"Léon van den Haute, you have the right to be proud of your work, of your work as founder and leader of the Tour of Flanders!" This is what Karel van Wijnendaele wrote on 12 March 1921 in an article in Sportwereld in which, a few days before the start of the fifth edition of the Tour of Flanders, he looked back on its history. This quote raises some eyebrows. Van Wijnendaele is always praised as the founder of the Tour of Flanders. Recent publications on the occasion of the centenary of the Tour of Flanders illustrate this abundantly. But who was this Léon Van de Haute? What role did he play in the history of the Ronde? And do we have to question the importance of "Koarle"?
Léon - or Leo according to his birth certificate - van den Haute was born on 9 October 1887 in the Antwerp municipality of Hemiksem, where his father was a notary public. His father thought that his son should get a proper French education and sent him to the Collège Saint-Michel in Etterbeek. The future cycling journalists Marcel Dupuis and Paul Beving are also attending this prestigious Jesuit college. After his secondary education Léon becomes a dealer in wax and varnish, but at the same time he starts working for Brussels sports magazines such as Le Vélo. Apparently, his talent is also quickly noticed in Flanders, because in 1909 he becomes the Brussels correspondent of the weekly magazine Sportvriend, which was founded in Izegem that year. On the editorial staff he comes into contact with the equally young and talented Karel van Wijnendaele.
In that period public attention for sports grew systematically. For publishers, it became interesting to bet on it. A liberal newspaper like La Dernière Heure, for example, attracts a lot of readers with its sports section. Even in Catholic circles - which had long been averse to sports - sport is increasingly seen as an interesting medium. It is thought that it is better to play along than to remain on the sidelines. In 1912, the Catholic publishing group Patria from Brussels decided to put a Dutch-language sports newspaper on the market. Léon van den Haute was the driving force behind the project. He knows how to get many employees of Sportvriend - including Van Wijnendaele - to join him. On September 12, 1912, the first issue appears. Sportwereld is born.
As director, Van den Haute guarantees the smooth organisational and financial running of Sportwereld. Van Wijnendaele presents himself as the journalistic brain of the magazine and soon becomes its editor-in-chief. This powerful tandem drives Sportwereld forward. Van den Haute finds praise in his newspaper several times. On the occasion of the festive banquet for Tour winner Philippe Thys in 1913, for example, he is described as "the successful director of Sportwereld, who has already contributed such a large share to the uplifting, encouragement and support of cycling in the whole of Flanders".
As an entrepreneur, Van den Haute always sees new opportunities. The First World War slows down his plans, but in 1919, a few months after the restart of Sportwereld, he also starts with the publication of Sport-Revue, an illustrated monthly magazine with a lot of attention for cycling. In 1921, this magazine is renamed Geïllustreerde Sportwereld and gets a French counterpart in Les Sports Illustrés.
Between 1918 and 1920, he is also director of Vélo-Sport, the successor of Le Vélo and property of the same catholic publishing group as Sportwereld. Between 1912 and 1925, both newspaper editors are located in the same buildings in Sint-Jans-Molenbeek, first in the Beekstraat, later in the Werkplaatsenstraat. In the early 1920s, Van den Haute also takes care of the Société Anonyme Belge d'Imprimerie, the printing office of publishing group Patria. Business is so good that Van den Haute and Van Wijnendaele can buy themselves out of the group in 1925. This way, they become the sole owners of Sportwereld.
"Never having played sport - no one saw him on a bike - he holds the destinies of thousands of sportsmen in his hands; as a Bruxellois, i.e. a linguistic mongrel, he has done more to "sport" in Flemish than the most devoted politician in the north of Belgium would have done." This is how the Brussels magazine Les Sports Belges wrote about Van den Haute in 1921. Van den Haute is not only praised in his own newspaper. In 1930, the Belgian Cycling Federation even refers to him as 'the driving force behind Flemish cycling'. Did Van den Haute also make a name for himself in Flanders outside the publishing world? Certainly! As we already mentioned in the introduction, it is Karel van Wijnendaele himself who honours Van den Haute as the founder of the Tour of Flanders.
In 1932, one year after Van den Haute's death, Van Wijnendaele pays homage in Sportwereld to "the creator who died too soon but has never been forgotten: Léon Van den Haute." And his son Willem van Wijnendaele writes in 1933 about Van den Haute: "Your name is linked to the Ronde, to every town or village, to every corner or turn, better and more firmly than the names of the victors." Could they have wanted to assign Van den Haute a greater share in the organisation of the Ronde than he really deserved? Nothing but good about the dead?
Our research shows that sources didn't dispute the great part of Van den Haute played in the creation and organization of the Tour of Flanders. The general daily press, the sports magazines and the journal of the Belgian Cycling Federation all testify to this. In 1913, Van den Haute thought - according to Sportwereld - that Flanders should have its own Paris-Roubaix, the iconic French race that was also followed in Belgium.
Sportwereld seems to be telling only half the truth here. A 'Tour of Flanders' was not a new concept. In 1908, 1909 and 1910 the East Flanders Cycling Federation had already organised an 'Omloop der Vlaanders'. In 1909 there was a cooperation with the West-Flemish Cycling Federation and Sportvriend. In addition to this race for beginners, amateurs and tourists, in 1908 a "Groote Prijs Alcyon - Ronde der Vlaanderen" was organised for professional cyclists. Flanders was an important economic area for the French bicycle manufacturer Alcyon and a Tour of Flanders seemed a good promotional tool for its products. Moreover, the Flemish base of Alcyon was located in Moorslede.
