I’ve raced four kermesses in the past six days and now my jaw literally aches from grimacing so much the last race.
SUNDAY’S RACE: Skip to Monday’s race if you want to hear about a real Belgain kermess.
Yesterday was a lumpy course with one good-sized climb. I rode to the town of Meerbeke with Geoff (the New Zealander), Evgeny (the Russian), and Justin (the Brit). It was a quick but joyous jaunt out there at 40 kilometers of strong crosswind, which made riding easily very difficult. I was feeling good despite the large volume of miles in my legs for the week (22.5 hours worth). I attacked immediately out of the second corner and got up the road with four guys including Justin. The four of us held off the pack for a lap and a half, losing Justin and one of the other guys on the steep climb. Shortly later after the technical corkscrew descent the already shattering peloton caught me and the other guy. I continued attacking for the next two laps as the pack broke apart on the climb, came together after the descent, broke apart on the climb, etc. I thought one of those many moves would work for sure.
I missed the massive field split the fifth time up the climb (typical). I’d gone over the top of the climb either first or in the top 10 the first three times up. The fourth time up my positioning was still OK, sitting around 20th or so. I was never in huge difficulty on the climb since it was only 2 minutes and steep, just to my liking. But that damn fifth time up the climb I came into the base of it way, way too far back out of mindlessness or maybe because I had attacked shortly before; I don’t remember. Either way it wasn’t any harder than any other time up the climb, but by the time I worked my way to the front at the top of the climb, two huge groups of guys had gotten away. They were only at seven seconds though, so I figured we’d be fine considering I’d been up the road in groups multiple times with over seven seconds and had been brought back on every attempt.
I pulled, pulled, and pulled some more and tried attacking and bridging up there with groups for the next four laps until it was obvious that they weren’t coming back. Even when they only had 10 seconds the majority of the 40-50 guys still left in the pack just sat on, content to race for 28th place. It was bullshit. I was furious, yelling at everyone, swearing and throwing my hand up in the air again and again in frustration when guys wouldn’t pull through.
On the ninth lap I nailed it up the climb with two guys able to hold on. I drilled it across the top of the climb on the false flat/crosswind section and we had a good gap by the bottom of the hill. I did a lot of work and we stayed away for the next lap, with one guy bridging to us on the climb the next time up. Now we were four-strong. We worked it, me and the new guy mainly, and came through the finish line with one lap to go. The final time up the steepest part of the climb the new guy drilled it, dropping one of our breakmates, but unfortunately a large group bridged to us with about 4K to go following the descent.
We came into the final K with seven guys. Somehow I ended up getting second to last in our group’s sprint after being outwitted when two guys got a gap and no one wanted to pull them back. Of course I ended up trying to sprint up to them with 400 meters to go and I lost the valuable placing for 28th and took 34th instead. Terrible result. I had the legs today but apparently not the brains or positioning skills. I never know how these kermesses are going play out. I thought the move either goes in the first 30 minutes or goes with about an hour left to race, but apparently that’s not how it always works–or has ever worked since I got here. So far the winning move has been very late in the race or, like today, mid-way through. It’s almost as if it’s planned and the strong guys who usually win know about it and just sit and wait until the pre-determined lap to get away. The legs were there but not the local course-knowledge.
Today was a different story. Today I didn’t have the legs OR the knowledge. I came to Belg telling myself I wouldn’t race back to back days, especially since I’m riding to and from the races, totaling 5 to 5.5 hours on the bike every race day. But I broke that promise today. I was told it was another “lumpy” course out in the town of Erondegem, this one sporting a nice cobbled climb in addition to an uphill finish. I couldn’t say no and I convinced Justin to come race with me. After a massive breakfast we set out under dark cloudy skies. A minute into the ride the sun came out and I made sure to jinx us by commenting on what a nice day it turned out to be despite it spitting rain all morning. “We sure got lucky with this tailwind and the sun coming out for the ride there. The weather gods must be feeling kind today. As long as it doesn’t start raining before we start racing I’m happy.” Stupid. So, so stupid. *Hitting self on forehead with fist*
We pulled off the main road to a bike path to take a piss with about 10K to go to the race. An old guy riding a scooter came up on us from the other direction, mid-flow. If you stop to take a pee and you make sure no one’s around it’s a given that once you’re half way through peeing, a car will show up, receiving a full on glimpse of your tiny, cold, shriveled “saddle dick.” It’s because of this cycling ‘law’ that I no longer even try to conceal myself when I piss during rides. I often wonder how many little kids and old women passing by in cars I’ve shocked and horrified as I stand there on the side of the road looking up at the sky in deep daydream, whizzing my last bottle of Perpetuem away, accidentally all over my tire in many cases.
Anyways, the guy on the scooter ended up chatting with us and explained he was on his way to the race to watch (people come watch the races here, crazy right!?) and he wanted to give us a tow. He didn’t speak a word of English but it was obvious what he wanted to do, so we happily obliged and he motor-paced us the rest of the way there, but not before it started raining and I got real cold.
