It is a striking observation. Unlike other national sports teams, the Belgian cycling selection does not dress in red. This means that the national cycling team cannot place itself in the same league as the Red Devils/Red Flames (football), the Red Lions/Red Panthers (hockey) or the Belgian Lions/ Belgian Cats (basketball). Because of the blue main colour, Van Aert and co. cannot connect to derivatives such as the Yellow Tigers (volleyball) or the Black Devils (rugby) who allude to the national tricolour. Until 1946, there was a link. The Belgian team competed in the World Championships in black, and then in 1948 they switched to a blue jersey. This change is rooted in the Belgian Tour adventures before and shortly after the Second World War.
Very little can be found about the outfits of the participants in the Road World Championships between the very first, UCI-recognised edition in 1921 and 1926. When you read the press at the time, you notice that the attention is mainly focused on the track World Championships. The Road World Championships - then still reserved for amateurs - aroused little interest and are only described in a limited way.
A first clear reference to the Belgian clothing at the World Championship dates from 1927, where for the first time also pros are allowed. In an interview in Sport '70, Jean Aerts, the amateur winner that year, looks back on that World Championship: "I did not even have a jersey in the Belgian tricolour available. In those days the federation did not spend any money on clothing luxury. I appeared at the start of the race in Germany wearing the jersey of my cycling club Lutèce Sport. Among the pros, Georges Ronsse wore his Automoto jersey, from which he had removed the letters because publicity was not allowed at a World Championship. René Vermandel was at the start in a canary yellow jersey. Next to the Italians, dressed in sky blue, we looked like boys picked from a farm."
One year later, the Belgian pros appear again at the start of the World Championships without the national jersey. In Geïllustreerde Sportwereld you can see how Georges Ronsse crosses the finish line victorious in his regular Automoto jersey, this time with the brand name clearly visible on the chest. Also in 1929 there is no uniformity. In Sportwereld journalist Constant Cleiren describes the clothing of the three Belgian participants: "Georges Ronsse stood there in the Antwerp colours: red and white. Belgian champion Jef Dervaes in his national jersey and Jef Wauters says he wants to honour the patron saint of Brussels. Why aren't they wearing the same colours for such a race?"
In 1930, the lack of uniformity seems to be solved. Again, in Geïllustreerde Sportwereld we see how the Belgians at a World Championships for the first time get dressed in three-coloured jerseys, which can best be compared to the Belgian Champion's jersey. That year, these national jerseys are not only seen at the World Championships but also during the Tour de France, by then the biggest stage race in the world.
To minimize the influence of the bike manufacturers on the course of his race, Tour boss Henri Desgrange chooses in 1930 for a formula with country teams. Five different national teams start in the Tour of 1930: France, Belgium, Italy, Germany and Spain. They're joined by a series of individual touristes-routiers ('uncared-for'). There are no brand names on the chest, but colours do the job. The French will start in a blue jersey with a white-red stripe; the Spanish in a red jersey with a yellow stripe; the Italians in a green jersey with a white-red stripe; the Germans in a gold - 'real' yellow would be too confusing with the yellow leader's jersey - jersey with a black-red stripe while the Belgians will start in a black jersey with a yellow-red stripe. The link with the national flag is obvious. In the 1930s, the national jerseys in the Tour provided recognition for the public and followers.
However, in the case of the Belgians, the black colour also has a nasty side effect. Under the header 'A remarkable experiment of a reader', an article in Sportwereld, dating from July 1934, elaborates on a letter from a reader, who finds an explanation for the disappointing performance in the national costume: "He has taken a simple test: a thermometer alternately placed under a black and a white piece of cloth. Under the black cloth the temperature rose 5 to 7 degrees, under the white cloth it fell 5 to 8 degrees. So that in the tropical heat in which the cyclists have to ride to Paris, the Belgians in their black jerseys are about 20 degrees warmer than the others in light jerseys." Another article in Sportwereld shortly afterwards launched a cautious playful call for a change of colour: "The black jersey brought us defeat. In the meantime we could not reach Desgrange to give our team a white jersey. But tomorrow we'll talk about it because now we know why the French are so fast: they have lighter jerseys on!"
