Why Flanders is obsessed with the Tour de France
The 109th edition of the Tour de France starts on Friday, July 1st. The first three weeks of July mark the high point of every cycling fan’s year, both in France and abroad. And the people of Flanders will be on the front row for the entirety of the race
“Le Grand Départ” of this year’s Tour de France will be celebrated all over the world. Over the course of the 20th century, the race has become a global phenomenon. KU Leuven professor and sports economist Daam Van Reeth estimates that 500 million people tune in to watch the riders tame legendary climbs like the Mont Ventoux, Col du Tourmalais and Alpe d’Huez every year.
The influence of the competition is not limited to the sport itself: the Tour de France is also an economic powerhouse. The Tour de France’s revenue is estimated to be somewhere between 60 and 150 million dollar each year. Stages hosted outside of France also have positive effects on the regions. A British study showed that three TdF stages hosted in England in 2014 resulted in an economic benefit of 127 million GBP for the region.
Even politically the Tour de France is a force to be reckoned with. French politicians make a habit out of attending the mountain stages, in an attempt to appeal to their voters. Internationally, countries such as the UAE, Kazakhstan and Bahrain use the competition as a form of 'sportswashing': sponsoring a team in order to improve their international reputation and divert attention away from corruption and questionable human rights records.
Nevertheless, cycling has been losing fans in recent times. Last year, Van Reeth analysed the viewing figures of the 2021 edition of Le Tour. Of the eight examined countries, only Belgium, Italy and France did not see a significant drop compared to the 5-year average. In Flanders, approximately 1 in 13 inhabitants watched the 2021 Tour de France, compared to France itself, Wallonia (both around 1 in 17) and Italy (around 1 in 46).
A cycling-crazy Flanders
In 2020, the mountain stage to Loudenvielle attained a market share of 66% in Flanders. This means that two out of three Flemish people in front of their tv’s at that moment were watching the race. No other country comes close, said Van Reeth to the Dutch magazine Sport & Strategie. “We in Flanders are the most cycling-crazy 'country' on earth. We underestimate how deep-rooted cycling interest is in Flanders, certainly in comparison with other countries.”
There are several reasons behind Flanders’ love for Le Tour. One is the Flemish legacy in Tour de France history. Eddy Merckx is one of the most successful riders in the history of the sport. During his career, Merckx set records for most days as leader of the race (96 in total) and most stage wins (34). In 1969 he ended the race with all five jerseys, a feat unmatched since.
Another is the dominance of modern Flemish riders. Of the 63 stages in the most recent three editions, 10 were won by Flemish athletes, more than any other participating country. Wout Van Aert is responsible for 6 of those, and his popularity is even visible in the figures of Van Reeth: where other countries saw a drop in viewership during the final stages, Flanders recorded a significant uptick in viewers. Van Reeth calls this the “Van Aert effect”.
The proximity of France is an additional bonus. Many Flemish cycling aficionados combine a holiday in France with attending a Tour de France stage to cheer on the riders in person. With the COVID-19 pandemic fading into the background and Wout Van Aert as one of the favourites of the competition, there seems no doubt that the Flemish will once again tune in to Le Tour en masse, be it in front of the tv or in person.
Wout Van Aert wins stage 11 of the Tour de France in 2021. - © BELGA PHOTO PETE GODING