The Leuven Hundreds

Portraits of a city's people, today

We’ve joined forces with Leuven to highlight 100 local people, places and projects that contribute towards making the city what it is today. From artists and architects to producers and professors, these are the driving forces powering Leuven forward one ingenious initiative at a time.

Olivier Sels

Olivier Sels

Co-owner, Fietsen King (1974)

Can you describe what you do?

I run a bicycle shop named Fietsen King in Kessel-Lo. I first started working in this shop 2008 – when it was still called Fietsen Koen – after working as a hydrogeologist for KU Leuven, a consultancy firm and the Flemish Government for a decade. As a regular client of Fietsen Koen, I was offered the opportunity to work there and I thought, “Why not?” It was a childhood dream of mine, after all, and I was getting a little tired of all the tedious desk work and environmental reports. After six years, I officially took over the shop during the summer of 2014 with my wife Daphne Stalpaert (who incidentally is a biologist, and has worked as a science teacher for the last ten years), and we now run the shop together. With our small team of four employees, we moved the shop from Martelarenlaan, running alongside the railroad tracks from Leuven Station, to Blauwputplein – which we believe will someday soon become the new centre of Kessel-Lo. Specifically, we’re now located in De Centrale Werkplaatsen, a former railway site. There’s plenty of old, industrial buildings around here, one of which was taken over by a new project called HAL 5 which combines all sorts of different social activities. It’s an ideal place to be located in, as you can feel the neighbourhood’s vibrancy evolve on a daily basis.

How do you perceive Leuven?

I think of Leuven as a provincial town: big enough to have all the advantages of a metropole, and small enough to live in happily, raising your children without having to be afraid of “big city problems” like heavy traffic, poverty or criminality. I also see a healthy mix of people emanating from all strands of education levels: of course there’s a strong number of highly-educated folks, seeing as Leuven is one of the oldest university towns in the world but thanks to an important factory and industrial culture here, we also have a solid working class. Our clients come from both these groups. Historically, Kessel-Lo was considered the less-affluent part of Leuven, with its many small ‘werkmanshuisjes’, but in recent years a lot of young people have made Kessel-Lo hip and trendy. I sometimes jokingly tell people that Kessel-Lo is the Bronx and Manhattan of Leuven combined.  What’s more, Leuven is a very bike-friendly city in my opinion – although there is still a lot of work to be done concerning parking bicycles, which is proving to be a difficult matter for all students. Something needs to be done about the limiting number of parking places, and a City council which is not necessarily that bike-friendly after all.

What is Leuven’s main appeal as a city? What gives it its edge?

Its small scale, abundance of interesting job opportunities, a lot of very good schools, and its proximity to many green spaces or even forests. Also, its central location in Belgium – close to Brussels, Zaventem Airport, and the main highways – and the recent, imminent growth of the City, especially in terms of its building and infrastructure are all very attractive. And of course, all its historical buildings. I couldn’t put it better than the City’s motto, Leuven: eeuwenoud, springlevend.

I sometimes jokingly tell people that Kessel-Lo is the Bronx and Manhattan of Leuven combined.

How has Leuven contributed to making you who you are today? What role has the city played in shaping your outlook and career?

As I studied Geology at the University, and started working there too immediately after my studies, it’s obvious that Leuven played a very big role in my younger years as well as at the start of my career. As I met my wife during our studies here in Leuven, started my first job here, followed by a second career path – all from the tender age of 18 – I could never imagine wanting to live anywhere else. We first bought a small house in Kessel-Lo after a couple of years, and moved to a bigger place a couple years later.

On a personal level, what would you like to see more of in the city? What could it do better?

Although I have enormous amounts of respect for all the work that the former Town Mayor Louis Tobback did over the last few decades, I think it’s time for some new, fresh blood in the office. Their political standings are not important – as long as they’re able and dedicated to continue the journey that Leuven has been following, and succeed in improving the general mentality towards cyclists, I would be the happiest citizen of Leuven. I think making Leuven the most bike-friendly city in Belgium is not just something feasible, but is also on our near horizon.

If you had to take out-of-towners to one place that truly symbolises the city, what would it be?

If I have friends over visiting Leuven, of course I would take them to the centre of town and show them our beautiful Town Hall, the Grote and Oude Markt squares, and some nice University buildings like its Library. A good way to visit Leuven is to simply cycle or stroll around town – but if the visitors are mountain-bikers, then we would have to head to all the nice forests and hills around Leuven.