Ride, Drink and be Belgian

I’ve been a little lax when it comes to competing in races the past few months – I’ve been “riding” but not riding with “purpose” much.  That’s all well and good, but I’ve decided I need to step it up and break out of the monotony a bit, so last night I headed out to the garage and converted my trusty Ritchey Breakaway back into the cyclocross bike it is designed to be.  Before heading to Europe earlier this year I had turned it into my road bike and I’ve been putting off starting cyclocross season for a while now, but I’ve decided that this is the weekend to get out and run over some barriers.  I love the sport and I need to start racing again to regain some of the speed I once had.  I also don’t want to let down my fans.

After reading that last statement you’re probably sitting there thinking to yourself “what sort of fans could this Doughboy guy possibly have? He’s a hack” and I don’t blame you for thinking along those lines.  After all I’m just a 45 year old guy that rides his bike, snaps a photo or two along the way and shares his passion on this blog.  I’ve never been some great racer or anything, nor do I claim to be.  But believe me, I do have fans.  It probably doesn’t seem that way to anyone here in the States but I have an entire herd of fans in Belgium: Honest, they’re as crazy about me over there as they are about frites and mayonnaise.  I’ll explain in a minute.

First, let me divulge all the wonderful things I love about the country of Belgium – there are so many that I don’t even know where to begin.  From magical Liegoise waffles to incredible beer that is brewed in almost every town to “melt in your mouth and savor it for all it’s worth” chocolate to the beautiful, flowing countryside – it’s a great area to visit.  I’ve always known that Belgium is a cycling mad country with a rich heritage in the world of bike racing, but now that I’ve visited a few times I can understand a little more deeply exactly how crazy the Belgians are about all bike racing, with a particular love of the sport of cyclocross.

My first clue to really understanding this fact came to me during our initial visit to the Oudenarde area a few years ago.  Oudenarde is located in the Flanders region and is the spiritual home to one of my favorite bike races, the Ronde Van Vlaanderen, as well as being the physical home to a museum dedicated to the race and its long history.  The area around Oudenarde pretty much revolves around cycling and numbered routes wind through the countryside allowing people like me to head out into the hills with a map and ride the hallowed cobbled climbs of one of the greatest of the Spring Classics.   We first visited here because I had wanted to ride some of the course but I had just scratched the surface of the short, vicious climbs that snake up nearly every berg in the region.  Mainly I figured out how not to get lost, so coming back with a little knowledge of the area to visit a second time was like being a kid in a candystore.

As we checked into our modest B&B in the nearby community of Ename, I was pumped to see that the posters of favorite Belgian sons Tom Boonen and Eddy Merckx were still on the wall, as was the one that had intrigued me the most during our first visit: a cow standing beside one of the most famous climbs, the Koppenburg.  I had even snapped a photo of it.  The cow just had this curious, bemused look on her face – like she was critiquing me or something.  She looks like she wants to yell advice at me like a coach.

I hadn’t thought of that photo much until that day but there she was again, staring at me as I reassembled my bike in a jet-lagged daze. She looked over my shoulder as I discovered that my rear wheel had two broken spokes due to some gorilla in the baggage department.  She greeted me when I returned from the bike shop down the street with a few spares and watched intently as I began truing the wheel. The task of assembling and truing all done, she watched as I rolled out into the beautiful Belgian countryside to go for a ride, the same bemused expression painted on her face.

One of the things I’ve noticed about Belgium is that they are not quite as reliant upon bicycles as a mode of transportation as they are in the Netherlands (though still far ahead of what you see in the States), but they are absolutely nuts about bike RACING .  Their passion for the sport spills out into the countryside and is proudly displayed on their barns.  How many Belgian cycling greats can you name from their faces on that barn?  I can name them all, but then again I’ve been to the Centrum Ronde Van Vlaanderen (although something tells me that someone has been busy in the last few weeks painting that Lance out of the barn, however).

Their passion for cycling heroes is also spraypainted onto their roads (here at the start of the cobbled section on the Oude Kwaremont):

 

Not to mention it’s just a pretty place to ride a bike, and the farmers are friendly even if they don’t speak a word of English and all you know how to say in Flemish is “bedankt” (thank you). 

 

The route that I had chosen for this first ride included the famous Koppenburg.  During professional races on wet days that make the cobbles treacherous, some pros have trouble making it up this climb without walking.  With the memory of the curious cow standing beside the road I headed up the climb trying not to slip on the cobbles as I put the power down to make it up the 22% grade withough resorting to the shame of walking.  Although I was the only person around, you never know who’s watching!

Starting up the Koppenberg the light caught my eye.

About halfway up I stopped dead in my tracks, not just because the slope is impossibly steep and the cobbles are slippery even when dry, but because there they were, watching me – my fans!  At first I thought the cow on the left was the same one from the poster, but they’re a little different.  Maybe this was her daughter?  Only thing I’m sure of is she was definitely a cycling fan.  I wonder if it’s genetic?  Or perhaps my magnificent display of cycling power was just that awe inspiring?  Nah, probably genetic.

As I stood there, from across the pasture a large cow began to run toward me (we’ll call her “Flockie” after our host’s dog).  Something told me that Flockie was the one in charge – she had that look in her eye (dare I call it the “eye of the tiger”?), and she pushed her way through the other two younger cows and eyed me and my bike.  This cow meant business.

After a moment or two Flockie reached over the fence and began to lick my bike.  Was I a mobile salt lick or is this how she greets all cyclists? I’d like to think she thought I was someone special, but I hadn’t bargained for being slobbered by a cow that morning.  Eventually Flockie knocked my bike over like a crazed fan and stared at it on the ground.  If looks could trample…

By this time the entire pasture had come over to cheer me on, my doting Belgian fans!  Tom Boonen eat your heart out.

So this weekend I’m kicking it up a notch with a big mountain bike ride in the local mountains on Saturday, followed by a little cyclocross racing on Sunday morning.  I have a pretty good idea that I will also be drinking some Belgian beer from Ename to recover Saturday night, too.  I wouldn’t want to let down my fans.  This weekend it’s time to ride, drink and be Belgian!

Oh, I won’t be eating any beef this weekend either as that would really let my fans down.

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