Throughout the years, the colours of the national teams in the Tour have changed. In 1936, the Germans contest the Tour de France in, according to a description in Sportwereld, a white jersey with red-and-black bands while the Spaniards compete in purple with red-and-yellow bands. The Belgians stick to a black jersey with a red-yellow stripe, the French to blue with a red-white stripe. The other countries are all in grey: the Swiss race in grey and red, the Dutch in grey and blue, the "South Slavs" in grey and green, the Austrians in grey and white and the "Romanians" in ... grey and yellow. An Italian team is missing that year due to political tensions in its country. The number of participating countries in the Tour has now grown to nine national teams. The steadfastness with which the Belgians continue to compete in the Tour and the World Championships in black, results in the nickname 'the Black Squadron'. Just as steadfast are the heat-attracting black jerseys.
During the Tour of 1938, which is characterised by a fierce battle between Belgians and Italians, the warm weather plays tricks on the Belgians - not for the first time. Again, the editors of Sportwereld respond to a reader's reaction, the day after a stage in which the Belgians were annihilated: "Jef Hoep is convinced that the black jerseys that the Belgians have to wear, are the cause of the defeat on the Izoard. With a pink, yellow or blue jersey this would not have happened and not Gino Bartali but Félicien Vervaecke would be 20 minutes ahead. With a green or white jersey, Vissers would have been king of the mountains." Another reader wonders not only why the Belgians ride in a black jersey but also why our compatriots are plagued by so many flat tubes.
In 1939, one year later, Belgium was allowed to send two teams to France for the first time. Together with five French teams (one national and four regional), they have to make up for the absence of Italy, Spain and Germany. These countries stayed away due to the imminent threat of war. The A-team remains in black, while the B-team gets a green outfit and goes to war under the name Green Devils.
In the first post-war edition in 1947 - between '40 and '46 the Tour was not held - the Belgian participation is limited to one team (the Black Squadron). It is this edition that becomes a pivotal point in the Belgian national cycling wear.
The Tour of 1947 is held - not for the first time - under a bright sun. The Italian delegation, like the Belgian delegation, is limited to one team. Whereas grey was very popular in the mid-thirties, blue is now 'in'. The Italians ride in an azure blue jersey, the French "first team" in navy blue while one of the five French regional teams starts in "mi-bleu" according to Miroir-Sprint. Another French regional team will wear green while the Netherlands will compete in white. In contrast to the previous editions, the press no longer makes a secret of its criticism of the black jersey. Again, poor performances are attributed to the jerseys and for the first time there are loud protests.
Het Nieuws van den Dag claims that black jerseys attract bad luck and the call for a different colour is quite clear: "We absolutely must get different jerseys. For example, light pink or pale blue. Maybe we'll organise a competition for the best invention of this kind." The alarm is also raised in Het Volk during the Tour: "Already in 1939 the Belgians protested against the black jerseys. This time it has become the same old joke with our black squadron. Yesterday it was clear that the Belgians, who refrained from drinking as much as possible (sic), were sweating the most and were logically handicapped to a greater extent. Why no pale jumpers for ours?"
The newspaper Het Volk also strongly criticises the material used by the Belgians in the race: "The inferior performance of the Belgians is largely the fault of the inferior material", the headline reads on 17 July 1947. One of the criticisms made is that the Belgians have to contend with flat tyres, provided by the organisation, while the Italians, with tubes of their own manufacture, have suffered far less damage. When Raymond Impanis also suffers a broken frame, a feverish search for a solution has to be made. Impanis himself also makes a point of complaining to the press about the black jerseys being far too warm.
The growing criticism during and after the Tour does not fall on deaf ears at the Belgian Cycling Federation. At the World Championships in Reims, France, 14 days after the Tour, the Belgian team suddenly appears in a white jersey, with a tricolour band in the middle. In Het Nieuws van den Dag, the reaction to this is surprisingly resigned: "How often have we said or heard it said during the Tour that the Belgians were very handicapped by their black jerseys. Was it perhaps with this in mind that the Belgian Cycling Federation, who for once wasn't being cheap, had put the Belgian riders in Reims in bright white jerseys with tricolour bands?"
The colour of the Belgian national jersey continues to stir up emotions. After the white World Championships in Reims, a number of intertwined developments have finally resulted in a break with the trend. The sharp comments in the press about the black jerseys actually mask a deeper frustration: that since the introduction of the national teams the Belgians no longer seem to play a decisive role in the Tour events, in contrast to the French and Italians. In order to counter this imminent gap in several areas (talented riders, good material, ...) the Belgian Cycling Federation, through the mouth of Charles Smulders, president of the Sports Commission, steps up to the mark. In December 1947 we read in Sportwereld that Smulders was delighted with the purchase of 300 high-quality Italian tubes. The journalist in question concludes his article with the sentence: "Now our cyclists are equipped to fight with equal weapons against the French and the Italians.