Further research into this intriguing period is certainly necessary. Yet, it already seems clear that Van den Haute - who himself had become a collaborator of Sportvriend in 1909, but three years later had started a competing magazine with Sportwereld - was inspired by these first initiatives. As an administrator with experience in organizing competitions and with a nose for business, he also realized that a Flemish sports newspaper and a Tour of Flanders could promote each other.
On February 17, 1913, the first announcement of the Ronde appeared in Sportwereld. Van den Haute not only conceptualizes and finances this project, he also takes care of the practical organization. On the eve of the departure of the first edition, Van Wijnendaele congratulates him in Sportwereld: "what has the boy been running for, sweating, discouraged, and also stood for joy, at the success of the enterprise!"
Even after the not so successful first edition of the Ronde - cleverly masked by enthusiastic articles in Sportwereld - Van den Haute sets himself up as the leader of the company. He is the one who - again according to Sportwereld - decides to organise a second edition the following year, this time in March, as the opener of the Belgian cycling season. It is also Van den Haute who in 1919, despite the difficult post-war circumstances of bad roads and expensive cycling material, gives the race another chance.
After the successful course of that first post-war edition of 23 March 1919, with a nice field of participants and Henri 'Ritten' Vanlerberghe as the winner, he is praised in Sportwereld: "Because it is he who dared, despite the almost insurmountable difficult circumstances, to do this great work and to set it up. Further on in the article, "Julia" - it is still unclear whose pseudonym this is - describes how he noticed Van den Haute at the start of the race in Ghent: "the cigarette between his lips, he was jubilant in his inner self, it was after all his work, the Ronde, and was not the applause assured?"
Van den Haute was not only the initiator of the Ronde, but also the practical organizer of this "great work". What this consisted of, Sportwereld also teaches us. Van den Haute (and not Van Wijnendaele) was responsible for the reconnaissance of the race route, mostly in the car with Sportwereld employee Albert "Berten" Carlier. They checked the state of the roads, put up signposts, made arrangements with local organisations to set up controls, and so on. As early as 1921, the one- or two-day reconnaissance trip was called an "old tradition". Only in 1926 do we see Karel van Wijnendaele taking over this task. Moreover, it was Van den Haute who usually gave the starting signal for the race.
Did Van Wijnendaele play no significant role in the first editions of the Tour of Flanders? Of course he did. If Van den Haute was the initiator and organiser, "Koarle" acted as the narrator of the Ronde. In his inimitable style, he gave life and colour to the race for the readers of Sportwereld, who in many cases could only see the race with their own eyes. He presented the Ronde as a merciless competition for and by Flemish riders along Flemish roads, a high day of the sport. He did not do this alone: other collaborators also contributed.
Van den Haute, on the other hand, hardly wrote any journalistic contributions himself. As an organiser and director he was mainly the man behind the scenes. An essential role, but not one that put him in the spotlight. Edouard Hermès, his close colleague at Les Sports Illustrés, wrote in his memoirs that Van den Haute was rather shy by nature, and not at all a fluent speaker, which Van Wijnendaele was.
When Van den Haute passes away on 23 February 1931, it becomes clear how important he had been for the Belgian cycling world. Sportwereld carries a large mourning band and an emotional Van Wijnendaele underlines again the father role of Van den Haute. Other newspapers also publish articles of mourning: from the socialist Volksgazet over Le Soir to Les Sports. L'Indépendance Belge even muses about how Van den Haute would have liked to attend the departure of "his" Tour of Flanders.
At his funeral on 26 February 1931 in Schaarbeek, 700 people paid their last respects to him. Among them, of course, many sports journalists, but also (former) cyclists such as Jef Scherens and Marcel Buysse. Van Wijnendaele delivers a eulogy in which he praises Van den Haute for his "popular emancipation through sportsmanship" and in which he also promises to continue promoting this ideal through Sportwereld. For him, a lot is actually changing now. He has to take on the administrative side of Sportwereld, but also the organisation of the Ronde.
Throughout the 1930s, Sportwereld continued to emphasise Van den Haut's role in the history of the Ronde. At the start of the 1931 edition, exactly one month after his death, there will be one minute of silence for him. In 1932, on the eve of the same Tour, Willem van Wijnendaele writes: "This is the crown on the work that our lamented director Léon Vandenhaute has started and Karel Van Wynendaele continues now." On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Sportwereld in 1937 is again emphasized how much blood, sweat and tears it had cost Van den Haute to bring up the Ronde.
When exactly did Van den Haute disappear from the history of the Tour of Flanders and Karel van Wijnendaele was proclaimed its founder? Further research should tell us, but our hypothesis is that the first biographers of Van Wijnendaele are responsible for this. Already shortly after Van Wijnendaele's death, Berten Lafosse and Achiel van den Broeck, two co-workers of Sportwereld, declared him in their biographic work as father of the Ronde. For three decades, Van Wijnendaele had been the central figure in the organisation of the race. And it was certainly his merit that the Ronde continued to flourish.
But because Lafosse and Van den Broeck ignored the founding role of Van den Haute, they were at the root of a mistake that was reproduced over and over again and in this way also became more and more destructive. Moreover, cycling is particularly prone to mythography. This is especially true for a race such as the Tour of Flanders, which has often been said to be an "epic". And an epic needs a protagonist, a hero who performs an exceptional deed. Of course, Koarle deserves this praise: without his penmanship and rhetoric, the Ronde would not be what it is today. But credit where credit is due: congratulations, Léon!
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