I'm in a van full Belgians, driving through the Belgian countryside, in order to see the Tour of Flanders go by for the fifth time. I quickly learn that the locals pride themselves in knowing routes and strategic locations which will allow them to see the race go by as many times as possible. As we drive and eat stale sandwiches, we start discussing the many signs and flags that we commonly see in races like this. The Dirk Hoffman Motorhomes sign, Tornado Tom Frits and the like. I weigh in with my favorite. One that is not spotted as often, but is far more inventive. The Ned Flanders flag. The moment I mention this flag I get blank stares from everyone in the van. What do the Simpsons have to do with bike racing? So I explain that the character's last name in English is Flanders, like the region and the race. The blank stares turn to flinty squints, until one gets it, and then another. "Ah yeah!" one says. But it's obvious that the pun/joke didn't hit them as it hit me when I first saw it. But their slow reaction does little to dull my feelings about the flag. As such, it has remained a favorite of mine within cycling (I have written about others in the past), to the point I have managed to find its owner and creator. This flag is so important, that none other than cycling empresario and commentator Mike Spriggs once opined that "it should be in the damn Smithsonian!"
So while the Tour of Flanders has passed, the flag's importance remains. What follows is an interview with its creator, American Jeff Lockwood. Jeff is the international marketing manager for Ritchey, and lives in Belgium. He previously worked for Dirt Rag as their online director, and was also the editor-in-chief for grit.cx. Back in 2009, his wife was offered temporary work in Antwerp. They moved there for 16 months eventually going back to the United States, only to end up back in Belgium in 2011. They've been there ever since.
When did the original idea or realization to make the flag come to you?
I like to entertain myself, and my kids...by looking at things. By finding or making some sort of joke out of them. The double meaning with "Flanders" was an easy one for me. When I first moved to Belgium, the cycling culture in Flanders, and all of Belgium, was really glorified and romanticized [I've written about this before, here]. Rightfully so. But I felt some people took it a bit too seriously. I also learned, after moving here, that those million iconic yellow and black lion flags at all the bike races, are not really all that cool. They are actually handed out by members of a rather right wing separatist organization in Flanders. I won't get into all of the details, but I'm not cool with their agenda. So as a little poke at them and the cycling fans from other countries who embraced Flanders a little too much, I thought the idea of flying giant flag with Ned Flanders at these bicycle races would be fun.
When did you make the flag, and how was it painted?
I had the idea right after we moved in the Spring of 2009, and finally had it made for the Spring Classics in 2010. I went online, found a flag company, found some Ned Flanders art, and started to put it together. I wasn't so quick with Adobe Illustrator, so I had my friend Jason, who is one of the owners of Lone Wolf Cycling, really get it together for me. I sent the art to the flag store, spent less than $200, and I had my flag that was the size of a sheet of plywood.
I've described the flag to a few Belgians, and none of them understood the pun at fiurst, since at first take "Flanders" being both "Vlaanderen" and the name of the character never seems to register or translate. Do you find that to be the case?
Totally. I haven't really figured out why the connection isn't made immediately...or even after a few minutes of explaining. But people do recognize it's "The Simpsons" and most of them are enamored with it just because of that. However, there is at least one Flemish person at each race that immediately gets it, and finds it hilarious.
When you take the flag to races, are you recognized (or is the flag), and do people ask you about it?
I gotta say that flag gets itself, and me, a lot of attention. The best example is when I took it to the Tour of Flanders in 2012 with a few friends. We were just starting to walk up the Oude Kwaremont when we passed a "VIP" party at a small farm right at the bottom. We heard someone yell out, "The Simpsons!" We walked over and started talking to them. They were all getting photos of themselves with the flag, and they really enjoyed it. They invited us down after the race, and we stayed there partying with them way longer than we should have. In 2013, they were having another party, and they demanded we come in and party with them again. And we did. In 2015, I was working with Trek, driving some of their people around the course. As we drove by the party, I stopped and waved, and they again demanded we come in and have a few drinks. No flag this time, but they opened the gate to the farm and made us back the car in while the race passed. Some of the footage from that scene is in one of Trek's promotional videos from that year. Aside from that, I've had people from all over the world send me screenshots and other photos of me and the flag from everything from the Tour de France to a fundraising ride in Pennsylvania.
Where is the flag kept during the off-season? I picture a finely crafted sheath that was especially made for it, encrusted in semi-precious stones, and an ornate glass case. Am I far off?
While I originally tried to store the flag rolled up so it wouldn't have folding creases, that plan went out the window when I would simply stuff it in my bag after the races, along with mostly-empty cans of beer and frite cones with a bit of residual grease and mayo. I then decided that the dust, grease stains and beer odor added a proper patina to the flag. Battle scars of honor, if you will. Right now, it's crumpled in a ball high on a shelf in my bike room.
I have seen several Ned Flanders/Flanders graphics online. Does your flag predate them?
I can't really say. Every year, some people "discover" those flags, and they're posted online. Who knows if the first time I saw them...years ago...was new, or just recycled before my time. While I'd like to think I was the first to make the connection, I highly doubt I was, or that I was even the first to make a flag out of the idea.
The Rush album Moving Pictures has a cover with a triple entendre. The photograph depicts people moving actual paintings (pictures) out of a museum, with people crying (the pictures moved them) and the image itself is revealed to be a movie set (a moving picture) on the back cover. Likewise, your flag has some nested meaning, wherein Flanders is in Flanders, at the Tour of Flanders and his sweater his a lion of Flanders. Was this depth of meaning intentional?
Honestly, the ONLY reason I put the Lion on his sweater is because I was worried some drunken, surly Flemish guy would see Ned giving his tiddily-widdly wave, and would not find the same humor in it as I did. My twisted logic was that if I put the Lion on him, it would diffuse the situation. Thankfully every single person who's seen it, and understood its meaning, finds it amusing.
I understand that there's some sensitivity around the usage of the lion depiction that is all black, versus the more ornate one that includes a red tongue (the all-black version sometimes being used by supporters of a separate Flemish state). Is this overplayed by non Belgians, or is it a real issue? Does it's use within the context of cycling negate it's political meaning?
It's the most commonly used version in cycling. It's complicated. You see both versions at the bike races, though the "bad" one is more common. The more ornate flag...the one with the red bits...is the official flag of the Flanders region. The other one is just yellow and black, and the lion on it has different features. It's a political thing that I'm a bit familiar with, but that I don't know or understand all of the subtleties. But I think for locals, the ubiquitiness of the bad one does not diminish its idiocy. None of my friends would ever hold that flag in their hands. I live in the center of Antwerp, Belgium's second most populated city. As in other urban areas, like the US, people tend to be more tolerant. When you start to get out to the rural areas and farmlands of Belgium, people aren't so open to other cultures...be it from north Africa, eastern Europe or southern Belgium. Cycling is THE cultural lifeblood of Belgium. It's the Superbowl, Champions League, the Oscars, and Royal Family all rolled into one for Belgium. What better way to get out your hateful message than to hand out millions of cheap little flags to be seen all over the world and all over Belgian media? That's where the awesomeness of a giant Ned Flanders flag becomes fun.
Have you ever thought of another pun for a flag, or do you think this is the highwater mark of your flag making career? If so, you've accomplished more than any of us ever will....so...bravo!
Ha! That's it for flags. In fact, I've mostly retired Ned. He might come out of retirement some day soon, or I'll think of something new to entertain myself and those around me.