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 The Beast, The Emperor and The Milkman, by Harry Pearson. Illustration by Eliza Southwood.
The Beast, The Emperor and The Milkman, by Harry Pearson. Illustration by Eliza Southwood.

I recently took receipt of Road Book correspondent Harry Pearson’s latest book, The Beast, The Emperor and The Milkman, a book which I was hugely looking forward to seeing in print. It hasn’t disappointed.

Not only is the volume beautiful to hold and look at (Bloomsbury have done an immaculate job, I have to say), it is as assured and rewarding a read as you would expect from a writer who sees the intrigue in the everyday, and the everyday in the epic. I remember once the film critic Mark Kermode describing Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, and describing the feeling of settling into the opening minutes of the film, the way it looked and felt, and the fact that it had Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance in the lead roles. ‘It’s like settling into a comfortable, well-made leather armchair. You know that, for the next hour and a half, nothing can go wrong.”

It took me slightly longer than that to read Pearson’s story of Flanders and Flemish cycling, but I was imbued with the very same sense of reassurance that I was in possession of something well made. The Beast, The Emperor and The Milkman interweaves the history of Flemish cycling (obdurate, fetishistic, obsessive) with the history of Flanders (obdurate, fetishistic and obsessive). As Pearson strides around anonymous little Belgian towns in consistently foul weather, he guides us deep into the heart of our near neighbours from across the water, who can rightly lay claim to the heart and soul of this insane profession. From the moment, in the very opening chapter, that Pearson quotes the Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel, I knew I was in safe hands.

Brel, it turns out, was never really into his cycling, which is something of an annoyance for those of us who adore the holy trinity of Belgium: Brel, Flanders and Cycling. But I suppose you can’t have it all. What Brel could do, of course, and better than anyone before or since, was drill down into the melancholic substrata of this brutally unsentimental, grey, brown and Catholic land. Pearson quotes from his song La Bière:

‘It’s full of horizons that drive you mad. But alcohol is blond, the devil is ours, and hopeless people need both of them.’ Anyone who’s ever drunk a bottle of Duvel (literally, Devil), sitting at a formica table in an anonymous roadside pub in West Flanders in February will testify to that sense of desolation.

But Pearson’s tale is not just an ode to aesthetic black hole which is Flanders. Nor is it simply a hymn to suffering. It is full of humanity, whether he’s writing about the various rain-drenched folk he meets by the side of the road during a few weeks of following the cobbled classics from town to town, province to province. A particular highlight is his mournful visit to the put upon town of Dour in Wallonia for the finish of Le Samyn. When he finally reaches the warmth and comfort of his accommodation in Ghent, he reflects, ‘I’d been soaking wet since midday, frozen stiff and stood by the side of the road in one of the poorest, ugliest and most deprived parts of Northern Europe. There’s no doubt about it’, Pearson concludes, ‘it’s one of the best, most romantic days I’ve had in all my years of watching sport.’ Harry Pearson is not interested in prawn sandwiches, though he does routinely review his favoured mayonnaise sauces to accompany his frites.

But there is much of substance to learn from Pearson’s Flemish odyssey, too. I found myself taking notes which will doubtless be re-hashed for TV viewers’ consumption during the coming months. For example, I was intrigued to be able to flesh out the career of the grandfather of a rider who won the rain-soaked Le Samyn in 2017 and has featured repeatedly in breakaways on the Tour de France in the last two years, Guillaume van Kiersbulck, the bearded rouleur from Wanty-Groupe Gobert. He’s now signed for CCC team, which I suppose means we may not see him at the Tour, but if we do, I look forward to being able to tell you about his famous ancestor, Benoni Beheyt.

I knew this much about Beheyt, before reading Harry Pearson’s book; namely that he won a stage of the 1964 Tour de France, and, the year before was crowned World Road Race Champion. What I didn’t know was that, in doing so, he flicked the great Belgian Rik van Looy. By flicked, I mean, beat him on the line. Which wasn’t the plan. Tom Simpson even wrote that he thought Beheyt had tugged van Looy’s jersey in the process. Either way, Beheyt was subsequently frozen out of lucrative appearances at kermesses, having upset the cycling world order. He retired at 27, the same age his grandson is right now.

Listen, this book is a pleasure, as is Harry’s excellent piece on the unloved (at least in Flanders) Niki Terpstra, which I was delighted to commission for the 2018 Road Book. It was such a pleasure to do that. Harry Pearson was one of the first sports writers I genuinely admired from afar, and it’s an unexpected honour to be able to say we’ve worked on something together.

As for The Beast, The Emperor and The Milkman; I’d suggest it’s the perfect accompaniment to the forthcoming Belgian classics season, which is now hard upon us. It’s just under a month now till Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. There’s a chapter on that, too.

Ned Boulting.