Monday, April 25, 2011

Nationality, provenance, and the rising use of Belgian iconography

Before I start today's post, I want to tell all of you a couple of things. First, it's important for you to know that a six thousand dollar wheelset is considered to be standard, so-so equipment in today's climate. I saw this when reading directions on how to build a sub-11 pound bike "without any crazy parts." It was years ago that I set up a Google Alert for "how to build a sub-11 pound bike without any crazy parts", so imagine my joy when I finally received an email from Google, telling me that the very wisdom I had been searching for had become available. Similarly, I was also overjoyed when the alert I had set up long ago for the phrase "Is a bike shop art, and can it be part of an exhibition at a major contemporary art museum?" finally paid off (see here, and here). It's with this in mind that I urge all my readers to put their wildest thoughts and wishes into Google Alerts, and simply wait for them to come true. Because they will. No matter how far fetched.

With that out of the way, let's get started with today's festivities.

Back in Bogota, my older sister briefly dated a young man who pretended to be all the things he wasn't. He told her he was an American citizen, that he was in the army, and that his father was a diplomat. When he met my parents, his story didn't seem to add up, and my father questioned him accordingly. Days later, when he claimed to be in the United States visiting his diplomat father, a postcard from Washington D.C. arrived in our mailbox. He had sent it. My sister came in to the house, waving the postcard in the air, saying it was proof that this young man was all he claimed to be. But there was one problem. The cost for mailing a postcard to Colombia from the US at the time was around twenty five cents. The postcard had a two cent stamp, and the ink used to stamp it at the supposed US post office was a mere smudge of what seemed to be ballpoint pen ink. My father noticed this, and pointed it out. The young man was still in Colombia, and had dropped the postcard off in our mailbox himself during the night. "You have to make a judgment about what type of person he is" my father told my sister, "you should know that he's not in the United States right now."

Why bring this up? Because I often think about nationality, about what we are, and what we as individuals see ourselves as being. I have citizenship in two countries, and permanent residency in a third. Although this is not an insanely unconventional concept, it usually takes two or three rounds of explaining until some people understand it. It's also worth noting that the very word "citizenships" as I typed it above is currently underlined by this program, telling me that it's not a real word. People have a citizenship (singular), not citizenships (plural). But the concept of where you're from is malleable at best. Consider, for example, the young men in Mexico who so obsess with Colombian culture that they actually refer to themselves as Colombian (while the rest of the world jokingly refers to them as "Cholombians"). Their take on Colombian culture and fashion is insanely misguided, and has no clear provenance.

What a Cholombiano looks like. If you want to read more about these young men and their obsession with Colombian culture and music, go here.

Where things are made, and how they are marketed
When we speak about products, place of origin and nationality become even more convoluted, due in large part to how goods are produced, but also how they are marketed. Was the Pinarello frame made in Itally? Probably not. Was it designed in Italy by an Italian? Maybe. Was it engineered in Asia? Maybe. Does it matter? Are the people who work in Asian factories less able because of their place of birth or ethnicity? Do they inject less "soul" into a product because of their place of birth? Is the thought of an Italian bike simply an idea? Are German cars still German, when their lead designer might be Italian or American, an the car might be made in the United States, or Mexico, or Brazil? Place of origin is a concept at best, and a nebulous one at that.

Photo: Pez

The realities of how business is done today make these issues come up often, but in the end they matter little (to me at least). Having said that, during my time in Belgium, I started to think about the American companies who make all kinds of cycling-related objects, and their use Belgian iconography as of late. The Belgian flag's colors, the Lion Of Flanders, Belgian surnames, references to Belgian weather, even waffles and frites are ripe for the picking as they all become part of the visual vocabulary that is used for different products. This is particularly true with the upswing in America's interest in cyclocross. The political implications of the Lion Of Flanders are seldom thought about, or understood in the American context, so the flag is seen as a mere symbol of a region and cycling. (Thanks to Belgian reader RaphBxl for explaining its similarities to the confederate flag in the comments section)

This is nothing new, of course. In the 80s and 90s, bike companies tried to Italianize their names by adding a simple "-ini" to the names on their downtubes, and upped their prices accordingly. Many such examples existed in clothing companies, shops with Italianized house brand names, and in Colombia, Bicicletas Ositto used two t's in its name for the same reason. The world was full of lugged steel embodiments of Dave Stohler's obsession with Italy. But that was then. In the past. Today, things have taken a decidedly Belgian turn. Not just Belgian, Flandrian actually, since few have any interest in objects featuring a Walloon rooster, when they can have something with a lion instead.

