If you’ve ever been lucky enough to watch cycling on TV in Belgium—or on one of those many, many grainy Internet streams—then you’ll know Michel Wuyts. His is the velvety baritone, on Belgian TV station Sporza, that talks you through races with an assured calm; even though you don’t know the words that he’s saying, you somehow know exactly what he means.

Words: Ben Atkins
Images: Kristof Ramon

Unlike his co-commentators José De Cauwer and Paul Herygers, who are both ex-pro riders, and studio anchor Karl Vannieuwkerke, who’s a career journalist, Michel Wuyts does not come from a conventional background. Until the early 1990s the man from Leuven, to the east of Brussels, was one of the country’s top educators, but he seized the opportunity to transfer to his dream job and has never looked back.

His former profession has given him a sound grounding in the art of speaking to an audience however, which is perhaps what has given Wuyts such a voice of authority as he describes the action on screen.

“Teaching is good way to get a good voice, to get control of yourself, and you’re standing before a class of young guys …” he explains. “Later, when you are a school director at the age of 29—which was pretty young—you get pretty used to the stage too—of adults, a bigger group. So that’s an advantage, definitely.”

Despite making such a success of his career, teaching was not really where his heart lay; a pragmatic parent only thinking of her son’s future security, no doubt, pushed him that way.

“Originally, my thoughts were to become a reporter, a journalist for sports,” he says. “And at the age of 12, when I said that to my parents, my mum said, ‘That’s not a real job, that’s something you can do after your real work is done, go and look for a real profession.’”

Wuyts continues: “My mum was a rather dominant figure,” he laughed, “so I listened to her and I decided to become a teacher, to study educational sciences, so that’s what I did.”

Unluckily for the Belgian education system however, it was about to lose one of its brightest young people, which turned out to be fortunate for the rest of us.

“When I was a school director there was this programme on television in 1990 where they were asking for volunteers to help a little bit at the sports department of [Belgian broadcaster] VRT,” Wuyts explained. “There were some exams, and I thought that could be my opportunity. So I got myself in, I participated in three exams, and, my goodness, I passed the first two of the three things. It’s king of strange, because the third one was a voice test, and I passed!”

“So they started to ask me to do some little things, the German football, Italian football, to make a summary of one minute, two minutes, for programmes. Then two years later, when I was still director of a school, they asked me to go to the Olympics, in Barcelona! So it all went very quickly.”

Barcelona was not quite his first brush with the big time however, as Wuyts first got the opportunity to work at the centre of his favourite sport.

“In 1991, the year before the Olympics,” he recalls, “they asked me to commentate on the motorbike, in the E3 Harelbeke, so that was my first experience, and I was quite happy because I never, never sat on a motorbike before!”

For Wuyts, as with many other kids in Belgium growing up at the time he did, cycling became the number-one obsession at an early age; most of this, he explains, was down to the success of one man.

“At the age of five I followed everything, everything in sports on television. Really everything, every sport, but especially cycling,” he says. “Then suddenly, in 1964, there was a young guy that became world champion in Sallanches—for the amateurs—and he was born about 10 kilometres from my hometown; and his name was Eddy Merckx.

“This was incredible, not only for me, but for my dad, my uncles. It was kind of a revolution.”

Merckx turned pro in 1965, and you know the rest. For the Belgians at the time though, particularly the young sports fans, the Cannibal’s success was to turn their world upside down.

“Everybody was a fan of Rik Van Looy, the Emperor of Herentals as they called him, but he was from another region,” Wuyts explains. “So what we did was get rid of the statue of Van Looy and we planted a new statue—of Eddy Merckx.

“I always got the feeling that if Merckx won, I won as well; so I’ve been winning a lot!” he jokes. “I won the Tour five times!”

Some say that you should never meet your heroes, but for Michel Wuyts, his new role in Belgian TV meant that he was sitting side by side with the great man every day.

“The most spectacular thing,” he says, “and the most warming thing in a human way of looking at it was, being young, having this big idol, Eddy Merckx, and then being a grown up man and living together with Merckx as I did: to do commentating together; to be in Colombia together; to go to the world hour-record attempt for Indurain together; to eat together; to get drunk together—it’s fantastic. That’s incredible.”

Cycling is popular in countries like France, Italy, and Spain, but in Belgium it is part of the national consciousness. There is something about cycling, Wuyts feels, that reflects the way that Belgium—and especially Flanders—sees itself in the world.

