Didier Lauer is seen in a portrait by Patrick Galbats
Is there any more of a typical Luxembourg sight than a bright-Lycra clad cyclist pedalling one of the country’s pristine back-roads on their top-of-the-range racing bike? Why is cycling Luxembourg’s national sport?
There is no question that cycling is the number one sport in this country,” said Didier Lauer, owner of the shop Bike World in Walferdange. But the figures suggest otherwise.
A January 2017 survey by TNS Ilres suggests that football is the most closely followed international game, with 44% of sports fans watching and reading about football. Cycling came third with 12%, just behind motorsport with 14%. However, these are percentages for all residents, and one would imagine the figures are higher for Luxembourg nationals. And mere numbers miss the big picture.
That Bob Jungels of Rollingen once again claimed the leader’s jersey on 9 May in the Tour of Italy will probably be the sporting highlight of the year for most. Gilles Muller might have reached his highest ever rank in pro tennis (23rd) this year, and Luxembourg City’s Vincent Thill is an exciting young footballer making waves abroad. But nothing really gets the country going like its cyclists.
Roude Léiw, huel se!
“You see the red lion flag at the side of road on all the major European road races, with many Luxembourgers making the pilgrimage to support riders in the grand tours and the classic races,” said Lauer. He sees this spirit reflected in the growing appetite for taking part, both in clubs and individually.
When you combine the exhilaration of well-maintained empty roads through rolling green hills and the chance to splash a few thousand on a posh bike, you have a winning formula for many. Not least when you add the feeling of participating in a national culture. But how can the act of cycling be a manifestation of patriotism?
Just as the iconic Tour de France is said to have helped anchor the notion of modern France, the sport and this race probably performed a similar function in this country.
It is often said that the Tour de France is a celebration of that country. First run in 1903, it helped define the physical limits of the country in the popular imagination. This was at a time when war often resulted in national borders being redrawn.
Testing the boundaries
The first non-Frenchman to win the race was Luxembourger François Faber, who took the title in 1909. He was later to die in the Great War in 1915 after having volunteered for the French Foreign Legion.
One can only speculate about the impact of this on Luxembourg’s national psyche. The context is of a country which had only been independent and free of foreign troops for scarcely four decades when Faber arrived in Paris in first place.
Mamer-born Nicolas Frantz completed the remarkable feat of back-to-back wins in 1927 and 1928; seven years later the first Tour de Luxembourg was held. Perhaps the most significant win for national feeling, though, was Charly Gaul’s victory in 1958.
Only 13 years after liberation, he won in a race that had become a firm highlight of the global sporting calendar. Andy Schleck being placed in the top three from 2009-2011, along with his brother Fränk in 2011, renewed the magic for a new generation.
Those unacquainted with road race cycling might wonder how this apparently gentle pastime could even be a sport, let alone a national icon. Googling the video of “Fränk Schleck 2008 crash” shows the reality. Almost alone, with only a plastic helmet for protection, the pride of Luxembourg hit a crash barrier at 90km/h, and he was thrown down a steep mountainside. Small, wiry and resilient, Fränk only had a few bruises and carried on racing.