Is this a bad thing? Not really. Iconography relating to a country doesn't really belong to anyone. Just ask the owner of the Texan steakhouse I saw once in Paris, which was adorned with three metric tons of pseudo-American brick-a-back. The same can be said of the Texan Embassy, a tex-mex "cantina" in the middle of London. Aesthetic values can draw us in, and sometimes the idea that inspired a product or Parisian steakhouse (however shallowly) can touch a potential customer. Restaurants, bikes, cars and clothing often aim to inspire an otherness, something that the potential buyer doesn't have now, or aspires to. This goes beyond countries, flags, or the lion of Flanders. Sometimes, simply a thing or person associated with a product can get our attention, and we accept this—most of us I think—knowingly. How many young drummers bought an oyster black pearl Ludwig drum kit because of Ringo Starr? How many teenagers bought a knock-off Fender Telecaster because of Bruce Springsteen or Joe Strummer? And how many people bought a Trek because of Armstrong? Consumers are attracted to items that might be able to fulfill their dreams. This was not lost on mid-century marketers, who used Freudian ideas to create the almighty focus group as a way to tap into a consumer's desires, dreams and fears. They then simply created the very objects that the masses desired, or at least marketed existing products in such a way. It's worth mentioning that one of the people credited with inventing both focus groups and PR as we know them today was Edward Bernays. Bernays was intimately familiar with Freud's ideas due to the fact that he was Freud's nephew (a highly recommended piece about him is here).

Though few of the companies who use Belgian iconography do so in a highly premeditated fashion, I think everyone enjoys a little role playing now and then, and bikes are particularly conducive to that mindset. As kids, our bikes took us places where we couldn't go before. To some they were/are a way to escape, either physically or mentally, and to many they are still (regardless of what the prices tags may say) toys that let us daydream of far away places. At least that's the case for me. I say this because I have, rather secretly, nicknamed several climbs around my house after famed European and Colombian climbs based on some minimal similarities. Bikes connect us to things, people and places near and (more importantly) far. It's part of the bike's charm. While I assume that some people who ride bikes are grounded in reality, many enjoy that fact that it's a bit of an escape, or an alternate reality.

Both Umberto Eco and Jean Baudrillard speak of "hyperreality", a term from semiotics, which describes a person's inability or unwillingness to distinguish reality from fantasy. It's worth noting that the term applies mostly to "first world", industrialized postmodern cultures, where a taste for such hyperreality has developed over the years. Two primary examples that are often used within the American context are those of Disneyland and parts of Las Vegas. These two places were created and developed out of nothing, but are intended to feel like the real thing (to differing extents). They are stand-ins for other places (in the case of Las Vegas), or they embody a non-existent place, which is merely an amalgamation of ideas and nostalgia (Disneyland). In some cases, as detailed in in Eco's book Travels In Hyperreality, hyperreality is used in places where actual reality could have functioned. Such is the case of the mechanical animals in Disneyland. Though an actual hippopotamus could be there, a mechanical one is used, making the experience more impressive. This is particularly true if its movements and overall look are realistic. The taste that industrialized, postmodern cultures have for such a spectacle is, it would appear, at the very root of hyperreality. Individuals engage with reality, but also enjoy reality by proxy. The real thing exists, but it can be far away, hard to reach or costly. Sometimes the hyperreal can simply be fun, or at least more fun than a reality that is readily available. So we not only settle for the not-real, but learn to love it. It's less messy, requires less travel, and in the case of a hippopotamus, less clean up. In the context of cycling, I think that part of the sport's charm is its internationality, and this can lead to occurrences of hyperreality. Everyone involved knows that the item or event is not the real article, but playing along can be fun...just like Disneyland can be fun.

Dave Stohler's passion for Italian (and then French) culture could easily be replaced with Belgian culture in today's cycling milieu

"...You know Phil, France's best-known wines are produced in this region..."
In the context of cycling, this taste for the not-real (saying "fake" seems too strong) is now common. The number of items that are not Belgian but use Belgian iconography is growing (as is the taste that some have for looking like they are professional cyclists). The aesthetic is studied, fetishized, and reproduced. There's a hunger for all things Belgian. The sport, which was originally and is still partially sponsored by the very newspapers that report on it, has always been written about in a tone that makes us admire the people and places involved. They are larger than life, with each struggle being more monumental than the next. The climbs are everlasting and remote, and the length of grand tour stages is far beyond what the human body is able to handle. At least that's what I was told when I was a kid. The human body could withstand the value x. Grand tour stages in the mountains were x+10, or thereabouts. I believed it.

