Belgian Insights: Lion of Flanders

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Before you go out and get that Lion of Flanders tattoo on your calf, you’ll want to know the real meaning of those iconic yellow and black Lion of Flanders flags you see at so many bicycle races.

Words by Jeff Lockwood. Photos by Chipps Chippendale and Neil Webb.

First published in Grit.cx Issue 1: October 2014
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It’s a simple flag. Bright yellow with a black, stylized lion standing on its hind legs in some sort of aggressive stance. These particular flags and banners have become an iconic piece of the background scene of bicycle races around the world, especially in Europe, particularly in Belgium and heavily in the Flanders region.

To many cycling fans around the world, these flags have come to represent a certain romanticism about bicycle racing. Flanders has produced a long line of worship-worthy cyclists, the region offers up some of the most horribly beautiful riding, and its spring races are rabidly watched around the world. While these flags have nothing to do with cycling, they’re so common at bicycle races that bike racing cultures in other countries seem to have adopted the idea of flying them at races without knowing what that lion really represents.

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Though there is an official, small, German-speaking area of Belgium, the country is quite distinctly (and officially) split between the Dutch-speaking Flanders region in the north, and the Wallonia region in the south, which exclusively speaks French. We won’t get into the complicated, and heated, specifics here, but there has long been a political, social and economic rift between Flanders and Wallonia.

The official Flemish coat of arms is a bright yellow flag with a stylized lion, very similar to the one you see in the background as your favorite pro cyclists flash past in a blur. But look closely at those flags. They’re different. The official Lion of Flanders flag, the one that hangs in front of city government buildings throughout the Flanders region, is a more intricate flag. The lion on the official flag has red claws, a red tongue and its tail is different to most of the flags you see lining the race route. The flags you see at races, which are handed out en masse by people walking along the crowd barriers, are yellow and black. No red.

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Within the Flemish region and community lie a few political groups and social movements that take a far right stance, heavily favoring the division of Belgium. At the top of the wish-list for many of these groups is Flemish autonomy. Talk about secession and the rejection of the Belgian monarchy are the most benign planks in their platform. The simple yellow and black flag is also raised by the fringe groups that are quite open about their racist rejection of foreigners as well as anyone or anything that’s not strictly Flemish.

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So the simple yellow and black flag is not solely representative of one particular movement or group. Rather, it’s been appropriated by these fringe groups to stand as a symbol for their causes. A graphic and ideological interpretation of the official flag of Flanders that’s freely handed out at bicycle races by the minions as propaganda for these groups, it’s often ignorantly and blindly flown and saluted by people who have no idea of its true representation. So if you’re looking to fly a flag that represents all that’s cool in Belgian cycling, make sure your flag has some color in it.

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