Still in the autumn of 1947 the president of the Sports Commission is working on the future of the Belgian Tour Team and even gives an ultimatum to Jacques Goddet, who succeeds the deceased Henri Desgrange at the head of the Tour. Smulders asks, nay demands - and is backed up by 'technical leader' and devil-may-care Karel van Wijnendaele - that two Belgian teams again be allowed to appear at the start of the 1948 Tour. With a second team the Belgian Cycling Federation wants to give up-and-coming talents the chance to develop in the Tour and thus regain the prospect of a possible final victory in the Tour.
Smulders' strict condition arouses resentment. In French newspapers Goddet expresses his surprise about the ultimatum but declares he is willing to talk with the Belgian Cycling Federation. In the beginning of 1948 a meeting in Paris resulted in a smooth situation. In the archives of the Federation (now Belgian Cycling) we find a short report, dated 11 February 1948, about that very important meeting. Apart from Goddet's agreement on two Belgian teams - on condition that both teams race independently of each other - there is also the fact that the "question of the jerseys is solved at least for the riders of the A-team who will wear a blue jersey with a band with the Belgian tricolour across it".
The minutes also mention that the Belgians will compete in the Tour on French bicycles, which will be fitted with the previously purchased Italian tubes. As for the colour of the Belgian B team, no decision has yet been made. The report does state that the preference is for a white or light pink jersey. The choice will eventually fall on the light pink.
The switch to blue is part of the competition with the French and Italians, which is confirmed in various newspaper comments. Het Volk is happy and sees the blue jersey as a sign of good preparation for the Tour. Het Nieuws van den Dag points out that their proposal to replace the black jerseys with something lighter dates back ten years. But the tone is positive: "We are saved, and even twice over!".
Sportwereld sums up the various initiatives well: "Karel van Wijnendaele got the car rolling to get a second team in the Tour. Mr Smulders provided Italian tubes so that our riders could compete with the Azurri in the stage races. Now the Belgian Cycling Federation has found another way to send our representatives into battle with equal weapons. Today we learn from Paris that the federation has already bought sky-blue jerseys, trimmed only with tricolour ribbons [...] Our riders will not be able to make any excuses."
In the summer of 1948, the Belgians start in the Tour with a light blue jersey for the first time. As if the devil is involved, the riders have to contend with - oh irony - cold and rain. The Belgians are not the only riders in blue that year. The French first team also starts in blue. Italy B' is equipped with sky blue jerseys just like the Belgians. The French regional teams of Ile-de-France and Nord-Est start in blue and yellow. It leads to the reaction in the French press that the recognition of the Belgians is now gone and that there are now too many blue teams: "Certes, le bleu est idéal, mais il y en a trop!" [Ofcourse, blue is the ideal colour, but there is too many of it.] writes the French Ce Soir.
In the Belgian press, the term Blauw Eskadron [Blue Squadron] is quickly coined. Briek Schotte performs very well as leader and takes second place in the final ranking. The colour change has the wind in its sails. During the Olympic road race in London on 13 August 1948, the foursome Leon De Lathouwer, Lode Wouters, Lieven Lerno and Joseph Van Roosbroeck perform very strongly. There is no individual victory, but the 'blue' Belgians do take gold in the team classification. A few months later, the Belgians also play a leading role at the World Championships in Valkenburg in the Netherlands. On and around the Cauberg, Schotte, who is in good shape, is the best and becomes world champion for the first time. The blue jersey is off to a successful start.
And the resemblance to the blue Alcyon jerseys is merely a coincidence. Many Belgians (Gaston Rebry, Maurice De Waele, Briek Schotte, Lucien Vlaemynck, Raymond Impanis,...) have had success over the years in the blue colours of the French team, but nowhere is there any evidence that the blue of the Belgians is inspired by the blue Alcyon jersey.
In the meantime, Belgians have been racing in blue jerseys for more than 70 years and the name Blue Squadron has long since disappeared from the forefront. For the time being, there is no question of changing to red, the national colour par excellence. A reverse move has already been made, however. At the end of 2015, the Belgian Football Federation announced that the national football team would be playing its away games in a blue jersey (with a tricolour band on the chest) during the 2016 European Championships. "As a tribute to a sport in which Belgium has been so successful for many years," the statement read. Could a top prize for the Devils also inspire the national cycling selection to make a (one-off) appearance in red?
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