I started the race with numb fingers and toes even though it had stopped raining; I figured I’d warm up once things got started. Plus if I had attempted to start in my wind jacket I would have been laughed out of the race and out of the country, because no self-respecting Belgian wears anything more than a short-sleeve jersey and bibs. Arm and leg warmers are only for before and after the race. Or for January.
The pace started fast. Very fast. Gone were thoughts of being cold or worries of the rapid growth of my saddle sore, whose girth is approaching that of a ping pong ball. I was in the mindset to crush, and got away a multiple times on the first lap. I felt strong somehow. I was a bit shocked. I figured it was the caffein talking because there was no way I should have felt this good after the long ride and race the day before. I drilled it up the cobbled climb on the second lap and briefly got away in a small break again. We were caught, but then I was off again immediately in a counter attack with one other guy shortly after. We got caught half a lap later. I kept given ‘er until finally by the fourth lap I got into something that seemed like it would stick for good. I crushed it up the cobbled climb, bridging to one other guy and pulling another with me. The three of us were soon joined by four or maybe five more and we rolled through super hard and fast. Pretty quickly I was no longer capable of pulling through and a few of the guys started getting angry at me. I wasn’t dumb though, and sat on until I could sort of pull through, otherwise I’d have been dropped immediately. I wasn’t the only one in difficulty. We dropped two or three guys and it was down to five of us three fourths of a lap later. I was completely on the rivet the entire time, just dangling. Getting gapped off, suffering back on, gapped off on another corner (I think there were about 50 corners per lap x 13 laps on tiny roads), flogged myself back on, tiny tiny pull through, then immediately shot off the back again to battle my way back on.
Despite the ridiculous speed of our break, the pack caught us. I found out when all of a sudden a guy bridged to us, seemingly out of nowhere, as I came off the front after taking a pull. We’d just started another short climb as I slotted in behind him and he got popped right then as he made contact with us, gapping me and himself off in the process. I looked back to see the pack and breathed a sigh of relief as I had an excuse to get out of the move without having given up. The rest of the guys were gobbled up a minute later. That was the last time I spent time at the front.
Minutes after getting caught we entered a series of tight, downhill technical corners followed by an uphill drag at 30 mph where I couldn’t hold the wheel in front of me and 20 guys had to come around to close the gap. That was followed by a tiny portion of flat, then the 250 meter cobbled climb immediately after. I was so deep in pain for the rest of the race I could hardly believe I was still on earth and not on some distant meteor that hosts a sadistic prison labor camp for violent criminals in a futuristic, alien-dominated galaxy where a rare mineral called Suffernyte is in great demand and for some reason the only way to get it is (after a lifetime of pain and hard work on the meteor prison) to feed said prisoners to giant sand worms with millions of poisonous spikes lining their esophagus and it takes weeks of tremendous pain for the victim to die before the worm poops out a golden brick of suffernyte that smells like Hammer gel and spit.
It had began pouring rain on lap five or six, just dumping like crazy and the temperature dropped from a beautiful balmy 60-degree Belgian summer evening to a dark, frigid 48 degree TYPICAL summer Belgian evening. If I could have seen where I was going through my mud-covered glasses and blood red eyes I would have seen double, because today I got what I came here for and my eyes were finally crossed good and hard.
We’d slow to 10 mph for the tight, rain-slicked corners, dodge the manhole covers and metal grates, then sprint full on. Almost every corner was an all out sprint followed by an all out seated effort, over and over again. Like I said, there were at least 50 corners per lap.
The increasing power of the wind tore the pack apart; gaps were forming everywhere. There’s probably no worse feeling than sitting behind someone when it’s dead flat, pushing as hard as you possibly can, seated because you can no longer get out of the saddle, and see the gap continue to grow as the wheel gets further and further away. Two feet, three feet, four, five, six, six and and a half, seven, eight, nine ten, eleven feet away. It holds at eleven…twelve, thirteen, fourteen feet. And then, after you astonishingly catch that wheel 20 seconds later, you look up to see that there’s an even bigger gap to the next guy since the guy in front of you just blew up.
As I grew colder and colder the race became harder and harder. The rain increased from pouring to SUPER pouring. I was actually doing OK until it had started raining, but now my legs were completely drained. I was immensely cold. I thought my race was over about 30 separate times, then somehow I managed to find the strength and willpower to get back onto the wheel in front of me and continue the suffering. I asked guys how many laps were left or how many people were up the road. No one seemed to know and all I got were slight shakes of the head and a gasping mumble. Everyone was maxed out, except for whoever was on the front. Jesus Christ that motorcycle NEVER got tired.
I thought we’d been racing for 30th or 40th place but it turned out no one was off the front. There were 37 of us left in the race. And then sadly I got popped once and for all on one of the many short climbs after I’d been gapped off on the previous corner; a few guys came around me but there was nothing I could do to hold their wheels at that point. My ticket was so full of hole punches it had ceased to exist. The conductor came and told me I wasn’t allowed aboard the train as I held up my empty hand to show him my ticket, confused and scratching my head seeing that where my ticket had been was now just thin air. I’m happy to say that there was no possible way I could have hung on for even 1 second longer. We’d only been racing for 1:45. The 36 guys who finished must have been polar bears…on roller-blades…with rockets attached to the roller-blades…and more rockets attached to those rockets.
