Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Story - Experiencing the Belgian Kermesses

In early 1992 I went out to race in Belgium, sort of on a lark. My family lived there, they had a car. I figured I could take advantage of an "already in place" support system, one that could provide hard-to-get things like transportation, food/shelter, and English speaking people.

I brought my bike, spare wheels, spare rims (and spokes), a roof rack, 50 Power Bars, my tool box, everything I thought I'd need for a 3 week, 9 race campaign. My bike box weighed over 46 kilograms - about 102 pounds! Over the course of a few months my mom had gotten information on local races, learned which publications had race info (remember this is pre-Internet as we know it), and I got a letter from the USCF saying I could race in Belgium (and Holland, just in case). Finally I got myself an International License with my picture on it.

I felt like I was going into a Twilight Zone episode. It seemed so unreal.

Me: Cat 3, reasonably fit, good sprint, terrible TT/climber. Them: one step below the best pros - some winners earlier signed with the big teams in the area - PDM, Buckler, Tonton Tapis, etc. Guys trying to break into the pro field.

I trained a lot leading up to that trip - a winter of two 100+ miles days each week, getting fit/lean/etc. We'd usually ride from Ridgefield, go up past the center of Kent, and do the steepest hills we could find using a topographic map of the area. We did some fast riding during those days too, cruising down Route 7 with my teammate John at 28 mph. I'd never felt so at ease on the bike. We felt strong and cocky.

One climb, off of Route 7, was horrible - after about 40 miles of riding we'd hit what amounted to the second big climb of the day. The first time I did it I was in my bottom gear, 42x26 (I'd switched out the 21T), and weaving back and forth like a drunk. A couple months later, on the same climb, I scampered away, turning something like a 42x17, and got to the top with enough time to get off my bike, lay down on a rock wall, and pretend I was sleeping before John got there.

I got a new bike over the winter, a Cannondale equiped with the innovative Campy Ergopower levers, 8 speed cassette, and a host of goodies. I built up the wheels with light FIR Isidis rims (approx 330g box section tubulars), alloy spoke nipples, double butted 15 gauge (1.8mm) spokes. The bike was really light, really responsive.

I rode a 50 cm Cannondale with a couple inches of post showing. John rode a 66 cm Cannondale with a 400mm mountain post at max height. We must have looked quite a sight. Cannondales were an anomaly in Europe - most people had not seen one before. The fat tubes, the cantilever dropout, my Aerolite pedals, all were "American" and many, many people picked up my 17 pound bike and expressed doubts about its reliability.

The knowledgeable ones questioned my choice of a "climbing" rim as opposed to their sturdy 400-450g choices of a "reliable" rim. They were curious about the Ergo levers, the first generation, the first available. For these starving wanna-be-pros and their (usually) dads, they were a great luxury and everyone checked them out.

Most of them were riding old Campy, downtube, friction, with 32 hole GP4's. A standard racing bike, no frills. Not light but who needs lightness when your altimeter barely registers a few feet a race? I realized the downtube shifters were appropriate later - they just put it in the 12T and go.

First race (and every race - for the 9 races I did) were on 5-7 km lap courses, 20 or so laps. Flat. Some wind, not as much as I'd expect. Maybe 1/4 cobbles. Due to our international licenses, we could only do international races (i.e. cat 1 level probably). We were both middling Cat 3's and seriously out of our element.

We changed in the car but I learned at the last race that this is illegal. Race listings (in Flemish) list a something ("changing location", a restaurant/bar with all the chairs pushed to one side) and a something else ("registration location", another restaurant/bar but they set up a row of tables for you to register, sign, pick up a number, and stuff like that).

You go to the registration bar, inevitably filled with old men smoking up a storm. It seemed like they were discussing the odds of various racers winning - apparently racing is also a betting sport. An old lady (usually - I don't remember a guy doing this) types up the number, name, and team on a manual typewriter. Clack clack clack. They make copies and sell them for 10 francs to the bettors and spectators. You'd see people walking around with them, checking off names as they dropped, talking about the unchecked names excitedly.

