What's a Flahute?

Rick Van Looy was one but Jacques Anquetil never came close. Roger DeVlaeminck classifies as one of the greats, while Bernard Hinault knew better than to try. Eddy Merckx managed to become one and still win five Tour de France titles. Guys like Axel Merckx and Tom Steels say they dream of being one.

What we're talking about here, are "Flahutes," known in the cycling world as the toughest riders in the fiercest races. To put it another way, if your cycling spirit dampens at the sight of rain, you sure as shoot ain't a Flahute.

Flahute racers focus on such classics as the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, those tough northern classics filled with some of the worst roads and weather imaginable in bike racing. The only thing tougher than the races themselves are the guys that win them. They are the real Flahutes.

French speaking journalists nicknamed their Flemish neighbors Flahutes, a term of endearment given to riders raised amidst the rough conditions of industrial northern Europe after World War II. They came to bike racing well-trained in hardship. "The Flahutes were a generation of riders who learned to suffer long before they ever got on a bike," explains Briek Schotte, the granddaddy of the Flahutes. "Kids had the choice of working in the fields or riding their bikes. I picked beets for ten hours a day when I was a kid. Believe me, I knew how to suffer long before I raced bikes."

Four-time Paris-Roubaix winner Roger DeVlaeminck identifies this breed of biker in more direct terms. "They're just those guys who know how to ride faster than anybody else over cobblestones and in the rain," he says.

Most Flahute legends rarely shined in major stage races like the Tour de France. Many simply didn't care about the Tour. Instead they preferred local-hero status. They showed their best under the adoring eyes of their countrymen while the smell of grilled sausages, onions and french fries drenched the air. What crumbs were left were offered to the Tour.

"The Tour of Flanders was our World Championships," remembers Michel Pollentier. The small Flemish rider brags more of his Tour of Flanders win in 1980 than of his Tour of Italy win in 1977.

Biological reasons also contribute to the differences between a Flahute and a Tour de France rider. Power allows the Flahute to cross the treacherous cobbled sections that characterize these events with greater resiliency. Often an extra percentage or two of body fat comes in handy in the cold, wind and rain. But what serves well in Flanders, hurts in France.

Flahutes often struggle to lug their imposing frames over the Tour's mountains. Tour riders such as Richard Virenque or Alex Zülle, however, get steamrolled by the treacherous cobbles hidden amongst the time-honored forests and fields of the north. France's Laurent Jalabert got so rock-shocked the last time he rode these races that he has not frequented them for the past three years. "These races are as physically and mentally taxing as any major national Tour," insists legendary Italian director Giancarlo Ferretti.

Today's top Flahutes are Johan Museeuw, Franco Ballerini and Andreď Tchmil. Of the three, only Museeuw boasts Flemish heritage. Tchmil proves that one can learn to suffer anywhere in the world. He comes with a credible résumé in this domain: he grew up as a product the Soviet system. He raced and trained in all conditions just to maintain his spot on the Russian National Team.

Ballerini remains a mystery. How could this fun-loving Italian respond with such vigor to the harsh conditions of northern racing, when most of his countryman flounder? Some things, apparently, are simply a matter of destiny. "You just have to be born for this," explains Ferretti.

So at the beginning of April, with the Tour of Flanders straight ahead, countless riders will be migrating to a string of nondescript hotels that line the French-Belgian border. They do not come as tourists. They only come to race. And these hotels provide adequate lodging while they eat, sleep and train. Jalabert is just one of many who has announced he will again try to earn his Flahute feathers. But Museeuw, Tchmil and Ballerini are ready and waiting.

Story from VeloCity

My Modern Flahute List: