Funny story, about a year ago I landed in Flanders for the first time in my life, feeling like I was entering the Land of Cycling. As a journamalist I try to catch myself from exaggerating, and I was prepared for cycling to be an afterthought in everyday Belgium, just like in the US. I made it as far as the oversize baggage area before I really did feel like this was, in fact, the Land of Cycling.
My first encounter came with a fellow American, the guy on the right. HIs name is Steven Gordon, from northern Virginia, and that day he was another guy disembarking at Zaventem with a bike. Not really a story. But then we ran into each other again on the train to Gent, and after 14 hours with no conversation, we got to talking.
Steven wasn't another cobble-hunting cyclotourist; he was here to race. He'd raced at Virginia Tech and around the mid-Atlantic, ridden the Philly USPro, and was serious and successful enough to wonder what his true capabilities as a cyclist were. To find out, he did what itinerant athletes have always done, or what aspiring actors headed for New York or LA still do. He packed up and headed for where the action is., into the unknown. Unlike his forebears from antiquity he wasn't risking starvation or ostracism or even the dislocation that plagued foreign riders until the Skype era; he had a return ticket and an MBA as a backup plan. But in other respects he resembled the same cycling dream-chasers that have long descended on Belgium, armed with his bike and a promise of help getting started. The rest would be up to him.
Through some contacts at Virginia Tech Steven and another friend he'd been invited over to Belgium the previous summer by the Kingsnorth International Wheelers team, an outfit out of Gent which liked to bring in foreign riders and even put them up. That was a quick trip. This time, Steven was going over in spring, planning to stay as long as it took to find out if he could cut it.
When we arrived in Gent an older man was there to greet him and we parted ways, but I tracked him down a little later, stayed in touch through Facebook, and finally got a chance to talk this winter when Steven was back in Virginia. He'd had a full season of Belgian racing, at the grassroots level, and I was all ears. No, he hadn't become famous or overly successful on the bike, though he acquitted himself well and satisfied his personal goals. But more importantly, he'd journeyed to the heart of the cycling world, an experience that sounded pretty unforgettable.
Barriers to Entry
Starting at the beginning, Steven told me how easy it was to race in Belgium. "USA cycling, you get an international license, which if you’re racing in America you would only need if you’re going to be pro or if you’re racing UCI races like Philly or the Tour of California. And then when you’re in Belgium all you really need is like a $5 card that peple just scan at the start at every race and then you’re good, then you race. It’s really simple. All you do is show up -- you do need a letter of permission, they’re really strict about that. You have to go on the USA Cycling website and request a letter of permission, and they will only give it to you if you don’t have any suspensions for doping or any other suspensins or fines.
"And then you have permission to ride, which is good for certain dates, you show that to the Belgian officials, show them your UCI license, if it’s your first race you pay a 5 EUR fee and you get this Belgian Cycling card. When you come back usually what you do is just scan it. Sometimes they ask you to show them your permission, but it’s really simple especially once they get to know you. So year, it’s pretty easy. You could be any category in the US and do that, they don’t really discriminate on how fast you are."
From there riders break down into two categories, met contract (with a contract) and zonder contract (without one). Steven was ZC, and among the teams which don't require a contract, Kingsnorth had a standing reputation of taking riders from English-Speaking countries. "Their mission statement is that they’re for international English speaking riders. There have been some big names that have come through the team, Freddy Ridriguez, Henk Vogels, and some more." No salary or free housing, but Kingsnorth will make arrangements for its riders, drive them to races, and offer support while there. It's informal enough that when Steven got a chance to race for a second squad, Team Deschuttyer, which was fine with Kingsnorth.
Team Deschuttyer was a step up, and gave Steven a chance to branch out beyond the kermesse scene. "The inter-clubs required that a team be invited to the race. And I had two copies of licenses, one copy that said my team was Kingsnorth, and another that said I was Team Deschuttyer. so we’d go and do the inter-clubs once in a while. Those are the longer ones, the races that mimic the classics. We did one race that was like the amateur Het Volk. Another we did was in northern France."
But mostly, racing in Belgium was about the kermesses.
Carnival of Suffering
The legendary kermesses of Belgium are no inflated tale. They're real, and they're a way of life for anyone racing in Belgium below the top pro level. Depending on which category they're in, they run either up to 120 or 140km in length. Not a great deal of variation, though Steven reports "the bigger the town is, the bigger the race. It’s also the weather that determines how many people are going to show up, or what other races are going on, like if it’s the only race. The first race I showed up, the first kermesse I did there were like 260 people. It was early in the year and there weren’t very many races going on. Later in the summer there’s tons of races going on, so they’re smaller. But technically they’re all about the same."