Registration was 100 francs but you got 90 back if you returned your very sturdy number - usually a very nicely painted number (think Sesame Street numbers) on the back of what looked like a vinyl coated tablecloth. Sometimes they didn't have change so they'd give you the full 100 francs, especially since I got shelled so quickly.

That's a foreshadowing hint by the way.

They pull you if you're more than three minutes behind. They stop pulling racers when the remaining racers all have place money - 20 or 40 places in the races I did. The prizes are paid for by the Belgian Federation. Therefore race costs were minimal. However, at that time, a Belgian license was over $300 annually. The best thing to do would be to get a $30 US license and race in Belgium - but only if you were really, really good.

Most of the fields were 195-210 racers. No field limits but I learned that field limits wouldn't have changed things.

First race I figured they'd go easy for 30-50 km and then put the hammer down. I casually warmed up, rolled around a little, and lined up. It was a "shorter" course, perhaps 5 km in length. There was a long, slight uphill stretch to the finish - perhaps 1% grade, maybe 800+ meters in length. I optimistically counted pedal revolutions to the finish to gauge where to launch my sprint. We got all set, they lined us up, and we went.

I got pulled after one lap.

My max speed that lap was over 70 kph. That's 44 miles an hour. On a flat course.

And I got dropped on that lap!

I got dropped so bad I couldn't see anyone in the race on the long finish stretch. I got pulled off the course by the officials and everyone pointed at the American on the really fat light bike that is too light and stiff for cobbles.

I approached races differently after that. I had no illusions of making 100-120km. I wanted to do just 5 km. Therefore I started warming up to do a 5 km sprint. Heat rub. Jettison water. Lightest wheels. Highest pressure. Anything to buy me 5 or 10 kph.

Every race was the same. My legs were screaming from all the Atomic Balm I had on (and back then, it came with turpentine - to help penetrate skin). I was doing hard jumps to prepare for the launch off the line. And we were training by doing very fast sections separated by spinning - trying to improve our speed.

And every race (Sat, Sun, Wed) was the same. We'd get pulled after the first lap.

There was one point to point race we were thinking of doing in our pre-trip planning. My mom had sent us a bunch of VeloNews equivalents with race dates, locations, and registration information. The point to point was a long race, something like 150 or 200 km. But when we realized how bad we were, we chickened out. Plus I was sick. Good thing - we saw the race on TV (!). Phil Anderson and Dag-Otto Lauritzen, both top pros for Motorola, were putting the hurt on the locals. I think Lauritzen won. His other palmares includes a mountain stage in a race you might know - the Tour de France. Anderson is not shabby either - stages wins in the Tour, many days in the Yellow, and a host of smaller wins and close calls in the Classics.

I was sort of glad I was sick that day.

My teammate left a couple days before I did so I had one race to do on my own. 7 km course - long. Two more kilometers to hang on. I changed in the car (that's when I learned it was illegal to do that). Atomic Balm. Warm up. Check out the first couple kilometers of the course (as opposed to checking out the finish - I knew my place). I just wanted to make a lap and this was the last chance I had.

We lined up as normal on some small town road. Cobbles, sidewalks on both sides. The announcer yelled something. I must have looked lost - the guy next to me said in accented English "he's saying don't ride on the sidewalks". I don't know how long the race was - my goal was 7 km. 40 places. 200+ racers.

And then they sent us off.

Everyone immediately bunnyhopped onto the sidewalks, scattering spectators, causing a lot of ruckus at the start area. I found a concrete gutter and rode in that. 55-60 kph, 35-38 mph, situation normal. Everything was fine. It was the 65-70 kph, 40-43 mph sections which killed me. We narrowed into single file for some turn, went even faster. Wondering who the eff (in capitals) was at the front.