“Because the way cycling is, and the way a cyclist performs is very close to our main character,” he explains. “We never felt that we are on top of the list in Europe, we’ve always been outsiders, we’ve always been down below. But we always looked up, and our way to get up the stairs was to work hard—to work hard in the fields; to work hard in the mines; to make long days; to work 10, 12, even 14 hours—and you can compare that with the work that a cycling artist, a cycling god, has to do.”

Wuyts continues: “He has to work to do his job; he has to work to become a champion; he has to work to climb up the ladder, to climb the stairs. It’s a way to get out of our small, little minds, to grow even bigger than we are.”

For the majority of a race, Wuyts’s voice comes across as a deep calm, rising occasionally for a particularly interesting bit of action or controversial incident. As the kilometres count down however, his tone begins to rise, hitting a crescendo as the winner hits the line.

If that winner is Belgian, the crescendo gets higher still, which is only natural, he says. For a demonstration, watch pretty much any of the spring classics but, for the best example, type “Tom Boonen wereldkampioen” into YouTube and enjoy.

Tommeke! Tommeke! Tommeke! Tom Boonen is wereldkampioen!

“It makes double fun when a Belgian wins, of course,” he smiles, “and I think that here in Europe every reporter, every commentator has the same feelings when their countryman does a classic; it makes you feel more enthusiastic. I think that is normal.”

“There’s another thing, all the commentators, such as Rik De Saedeleer—who was really a god in Belgium, commentating football—
did it in the same way,” Wuyts explains. “He set new margins and he was commentating like a supporter. We grew up with commentators like Rik De Saedeleer, and you try to come onto that level and to be as enthusiastic as he was. So I think that’s the way I got involved in creating my style of commentating.”

Sadly though, being partisan doesn’t work all of the time. Things are okay in the classics when Boonen and Gilbert are dominating, but some races barely feature Belgians at all, and that’s where creativity is required.

“I’ve been commentating some Vueltas in Spain where there are two Belgians in the start and, after a week, one of the two went home, and the other one I think ended in 30th place,” he laughs.

“So, I can be impressed by the way Cancellara rides; I can be impressed by the way Cavendish wins; it doesn’t make any difference when Cavendish wins with three bikes ahead of second place, I will be as enthusiastic as if Greipel wins.”

For Wuyts though, a Belgian is a Belgian, regardless of which team he rides for, and a foreigner is a foreigner, even on a Belgian team.

“Something that I can’t understand is when I hear some of my colleagues yelling and screaming when Greipel wins, or when McEwen wins, pretending that they were Belgian sprinters …” he says. “I don’t want to do that, but I feel a lot of enthusiasm when somebody does something extraordinary.”

Some foreigners are a little more Belgian than others though, he concedes, as McEwen learned the language and married a local girl.

“I asked him a few years ago to be my co-commentator,” says Wuyts, “but he couldn’t in those days ….”

Growing up with Merckx as a hero means that very few riders measure up when looking for idols today. Wuyts is too old for all that anyway, he says.

“No, you can’t have a favourite rider,” Wuyts smiles. “Favourites are for your youth. You don’t get favourite riders when you are an adult. When you are as happy as I was to have a favourite rider like Eddy Merckx, there can’t be another one like him ….”

Sadly however, although Wuyts knows that there will never be another Cannibal, the rest of Belgium has been searching for one ever since the great man hung up his bike almost 35 years ago.

“It was a wrong position, it was wrong to look for somebody else with the same strength as Eddy Merckx,” he says, “and there were a lot passing the review, as we say. Like “Fons” De Wolf; like Daniel Willems; like Eric Vanderaerden; like some other guys—Criquielion perhaps. The supporters pretended like, ‘Ah, we’ve finally found the new Merckx’ and put a lot of pressure on their back. So finally they couldn’t live with that; it was not the right thing to do, but 40, 30 years ago that’s the way it went. After a period with such a guy who won nearly everything, they didn’t realise in those days that it was impossible to find another one like him,” says Wuyts.

Finally Belgium seems to have stopped looking but, while they have men to dominate the one-day races, success in the Grand Tours has eluded the country since the late 1970s.

“We’ve been looking for some new Tour specialists for twenty years now,” Wuyts explains, “but there’s that other main feeling that a Belgian rider should be good on the cobblestones, should be an example for his country in his own classics, such as the Ronde van Vlaanderen, which is by far the biggest event that I’ve ever been involved in.”