Tons, indeed. I've heard people estimate that in any given area you can find over a hundred races a year. The Vlaamse Wielerbond lists several races every day. A look at the Kingsnorth site shows the team's results from last year, a steady diet of at least three races a week from February to October. This is reason #1 why people come to Belgium, that plus geography. You can race all you want, and you don't even need a car.
Reason #2 was the style of racing. In a word: hard. The cornering is more aggressive. Attacks spring from the field like leaks in the Titanic. "Everyone wants to attack and everyone does. the mentality in Belgium is, I can win by going to the front and attacking and riding harder. Whereas in America the mentality is, I can win by being smart and staying out of the wind and not do any work unless i have to, and saving myself for the end. In Belgium, it’s just the way they like to race, they way they’ve seen everyone else win, and it’s the way they win. And since everyone else is going to be attacking, I’ve got to attack. if you want to stay where you are you’ve got to keep moving up. If you’re not moving up, you’re moving back. So if you want to actually move up, you’ve got to attack. To them that’s what racing is. Racing is hard, racing is all out."
The style of racing certainly pushed Steven to adapt, quickly. "The cornering, they tend to brake really hard. This sounds sort of stupid, like a generalization, bit other people will say the same stuff. They will go into a corner and they will get on the brakes and before the corner they will brake really hard. And then during the turn, they will get out of the saddle and jam on the pedals and sprint out of the corner. Whereas here in America everyone takes the racing line, like in a car. For them it’s like, if you try to go by someone in the corner they look at you funny, it’s frowned upon a little bit. Racing is for the straits, and the corner is just something you get through.
"There were some cool kermesses that incorporated some highways, which is crazy, they have all these cool little roads, why would they use highways and shut down traffic, but they did anyway. But there was one in Trongen which went on the highway and back through town over some bridges to the back roads, and that was memorable because it was high speed coming down from the bridges. But my best performance probably would have been a race in Kneselare, where I got 8th or 7th and won two primes, so that was cool."
Best of Times?
As fun as the Kermesse scene was, the Inter-Club -- longer road races -- were the headliners. "I’d put one at the top, probably the amateur Het Volk race, because it had so many climbs and sections that I’d seen watching the classics, so that was memorable riding on the same roads, and I actually had a good ride, I finished in the main field. When it started out it was 180 people and I finished 80th , a hundred people got dropped and I finished in the back of the main field. We had I think about eight climbs? They weren’t as hard... they were the same ones but the lesser ones. And we didn’t hit the hard ones later, that makes a big difference. We did another inter-club that went up the Paterberg, but we went up it pretty early in the race and it’s not that big a deal."
I mention that the Paterberg nearly killed me. "Yeah, it was cool. Actually what happened in that race, for some reason I thought I was going to ride up the gutter, but everyone decided they wanted to ride up the gutter, so I had to unclip, and that was the day for me, which is disappointing.
"The interclub called Pittem, the first hour is on this huge highway with plenty of space. You have like 180 guys constantly flowing, getting up front and cycling back through. That was like mayhem, not hard to sit on but hard to stay up. Then suddenly bam, you’re at the Kwaremont, and it’s like a 90 degree turn on the cobbles, it’s single file, so the good guys that knew what they were doing were at the front all of a sudden, right before the turn, and they were just there, and the rest of us were like mid-pack all of a sudden and we had to like stop and wait. So you have to know where everything is, what’s coming up, or you’re screwed."
How did you progress as a racer? "I think I definitely got better. I also got burned out and got sick a lot, but I definitely got better, learned how to handle my bike better in a race, cause that’s pretty good. I got to not be afraid of crashing anymore. If you’re afraid of crashing then you won’t be at the front, because no one else is afraid of crashing. If I hadn’t raced so much and gotten smarter, I might not have gotten sick so much. But the main thing is the experience, learning to suffer in races, learning to handle my bike in big fields where everyone’s being aggressive."
Ultimately Steven decided his ceiling was high enough to earn some money on the kermesse scene, but not enough to keep him there, at the expense of a normal life back home with friends and family. He returned to Virginia this fall and took a job teaching at a college in Kentucky. His miles are back up again and the local racing scene has probably learned a thing or two about cornering this spring from watching him.
A lot of people chase what they think is their dream, and if they keep their head about them, they can see what their limitations are and live with them happily. Steven sounded very content he gave it a go, like it made him more sure of his life back home, but not without some mazing memories of the year he packed up his stuff and moved to the heart of Cycling.
[Steven will stop by over the next day or so and take your questions in the comments. Thanks!]