Brexit. The largest number of companies came from North America and Asia (94 and 93 respectively), followed by Europe at 55.

Over the next three years, NFIA expects the new companies to create 14,000 jobs and invest €4.3 billion.

To read more about the new study, see this story in DutchNews.

2019: Record Year for Investment in Flanders

Belgium’s state of Flanders saw a nearly 23 percent increase in inward investment in 2019, with the US being the largest investor, Flanders Investment and Trade (FIT) and Flemish press reported today.

The surge of $5.2 billion Euros ($5.74 billion) came from 258 different projects and created 5,384 jobs in the region. Flanders is a state of about 6.6 million people in the northern portion of Belgium, which has a population of 11.4 million.

The biggest surge came in the chemical industry, and nearly 56% of all projects were greenfield projects, FIT said.

The US lead investors with 45 projects, followed by The Netherlands with 40 and the UK with 28.

“These figures indicate that, despite the worldwide slowdown in economic growth and increasing trade tensions, Flanders remains a highly attractive destination for international investors,” said FIT CEO Claire Tillekaerts.

For more information, see FIT’s press release here.

EU Reminds US States of Economic Impact

The EU sent a pointed reminder to US states of the costs of a potential trade war .

In a report issued late last month, the European Union says it accounts for more than 600,000 jobs and more than $200 billion in investment in the the Carolinas and Georgia.

The study and an accompanying website, released by the EU mission to the United States, found that EU trade and investment create 6.8 million jobs across the United States and that the region represents $2.37 trillion of investments in the US.

The report is a not so subtle reminder of the importance of EU-US trade at at time when new tariffs remain possible from the Trump administration.

For the Carolinas and Georgia, the EU impact is significant.

Impact by State

South Carolina

In South Carolina (click here for complete infographic), the report cites $10.73 billion in exports from SC to the EU in 2017 and more than $528 million in revenue from EU visitors.

Interestingly, the state just reported that exports grew for the 9th year in a row, rising 7.5% to $34.6 billion. That ranks SC — the US’s 23rd most populous state — 14th among all states for exports. While China is listed as the top country for SC exports — with 16% of the total, Germany, the UK, Belgium, France and Norway account for about 23%. That means that if Europe were counted as a single trading partner, it would rank as SC’s largest.

Motor vehicles and parts dwarf all other SC exports, accounting for $4.7 billion — or about 44% of total SC exports. Aerospace comes in second at $530 million, followed by electrical equipment at $369 million.

North Carolina

In North Carolina (infographic here), the EU claims $13.2 billion in exports from NC and $908 million in revenue from tourists.

The top export from NC to Europe is pharmaceuticals, nearly double the second-place export — aerospace products, which is followed in third by chemicals.

Danish pharmaceutical manufacturer Novo Nordisk has been in NC since 1993, and is investing $2 billion in its facility in Clayton, NC.


And in Georgia, (infographic here), the numbers are $14.2 billion in exports and just more than $1 billion from tourists.

In all three states, the EU claims to be the biggest source of foreign investment.

The European Union is a political and economic union of 28 nations in Europe. In 2017, the US was the EU’s largest partner for non-EU exports, and the second largest (behind China) for imports.

FDI Surges in The Netherlands

Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) surged in 2018 in The Netherlands, creating nearly 10,000 jobs, about 20 percent attributed directly to Brexit, the Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency (NFIA) announced.

The NFIA and its regional partners helped bring 372 projects to the country, accounting for 2.85 billion Euros and 9847 jobs, according to the NFIA.

Of those, 42 companies made the move because of Brexit, the agency said, including the European Medicines Agency. For more on that move, see our post here. 

Those Brexit-related companies account for 1,923 job and 291 million Euros in investment, NFIA said.

US and Canada

US and Canadian companies directed 85 projects into The Netherlands, creating 3,296 jobs and 1.2 million Euros in capital investment, according to the NFIA.

The large 2018 increases are more than double those in 2017 and could mean larger gains yet to come, officials said.

“Due to the growing international uncertainty surrounding Brexit and changing global trade policies, the importance of a good Dutch business climate for all of us is continually increasing,” said Eric Wiebes, Netherlands Minister of Economic Affairs & Climate Policy.

To read more, click here.

European Medicines Agency Moves to Amsterdam

Flags dropped and bureaucrats talked as the European Medicines Agency prepared its move to Amsterdam from London ahead of Brexit, a pharmaceutical industry publication reported.

