Nationality, provenance, and the rising use of Belgian iconography

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  .

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

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

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.