Thursday, February 18, 2010

Story - Experiencing the Belgian Kermesses - Pictures

In a much earlier post I described an epic (to me) trip to Belgium. I wanted to race in the heart of the hardened Classics area, the Belgian-Dutch border. I don't re-describe most of what happened so you can read Part 1 and a much more brief Part 2 before you read this somewhat lengthy post.

The big addition here? Pictures.

Back at that post-posting time I didn't have the wherewithal to scan some hard-earned pictures. But now, with the new scanner we have here, it's not quite so difficult.

Therefore, I present... pictures from the Belgian trip in 1992.

First off, I had to get there. Thanks to the now defunct airline Sabena, I did just that.

I had a bicycle. And I'll have a nice flight, thanks!

It's interesting to see the progression of airline tickets. Now you have just a boarding pass, and your info is essentially electronic. Back then the ticket was like gold. You had to have your ticket. I was totally paranoid I'd lose the return tickets during my stay in Belgium.

I like the electronic stuff better.

Setting off on a training ride from home base. I think that red thing is a mail box.

My parents lived in Belgium, just south of the Dutch border. This was the instigating factor to the whole trip. We would have a home base, food, not worry about language too much (my mom spoke Flemish), and transportation.

Note the roof rack on the (US-spec) car in the picture? I brought that over in my bike box. The box contained extra rims, spokes, tools, two boxes of PowerBars, the roof rack, and all sorts of other miscellaneous stuff. It weighed 102 lbs. I can't believe the airline accepted it. I had no idea about any excess baggage charges - I wasn't charged any, and maybe at the time they didn't have them.

The kids in the area called the house the Christmas House. You can see why.

(My brother and sister were here for a bit, going to high school, so they had some insight based on a different viewpoint.)

Some wild chickens lived in the area.

They'd wander around on the ground during the day, then roost in trees about 10-20 feet up at night.

It was weird to see chickens in the trees.

One of the first streets we'd see when we left. Cobbles.

It's hard not to get entranced by the "romantic" Europe, the cobbles, narrow roads, all the hallmarks of the hard classics of the low countries. It's another thing when you have to race in all that stuff.

A posed shot.

We wanted to show how small some of the streets were in the area. John was on a 66 cm frame, with a mountain bike post at max height, so he naturally made the small road look even smaller. We were riding by this street and I had John ride up it. Then he turned around and we kept going down the regular, wider street.

We wanted to get the truck in the road but the driver expertly backed into the driveway too quickly for us.

Bike path going north into Holland.

We found this path by accident. Actually, we followed another rider there, else we wouldn't have found it at all. That rider popped out from between two trucks, probably out of a back alley (all the row houses have a back alley connecting them). We'd stopped to figure out where we were and the guy almost bowled us over.

When I realized who it was we put our maps away and gave chase.

I mean, we had to.

It was Adri Van Der Poel.

Second at Worlds behind Lemond. Classics winner. And leader of the Tulip team.

John on Adri's wheel who is behind a moped.

We quickly caught up to him, our legs used to the 55-60 kph efforts dictated to us in races. Van der Poel wasn't in quite the rush so it wasn't like he was trying to stay away. He latched onto a moped and we followed suit.

I remembered I had the camera and realized that if I didn't take a picture now, when I was fresh, I'd have no picture when I was exploded, out of breath, shaking, etc. So I debated internally. Should I sit up and take a picture, thereby losing the wheel? Or should I enjoy this motorpacing session?

After thinking about it briefly I decided to sit up. I fumbled with the camera for a bit, coasting down while I doing so, and managed to take two pictures. First the above one, second where you could barely pick out a flash of Tulip "celeste" kit.

This was the only picture I got of a pro on a bike in Belgium.

Of course there was the racing. This is how we figured out which race we'd do - check out the local "Velonews". Apparently I can't scan the cover, but it's called CycloSprint, and it's just like the Velonews of old. Amateurish photos of some famous riders (like a bewildered looking Indurain, or a weary-of-cameras Museeuw), pictures of stuff I don't know (old guys in suits with mics in front of them), and, in the back, a race schedule.

My mom got all the CycleSprints, including a "season guide", and sent them to the US. What's interesting about the season guide is that it had every registered rider's name and address (!!!). Plus teams, prize list breakdowns, and some other stuff.

Since we had a lot of time we studied all of this stuff intently in the US, then, when it became apparent what we didn't know, once we got to Belgium.

The handwritten stuff is the "district" or the area.

We looked under "Liefhebbers". That's what we were. And "Amateurs". This was based on my mom's recon missions to the local shops. They also had some group rides but we never had the courage, wherewithall, or the inclination to try and find them.

We needed to find local races because gas was (and still is) relatively expensive in Europe. Antwerp was the closest one, but Brabant apparently wasn't too far away.

The first number is the distance (110-120 km typically, about 70-75 miles), the second the prize list, and some other stuff.

Entry fee was always 100 francs, and you got 90 of them back when you returned your number. We didn't know that so we went to the races with a lot of money for registration.

You'll notice that most race listings have a "KLEEDK/VEST" address. One is a location for registration, the other is the "changing bar" (my term). It's where racers have to go to get changed. Apparently it's extremely illegal to change in your car, but we did just that for all the races. Well, my last race someone told me that I had to change in the changing room, so I did. Luckily we didn't get fined or hauled off to jail.

