The best cycling bar in Belgium? Calling in at Bar Gidon

Ex-professional Frederik Penne's bar is a pit-stop for pros, a party for fans, and a celebration of cycling culture. We paid him a visit.

Clock17:46, Wednesday 3rd April 2024
Frederik Penne proudly holds his Lotte Kopecky World Championships jersey

© GCN

Frederik Penne proudly holds his Lotte Kopecky World Championships jersey

When the professional peloton rolls through Geraardsbergen on their way to take on the iconic De Muur climb, there is one establishment that tends to get a mention from the commentators: Bar Gidon. Founded by ex-professional Frederik Penne in 2016, it is, according to Penne, among the first ‘cycling bars’ in Belgium, and has become a hallowed ground for cyclists worldwide.

On weekdays, it is a favourite watering hole of professional cyclists, many of whom spend much of their time training in Flanders. On race days, it is home to the most passionate crowd of racing fans in Belgium, who pile in early doors to watch on the television, and leave much, much later to stumble onto trains and into taxis.

From the exterior, it is an unassuming little place – a typical modern building, painted grey, that disappears into the background of the town square. Inside, it’s decorated with everything you’d expect to see: team jerseys pinned to the rafters, black and white photographs of the likes of Eddy Merckx, and a vintage bicycle mounted to the wall.

The thing that sets this place apart from all the other cycling bars is the man behind the counter, Frederik Penne, who in seven short years has turned Bar Gidon into a hub for the cycling community. It is a home for cycling fans, a pit stop for professionals, and a celebration of the rich culture of cycling that runs right through Flanders.

However, since splitting up with his partner last year, Penne has been tasked with running the bar alone. Now, exhausted under the weight of it, he isn’t sure how much more energy he’s got left in him. The day before the start of the busiest 40 days in the calendar, we visited Bar Gidon to hear more.

What makes a cycling bar?

“In Belgium, now, they put a bike on the wall and say it’s a cycling bar.”

That’s what Penne has to say about the countless ‘cycling bars’ that have cropped up since he opened his establishment in 2016.

Penne was a professional cyclist for five years, racing for Belgian team Palmans Collstrop between 2002 and 2007, and racing outside of the team until 2014. After a short stint working as a soigneur for Mark Cavendish and the Dimension Data team, he returned to his hometown in 2016 and thought about what to do next.

“I had seen cycling cafes in Mallorca, with a lot of jerseys on the wall," he explains.

Penne and his then-girlfriend Elsje took the idea of a cycling cafe back to their hometown in Flanders, and in a typically Belgian way, added beer to the menu.

“I think I was one of the first cycling bars. Not the first, but seven years ago, it was at the beginning.”

Penne named it after a phrase his grandfather used to say when encouraging him to carry on cycling.

“My grandfather was my biggest supporter when I was a cyclist and when I wasn't doing so well for a while, he often told me to do better. In my region we have a ruling when someone should do better: ‘take GIDON at the bottom.’”

Like the cafes in Mallorca, Bar Gidon was intended to be a place for passing cyclists to stop at. When the racing was on, Bar Gidon would show it, and local cycling fans would pour in.

Unlike the cafes in Mallorca, Bar Gidon had the advantage of being located along the route for many of the most important races of the year. The bar is a stone’s throw away from the legendary Muur, a cobbled climb that often makes an appearance in the biggest races of the spring. When Penne started the bar, the Tour of Flanders, Omloop Het Nieuwsbad, the Brussels Classic and the BinckBank Tour passed the front of Bar Gidon.

By a stroke of luck, in the first year, even the Tour de France rolled past.

“In 2016, the Tour de France passed here. It was incredible. It was the best day in the whole of Bar Gidon,” says Penne, smiling as he remembers. “It was unbelievable. Two days before, there were a lot of people. Then on the day, it was an extra level. It was unbelievable.”

Bar Gidon is now the place to be on race day, whether the race is passing by the bar, or not.

“I have Dutch customers who come here instead of Oudenaarde. They watch the race, they drink beer — a lot of beer — and I say, ‘Are you going to the Kwaremont?’ and they say, ‘No, we are staying here.’

“It’s always a big atmosphere here. I put it on the TV, and we have Kwaremont [a famous Flandrien beer] on tap. And you know, it's a real cycling bar.

“It's a party. Morning til noon. After the race, we have a big DJ, it’s full gas.”

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At the front of it all is Penne, whose love for the sport is as strong as it ever was.

“When the Tour of Flanders passed here, I was always on the disco bar, and when the rider crossed the finish line, the first song was from the country of the winner. With Terpstra, it was a Dutch song, and with Bettiol, it was Italian…”

Penne still smiles when he recalls the moments spent watching the races, like when he won €700 in a sweepstake after picking Nils Politt for the Tour of Flanders:

“I said, ‘OK, I’ll give you all one on the house,'” he remembers with a grin. “Although I think it was two in the end.

“It's religion,” he adds. “In every country you have races, but here in Belgium, you feel it. Cycling is a religion. A Flemish guy eats cobblestones for breakfast.”

