At the end of November 1993, Belgian cycling - like the national economy - is in a slump. That winter, only two Belgian promising cyclists can make the transfer to a professional team. A chance meeting between Roger Swerts, former chief helper of Eddy Merckx, and Fons Leroy, cycling fan and head of cabinet of Minister of Employment and Social Affairs Leona Detiège, quickly resulted in the cycling project 'Vlaanderen 2002'. The initiative is part of a broader government youth employment plan to combat increasing youth unemployment.
Within professional cycling, thanks to the government-sponsored Vlaanderen 2002 cycling team, promising amateur cyclists are to be given a taste of the big time and thus be able to move on to 'regular' professional teams. This first batch of riders includes Tom Steels, Paul Van Hyfte and Geert Verheyen. More experienced riders such as Peter Roes and Jan Nevens are recruited to play the role of road captain and mentor. Roger Swerts becomes team leader, Eddy Merckx provides the bikes and is also godfather of the project. Fons Leroy, in his capacity as Detiège's chief of staff, will manage the team.
On the occasion of National Women's Day (11 November) in 1994, the then Minister of Employment and Social Affairs, Leona Detiège, made a case for an extensive feminisation in the different professional sectors. In a press release, Detiège's cabinet launches an appeal to "fight against any form of linguistic sexism and to prioritise the feminisation of professional names". At the same time, 'Ministeress' Detiège denounces the attitude of the UCI, which still does not recognise the profession of professional cyclists. By expanding the (male) cycling team Flanders 2002 from 1995 onwards with three female cyclists, the minister wants to put pressure on the cycling authorities to recognise "professional cycling for women" in the short term, according to the press release.
The Flemish Government's appeal provides the budding 'Sprint Cycling Team' project with the necessary support. Peter Stevens, publisher of the monthly magazine Sprint and the strong man behind the women's cycling team of the same name, has been cherishing the dream of a professional women's team for some time now and now sees it come true, thanks to the government. The Ladies Sprint project has led to the non-profit-making organisation Ladies Sprint, which will be known as 'Vlaanderen 2002'. The Flemish Government provides salary subsidies and takes care of the social contributions, while Vosschemie - the company of cycling patron Remi De Moor, which also sponsored the Sprint cycling team - takes care of expenses, such as travel abroad and hotel costs.
National team coach Christel Herremans is appointed as team leader. Cyclists Patsy Maegerman, Anne-Marie Cooreman and Heidi Van De Vijver have become professionals with Ladies Sprint vzw and can therefore live on as "Flandriennes". Deborah Geentjes becomes the fourth member of the team, but remains an amateur. At first the three "professional cyclists" remain amateurs, since the rules of both the Belgian Cycling Federation and the UCI do not yet allow for professional cyclists. But the Belgian Cycling Federtaion shows accommodating and is allowing the women in question to become full-time professionals in practice.
With Maergeman, Cooreman and Van De Vijver, Ladies Sprint/Vlaanderen 2002 contains almost entirely the top of national women's cycling. Maegerman won silver at the World Championships in 1994, Van De Vijver won the prestigious Tour of the European Community and Cooreman has already displayed her talent for the round in a number of foreign stage races. Thanks to their professional status, they can now train full-time and give up their jobs as secretaries (Maegerman) and postmen (Cooreman) respectively. Until 1995, Van De Vijver counted on private sponsors for material help and on his own financial means to be able to train as well as possible.
The balance at the end of the first season is positive. Van De Vijver won the Championship of Flanders - a race with a strong classic content, the Tour of Vendée and the Tour of Zoetermeer and finished sixth in the Tour Féminin. Maegerman won the two-day "Sprint Ladies Cup" in her own country and a stage in the "Star of the Vosges". But at the same time, the new project threatens to go under when team leader Van De Vijver and coach Herremans cannot solve their dormant conflict and Heidi chooses a future outside the team for the new season. In 1996, Van De Vijver forms a two-man team together with Vanja Vonckx - another cycling talent that wants to grow outside Flanders 2002. Heidi's departure is compensated for by expanding the width of the team with promising riders such as Cindy Pieters, Anja Nobus, Nana Steensens and multiple Belgian track champions Evelien Baert and Veronique Coene.
Together with newcomer Cindy Pieters, 'veteran' Patsy Maegerman keeps up the Belgian honour in the Giro Donne in 1996, the prestigious Giro for women. Maegerman finished 15th, Pieters 21st at respectively 16 and 22 minutes of the overall winner Fabiana Luperini. For the 1997 season, for the first time there is a collaboration with a medical team of the Free University of Brussels (VUB) and with the Belgian Olympic and Interfederal Committee (BOIC). Remi De Moor and Vosschemie are sponsors for the third year in a row: "The idea was to stimulate cycling for women and by women. We have succeeded quite well so far," says De Moor in Het Nieuwsblad.
In addition to the Flanders 2002 project, there are also private initiatives to give women's cycling in Belgium an extra boost. For example, the Flanders Championship - organised by Sprint chief Peter Stevens - invariably attracts foreign stars such as Jeannie Longo, Cathérine Marsal and Hanka Kupfernagel to our country. But that there is still a gap with the foreign top is again evident in this competition. For the second year in a row Kupfernagel outstrips the opposition. That is why Flanders 2002 wants to do more to group top talent in their own country.
Vanja Vonckx becomes convinced of the project and makes the switch. And when at the end of 1998 Heidi Van De Vijver announces that she will ride for Vlaanderen 2002-RDM again next season, it really becomes a collective team, uniting all the top riders and promising riders. Starting in 1999, the team will compete under the name 'Vlaanderen 2002 Ladies Team' and can definitively be considered as a full-fledged 'sister' of the Vlaanderen 2002- men's division. The team confirms this step by winning all national titles on the track and the road.
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