Wout van Aert drinks from a massively oversized beer on the podium of the 2022 E3 Saxo Classic.

Commentary: A brief history of E3 stupidity

The E3 Saxo Classic organizers will never learn.

Apologies to Wout, who did nothing to deserve getting wrapped up in this mess.

Joe Lindsey
by Joe Lindsey 23.01.2024 Photography by
Cor Vos
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If we take that old Maya Angelou quote to heart, we should have learned this lesson in 2011. 

That was when the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, as it was known then, had a promotional poster with silhouetted cyclists riding along the curves of a naked woman lying face down in a field. Or 2014, when they followed up with a disturbing (there’s no other way to put it) image of a woman riding a bicycle made of women. Or 2015, with a poster making light of defending champion Peter Sagan pinching a podium hostess on her behind at the 2013 Tour of Flanders.

The 2015 episode drew the most condemnation, for its conflation of casually sexist imagery and wink-and-a-nod indulgence of sexual assault. And for a time, it seemed the organizers were duly chastened. Turns out they were just figuring out how to make fun of whole new groups of people.

What else to think of the E3 Saxo Classic’s latest attempt at promotion, a crude, homophobic cartoon that amazingly might be the race’s worst yet? (I’m not reproducing it here, but for anyone who hasn’t seen it, it depicts Wout van Aert crossing a race finish line on a bike without a seat before a crowd with a rainbow flag displayed overhead. The main caption, in Dutch, reads, “Wout van Aert crosses the finish line without his saddle! LGBTQ community extremely enthusiastic.” The race’s triangle logo, with title sponsor Saxo Bank’s name, is in the lower right corner.) After posting it on social media and getting roasted for it, the organizers helpfully doubled down by explaining that it was a reference to the two-time defending E3 champ winning the World Cup cyclocross round last Sunday in Benidorm after breaking off his seat in a last-lap crash.

It’s a broadly accepted rule of thumb in comedy that if you have to explain the joke, it ain’t landing with the audience. But E3 grimly stuck to its position and attempted to, as the kids used to say, tweet through it, before reversing course and deleting the offending posts and issuing a briefly worded apology.

It’s tempting to ask: what were they thinking? 

I did ask, in fact. In a message to the organizers’ press contact, I asked how the cartoon and post came to be, and what lessons were learned from past experiences with controversial promotions that had been forgotten here. I also contacted Saxo Bank’s corporate media relations office (the Saxo race logo is attached to the cartoon) to ask how the bank felt about its name being associated with homophobic tropes. 

I even looked up the cartoonist, Bart Vantieghem, who Lambiek Comiclopedia says is also a comedian who “brings his often controversial humor to the Flemish stages.” You don’t say. Alas, Bart’s web site runs on Flash, which Adobe stopped supporting three years ago and so the site displays as an empty frame, which might be the most appropriate commentary we can offer.

In an e-mail reply, Vantieghem said this is the fourth year in a row he’s been commissioned to create cartoons for the race. He does 10 a year and says, “In the past I always had ‘carte blanche,’ and there never seemed much problems.” He said it wasn’t his intention to be offensive, “just to mislead the viewer.” The cartoon “is just a vulgar cliché of what the average man thinks about gay people. But the joke is of course that the LGBTQ guys in the crowd are enthusiast [sic] about the rainbow flag on the shirt of [Mathieu] Van der Poel.” Vantieghem claimed he shared the cartoon on his Facebook account and “2 gay friends loved it. So I would advise people not to be so short-sighted and read the full cartoon instead of the headline.”

I’m not sure I buy all that.

Van der Poel isn’t pictured in the cartoon, for one. And while Vantieghem claims a kind of clever double-entendre, the joke is as stale as it is offensive. Humor certainly can be edgy and transgressive – some of the best is, I’d argue. But to be clever requires the right touch; judging by the highly negative response to the cartoon on social, the kindest thing you can say was the whole thing fell very flat. Considered in isolation, maybe that’s a reasonable takeaway. But in context of the race’s history, maybe more skepticism is needed. Vantieghem allowed in his e-mail that the race “has a tradition of announcing posters that are sometimes a little controversial,” so he can’t claim ignorance of E3’s track record.

The race’s title sponsor didn’t seem much amused by the whole episode either. “The recent social media post by the event organizers is highly inappropriate and does not reflect our values as a company nor the values of cycling as a sport,” said Saxo Bank’s global head of communications, Lasse Lilholt, in a brief reply to my e-mail. “We’ve taken immediate steps to address this with the organizers.” Lilholt added that Saxo Bank doesn’t have pre-emptive control or oversight over the race’s social media content. But it wouldn’t surprise me if the sponsor was as much or more a factor in E3 deleting the post as the public reaction.

E3’s organizers were the only party not to respond to my request for comment. But honestly, I don’t think there’s any great mystery here about their thought process. They have been showing us for years what they think of women, including a bizarre 2019 promo poster with two women in digitally rendered body paint shown in an embrace, depicting some kind of frog prince (yeah, again, a little disturbing). And now, homophobia. Just racism and antisemitism to go and E3 can win Bigotry Bingo!

All that from a race that, if it were a person, would be Cousin Greg from “Succession.” E3 is a relative youngster among the cobbled events, and its importance derives mostly from its fortuitous place on the calendar as a perfectly timed dress rehearsal for the Tour of Flanders; about half of the last 20 editions of the Ronde have been won by someone who was on the podium at E3. Most of E3’s major features are ones made famous by Flanders. As courses go, it’s added little original flavor to the sport unlike, say, Strade Bianche, a far younger event that feels both older and more important while also being more innovative.

While I’m here, the name: E3 doesn’t even refer to a sponsor; the race started in 1958 as Harelbeke-Antwerp-Harelbeke and was renamed in the 60s in “honor” of the European E3 highway, which no longer exists by that name except in France. That’s right: your famous cobbled classic bike race is named for a concrete monument to car culture.

E3’s place in the WorldTour firmament is, like so much generational wealth, a product mostly of the serendipitous accident of birth. Not that it wants to share any of its good fortune. Just last week, the race called off its women’s event (Leiedal Koerse) after only two editions, claiming that the “model for women’s competitions is sputtering.” 

Huh, that’s kinda not what we hear, about bike racing or women’s sports in general. Maybe holding Leiedal Koerse in late April, well after men’s and women’s cobbled classics season is over, was part of the problem. Maybe – and we’re just spitballing here – the promoters’ decade-plus history of bad behavior makes it hard for them to find sponsors who will put up with their infantile antics. Maybe they’re just bad at the job.

We’ll see if there’s any lasting impact or if the organizers’ “internal discussion” mostly involves soothing egos. Worst of all, maybe this little stunt works. On the race’s Twitter account, the posts immediately before the homophobic cartoon are other race poster-style graphics (not by Vantieghem). None has more than a few thousand views, according to Twitter metrics, while the offensive one neared 300,000 before it was deleted. And here I am writing about it and yes, I am conflicted about that.

It’s not a secret that in 2024 some people simply delight in being the center of attention, any attention; that they get a thrill out of seeing how others respond to their darkest impulses; that some feel emboldened to be the worst version of themselves, since there don’t seem to be consequences anymore for that. Maybe this post just plays into all that. But if nothing else, what the E3 organizers did Monday is a reminder: we know exactly who you are. And we know you’re never going to change.

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