Ambroos, The Donkey

The semi-classics Omloop het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne represent the opening of the cycling season in Belgium. They belong together like salt and pepper: they are connected in speculations about possible winners, predictions of start lists, and mostly have the same weather conditions. Moreover, when a rider starts in the first race, it is not sure yet if he will also start the day after. Also, when the first race ends, we almost instantly shift our attention to the second race. Riders have barely finished, or they have to say whether they will start the next morning as well or leave their spot to one of their teammates. Until now, no one was able to win both races in one year.

In 2013, there was no traditional Belgian opening weekend because Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne could not take place. There was simply too much snow on the roads. This meant that we also did not get to see Ambroos. Ambroos? Yes, Kuurne’s very own mascot is a donkey with the name Ambroos. The citizens of Kuurne are called “donkeys”. This name was given to them by the people of Kortrijk, a nearby city. Kuurne used to be “Kortrijk’s vegetable garden” back in the days. It was a tradition for Kuurne traders to set off to the market in Kortrijk very early with their carts full of vegetables. More importantly, these carts were all drawn by asses. Obviously, the inhabitants of Kortrijk would wake up because of the noises these carts and asses made so early in the day. In Kortrijk it then became very common to say at that particular time in the morning: “It’s those asses from Kuurne again!”

The Ambroos design for Kuurne by Nesten / © Kuurne.be

But according to another tale, the name has a different origin. A priest in Kuurne asked the sacrister to take over his usual service, because he had to hold a funeral. But the sacrister could not recall the Latin words “Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris”, which in English means “Remember, man, that dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return”. He was supposed to say this when he had to give the people “a cross of ash” on their foreheads. Obviously, the priest was very annoyed with this and exclaimed: “You were born an ass, and you will die an ass!” The sacrister then answered: “Aha, I’ll remember that!” and continued to give the inhabitants of Kuurne their crosses of ash.

Consequently, the winner of Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne receives the toy version of Ambroos, a donkey statue that is located in front of Kuurne’s town hall. The statue was designed by the Belgian cartoonist Nesten. The name is most likely based on a poem by Hugo Claus, a very famous Belgian writer, about a donkey called Ambroos. It is not unusual for riders to receive such a special gift – besides flowers – during the podium ceremony. However, it is more common for riders to receive a special delicacy from the area than a donkey or a soft toy horse, which the winner of Dwars Door Vlaanderen gets nowadays. In the past, riders for example received lots of cheese, a basket full of food and drinks, or had to drink a glass of beer. Also, in the Basque Country, riders often get to wear a traditional “beret” on stage. When they are really lucky, riders might even take a brand new care home. Obviously, most riders prefer a cheque.

Chris Sutton (SKY) wins the Kuurne donkey in 2011 / © Linearecta.be

Last year’s special gift in the Arctic Tour of Norway beats all the former presents. Former Belgian professional rider Stijn Neirynck received a piece of land – worth 25.000 euros – in Tjeldsund to build a house on. The peloton became very excited about the intermediate sprint that would guarantee this prize. However, the organization let the winner know afterwards that the piece of land could not be sold by him. The winner had to build a house there or the prize could not be awarded. A pity for Neirynck, who had just bought a house in his home country and wanted to sell the land in Norway and share the money with his teammates. Then a soft toy donkey does not seem so bad at all. After all, the winner of the 2014 version of Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne could make his son or daughter, his niece or nephew, or a teammate’s kid very happy with it.

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