Belgium On My Bike
I learned a long time ago that I have eclectic tastes in just about everything. Music, art and even sports. As big a fan as I am of baseball, football, basketball and other traditional sports, I also follow English Soccer and Pro Cycling will an equal fervor. So I’ve always had it in my head to go see some cycling races in Europe and ride my bike over some of the storied routes of what are called “The Classics.” So when my long-time friend and bike guru Phil Foreman of Champion Cycling in Mandarin invited me along for a trip to Belgium this spring, I jumped at the chance.
I know something about Belgium, like where it is and how to get there. Some of the history, especially the country’s role in the two World Wars of the 20th century. And how they aren’t exactly Switzerland, but based on the countries surrounding it (France, Germany, the Netherlands and the North Sea) and as the capital of the European Union, they know how to make alliances and get along. I also didn’t know that cycling is their passion, their hobby, their existence way beyond just being a sport. Brussels is just like any other big city in Europe, a mixture of old and new architecture, two million inhabitants and snarling traffic. I was much more interested in the countryside where they contested the one-day races Tour of Flanders and the much hated and respected Paris-Roubaix.
An overnight flight put me in Belgium on a Thursday morning, dreary and overcast, but to be expected. It is northern Europe in the spring after all. Phil and the other guys in the group arrived a day early for an overnight excursion to Amsterdam, so I had some time to get acclimated to the time change (seven hours ahead of EST), the language barrier (Flemish), the money exchange (1 to 1.3 dollars to Euros!) before they made it back.
To no one’s surprise, Delta hadn’t delivered their luggage, now 36 hours later (you know what Delta stands for, Don’t Expect Luggage to Arrive) so our 1st day warm-up ride was postponed ‘till the morning. It was dark when we finished putting together our bikes, but we were just in time for a minor Belgian pub crawl to sample the local beers.
Beer is to Belgians what wine is to the French. They’re very serious about their beer, serving each beer in an especially logoed glass with a formality that would seem quaint to beer drinking North Americans. Beer wasn’t the only thing we learned about that night. If cycling and beer drinking are among the top pastimes in Belgium, smoking runs a close third. It actually might outdistance the other two combined if you consider the population as a whole. No matter where you were (except in church) everybody, and I mean everybody was lighting up. The restaurants and pubs were so full of smoke you had to step outside every once in a while to get a breath of fresh air. We started picking our watering holes based on the amount of smoke pouring out the front door. The situation did spawn the best line of the trip when Phil asked “anybody got any Nicorette gum? I’ve got to kick this habit before I get home!”
Phil, John Vance, Walter Campbell and Ron Howland from Jacksonville along with Alex Arato from Long Island turned out to be the perfect traveling partners for this trip. All good, strong riders, all very knowledgeable about the pro cycling scene in Europe and all kind enough to look after me even though they could easily have been “off the front.” And, perhaps most importantly, they knew the “non-cycling experience” was just as important as the cycling. In other words, they all can drink some beer.
It didn’t slow us down the next morning when we went off on about a 20 mile spinning jaunt out of the town of Aalst. Back to the town square for lunch (and boy did we get some looks) then off for an “organized” ride from the hotel at 2pm. We rode with CSC Assistant Team Director Scott Sunderland, a recently retired professional rider. An Australian who’s lived in Belgium for the last 18 years, Scott was the highlight of the trip. He’s accomplished just about everything you’d want in a professional cycling career so he didn’t have anything to prove. That attitude allowed him to ride with us, chat about riding, the pro circuit and the personalities involved. He couldn’t have been nicer, more helpful or more customer service oriented.
And that came in handy.
The final five miles of our ride that afternoon involved two steep cobblestone climbs, “The Muur” and “The Bossberg,” both legendary in Belgian cycling. As I struggled up the Bossberg at the back of the pack, I huffed to Scott, “I’ve got 10 years at 80 pounds on all of these guys.” Scott replied “No worries mate, it’s not a race,” as he calmly pedaled his way to the top. It was just the right thing to say at the right time, a knack Scott showed for the duration of the trip, each time we rode with him. That afternoon’s ride was a preview of what was to come. Every ride was full of surprises, changes in the weather and a blend of cruising descents and lung-busting, thigh-searing climbs.
Saturday’s ride was as a part of the Cyclosportif Tour de Flanders. It’s like the amateur ride in advance of the professional competition on Sunday. Outside of a golf Pro-Am, it’s the only thing I can think of that allows recreational athletes to compete on the same playing field as the best in the world will compete on the next day. We chose the 140 km course that included 16 climbs, 13 of which were cobblestones and under 10 feet wide. “You’d have to ride it to believe it,” is the best description I’ve heard about that experience.