Wuyts continues: “I’ve done every classic,” he says, “There’s no more people than at the start in Brugge in the Ronde van Vlaanderen; there’s no more people on the roads than in those 260 kilometres, so that’s kind of a madness. I think it’s a heavenly feeling to be in front of that, and for people to consider you as a god. So, I think that every guy that’s born here in Belgium starts to cycle with the feeling of, ‘One day I will be in the front group in the Ronde van Vlaanderen, and perhaps there’s a possibility that I might win.’”

So, while Tour of Flanders success is seen as a dream for every young Belgian, Tour de France success is a different matter entirely.

“In the last twenty years, let’s say the last ten years, they’ve found out that if they want to take the opportunity to become a big star in the Tour de France, or the Giro d’Italia, or even the Vuelta, they have to move abroad,” Wuyts reasons. “You can’t find mountains here in Belgium, and you won’t find mountains in the Netherlands. You have to move abroad; you have to go to Spain; you have to go to Italy. It’s very easy to say that, but very hard to do that.”

There are some riders that give Belgium hope for its first Tour win since Lucien Van Impe in 1976 however, with Jurgen Van Den Broeck taking fourth in the race in 2010.

“Van Den Broeck has found himself a way because he’s got a lot of character,” says Wuyts. “It doesn’t matter for him if he lives here in Belgium, in De Kempen, where everything is flat. But he’s got the character to go for six, seven, even eight months to the south, to climb, to climb, to climb.”

Not everyone is like that, however.

“There’s another star, a rising star, Thomas De Gendt,” he says. “I’m sure he’s got the capability to become an excellent Tour rider but I don’t think he’ll ever leave his hometown, even for ten days, even for four days, to train in the mountains.”

There is a legend that Van Impe decided that, since the Col du Galibier is 16-km long and the Muur van Geraardsbergen is one kilometre long, he would train by climbing the Muur sixteen times. It was, however, not that simple, even in those far simpler times.

“There was another way that the young Van Impe was preparing himself,” Wuyts explains. “He very often went with his father to the Ardennes, because his dad always told him, ‘Never use a big gear, always ride with small gears, even in the small cycling events in Flanders,’ and that’s the way he became a climber. Even as an amateur he chose cycling events in Italy and France, with a lot of climbs.”

For Wuyts, commentating is a year-round job. As the road riders are departing on holiday after their long season, the rest of Belgium is putting on its coats and wellies, and taking to the muddy fields of the country.

“That is the special thing for Belgium, cyclocross in the wintertime,” he smiles. “When you talk about madness, well, that’s really madness.”

Wuyts explains: “I think I enjoy it a little bit more because it’s such a small world that you really know everyone. Nearly every supporter you know, and you can talk with every rider. They are always there, you go to their camper, you knock on their door, and they will ask you if you want a drink, a coffee, a Jenever—which is heavy stuff—and you can have a chat with them. That’s impossible these days with cycling on the road.

“If I wanted I could phone Sven Nys every day,” he continues, “because he lives about 15 kilometres from where I’m living now, so we are members of the same community I would say; but I haven’t even got the number of Tom Boonen. That explains perfectly the difference.”

The difference too, with cyclocross, is that, as a television spectacle, everybody knows exactly what he is going to get.

“It’s about winning, all about winning,” Wuyts explains. “Being a television viewer, you can sit down in your easy chair with two things that are sure. The presentation will be one hour of sport, where you will see everything—every fall, every attack, every move, every face in close-up—and it only lasts an hour. You can do something else on your Sunday, after or before. The most important thing is, you’re sitting there with the feeling that ‘we will win,’” he smiles. “In ten races, eight of them are won by Belgians.”

My final question to Wuyts is probably the toughest one for him to answer. I ask him to choose—in his almost twenty years of working on almost every major race in Europe—what, would he say, was his favourite race?

“Phew!” he exclaims. “Really a lot of them! But I think it was the Ronde van Vlaanderen in 1999, because I was commentating on the motorbike. At the end there were three of them in the front group,” he recalls. “Museeuw, Van Petegem and Vandenbroucke—all three Belgians! So that made it more difficult!”

“I was a little bit younger then—thirteen years younger—and I remember those last kilometres, on the back of the motorbike,” Wuyts continues. “I passed the three front riders and I got a look at their faces, and Van Petegem was in third position. Suddenly, he saw what I was doing—I was describing how they were—and he looked at me and he twinkled with his eyes—gave me an eye—pretending, ‘Okay, no difficulties, no troubles, I will win here today’—and that’s what he did.”

“That’s unforgettable.”

From Issue 12. Buy it here.