We’ve now been in Belgium over 2 weeks and have done 4 races. We flew in a day before our first Pro Kermesse, got promptly lost on our first day riding around Aarchot. We lined up in downtown Buggenhout (don’t worry none of the town names make any sense) still very much jet lagged not knowing what to expect. Giddy with excitement and nerves my heart rate was pegged at 160 just sitting on the start line from adrenaline. I’m not sure if it was the jet lag, the different riding style, course itself or combination of everything, but I only made it 60 of the 100 miles.
It was a little disheartening to only make it halfway through the first race here in Belgium but I reserved judgement knowing that a continental flight the day before at least had SOME factor to do with it. The next race on the docket was the UCI 1.2 Havenpijl Antwerpen race. But that was nearly a week after our first race, so we had some time to overcome the Jet Lag and get acclimated to the country.
Matt Green took us on our first legitimate ride around the Belgian countryside without getting lost. My first reaction was how crazy the riding is here. There’s no Froome-ing it riding around here in Belgium, if you put your head down for a second you’ll catch a gutter, hit a car, slide out on cow turds, you name it. There’s almost no steady riding, you’re continuously turning and hopping curbs (just on a ride!); a ride around here is more like an alley cat race.
I did my first big solo ride a few days later and decided to get really lost and figure my way back home eventually. To my suprise it’s really easy to get around here. The trick is this: If you have particular roads or a route you want to ride, you WILL get lost, but if you just head in a general direction you’ll be fine. There are no dead ends in the Belgian road system, ever road leads to Rome, or um Aarschot. Also there are literally bike routes every where you go. This not only includes paths along canals and rail-trails, but touring routes. All you have to do it pick up a numbered sign that are usually zip tied to traffic signs and follow a given route.
Back to Havenpijl Antwerpen, our second race. By that point we had started to get the hang of cleaning our bikes and washing our shoes every day (it rains a lot). The 170km race did two large 50km circuits then a bunch of small 17km circuits. There was also a large storm that was the remnant of a hurricane that almost hit America, decided to head East instead, and rain on our race. This meant 20mph wind and torrential rain. Also this was the first race with cobbles! I know I was nervous at the start, I had pictures of Roubaix and Flanders in my head, with pave splitting the field. We rolled out got to the first cobbled section and things, um, slowed down. I thought, whatever, it’s early in the race, not a decisive moment. The decisive moment, it turned out, was to happen 20 km later because of….corners. Running into the last 2km there were 6 corners on some very tame brick roads, however it had started raining. I was probably in the top 50 guys (not bad in a field of 200), and when we hit the corners, guys were dropping wheels in the corner like it was their job, the Belgians were bad at cornering.
I’m not sure where the difference came from, maybe it’s that in America every dude is willing to crash in every freaking corner not to drop a wheel, or the fact that they’re all running at least 120psi in their tires at all times (long story), but the Belgians were taking the wet corners very gingerly. So the field split, and the winning move of 25 got away because a guy dropped a wheel in the corners. The thing the Belgians are VERY good at is positioning, there is NO space to move around in the field, you’re always bumping guys in the field but not in a dangerous way. Because of this they don’t do the whole leaving space in front of you before a corner thing, or take a good line through a corner, they just do this:
Since this sort of field split thing has happened to us several times, I’ll address it, we are flying totally blind in these races. I mean we know generally what teams are good and where the decisive sections SHOULD be, but it’s easy to underestimate how big a factor knowing the course and riders around you have. I mean in the US we race every weekend with the same guys, but here it’s 90 race days out of the year, and they’ve all been racing since before they could walk and know the courses inside and out. To us, ever attack is just another bunch of huge Belgian dudes going up the road.
The rain really started coming down after that point, we attacked and chased to try to get the break back, the field split a bunch of times, but in the end it stayed away.
Just two days later we raced a Kermesse that was formerly the world Kermesse championship (totally unofficial, I think). By this point we were actually starting to get the hang of Belgian style racing, plus the short 7km circuit was the closest thing to a crit we were probably ever going to get.
We stayed super active in the first part of the race. I eventually made it into a move of 14 some guys and we rotated through, and it was hard. We got a minute fairly quickly, then we all got Ice Bucket challenged by a 5 minute torrential freezing cold rain storm, but our gap just stayed up there at one minute. Here’s another difference: there’s apparently no sitting on in the breakaway here, you ride until you’re cross eyed and then just get dropped from the break (it’s a noble death). I was rolling through pretty good for most of the race but most the guys had a foot and 20 kilos on me and I was really starting to hurt, so I started skipping pulls. This prompted all sorts of, what I assume were Flemish curse words, hip slings, and even a poke in the butt (not on the side by the way although he may have also just thought I was cute).
We eventually got caught, and I noticed ANOTHER particularity of Belgian racing. In America, when you get dropped almost EVERYONE applaudes you: “Good job”, “You gave it your best”, etc. Maybe this is because cycling isn’t an American pastime, or it’s just a cultural thing. However in Belgium, when you drop out, all the old people just stair at you like this:
I couldn’t help it, I really felt embarrassed rolling around the course after getting dropped. Although it could have also been caused by the fact that at one point I had 20/6 odds on me to win at the bookies and they just lost their money…
We had a few days off before our next race so we took a couple rest days and train-ed it up to Amsterdam for a night so see the sighs, have a few beers, etc.
Once back we did a little bit more training and a day trip to Brussels before our next race the UCI 1.1 Zottegem (could you imagine a UCI 1.1 race just being on a Tuesday in America??).
Zottegem was a 190km race in the Flanders region. We even did a climb from the actual Ronde. I wasn’t feeling super this race, we missed the break, chased, didn’t catch it, the usual. There were cross winds and actual climbs this time. I flatted and had the pleasure of going through the caravan…which is WAY more enjoyable than doing it in the US (more experienced caravan drives I think here).
Anyway we walked away with no results there as well, but had a good race as a team (we tried hard).
Today we’re racing the Dutch Food Valley Classic complete with not just one World Tour team but 3: Belkin, Cannondale, and Movistar, NBD.
I THINK there’s also a live stream to watch the race (although you might have to be in Belgium…no idea):
Race starts at 9am EST and should finish around 2pm EST