It’s hard to describe what it’s like to ride the nearly 90 miles with 22,000 other registered riders. The climbs varied from 10 to 22 percent making it a physical and mental challenge as the day went on. I started dreading the descents, not wanting to give up that much altitude, knowing there’d be a climb around the corner to make me pay for this leisurely cruise! I walked the last hundred yards of two climbs, including the 22% Koppenberg where the guy in front of me fell and I had to stop. I unclipped my left pedal, only to fall to the right against the retaining fence, wiping out three sections of metal railing!
We joked that night that if we saw cows on the course the next day, we’d know where they came from! It was about the hardest single-day physical challenge I’ve ever encountered. I was glad everybody else agreed that it was tough, so tough in fact that if we knew how hard it was going to be, we might have said, “No thanks!”
I was anxious to watch the best in the world ride the same course the next day. Their ability brings you right back to earth. If you ever think you’re a good rider, just go watch how professional cyclists ride and climb. It’ll humble you right away.
That night after dinner, five of us headed off to the town square in Bruges to see what was going on on a Saturday night in Belgium. After a couple of “Leffe’s” a big group of young people came rolling out of the pub next to ours, with two guys in the front in a heated argument. They eventually separated themselves from the pack, and squared in the center of the small plaza. It looked pretty serious as they danced around and eyed each other, until one guy reached out a slapped the other to the ground.
That’s right, and the guy went to the deck and stumbled to get up. We just stood there laughing at the slap and the subsequent kicking display. Some young girls tried to break it up, but they were quickly brushed aside. We laughed that if this was in the US, some bouncer would have already taken care of this, and whatever was left over would be picked up by the sweeping local police. “Anybody can start a fight,” I told the group. “Finishing it is the key.”
You’ve got to be dedicated to be a cycling fan. They show up early, brave the weather, stand five deep throughout the course to see the “Whoosh” of the leaders and the peleton go by. We were part of that scene on Sunday at the Tour of Flanders. On the side of the mountain known as “The Muur” our group fanned out to find a good vantage point to see the climb and the leaders as they went by. Phil and I found a spot near the top, with a TV screen across the course and the beer tent behind us. We watched the leaders cruise by with much better looks than we had the day before, and waited for the peleton and Lance Armstrong as well.
Lance had apparently done a lot of work for teammate George Hincappe earlier in the race and looked pained as he ascended the second to last climb. Once they were by, we retired to the beer tent to watch the rest of the race unfold on television. And we weren’t alone. There were about a half million fans on the side of the mountain that day, and after the race went by, they were all looking for a place to see the finish. After about 10 minutes in front of the TV, I looked around to see the fans were about 15 deep behind me. The whole place went nuts when a Belgian, Tom Boonen won the race in a solo breakaway.
Generally, Belgians are pretty reserved, but overhearing Phil and I speaking English on the way down, the guy walking in front of us asked where we were from. “Florida,” I responded. “Oh, I’ve been to Florida,” he quickly answered. “Disneyworld?” I asked. “Yes, and many other places in Florida on holiday for three weeks last year,” he proudly said. Turns out the guy was about as nice as can be, so we spent about an hour talking to him and his young son before making our way to the rallying point.
Surprise, surprise, the rallying point was bar in the middle of town.
The rest of our group was already camped at a corner table, so we just jumped into the festivities. The group at the next table had one guy who spoke English (kind of) so we exchanged banter with them about the race. “Where are you from,” the guy asked me. Again in answered, “Florida.” “You’re Americans?” he said with an incredulous look on his face. “Sure. Why?” I asked. “I live about 200 miles from here and I’ve been coming here to this race for 20 years and I’ve never seen an American here. Are you here for the race?” “Of course, and we rode this yesterday,” I added as an aside. “Really! You rode this? Buy these men a beer!” our new found friend shouted to the waiter in both English and Flemish.
We spent plenty of time there, and the guy thanked me twice for being an American and for the sacrifice our country has made over the years for his. That seemed to be the general thought process as well. Maybe it’s just the Parisians that have a problem with Americans because in the countryside of Northern France and throughout Belgium, we were treated well.
We rode out of Bruges on Monday and Tuesday, the highlight being Monday’s ride with Scott. We were in his backyard basically, so he took us through a bunch of farm roads and saw plenty of that part of the country. We headed to the famed “Koppenberg” where the cobbled climb in matched by an equally as steep cobbled descent. It was cold and wet and about halfway up my bike completely flipped out from under me and I went down hard. Nothing really hurt by my pride, and Scott advised all of us to walk down the descent because it was so slick. Christian decided to give it a whirl and carefully navigated his way down. Pretty impressive. Scott took us to the Discovery Team’s hotel and we spent some time talking with Discovery’s “director sportif” Dirk De Mol.
Wednesday we were back at the start of the mid-week race, Ghent-Wevelghem a so-called “mini classic.” It was freezing, so I headed into the town of Denzie to see the start. The stage where the sign in happens was a quarter the size of the one at Bruges but the announcers/hosts were keeping things light and moving. One guy did the entertaining while the other did all of the interviews. He spoke to six different riders in six languages, none of them English.
