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Hard men and heroes

Tough, determined, unsophisticated riders, the Flandrien are the heroes of the Tour of Flanders and the Paris-Roubaix, cycle races which specialise in some of the worst roads and weather conditions imaginable in bike racing. They are so far removed from the sun-drenched glamour of the Tour de France that it is almost a different sport.

Stephan Vanfleteren's powerful black and white photographs provide an intimate and emotional portrait of these legendary sportsmen and the sport which dominates the social and cultural life of Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. The unremarkable landscape breeds a particular type of rider who thrives in the driving rain and the bitter cold and on cobbled streets and treacherous inclines. Cycling in Belgium is equivalent to football in the UK where local clubs have traditionally inspired passionate allegiances. These images provide an insight into this Flemish passion: the crowded bars on race day, the farmer stopping to watch a cyclist struggle past on an unmade road, whole families, young and old, turning out to support their local heroes, local riders being welcomed into the homes of villagers to change before a race. In Belgium, every village has a kermis - a fete - with a cycle race as the centrepiece of the celebrations. Children dream of being champions.

Stephan Vanfleteren has been photographing the Flandrien for more than 15 years. His portraits of riders read like a 'Who's Who' of Flandrien from the second world war to the present day: Alberic Schotte, Rik Van Steenbergen, Rik Van Looy, Roger de Vlaeminck, Eddy Merckx, Johan Museeuw and Tom Boonen. Of these, Eddy Merckx is the name that stands out: five times winner of the Tour de France and perhaps the most famous cyclist of all time. In the hardman tradition of the Flandrien he ignored all tactics, he just rode harder and faster than his rivals, earning himself the nickname, 'The Cannibal'. Today Tom Boonen is the latest in a long line of Flandrien showing potential on the world stage, but it is in winning the Tour of Flanders and the Paris-Roubaix that his hero status in Flanders has been confirmed.
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