“The European Medicines Agency monitors the quality and safety of medicines for both humans and animals. In addition, it assesses new and innovative medicines as efficiently as possible for safety, efficacy and quality, so that they can enter the European market with the least possible delay, and EMA remains ready to act quickly if there are problems with a medicine,” according to the Invest In Holland website.

The move will attract 36,000 visitors annually to The Netherlands, Invest in Holland said.

Major multinationals and innovative biotech companies such as Janssen, Merck (MSD), Amgen, Sanofi, Genmab, Synthon, AstraZeneca, Kite Pharma, Aduro Biotech, Galapagos, AbbVie, Kiadis, Pharming, Merus and PRA Health Sciences, already make Holland one of the most innovative countries in the world for BioPharmaceuticals.

For more information on the Dutch bioscience sector, click here.

Flanders Investment Doubles in 2018

Investment in Belgium’s Flanders region reached an all-time high in 2018, and doubled from the 2017 level, the government reports.

The report by Flanders Investment and Trade said that the chemical sector was the key factor driving investment from 2.08 billion Euros in 2017 to 4.24 billion Euros.

That investment was the result of 234 projects – up from 215 – and created 5,339 jobs — a slight decline from the 5,377 created in 2017.

As usual, The United States remained the largest source of investment in Flanders, generating 40 separate projects, followed by The Netherlands, France and Germany.

Just over half the investments were greenfield projects, with almost 30% representing expansions and the rest constituting mergers and acquisitions.

Manufacturing expansion and research and development were the two largest drivers of the increase.

For more information, click here.

Kortrijk Biennale Interieur Celebrates 50 Years of Design

The  Kortrijk Biennale Interieur celebrated 50 years in October of its internationally acclaimed design festival. The week-long  exhibition has enabled the West Flanders city to move from a dying textile capital to a vibrant creative center.

For this 26th version of the festival, the Biennale was shortened from 10 days to five (Oct. 18-22). Still the impact on the city  both during the event and over the years, is and has been profound.

Transitioning from Textile Legacy

For much of the 20th century, Kortrijk anchored the textile industry of Belgium’s West Flanders region. But as the textile industry moved to other less expensive manufacturing areas, the Kortrijk region remade itself into a creative hub. That process continues today, with the Biennale Interieur being the most visible and internationally recognized symbol of the transition.

The process has resulted in design integrating itself into the local economy to such an extent that in 2017, UNESCO named Kortijk part of its Creative Cities Network. Kortrijk joined 180 other cities in 72 countries. (Only nine are in the US.)

The Kortrijk transformation is as significant as the change undertaken by its US Sister City — Greenville, located in the Upstate region of South Carolina.

Greenville shed its textile heritage to become a manufacturing powerhouse. The Upstate region is home to such companies as BMW, Michelin and Toray.

But while Greenville focuses on  high-end manufacturing, Kortrijk more subtly has worked to build a creative infrastructure that supports new and growing businesses.

5×5 – Creating Next Generation of Designers

That was evident at the Biennale Interieur with the 5×5 program presented by DesignRegio. A public-private partnership, Designregio supports design across West Flanders. Its 5×5 program specifically brings together an existing successful company that seeking help in creating a new process or product. Designregio puts the larger company in contact with an experience designer as well as a young designer. Together, the three partners develop the new process or product over two years, guided by 5×5’s protocols.

At Designregio, the finished work is presented — examined, critiqued and appreciated by the crowds.

Belgian Food Companies Create New Beer for Kortrijk

Two Belgian food industry companies have combined forces to create a new beer for Kortrijk using the town’s own river water, a Belgian newsletter reports.

Made in West Flanders says that Agristo, a large West Flanders potato processor, and De Watergroep, Flanders’ largest drinking water company, are working with Toye brewery to use water from the Leie River in a new beer.

De Watergroep was already purifying the Leie water for use at Agristo. And when a local enthusiast suggested creating the new beer, Toye was quickly on board. Geert Toye, brewery manager, called it “the perfect opportunity to brew with recycled water.”

The Leie has a special significance in Kortrijk, which is a Sister City with Greenville, SC. 

The river was important to Kortrijk’s growth as a major flax center in the 20th Century, which led to its relationship with Greenville, also a major 20th century textile center. Now, the Toye brewery operates from a former flax factory.