Right, he's probably trying to impress Peter Post or Jan Raas or some other Pro team director.

Blast around turns. One road was about 5 feet wide with overgrown hedges on one side and a brick wall on the other. The hedges narrowed it down even more. Lifesaver. No wind, single file, no one can pass. Everyone had to wait behind me. I didn't open a gap but on a 1 km stretch like that normally 30-40-50 racers would fly past me at 70+ kph.

Instead, due to the hedges, no one did.

Fast turn. Dirt inside. Everyone coasted. I pedal frantically in the dirt, through the turn, blast by about 15 guys, they all yell at me. Crazy American with the fat light bike, the weird pedals, using rims that will fall apart after a week or two of racing.

The strong riders let their legs do the talking on the straights. If you have to pull moves on corners they yell at you.

I'm not strong so I pulled those moves.

The last bit leading back into town is a curvy road, lined with ditches and electric cow fences. I actually saw the lead car once, probably due to my cornering antics. But I fell back as we hit the cobbles. I could maintain 55 kph but everyone else - 60-65 kph. I got into a concrete gutter, smooth as silk after cobbles. And the guys behind would ride around me, opting to go over cobbles instead of sitting on my wheel.

And they'd fly past me.

Their strength was simply astounding.

I focused on holding the wheel in front. I kept hunting gears, trying to find something bigger than my 12T. After a bit of this I looked up when I heard some yelling. I was at the start/finish! I finished a lap! I'd made my goal.

But the race had another 100 km or so. I kept going, I felt good, fast, spinning ridiculously high gears.

Through the hedge section. My legs were screaming. Suddenly I hated the smooth road - it meant the others went that much faster. I like the cobbles better. At least I could say, "well, they dropped me on the cobbles." Sounds reasonable. And no one here would know what that meant.

I could barely hang onto the wheel. I was dying. Next section I was done.

Everyone went by me. The follow car stayed behind me briefly but the driver, probably an astute ex-racer, saw my massive difficulties and went around and rushed up to the tail end of the single file field. I slowed to a mere 50 kph, gasping, wondering how these guys do it.

As we hit the cobbles after the curvy cow section, a racer trundled by, his wheel thrumming on the cobbles. He was spinning a tiny gear, perhaps a 53x16, going 55 kph or so. I got on his wheel, and now I was going 55 kph. I started wondering when I'd come off. But his spinning was maxing out his aerobics. I was thinking of telling him to shift up but I don't know Flemish. I actually pulled through, churning a 13T or so, and after 20 or so pedal strokes, let him pull for another kilometer.

We flew past the start finish area. Two laps! This was incredible.

But, realistically, it was my last lap. Way behind the field (but not 3 minutes!). And one guy for company.

We went through the hedges. He kept spinning ridiculously fast. And when we got the curvy cow section, he started to ease. He knew I couldn't really pull. So he was stuck on his own. Why fight the inevitable?

I eased too and we rolled up to the start finish at some sedate speed, perhaps 45 kph. The officials blew the whistle and pulled us over.

I got to my car, dejected. I wanted another lap. I wanted another chance with the field. I wish I could do this for a whole year. I'd be in amazing shape.

I thought about this in the car. I decided not to change in the car as I had learned that morning that it's illegal, big fine, bad things. I didn't want to get arrested for flashing someone - how would I explain that?

I got my bag and went to the Changing Bar. The previous times I entered one it'd been empty, a chair or two in the middle, a guy with a small bucket type thing of water, wiping himself down, his dad or girlfriend or coach sitting with a mournful look. Usually those guys had crashed, hence they were out, and they were nursing their wounds.

Today was different. Gloriously different.

