Didier de Flandrien

The last of the Flandriens

Dieter Gussé not only looks rugged, with his long hair and black sideburns, he is also rake-thin like a professional cyclist. It’s no wonder: This technician from Deinze, East-Flanders, cycles about 4,000 kilometres in preparation for Flanders’ “cyclotourist” classics.

There’s nothing too eccentric about that among Flemish cycling enthusiasts, but Gussé has ridden the majority of those kilometres on a racing bicycle from 1926. On this bike, and in matching authentic outfit, he takes part in, among others, the cyclotourist races of the Paris-Roubaix and the Ronde van Vlaanderen, or Tour of Flanders.

Meet Dieter, the last Flandrien. Known to the public as Didier de Flandrien, Gussé (pictured) is a museum on two wheels at the amateur portion of the Tour of Flanders. Sitting on the type of racing bicycle with which Flemish cyclist Lucien Buysse won the 1926 Tour de France, he wears a woolen jersey and short pants, leather shoes, an old cycling cap, dust glasses and tubes around the shoulders. Before each of the 16 hills of the 244-kilometre course, he has to stop and turn around his back wheel so he can change gears. With this feat – which takes him 12 hours – Gussé honours the legendary pioneers of the Flemish cycling tradition: the “Flandriens”. “I want to bring to life the stories of these hardened farmers’ sons who rode their primitive bikes on roads full of holes,” he tells us. “Pictures and movies are not enough to keep their memory alive.”

Although the best Belgian cyclist of the year is still rewarded with the “Flandrien” trophy, Gussé feels there are no longer any Flandriens. “Until the 1940s, cycling meant surviving,” he says. “Cobblestones were the good roads back then. I can only give a glimpse of the conditions they had to ride in.”

Celebrity bikes

Gussé has turned his garage into a treasure trove of old and new cycling memorabilia. Among his collection is an authentic bike from 1903 and one that belonged to Tom Boonen. All the bikes are restored to their exact state by Gussé and most are signed by their former riders. Gussé also collects cycling jerseys and all the accessories that he can find. The seed of this extraordinary hobby was planted by his father and uncle, both of them cycle enthusiasts. “Their stories fascinated me as a child, and I soon got on the racing bicycle myself,” he says. About 10 years ago, he became absorbed in the history of Flemish cycling and began restoring an old bicycle. “It got seriously out of hand,” he smiles.

Gussé is not alone in his passion. Every year in June, about 900 cyclotourists ride the Retro Ronde van Vlaanderen. All the bikes are at least 25 years old and have authentic parts. The Retroronde attracts riders from all over the world.At the end of our conversation, we ask Gussé whether he feels like he was born in the wrong era. “Absolutely,” he answers without hesitating. “People sometimes wonder if I torture myself on that primitive bike to stand out, but I actually feel so comfortable on it that I really enjoy all the lonely training rides as well. Glad as I am to share my knowledge of past times with others, I never wanted to cause a sensation.”

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