When I first became interested in cycling, the thought of seeing the Tour de France in person was akin to walking on the moon, largely because of how the race had been conveyed to me. As such, I became obsessed with the iconography and visual vocabulary of such events. Sure, I was impressed when my uncle Manuel let me look through his telescope to see the rings of Saturn. But I was just as impressed (if not more), the first time I saw a bike race on TV, rather than hearing it on the radio. From a young age, I was hooked. I continue to be. Even though I don't drink Belgian beer while I watch races, and I don't listen to Italian music while reading about the Giro, and I don't host French-themed parties for the Tour, I do think of these events and their settings as one. I often revel in minutia, and enjoy the fact that cycling can be much more than just the guys on their bikes. Like so many others, I'm an ideal candidate for buying into hyperreal goods. Items that attempt to cash in on my taste for otherness.

Liggett and Sherwen reading from French Tourism Bureau pamphlets aside, I've been known to play "name that flag" with my wife during grand tour mountain stages. I'm engaged, I enjoy the scenery, I'm aware of the locales, but I consciously try to keep hyperreality at bay. I'm not interested in recreating those places in any way (however minimally), and have little interest in objects that reference them. They feel disingenuous. They feel like something you'd buy at a Renaissance festival that's held mere feet away from a highway or a shopping center. Still, part of me understands their appeal. This is hard to deny, since I own a fake Paris-Roubaix trophy.

In the end, it only makes sense that people who have invested money in making products (or having products made) will try to conjure up images that will inspire us to buy them. It's a business after all. So using imagery relating to the sport and its history is a logical choice, what else would they use? It makes sense, although I have to say that if I hear about one more event outside of France that has "-Roubaix" in its name, I may throw up furiuously until I convulse and pass out. This imagery, those names, they instantly convey ideas and concepts that we all understand. Even saying a word or short phrase can convey an image. It's shorthand, and using it doesn't make these merchants bad people, and it doesn't make us complete idiots for partaking from time to time. Though some may like to deny it, I strongly believe that part of cycling's appeal (both for fans and those who ride) is one that inspires a child-like sense of wonder.

But if you get a postcard that claims to be from another country, remember to do what my sister didn't do. Check the postcard to see where it was actually mailed from.


  1. Fantastic post Lucho! You've captured and summarized the current cycling marketplace with it's fetishes and offers of escape perfectly. I'm convinced Rapha, and many similar products, are successful not so much because they make "authentic" cycling products but instead because they offer the mystic of the ideal ride, in the ideal location, with the ideal products. Or so one is lead to perceive.

  2. Ego Ideal and Ideal Ego in Lacan, since you've betrayed your intellectual leanings.

  3. The Tashkent TerrorApril 25, 2011 at 8:54 AM

    Bravo, Lucho, bravo! This post was so good that I'm willing to overlook all the typos and stylistic errors. :)

  4. It's true: you don't sell the steak, you sell the sizzle.

    Great post!

  5. Ernesto,
    I've betrayed my intellectual leanings? I don't even know what they are! I just wrote what came to mind...although the Ego Ideal (Freud and Lacan)notion certainly applies. Perhaps it's because it's what I've been exposed to.

    Tashkent Terror,
    What can I say, this is the kind of quality writing that you get from a foreigner who is writing in his third language. I went back and fixed some typos, but I'm sure there are other errors (in grammar, style and logic) still there. As I see it, blogs are the content and writing equivalent to soup kitchens. Bound to be bad, done by amateurs, but if you get something half way decent, you're pretty lucky :)

  6. The Tashkent ErrorApril 25, 2011 at 11:46 AM

    I'm just teasing you, of course. The quality of the content one finds in your posts far exceeds any discomfort caused by those glitches. And my (pretty much non-existent) Spanish is barely good enough to order horchata, quesadillas de cochinita and some guacamole on the side, as I did yesterday after a nice afternoon ride. :)

    Btw., I noticed that the transcendence of hyperreality depends a lot on the context. As an example, here in Czech Republic any attempt to import Belgian iconography into the cyclocross "scene" (which is, surprisingly, quite small) would be frowned upon, almost bordering on treason. The long history of great cyclocross racers and national pride is just too big to absorb that. It might resemble the exclusive affection of Colombians for their own riders you often mention here, if not that extreme. On the other hand, the roadie scene did get infected by the Italianization and Armstrongization movements (the latter being marginal but still noticeable).

    It would appear that there are more reasons for the escape into hyperreality of otherness, for some it might be insecurity or embarrassment, a revolt of trying to be different or just hopping on the bandwagon just because everybody around is doing it, too (or just a nice mix of some or all of those).

    I realize I digressed a bit from the product pushing theme here when I tried to look beyond, I apologize. :)

  7. Mr Tashkent

    Thank you for your comments! First, horchata and quesadillas are about all you need to know. No worries.

    It's interesting that the difference between cyclocross and road worlds there is so obvious. I'm always amazed by how readily the Armstrongization of cycling took hold in places where you wouldn't expect. People usually assume that he was disliked throughout Europe, but that (from my experience) was not the case.