Our group headed to the Koppenberg to watch the race as it comes over that climb twice. Only about 40 riders were left by the time the peleton got there. Apparently a big crash had taken a lot of guys out and the rest abandoned, saving their strength for the weekend and Paris-Roubaix.
There are a lot of sights in Belgium, but one of the most stunning is seeing men urinate in public just about everywhere. You might think I’m exaggerating but I’m talking about up against buildings, in bushes while scores of people are promenading by. It’s a little bit of culture shock to say the least. Occasionally we’d see a four-sided outdoor urinal, unenclosed. I theorized that if they could get the guys to use that at least, it’d be a step in the right direction. No American modesty there!
Thursday was one of the toughest riding days any of us had ever experienced. It was chilly but the ride from Ghent to our next stop, Tournai, was 65 miles dead into a 40 mph headwind. It was brutal. Why we didn’t drive to Tournai and ride to Ghent, downwind, I don’t know. Not enough advance planning I guess. We were slogging across this one stretch between towns that was wide open for as far as you could see. Walter dubbed it “The Killing Field,” it was so tough. I felt like I was going across Antarctica or something. I passed out in my room in Tournai for two hours when we got there.
Tournai is a neat town and very French, being right on the border. In Brussels they speak Flemish and some English. As we worked our way west, they spoke more Flemish and less English. And when we got to Tournai, they spoke no Flemish, no English and all French. I took French in High School, so I knew enough to be dangerous and get along.
Friday broke cold and rainy, but we were headed to the famed cobbles of Paris-Roubaix so the excitement and anticipation was pretty thick. We stopped a few kilometers from the start of section 20 of the cobbles (there are 26 sections). The beginning of our ride was a continual climb so I, of course, was dropped immediately, but hung on the back, just in sight of the group.
Scott was along for this ride and had given us just a quick “Cobbles 101” course before we headed out. Stay relaxed, don’t grip the handlebars too tight, ride the crown when you can and KEEP PEDALING, were the main points.
You can talk all you want about the cobbles, but nothing prepares you for riding them the first time. They’re wet, slick, muddy and rough doesn’t describe the ride. The pros go through the cobbled sections at about 26 mph. I was doing somewhere between 12 and 15, so instead of hitting every third one, I was getting the full effect. Your helmet is banging on your glasses, your hands go numb, your bike is fishtailing all over the place and the seat is bouncing so hard you’re convinced your bike will break apart at any second.
And that’s just the first hundred yards or so.
I was following Alex on a particularly muddy and slick section when his front wheel went to the right and his back wheel dropped off the crown to the left and he had no choice but to go down. I was trying to maneuver around him, but I was sure I was going to run right over him! I jinked right, then further right, heard Scott yelling in my head “Keep Pedaling” and just about made it around Alex when he stuck his hand out for balance and I ran right over it! I was absolutely mortified, but Alex yelled “I’m fine, keep going,” in a rather sporting fashion so I did just that. “You OK?” I yelled back. “Keep going,” was his only reply.
Luckily Alex wasn’t seriously injured by the fall or by his hand getting run over. It was kind of funny to see the tire tracks later on his glove though. He might have cracked a rib in the fall and was done riding for the day shortly thereafter.
We got through 15 sections before it really started raining and getting cold, so we made a direct move to Tournai, all of us except for Christian that is. He kept on, heading for more cobbles and Roubaix. When we finally say him that night he had finished but looked like a Zombie. “I was thinking about that hot shower for the last 20 K,” is what he told us the next day.
We returned to the cobbles on Saturday, but not before it started snowing while we were sitting at breakfast. There was some talk about calling the day’s ride off but that was quickly quashed by thoughts of coming all this way and not finishing the job. It was downright freezing when we left, around 28 degrees Fahrenheit and didn’t feel like it got above freezing the rest of the day. More cobbles lead to the town of Roubaix and the Velodrome. WE tooled around the Velodrome a couple of times but up high the white paint on the track was pretty slick. My back wheel slipped down making an “Ack, Ack, Ack” noise before it caught the pavement. I heard the same sound as Phil fell at that same spot. Luckily without injury, but with a little paint on his handlebars, a small memento from the trip.
We opted out of chasing the race the next day and instead; six of us joined John the Englishman and his friends at the Pave’ Gourmand restaurant in a small town for lunch along the course. We had met John and his friends at the hotel in Tournai and kind of invited ourselves along for the day. He and his friends were very gracious, adding us to their reservation. Our table of 15 had our own TV in the corner. It was a fabulous meal, and great company. After the main course, we walked outside, saw the race come through, and then headed back to our table for coffee and dessert.
The drive back to Aalst was uneventful and we packed up our bikes for the flight home.
Despite five calls to confirm taking our bikes on an international flight was free, Delta (typical) stuck us for $90 each coming back home.
It was a great adventure and as Walter told us “the group makes the trip.” He’s right, that group made the adventure fun and hopefully we’ll get together and do this again soon. Preferably somewhere warm. And flat.