I opened the door and got hit by a wall of noise. I walked in. The place was packed. A couple hundred people were there. The racers were obvious - they were the naked or half naked men, the ubiquitous bucket at their feet, wiping down the cow manure and dirt thrown up from the road. Around them, helping, jabbering, motioning, complaining, encouraging, crying (really!) were their supporters. Moms, Dads, girlfriends, coaches, teammates, friends. There was no concept of privacy, no segregation of sexes. Racers stood naked, trying to clean up, surrounded by their male and female supporters. Their buckets had hot water (I hadn't caught that before) and everyone took mini towel baths using that water.

One older non-racing guy was yelling a lot. He couldn't believe his guy (probably his son) got dropped. Someone said something to him. He started yelling again, to no one in particular. Apparently we'd done 1:07 kilometers for a lap or two, with the cobbles, wind, everything. He kept yelling that number over and over, shaking his head in disbelief, swearing (I know one swear in Dutch and he used it a lot).

I realized something.

Everyone was here.

Okay, not everyone. But everyone who wasn't in the top 40 was in here.

I changed and went out to watch the race. I took pictures. Counted racers. And timed the gaps.

There were a few groups on the road. The last big one, perhaps 10 or 12 riders, was at least three minutes down. But they were in the top 40 and so they'd be left in the race.

It hit me then. I was the same as all the other "Can't Be Pros". I'd gotten pulled just like the 160+ others in the Changing Bar.

I got back to my car, tired, elated.

I was a racer. And although it took me a few weeks of intense suffering, I'd elevated myself into the bottom of the elite amateur rung. The very bottom, I have to admit. But I was there.

I returned to the US and didn't think too much would change.

I was so wrong. I placed in virtually every race I entered. I did a hilly road race - and since I didn't know the course (I never do road races), I didn't take it out of the big ring, even on the "tough" climbs. I cramped a couple miles from the end - I had also refused to drink water out of my "tough guy just-came-back-from-Belgium" ego.

I was strong though. Insanely strong.

My new favorite tactic was to go at the gun, pull whenever the pace dropped below 33-34 mph, and see who was left after five laps. At one race, with about 10 laps remaining, I went to the front simply to ride everyone off my wheel. It took two laps of 28-35+ mph speeds but I finally rid myself of everyone on my wheel. I did another half lap to prove that my speed wasn't a fluke, looked back at all the suffering racers, then sat up and waited another half lap for everyone to catch me. I sprinted late and got fourth but I didn't care. I could ride riders off my wheel at will.

The last race of the year I did the same thing. For the first four laps I was either pulling or sitting on the lead guy. We were going 35 mph on the straights. I got tired after four laps and looked around. I didn't realize it but I'd dropped my faithful teammate Kevin. With no one to chase down breaks I monitored the front for much of the race.

At 8 to go I launched a probing attack. No one came with me. In two laps I'd built up a 20 second gap. I thought about what to do. 6 laps on my own? If this was a movie, I'd have put my head down and went for it. But my paltry 28 mph pace seemed too slow, especially compared to the 40+ mph surges the fields in Belgium dished out. I knew I could sprint. So I eased and recovered for a lap while the field chased me down. I slotted in at the front and waited too long in the sprint. Fourth again. I swore I'd do better "next year".

I never had a year like that again.

But I know to what I can attribute my form. The Belgian Kermesses. The killer pace.

The breeding grounds for the toughest pros around.

Pro Sitings


gewilli said...

GREAT story. Well written, passionate and compelling!

Very nice!

Anonymous said...

Very nice reading! I check your blog daily and it keeps me riding,..thanks man!

Anonymous said...

Aki, my friend, keep the stories coming. I know I've heard most of them before in person, but getting to experience them again on SDC is great. VeloNews, Cycle Sport and Bicycling haven't offered you writing jobs yet?
I look forward to new posts daily.

Unknown said...

dude what a great story! i love your blog bro, good shit!!

Aki said...

thx for all the comments. I tell you, that was a once in a lifetime thing and though from a "success" point of view it was pretty bad, I was really glad to have had the chance to experience such overwhelmingly superior racing.