    Thanks again!

  8. On the spot. I could never really get why the pave blog uses a reversed Romanian flag, but i guess tricolors just scream Europe and all the other ones were taken..

    Anyway, good post!

  9. Can't wait to get on my Ritte and ride it all around the suburbs of my New England town, wearing my Lion of Flanders socks, pretending to be in Brugge. On a rainy day, of course.

  10. Exactly, yes. And, guilty, yes. And, happily so, yes.

    By the way, it's Dave Stohler. (I have a copy of the script.)

  11. ^
    Damn you IMDB, you're making look stupid in front of Bill Strickland! I've gone back and made the appropriate corrections.

  12. Great post-spoken as someone who has learned how to make mayonnaise entirely for the purpose of serving it with "frites" at a Ronde party, I can appreciate.

  13. you know, i love the whole belgian thing. it does give me a nice feel of history and awesomeness. the tradition of the sport in that part of the world is pretty amazing. the times i have ridden in belgium/flanders/northern france made me feel all epic and shit. it's hard not to feel epic when yoiu are riding thru a small farm road with old belgian farmers, smoking and cheering you on. it's so cheezy, but so true. the issue is that i don't feel "good" enough as a cyclist to do the lion of flanders (for example) justice. i feel like a total poser to wear my roubaix socks (a gift from lucho) out for a chill ride around the beaches of southern CT. if i was taller, faster, did gran fondos, and did CX, then i'd, for sure, rock a nice lion of flanders helmet and ride a black and yellow ridley.

  14. Your post is spot on.

    It is fascinating, watching from here in Belgium, what the lion of Flanders symbolises in the US. Over here, the yellow and black flag is no joke and is the flag of a cultural battle. When you wear it or wave it, you are taking a political stand. Same thing if you use the Belgian tricolor.

    (It is not unlike the use of the confederate flag by Harley-Davidson sunday bikers here in Europe, who are, for most them anyway, just using an iconography which to them symbolises rebellion with an american flavour.)

    SkullKrusher: once you really feel ready to ride like an authentic Flandrien, you must wear a Quick Step outfit. Or alternatively a local club outfit with weird colours, plastered with two dozen small logos of the local bar, bakery, construction company or beauty parlor. But you know that, your rode in Flanders ;-)

  15. RaphBxl,
    Thank you so much for weighing in. Yes, I forgot to mention the point you bring up. Though I don't know the extent of its meaning, a good few people that I met in Belgium told me that even during a race, they wouldn't particularly fancy putting a flanders flag on their house...and that outside of a race they most certainly would never do such a thing, since the political implications are ones they're not comfortable with. the confederate flag is a perfect comparison. thank you for reminding me of this.

  16. I'll admit to some pretty heavy belgian-icon worship. I even went to Belgium last year just to ride around and drink beer (great time!). I still get a little excited thinking about riding those cobbled farm roads in Flanders clad in sky blue. Is it possible to just enjoy the color palette?

    Also, Phillipe Gilbert is now doing for Wallonie what De Vlaeminck did for Vlaanderen. I wouldn't be surprised to see some cocks on the chests of American cyclists soon.

  17. When you think of it, it's a bit ironic.
    You could say the Flemish flag carries 2 loads today in Belgium: 1) referring to cycling and all things Flandrien, 2) referring to the political issue.
    However the first is thanks to the second. The cycling referrence is due to a small organisation which wanted to promote / sell Flanders, and its independence, by waving their flags at sporting events, mainly at cycling races because of its broad media covering, and trying to convince the audience.
    Now the waving of the Flemish flag at races has lost a bit of its original meaning.
    But it's not only foreign company who try to sell the Flanders theme. Belgian bicycle manufacturer Ridley as well sells a few Flanders themed bikes and there are the Flanders Lion helmet covers from Lazer.
    And Doug, in the eyes of the Flemish, the Wallons may be cocks but I think they prefer rooster :-)

  18. well, if we are gonna talk politics, then the basque flag is the same thing. as is the catalan flag and even the quebec flag. think about it, if it wasn't for cycling i wouldn't know about the independence movements (and much less the flags) of all these places. in the case of the quebec flag, i see it in F1 at every canadian GP. but anyway, i think it's a really smart thing to do for these regions to promote themselves like that. i know nothing of belgian politics, but i'm all for independence, so the lion and the rooster can roam free. oh, i'm making rooster t-shirts next... check out this one by gage+desoto.

  19. What an impressive, well-written & thoughtful post. I'm new to your blog, but I'm definitely going to follow it regularly.

  20. Mr Suitcase of Courage,

    Thank you for the kind words!


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