‘Hold still, please.’ The shutter clicks. The 1905 photograph that results from this action features a run-of-the-mill classical background, found in photographers’ studios all over the country. The man in the picture, one August Peeters, is seated on his bicycle. The blurring below his feet suggests some contraption was used to keep his vehicle stable while he posed, only for it to be removed from the picture in a later stage. His attire is of the sporting kind, short shorts and a jersey. The ribbon he wears suggests he recently won a cycling race in his hometown Herenthout, in Belgium’s Antwerp province, or in one of the hamlets near it.
What makes this picture so unique, is that it isn’t. There are hundreds, probably thousands of pictures just like it floating around in Belgium; in databases, in museums, in people’s basements and attics. Something to remember granddad (or great-granddad) by, a souvenir from the days when he was young and vigorous. Knowing this, August Peeters’ photo portrait (as well as similar ones featured in this contribution) can tell us a lot – if we look at it the right way. About twentieth century Belgian sports history. About working class leisure, and the dreams of its youth.
Perhaps it’s hard to realise for those in an era rife of camera phones, selfies and Snapchat, in which photographs have become fleeting, endlessly replicated, banal commodities. But for part of the twentieth century, having ones picture taken was no ordinary practice, especially for those from working class backgrounds. Buying a personal, handheld camera was still very expensive in the century’s early decades. Professional photographer’s studios, then, were the place to go. The first of these appeared in 1842 in Belgium’s capital Brussels. Towards the end of the nineteenth century they spread rapidly, as the photographic process became simpler, cheaper and more durable. Portrait photography became a popular commodity, consumed most often on special occasions. On wedding days, for instance, or at First Communions in the country’s many staunchly Catholic households. Queuing between newly-weds and young boys and girls in their best church clothes in front of the studio, it is clear that the youths wanting their picture taken while on their bike and in their sporting attire were highly motivated to do so. To them, this was a special occasion as good as any.
The prevalence of this kind of photograph, then, nicely reflects the historical popularity and social and cultural weight of bicycle racing in Belgium. From a mainly urban, middle class pursuit in the late nineteenth century, the sport’s social makeup changes radically around 1900. As bicycles become more affordable, an influx of youthful working class enthusiasts and a proliferation of local, low-threshold bike races across the country rapidly transform cycling into Belgium’s first massively popular sport. Soon, a new generation of working class riders makes itself noticed on the international stage as well. In 1907, Flemish youth Cyriel Van Hauwaert wins the popular French Bordeaux-Paris race. In 1912, Odiel Defraeye becomes the first Belgian to win the Tour de France. Both riders lie at the roots of a long list of Belgian international racing victories over the next decades. They and their successors, racers like Fleming Georges Ronsse or Walloon Tour de France-winner Firmin Lambot, become public figures par excellence, who feature extensively in newspapers like Flanders’ Sportwereld or French-speaking Belgium’s Les Sports, both of which devote whole pages to bike racing.
In their articles, the lavish pay of these bike heroes feature nearly as much as their sporting prowess. Indeed while football, although increasingly popular in Belgium after 1918, effectively remains an amateur sport, these racers were effectively the country’s first fully professional athletes. Especially in the pre-Great War years, their earnings reach staggering heights, certainly when compared to the paycheck of their working class peers. Defraeye’s monthly wage of 1913, for instance, amounts to more than most working men’s yearly income! Racers’ affluence, abundant press coverage, but also their appearance in commercials for commodities of all kinds, from cigarettes to bread … all this makes becoming a cyclist an attractive career prospect and even a prime ambition among sport-minded working class youths. On their bike, they can replace an anonymous life with one of popularity and adventure, racing through Europe in search of glory and prize-money.
These dreams are reflected in the portraits young racers have taken of themselves. Some of the aspiring racers pictured on this page almost literally beam with a quiet pride. Having their picture taken confirms their newfound identity. Photographed with the tools of their trade – their bike, sporting attire … – they stake a claim on being exactly what they want to be, a cycling hero. During the first half of the twentieth century, many Belgian youths follow their example. After winning their first few races, they have their portrait taken at places such as the Gilles-Spaey photography studio in Roeselare, a town in the heartland of Flemish racing culture. In doing so, they subconsciously imitate the pictures of their own racing heroes that they gaze at every day in the sports papers. Many of them no doubt cherish the hope that, soon, their own likeness will feature on those same pages.
However, for many, including most of the youngsters pictured here, that hope was vain. Dreaming big was one thing, actually making a career (and a living) out of cycling something else entirely. Of the more than 2000 riders licensed by Belgium’s official Cycling Union in 1926, only a fraction became successful professionals. Many a dream was shattered, sometimes in a cruel fashion. The East-Flemish racer Alfred Hamerlinck’s biography relates the story of how young Fred lacked success as an adolescent rider. Convinced he would never amount to anything, some of the boys from his village tied a knapsack to the door of his parents’ house one day. The message was clear: instead of cycling, Hamerlinck should take his knapsack – which would typically contain a worker’s lunch – and go work in a factory.
Lucky for Hamerlinck, things ended on a more positive note. Over the next years, he became one of Belgium’s most popular riders, winning over 400 races throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s. For many others, however, having to look for other, more ‘ordinary’ employment after trying their hand at cycling was an all too real experience. Even those who managed to stay afloat for a few years as professional racers often had it tough. Prize money was never guaranteed, biking equipment expensive, and the small-time teams for which they rode seldom provided wages. No wonder the sports press regularly warned aspiring racers that pursuing their sporting dreams could imperil their future.
At the same time, they did not relent celebrating Belgian racing culture and its popular protagonists. As such, the stream of aspiring racers’ portraits kept flowing. While handheld cameras came into the reach of the working classes as well in the years around the Second World War, the taking of racers’ portraits gradually moved out of the studios and into more domestic spheres as well. An almost equally large number of young cycling men pictured in front of their dwellings, in their parents’ gardens or on any number of other occasions attests to this. But their dreams remained the same.
Article © Stijn Knuts