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Tour de France in Brussels: The city around on two wheels

The Tour de France is more than just France. Mark Sinclair Fleeton takes you to Le Grand Départ in Brussels.
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Tour de France in Brussels: The city around on two wheels is written by Mark Sinclair Fleeton.

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The starting city of Brussels

The city. The space many of us choose to live in or, for some, be born in. The great grandiose spaces, squares, cathedrals and theaters.

The small cunning corners where one can hide alone or in the company of the only one or the only other or a completely third. But just as fascinating are the temporary spaces, the spaces that are emerging at the moment. Space that fills a role in the present and then never reappears in exactly the same way.

The city. Loved and hated. This also applies to Brussels in so many different ways. An unusual tourist destination? Perhaps. Most people come here to work, to meet or to seek influence, but this year, in early July, there are an unusual number of tourists in Brussels. Both from Belgium and from other parts of the world.

The reason? Le Grand Départ - the start of the world's toughest and most prestigious cycling race, the Tour de France. On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the cannibal's first Tour victory, it was laid to rest on the streets of the Belgian capital.

The cannibal - in case you should be among the 2-3 pieces that have not heard of him - is the nickname for the Belgian cycling icon Eddy Merckx. Merckx got his nickname because he ate his competitors. Not literally, but he won the majority of the bike races he participated in - including the internal competitions - mountain jersey, points jersey, etc. During his career, he won 525 out of the 1.800 bike races he participated in.

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Tour de France city

The city. Temporary and intangible and yet intensely present in the now. The Tour de France is thus considered a city in itself. It occurs throughout the afternoon, evening, night and is populated in the early morning hours by colorful, noisy and chaotic hordes of cycling fans, officials, police and sponsors. Only to disappear shortly after departure and then reappear at the finish area and in tomorrow's departure city.

In a way, this is the tale of the city of the Tour de France. The race, seen as a city, arises within the framework of another city and in this case Brussels.

But it could just as well be any other city. In 2022 it is København, which will form the framework of the Grand Départ and the city within the city.

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Grand Place at Grand Départ

The team presentation. Here the race begins with the introduction of the heroes, as Jørgen Leth would put it. Temporary structures in the form of a stage and flexible metal barriers have been set up - this time on the Grand Place, Brussels' cultural-historical and tourist-attractive heart.

All cities in Belgium has a Grand Place or Grote Markt, as it is called in Flemish. It is the square where the market is held. In Brussels, the most beer is sold on the Grand Place. The market is located in other places, such as Place Jourdan on the outskirts of the European Quarter, where many agreements on the future of Europe have been made over a meal and a glass wine.

Grand Place fills up quietly ahead of the presentation, and just before and especially during there is a battle for the square. No matter how much space there is in the space, there will never be enough space. Move a millimeter and the neighbor takes your place or a new spectator throws himself into the square. There is always room for someone else to use the Tour de France.

The mood is hectic and people are hanging over the barriers. The police, who are heavily outnumbered and suffer in the heat, have enough to do with keeping the crowd in place. Then they come. The muscular men with protruding blood vessels in the calves in colorful, body-hugging costumes. The heroes who will soon have to throw themselves into the fight with the road, the suffering and each other.

The old commercial buildings with the town hall and the city museum as the most spectacular create a pompous setting for the prestigious race. The cobblestones are the dramatic base for the human pace machines, sprinters, mountain and auxiliary riders.

The crowd shouts and cheers when they hear their heroes' names. Greeg vaaaaaaaan Avermaaaaaet! (Belgian hero), Thiiiibaaaauuut Piiiiiiinoooot! (French hero), Vincenzooo Nibaliiiiii! (Italian hero), Alejandro Vaaaaaaalverdeee (Spanish hero), Jakob Fyyhlsaaaaaang! (Danish hero) and so on and so forth.

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Fan Park at Place De Brouckère, Brussels: The team presentation

Close to the Grand Place, past the old stock exchange is the Place De Brouckère. Formerly one of the city's busiest boulevards with Gare du Sud - a public transport hub - at one end. Today, the part, which is located by Børsen and adjacent to Grand Place and the city's old center, is arranged as a pedestrian street.

In a well-attended shopping street, a fan zone has been set up on the occasion of the bicycle invasion, where the race's sponsors can advertise their products, hand out tastings and beat fans on spinning bikes and the like.

The old stock exchange building in neoclassical style has not been a stock exchange for long, but a cultural gathering place for locals and newcomers with exhibitions - preferably from abroad. For the occasion, Børsen's columns are dressed in the prestigious cycling jerseys from the respective competitions in the race - yellow, green and white with red dots. A huge yellow shirt is hung over the Place de Brouckère itself.

