The Beast, The Emperor And The Milkman, Harry Pearson (2019)

A tour of Flemish cycling that is as funny as it is penetrating

Bloomsbury Sport, 978-1-4729-4056-8, paperback 262pp, £8.79

Taken as a whole, Flanders is geographically closer to Britain than France – or indeed any other continental neighbour. Despite this, it is little-known on the western side of the channel. What language is spoken there? Who are its leaders? What are its main cities? Even among the intelligentsia, many would struggle to say

Harry Pearson’s ostensible purpose in this book is to celebrate and explain the Flemish obsession with professional cycling – a fascinating narrative of nationalism, linguistic belligerence, and newspaper sales drives. Doing this, however, he unravels much more about the Belgian community and region – its history, topography and the historic grudges with neighbours north and south that shape its character.

Pearson is an accomplished writer, author of a dozen or more books about football and cricket. For the past two decades or more, he has also physically and encyclopaedically immersed himself in Flemish cycling. A master of both of witty observation and the extraction of illuminating details from history, he animates a century of gruff, battling cyclists and the fans who acclaim their phlegm.

The book is structured around 2017’s ‘Flemish cycling week’, the early spring program of races that annually excite the region to a froth. Pearson deadpans his way around the sodden fields, fast-food vans and small towns, finding companionable mirth in the fans, bars and his own travails. 

His eye for detail is fine – the travelling van selling loose soup, obsessive pavement cleaning, and town-specific pastries are each unpacked to reveal Flemish characters in microcosm. 

On broad sweeps he is just as good. “It was sometimes said that a Fleming only loved what he could see from the bell tower of his village church”, he notes. And then drawing on visits to the area over many decades:  “It seemed to me that compared to men like (Briek) Schotte there was more glamour in (Tom) Boonen’s life but less romance – which is a reflection of our times but also mirrors the way that Flanders has changed”. 

Amusingly exhaustive on cyclists’ nicknames – a Flemish predilection, as the title suggests – Pearson leaves unconsidered their prevalence in northern Belgium? Journalists supercharging gladiatorial narratives is the likely source of most – but that leaves unexplained their resonance in Brabant and its environs. What is really required, of course, is a Flemish cycling nickname generator. As this might render Teesside native Pearson ‘the Smoggie Scribbler’, however, his omission is understandable.

Notwithstanding this oversight, it is hard to imagine a book that will render more engagingly cobbles, chips and ecclesiastically-brewed beer. Without an actual cycling season to enjoy this year, Pearson’s offering is a generous compensation.

TD May 2020

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