I got out of the rain as soon as I could and found my way to the race HQ pub where we’d signed on. I was shaking uncontrollably, definitely hypothermic, and in way more of a post-race daze than normal. There was no car to go to to warm up, no dry clothes to put on, no money to buy any food or hot drink from the bar. I didn’t know where Justin was. I didn’t see him once during the race so I assumed he had dropped out a while ago and was now probably with one of his teammates who we’d left our bags with before the race. I stood there in the middle of the pub after eating my two cookies in my pocket, face covered in road grime and snot, shivering and hunched over with arms crossed trying to warm up, not doing or thinking anything at all except about how cold I was and how I better not get sick because I was just getting over my last cold a few days ago damn it. Eventually I found a seat in a corner and shivered there for half an hour, dreading the ride home. Even when I got home there would be no hot shower since we only have warm water between 12AM and 8AM (it’s a rare, grim day that I get up before 8). I began to believe I’d never be warm again in my life. I came to terms with that.
I went out a few times in the pouring rain to see if I could find Justin, but quickly returned to the crowded pub to sit and shiver in the relative warmth of the bar some more. The waitress felt bad enough for me to come give me a cup of coffee, two lumps of sugar, cream and a small cookie. I mumbled an extremely appreciative but slurred “donk you” (flemish for thank you) and held the tiny warm espresso cup in my hands, enjoying the warmth of it even more than the actual drink.
Finally Justin showed up. Now began the second hardest part of the day: forcing myself to step back out into the cold, dark evening and riding 20 miles home in dumping rain, already hypothermic in wet clothes, absolutely no energy left…into a headwind and to an empty cupboard of food. It was almost too much to cope with after the brutality of the race and I weighed my options: 1) take a train home: no trains in sight, 2) beg for a ride from another racer: haha not a chance that would work, 3) find a hotel: there are no hotels in Belgium, 4) just continue to sit and shiver in the bar and not think about it anymore. The final option seemed best to me, but Justin wasn’t as cold and was therefore thinking slightly more clearly. We waited another 15 minutes until there was finally a break in the rain and two weak as rainbows came out. I did NOT exclaim my joy of seeing a double rainbow. We began the cold slog home.
In some strange turn of luck the weather gods’ guilt caught up with them and they blessed us with sun and an increase in air temperature for the rest of the ride home; within 30 minutes I stopped shivering and came back to life. Today was the most suffering I’ve done all year on the bike. The combined fatigue of all the race days, plus the rain, the cold, and the difficulty of the course made for one extremely hard race. The thought that this is the absolute one and only thing I want to do makes me seriously question my sanity.
Here I am all chipper and ready to go smash it before I left for the second Lokeren race last Friday.
Smashing it up at Lokeren, though if you remember I was thoroughly disappointed in how easy this race was.
A new day, this Sunday reg-ing for race number 3 at Meerbeke.
Either the last or second to last time up the climb at Meerbeke.
Hanging out in the changing room tent after the race.
Evgeny on our ride home.
Behind the back camera work to get this shot of Geoff
We splurged and got pizzas at the pizza restaurant downstairs, whose aroma has been tantalizing us for days. Note: Belgians do not know how to make a proper pizza, but it tasted marvelous anyways.
On Sunday night the TV show House is on, which is a nice break from the network “Jim”–basically MTV but it actually plays music videos. The bald guy there is “the Greek” aka Michael, who’s really from South Africa but calls himself Greek because his parents are. He’s insane, and I’m not just saying that. He’s 50 years old and believes he’s training like us for bike races, though he’s never done one and rides roughly 1 hour a day. He lived on the streets in New York for years before he decided to become a professional bike racer last year and came here to Belgium to live the dream. He never shuts up and is paranoid that people are trying to sabotage him–including a network of black, gangster spies in LA. Add about 10 IQ points to Forest Gump, a huge dose of racism, and a never ending blather of mindless talk and self-righteous argument and you’ve got Michael. I’ve come very close to taking a pillow to his head while he’s asleep. He’s entertaining in small doses but not after hard races.
New day: Monday
There’s no screwing around here in Belgium. Justin has a BAG of pure, unadulterated Columbian caffeine.
Finally home after the torturous cold race…
…home at last, but to an empty cupboard. Luckily there’s a huge stash of community pasta, which Justin and I put a large dent in.
Reasons Why Belgium Is Better Than The USA:
The bread machine outside our apartment downstairs. Fresh bread from the bakery every day except Sunday.
They start them young here…with beer, that is.
Just one of many bike racing statues. This one was right at the finish line of the Meerbeke race.
Bike trophies in the pub at Meerbeke.
Also in the pub, a framed picture of ????
And last but not least:
Euro mullets are in full force over here.
And to further prove my point:
That there is a rat tail in combo with a beaded rat tail. Dirtiest possible bike racer haircut. This guy probably won the race with that haircut btw.