This past weekend the cyclocross world championships were held in the Czech Republic. In a sport dominated by Belgians it was not surprising to see the Lion of Flanders flag throughout the course, at times practically draped across the road forcing riders to almost ride through the symbol of the Flemish. This weekend at a party the host had a Lion of Flanders flag autographed by the “Lion of Flanders” himself, Johan Museeuw. As fans of cycling we all know this iconic image, a black lion with red claws and tongue on a yellow background. However, as with all flags there is a symbolism behind the Lion of Flanders.
There are two different types of Lion of Flanders flags and as a fan of cycling you want to make sure you buy the correct version. The lion with the red claws and tongue is the flag that is most commonly seen flying at races. However, don’t mix this up with the all black lion. This all black Lion of Flanders is a symbol of a separatist movement of Flanders that wants to remove itself from the Belgian government. From here the symbolism of the all black lion gets murkier depending on who you talk to. This all black lion is associated with a right-wing political groups and if you wave it around indiscriminately you could be headed for a rather heated political discussion that you want no part of. Today, the red claw and tongue lion is the official Lion of Flanders, but occasionally the all black lion is also used in conjunction with the “official” Lion of Flanders.
To understand the Lion of Flanders requires a brief lesson on Belgium. The country is basically split into two distinct areas: the northern Flemish who speak Dutch and in the south the Wallons who speak French.
Tensions between these two groups occasionally flares up and until 1967 the Belgian constitution was still not translated from French into Dutch, giving the impression to the Flemish that the Dutch speakers were second class citizens.
When I traveled to Roubaix, I cheered “Go Belgium” to a bunch of Lion of Flanders waving fans. I was told rather bruskly that they were not Belgian but Flemish. Whoops, my bad, and I quickly slunk away before they decided to hang me from the flag post.
Just to muddy the explanation more there is another term used almost interchangeably – Flandrien which is a derogatory term for the people from the north of France. There was a lot of poverty in these areas at the beginning of the 20th century and the people from Flanders went to work in northern France. The French thought they were taking jobs away from their own people and sarcastically called them “les Flanderiens.” These Flanderiens were stereotypically considered hard workers. This term was picked up and romanticized to describe the Flemish cyclists.
So when you are in Belgium and you spot the roadside vendor on the Muir you now know which version of the Lion of Flanders flag to spend your Euros on. Oh, and pick me up one as well.
Get your Lion of Flanders gear here
Poster of Belgium’s most famous one-day race – The Rhonde aka Tour of Flanders