For the next month or so, when every weekend brings another historic one-day race, Penne expects his bar to be filled with international visitors, who travel far and wide to watch the races on Bar Gidon’s television.

“We have a lot of Dutch people, English people, Italians. Now they will come. For the next 40 days, all the countries, they will come.”

Remco Evenepoel fan club

The one group of cycling fans who are guaranteed to be propping up the bar is the Remco Evenepoel Fanclub, which has been based here since 2018. Penne dedicated the bar to Evenepoel after his father, Patrick Evenepoel, a friend and training partner of Penne since Penne was starting out as a professional cyclists, asked him to support his son.

“I was good friends with his father and his mother. When I was a neo-pro, there were a lot of guys in the area who knew the father of Remco, and he rode on the back of the professionals. So we trained a lot together and we all became good friends. Then I met Remco when we went with a few friends to visit him when he was a football player in PSV.”

Evenepoel switched from football to cycling as a teenager, and entered the senior professional peloton in 2018, aged just 18. It was then that his father asked Penne to support his son.

“He hadn’t won a race, only the junior or local races, although I saw he was nine minutes in front in Austria.”

Penne is referring to the 2018 Junior World Championships, in which Evenepoel finished nearly 10 minutes ahead of the field.

“His father said, ‘you will be supporting Remco? I said, ‘Yep, yep, yep!’ And now, he's one of the biggest riders."

None of Evenepoel’s 2024 races will pass Bar Gidon, so this year, the bar and its patrons will be taking a bus to see him race.

“The Belgian Championship this year is in Rotterdam. It's only 20 km from here, and we go with a bus — 60 people! We will also go with the bus to Amstel Gold Race.”

Gifts from the peloton

Penne’s relationship with the Evenepoel family is just one of his links to the pro peloton. Penne has many friends within the sport, and it seems a lot of them want to make their mark on Bar Gidon. The tables are covered in rider signatures, and the rafters pinned with signed jerseys. It’s a collection that Penne is proud of.

“Everything that you see here is special,” he explains. “The jerseys too — the riders give them to me as presents. They send me all these things. Everything has a story.”

Among the jerseys are an original Molteni jersey from 1976, a maglia rosa worn by Remco Evenepoel, and Anna van der Breggen’s World Championship jersey, complete with gold sleeves marking her Olympic victory.

And following this year’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Penne has a new addition for the collection, still yet to be framed.

“On the Wednesday before the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Lotte Kopecky sent me a WhatsApp and said, ‘When the riders pass, 100 metres after Bar Gidon, on the right side, the team car will have a present for you. I was so excited. The ladies came by, I went outside, and look..."

He jumps up from his seat and fetches a World Champions jersey, signed by Kopecky.

“The mechanic stopped the car, shouted, ‘Hey man’, and threw this to me. It's unbelievable, isn’t it?”

Penne takes care to make his bar a welcoming place for pros.

“I ask for a picture and a signature the first time they come in, but that’s it,” explains Penne. “So they know they can come here, it’s relaxed, they can sit, have a coffee.”

As a result, it’s a place where riders and their teams feel welcome and relaxed. In fact, Penne says that after some of the races, team cars pull up outside for a drink.

“After Paris Roubaix, I have Bora, Deceuninck, they have three cars, and Joe Blanca also with Quick-Step, they have three cars with VIPs and they come here, drink a lot of beer and go back.”

Among the many legendary cyclists who have visited is Bradley Wiggins, who came to Bar Gidon whilst showing journalists around Flanders.

“He came in with four people, and I thought, ‘huh, there's Bradley Wiggins.’ I went over and I said, ‘Sir,’ and he said, ‘Sir? For you, it’s Bradley.’

“And then Wiggins said in a British cycling magazine, ‘You must go visit Bar Gidon. It's the original, and so on.’ And then, yeah, the British guys, they come here.”

Running out of steam

Although Bar Gidon is thriving, Penne is beginning to run out of energy. Bar Gidon was a shared project, but it’s one he must complete by himself.

“I started this bar with my girlfriend, and last year, she left. Then I started doing this on my own, with my team.

“I have five guys, they work for me, but now it's so hectic and it's not possible to ride my bike.

“It's hard. I have done it now for seven years. Maybe five more or something, and then I’ll see.

“I feel it. It's over. You do it for seven years with two — with your partner. You start it from zero. You build it up. Then the partner… well, now I do it alone, and I need to organise everything.

“Every time they pass here on Eurosport, Bobby Traksel says, ‘We passed Bar Gidon, Frederik Penne…’ Then you are a proud guy. But it's hard.

“After the 20th of April it’s three weeks off. I'm going to ride my bike, I think. It's one centimetre of mud, but I want to ride my bike. The head space is important for me now.”

A lot has changed for Penne in the last year or so, and it is clear he needs some time to process. Hopefully, a few weeks’ break will help him see that he is not all alone in his bar in Geraardsbergen. He has the professional peloton on his side, not to mention the cycling fans who cross borders to fill his bar.

This bar might only be seven years old, but it has become an important focal point for cycling fans. For that reason, and for Penne’s sake, we hope he finds the strength to continue for many years to come.

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