In the beginning

Carolus Ludovicus Steyaert was born 16 November 1882 in Torhout near Bruges, fifth in a family of fifteen children. His father Petrus Steyaert who owned a pub, De Hertog van Wellington (The Duke of Wellington), died in the summer of 1884 at the age of 38. A year later his mother, Ludovica Defever, remarried farmer Richard Defreyne and moved with her family to a house near to the castle of Wijnendale.

Compulsory school attendance did not excist at that time, children went to school until the age of 12 and then went into work. The chaplain of the Saint-Aloysius school, who recognized the nascent talent of Karel, persuaded his mother to let him study two years longer.

When he was fourteen Karel had to help his father at the croft, but later he moved to Ostend where he had several jobs, such as courier in a drugstore and servant in the Scala theatre. After another two years working in Brussels, he wanted to see the world and applied for a job on the ships of the Red Star Line (a Belgian shipping company that brought more than two million immigrants to America between 1873 and 1935).

Again the chaplain persuaded him to return to Torhout where he got a job as a notary clerk. It gave him the opportunity to start higher studies at the evening-school.

The biggest disappointment

Karel also tried to make it as a semi-professional cyclist from 1902 until 1905, but due to lack of talent he would only reach the level of glorified amateur, although he got one victory and ended up several times in the top three. For Karel it was the biggest disappointment of his life to realize that “I usually crossed the finish line when the prize-giving ceremony had already finished“.

Nascent talent

Next to his love for cycling the two extra years at school had created a new interest: literature. Karel discovered the power of the language and as a young adult he had already written texts for all kinds of occasions, from poetic texts for birth or jubilee festivities to lectures and speeches for clubs and societies. His passion for language and perseverance would determine the further progress of Karels life – “I learned to search with the pen what I could not find with my legs” Karel said.

The birth of Sportwereld

From 1909 Karel wrote as a freelance sports journalist for local (sports) newspapers under the alias of Karel Van Wijnendaele, referring to the village where he was raised. During the summer of 1912 he was approached by Leon Van Den Haute with the request to help found a new sports newspaper. Together with other co-workers from all over the country they founded Sportwereld (Sports World). It gave Karel the opportunity to combine his three passions: his love for literature, cycling and the Flemish people. A year later he became editor-in-chief, while Leon Van Den Haute was appointed as financial director.

Mac Bolle and the Flandriens

Karel enjoyed his second career as semi-professional cyclist between 1909 and 1912. In 1911 he signed up for the first time as ‘Bolle’ for a race at the velodrome of Gentbrugge. After a continuing feud between cyclists of the Eastern and Western Flanders districts Karel persuaded them to join hands against foreign racers. From 1913 he led a team of Flemish track racers to all the European velodromes. The team became famous as the Flandriens and Karel called himself ‘Mac Bolle’, referring to the famous American track racer and later manager Floyd McFarland.

The first ‘Ronde van Vlaanderen’

Around the turn of the century cycling in Belgium had lost nearly all its attention. As a result of the process of democratization of the bicycle the upper classes concentrated more on the car and motor sport, while another new sport from across the Channel also became popular: football. A lot of velodromes closed their doors due to decreasing income. From 1902 until 1906 Belgian track championships were not organized due to lack of interest of both participants and spectators. The elite cycling clubs in the town centers lost most of their members while new clubs were founded in the workman outskirts of the cities. At the same time cycling races moved from the velodromes in the cities to the streets of the countryside as new technical innovations made the bicycle stronger and the road quality increased significantly. Local cycling races became very popular during village and borough festivities and we still know them today as criteriums or crits.

The first revival of the Belgians in international cycling began after the successes of Cyriel Van Houwaert in the classics Bordeau-Paris, Milan-San Remo and Paris Roubaix in 1907 and 1908, and later the first overall win in the Tour de France by Odile Defraeye in 1912.

On 25th May 1913, Sportwereld organized the first Tour of Flanders as a publicity stunt on the outskirts of Ghent. Leon Van Den Haute was responsible for the practical organization of the race while Karel Van Wijnendaele took care of the public relations.

The start and finish in Ghent was not entirely coincidental, as from April till October 1913 the city hosted the World’s Fair. The sports committee was in charge of the organization of a lot of special sport events, which included several cycling races. Emiel De Beukelaer, the first president of the International Cycling Union (UC)I, was requested to get the World Championships track cycling to Ghent, but later they were appointed to Berlin and Leipzig. The organizers needed to search for a worthy alternative.

Was it the Tour of Flanders? Up till now it is still unclear if the Ronde was organized in response to, or on behalf of, the World’s Fair of 1913 in Ghent, but it is most likely that there were more than “loose connection” between the two events (research is still ongoing).

The Tour started at the cycling store of Frans Demeunynck, treasurer of the Ghent Cycling Club, and finished in the velodrome of Mariakerke. Unlike the race today the first Tour of Flanders had a flat track of 324 kilometers, the difficulty level was determined by the long distance and the poor condition of the cobble stone roads. Thirty-seven racers participated in 1913 and forty-seven in 1914, and from the first editions the Ronde was very successful. More than five thousand spectators were waiting to see the racers arriving at the velodrome of Evergem in 1914, so full was the stadium that people were even standing on the wooden track,  hindering the racers ability of a fair sprint to the finish.

Sources :

http://karelvanwijnendaele.be/  (virtual museum)