We briefly contemplated doing a longer race - the FIAC races, with the term "en ligne". That means point to point. Then, when we got shelled in a few minutes in our first race, we realized that doing a point to point race would be, well, pointless.

We came home from one of our races, turned on the TV, and watched Phil Anderson and Dag Otto Lauritzen smash legs in one of the "en ligne" races. We discounted them after that.

An "en ligne" race we briefly thought of entering.

The last race was the only one where I made it a lap. Based on the picture date stamp, it was April 4th, and I'm pretty sure I didn't "plan" on going - I just looked up the town, drove there, and that was that. By then I was experienced at getting to races. It was just the racing part where I had problems.

Because of my incredible success at this race (I rode three laps, 21 km, instead of my normal one lap), I decided that I'd take some pictures of the guys who beat me. Plus I had no pictures of any of the races, so I figured I better get something for my memorabilia box.

Red lead car approaching.

Group behind lead car.

Group passing me.

Our Cannondales got a lot of curious looks. This was before Cipollini, before Indurain used aluminum. We showed up with a Cannondale 2.8 (me) and a 3.0 (John - because that's the only way you could get a 66 cm frame). My bike had Aerolite pedals, 330 gram FiR Isidis rims, 28/32 hole, and brand-spanking-new Ergo shifters.

It was the equivalent of bringing a Cervelo with Di2 and Lightweights to a Cat 5 race. A lot of racers' fathers/coaches examined our bikes, mine especially. They frowned at the pedals and really disapproved of the "super light, for climbing only" rims.

And I was thinking of bringing 280s!

For most riders it was friction downtube shifters, 32 hole GP4s or similar, and a no-nonsense steel frame. I realized that the fancy stuff I had counted little because you just slammed it into your biggest gear and went as hard as you could. Nothing else mattered.

Back of group.

Chase group.

Note - when you're racing in the country, it's really bucolic. Most of the fencing next to the roads had barb wire, and the really sparse fences had electric current running through them. The ditches were full of old stagnant water, cow manure, and whatever else drained off the road. You really didn't want to fall into one. And you don't toss bottles because you don't dare pick one up afterwards.

Of course, you have to need to toss a bottle - I never got to take a sip from one so it's a moot point.

Last group.

A different vantage point. Close up of the lead car. I'm leaning into the barb wire fence to take this shot.

Lead group I think. Note crit bars on first bike visible - very common in that time. Also note the older style helmets. I have no idea who any of these guys are, none.

Consider this - about 200 riders started the race. They all seemed really, really, really strong. Like all of them. All the non-placers, 160 (or maybe it was 180? they only had races with 20 or 30 or 40 places) racers, got pulled in the first 21 km of the race.

I was one of the last riders pulled, but it wasn't because I was good. It was only because I went so slow on the third 7 km lap, I was just one of the last guys to get to the line to get pulled. Guys were blowing by me at 35 mph on cobbles and they were already shelled.

It's absolutely astonishing what the front runners were doing, just astonishing. I got totally and completely shelled in one 5 km lap in my first race. And get this. My max speed was over 43 mph (70+ kph).

And it was flat!


Holy smolies and a dozen canolies.

What motivates racers to go so hard?

It's a rhetorical kind of question, well, sort of. Near home base stood this:

What awaited racers that failed (this is in Ghent).

Racing, at that time, in Europe, was a way out of a hard labor kind of job. It was a European version of basketball or baseball. Guys were really cut throat, very strong, and took things really seriously. I joke about the guillotine but the fact is that the one pictured cut the heads off of living people (creeped me out to see it actually). It was a brutal world there in the past, and I think part of the culture's toughness comes from their past.

No joking around.

Attack until you win, or collapse trying.


Anonymous said...

Hi. I've been enjoying your blog for a while now and specially the story parts and I just wanted to thank you for sharing these photos.

Great story!


Anonymous said...

Wow, that John is a tall drink of water!
And so are those Belgian racers.
From what I understand, in Belgium and the Netherlands, with cycling being the main sport, all of the big, powerful athletic guys go into cycling - not, like here in the states, football or basketball or whatever else. So all those high level racers coming out of there are these big, strong, powerful guys, all legs (not unlike Sven Kramer, the speed skater who just won some medals in Vancouver)... I took a look at some of the guys powering through some 'cross races this year, and they're mostly huge, too. As a fellow 50cm-rider, it's a little bit intimidating to race among horses like that...

Aki said...

Gandalf - I looked at your site and thought it was gibberish. Then I realized it was in Swedish. Heh.

nol - I spent much of my childhood in Holland. I read recently that that the area has the tallest average height people. My impression of the Dutch was always a super tall, super blonde people (coming from a short, black haired kid).

John was my leadout man for a bit, but we had to do something unusual to work together - I had to have someone between me and John. Otherwise I'd be drafting his knees, and he had skinny knees. I learned this the hard way in the first leadout or two.

adj said...

dude, i don't think i ever saw a chicken in the yard while i was there. how did i miss that?? maybe since i was high schooler i was just too cool to be impressed by chickens.