Flandrien is the new book by globetrotting Belgian photographer Stephan Vanfleteren, whose diverse projects have included covering the Aids crisis in Kenya, porn in California and Elvis-worship in the US. His radical black and white documentary-style images capture the essence of these events and micro-cultures, portraits of artists, writers, actors and musicians, in fact anyone who expresses themselves through their métier.

For seven years Vanfleteren followed the Flandriens, the racing cyclists of Flanders, the northern region of Belgium, and the stories behind their supporters and families. But the Flandriens are more than “mere” cyclists. It’s a word that encapsulates an entire ethos, a whole attitude to life; it’s “the spirit of being Flemish”. And that unique spirit is just what Vanfleteren has captured in this beautifully crafted reportage of the Flandriens and their society.

The journey begins with a stunning cover shot of Albéric (“Brieck”) Schotte, to whom the book is dedicated, a hero among the other cyclists, who died shortly after this portrait was taken. Brieck stares back at us, like a wise old guru, his face half-hidden amongst velvet shadows, his features and tenacity formed by years of racing over the flat Flanders landscape, the icy winds blowing in off the North Sea.

An image of one-time champion Nico Verhoeven, exhausted and mud-caked after the grueling Paris-Roubaix race, brings to mind Robert Frank’s photographs of coal-grimed miners walking home to a tin bath before the range. But, unlike Frank, Vanfleteren is no fly on the wall and it is here, knowing that Vanfleteren was once a Flandrien himself, that in taking such images he’s somehow making sense of his own life.

God is Terig (God is Back) shows a message painted in white lettering onto a road, a famous cycle-route, in adulation of another racing cyclist hero, Van de Brucke, who made a celebrated comeback after years of drug abuse. Van de Brucke’s struggles, mental and physical, and return as a champion made him a hero among the Flemings. Vanfleteren, again like Frank, sometimes shoots images in sequence, as with Kapel Muur Geraardsbergen, a shot of racers en-route, the fervent crowd cheering them on, or the double page spread of a series of cobble-stones, that cover so many of the cyclist’s routes – 24 separate images spliced into a frieze. Scored and worn by years of use, each with great individuality and character, surely these cobbles are mute but emotive metaphors for the Flandriens themselves.

The book ends as it began, with an exquisitely composed shot, this time in profile, of Albéric Schotte, observed with a Brandt-like intensity, his proud, weather-beaten features emerging out of the light and shade. A warm smile creases his wrinkled skin, his dark eyes set against a relentless wind blowing in from the sea, long miles of road lying ahead of him. Brieck was a true Flandrien, each one urging forward with the determination of Sisyphus.

Clive Joinson