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Place Royale Brussels: Registration for the first stage of the Tour de France

The Royal Palace is located on the outskirts of and high above the old part of the city. In some places elevators are installed, but at the palace there are stairs.

The team buses have run into the road between the palace and the Parc de Bruxelles, which also houses the so-called Tour de France Village. The barriers are up along the road and in the square, and the grandstand has been ready for a few days. Many are in good time, but more are coming as the riders' enrollment approaches.

The advertising caravan is the first highlight when the noisy with loud music and shouting starts from the square. Keychains, caps and other merchandise fly through the air and the excited spectators throw themselves into the air after the plastic treasures. In the stands, hard work is being done to entertain the waiting fans. Dance numbers and celebrity interviews fill the time.

Individually and in groups, the riders come sprinkling towards the stage and ride up the steep ramp to the cheers of the crowd. Happy autograph hunters shout at the riders, and many come by, greet nicely and patiently and sign in notebooks, on t-shirts, hats and whatever else they have on hand. They pose for photos with the fans and receive shrugs and awkward embraces. The press is just as eager and the riders know the routine.

Mixed zone is the place where you can meet Lars Bak with his children, Jacob Fuglsang without children - today - or one of the other riders who have sensible, but not always exactly precise things to say about the day's stage. 

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Boulevard de Régent in the bend after the Madou Tunnel

You must arrive well in advance to get a good place on the route. We find ourselves behind the barricades together with two other spectators, who slowly over the next few hours become many. One of the city's wide boulevards provides space for the Tour de France field including the advertising caravan.

Despite barriers, spectators, police presence and the Tour itself, the boulevard seems strangely quiet and empty - and stands in stark contrast to the weekdays, where it is one of the city's main thoroughfares. On this day, the regent layer becomes a quiet place in the sun for many hours. The silence is first broken by the advertising campaign, which arrives in small chunks about an hour before the riders' arrival.

Business associates, VIPs and others in the sponsors' cars are cheered and waved on the way. On par with the more or less imaginative vehicles designed as oversized cyclists, purple fish, chickens and a myriad of other designs. The atmosphere is calm and relaxed between the scattered advertising / VIP cars.

And then it happens. After about three hours of waiting. The field comes together around the corner from Rue de la Loi down the Boulevard de Régent. It takes about 10 seconds for an entire Tour de France field to hammer past us and in those 10 seconds the noise is deafening.

The atmosphere is intense and people are standing and shouting and driving the riders forward with their encouragement. And then they're gone. Immediately, the amount begins to spread.

The group we have been sitting in is gone in an instant. Suddenly there is life on the Boulevard de Régent again and the barriers are already being removed again to make room for the traffic, even though the riders will have to drive on the same road again the next day.

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Sunday in the European Quarter before the start of the 2nd stage of the Tour de France

Life in Brussels' EU district takes place largely from Monday to Friday. On Saturday and Sunday, the streets are deserted and only a few cafes and restaurants are open in this part of town, which is otherwise very excited about both eating out and sitting in cafes with the excellent Belgian beer.

Therefore, it has obviously also come to the fore at "The Gravevine" on Place Luxembourg that there are more than a few individual dining guests at lunchtime.

Sweating and stressed, the far too few employees wander around between the customers and try to keep up with the orders. Still, they manage to present a friendly and service-minded face to customers, even if a few little things slip along the way.

We get the obligatory bread delivered to the table, but despite a reminder, the butter for the bread never shows up. However, the food is not a disappointment and the guests take the bustle in a good mood. The sun is shining and there are still a few hours to the stage of the day so there is time to wait.

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The temporary city

The city. A framework for our lives as human beings. A fixed framework and a temporary framework for individual events. The city's structures change and adapt to its purpose and use.

Brussels is a city where nationalities meet and make agreements, debate the future and put pressure on decision-makers.

A city whose inhabitants - or at least some of them - move out of the city to meet in other cities. But it is also a city where you can meet and celebrate a sporting event that occasionally draws noisy and jubilant through the city.

Where one can also meet over a colorful race through the city and not just heavy negotiations on agricultural support and climate protection.

A city of glass and steel can for a short time and in a small area be transformed into a sea of ​​people of joy and community.

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About the travel writer

Mark Sinclair Fleeton

Mark Sinclair Fleeton is a graduate of Cand.comm. And today works as a freelance journalist and communicator. He's blah. supplier to and editor of the political news magazine RÆSON. Mark participates in this year's travel article competition.

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