Friday 14 February 2014

WieMu: The Belgian National Cycling Museum

Belgium is an unusual country, with a population split between two different languages and religions and essentially having two separate governments except on national issues such as defence. A history of stubbornness and argumentation make it the ideal capital of the European Union, with its 27 contentious Member States. But everyone is agreed about the great things in Belgium: beer, chocolate, beer, frites, beer and its status as a cycling mecca, famed for its brutal Spring Classics and cobbled roads and muddy cyclocross races. And of course it has to offer not one but two excellent cycling museums. I already reported on my visit to the Tour of Flanders Center in Oudenaarde but for a more general picture of cycling in the country we go elsewhere, to the West Flanders town of Roeselare.

In Flemish the name Wielermuseum is “Bicycle Museum” and it refers to itself as WieMu. Housed in an impressive 19th Century armoury, the museum aims to provide a history of the bicycle as well as giving focus to racing, primarily on the road but also on the track and cross course. Entering through the arched doorway and after paying the reasonable admission price the visitor walks down a hallway with exhibits covering the very early history of the bicycle: there is a replica of Baron Drais' 1817 “Laufrad” as well as a very good replica of the Kirkpatrick Macmillan bicycle of 1839, allegedly the first to use pedals but the claim is now doubted by historians. Next up is a very fine Michaux velocipede from c. 1869.

From the crude beginnings of the bicycle we move now to the era of the high-wheeler and the museum gives visitors to sit on one and crank like mad, powering a camera so that they can see themselves. Of course the bicycles is firmly supported so no risk of falling on your head, unlike the brave velonauts of old.

There are work bicycles and military bicycles with guns and prim ladies' specials, all pre-dating the Great War. Next is a very interesting display that is actually a bike workshop that was relocated from the village of Heule, where it was opened by Maurice Hallaert in the 1930s. In 1946 the owner expanded operations to include bicycle saddle production in addition to bike repairs and sales. Joining his father in 1952, Marcel Hallaert oversaw further expansion, leading to handbuilt frame production under the Fietsen Hallaert tradename until 1969. In 1989 Marcel Hallaert donated the workshop to WieMu and one can see how self-contained bicycle production was back in the old days.

With the exception of the workshop, most of what is on display at the museum up to this point really does not have much to do with Belgium, a country that did not actually see any of its own bicycle production until the rather late date of 1891, when the Derby brand (yes, an English name for cachet) was introduced. But now comes the heart of the museum and probably the most interesting part: racing history.

The museum has an excellent collection of classic racing bicycles but really is strongest in post-World War II items. Of note is the red Flandria that Rik van Looy (“the Emperor of Herentals”) used to win the 1962 Paris-Roubaix race, one of the many highlights in a 17 year career that saw him become the first man to win all five “Monuments,” a feat since only accomplished by two other riders (both Belgian, of course).

Certainly the Belgians have produced many legendary cyclists and the museum devotes some space to a number of them, including Eddy Merckx (who does not get as much as space as one would imagine, given his palmares) and the more recent Johan Museeuw, Tom Boonen and Philippe Gilbert. There is a comprehensive collection of jerseys of long-forgotten-except-by-fans teams.

A sobering moment comes when the visitor reaches the entire display room devoted to the life and career of J ean-Pierre Monseré, nicknamed “Jempi.” A son of Roeselare, he turned professional in 1969, winning the Tour of Lombardy for Flandria the same year. In 1970 he became World Champion in Leicester, the second-youngest to do so at the time, and also won a national title on the track. His 1971 year began well with victory at the Vuelta a Andalucia but while competing in a local Belgium race he struck a car that had entered the course and died of his injuries. He was 22 years old and his medals, jerseys and the Lombardy bike are all on display at the museum. A memorial race in his name continues to be held every September.

The visitor next walks by a case of Tom Boonen memorabilia and can stand next to Philippe Gilbert's Canyon Speedmax time trial bike, displayed with team and Belgian champion tricolour jersey. Then there is a break from all this road racing history with a too-small display area devoted to track racing, including a stayer motorcycle, a derny pacesetting machine and some posters from Six Day Racing. Of particular note is a display case with souvenirs of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, including a fine portrait of Patrick Sercu who won gold in the 1000 m time trial and went on to become the greatest Six Day racer of the modern era with 88 wins.

Nick lusting for the Speedmax

A tip of the hat is given to cyclocross, but not much more which is surprising in light of the great success of Belgian riders and its extreme popularity in the country. But perhaps there will be exhibits in the future. A quick peek into the museum's attic will convince anyone that what is on display is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to WieMu's holdings (which include a box of Paris-Roubaix cobblestones!).

Of course the real tourist can enjoy getting photographed with a cutout to make himself look like Eddy Merckx or Freddy Maertens and there is a nicely-stocked store featuring historic replica jerseys, books and even, yes, beer. Who could resist a six-pack of Malteni beer, labelled in those familiar Merckx colours?

The Belgians have a great history in cycling and the WieMu,which offers changing exhibits, should be on the must-see list for a cycling fans. Unlike the other Flemish museum, the signs are in three languages so no dictionary is needed to enjoy it all. And even though cycling is a Big Deal in the country, they don't always take it so seriously either.

WielermuseumPolenplein 15
8800 Roeselare
Telephone:051 26 87 40
Website: Note: a good part of this in English but at some point they just gave up translating so be prepared to switch to Flemish or French!
Opening Hours: Tuesday to Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm

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