Monday, August 17, 2009

My First Kermis (race)

Saturday

Andrew, my roommate here, and I woke up at 10 and headed to the market. After we got some groceries we came back and I put my bike together.

Around noon we rolled over to "the farm" to meet up with the rest of the team. Andrew is on a local team and most of the guys live at the farm. The farm is owned by the same guy who owns the team. He also owns the apartment building where I’m staying. At the farm Andrew introduced me around and I met the team.



Notice the guy peeing in the background, it's actually an outdoor urinal.



The team is made up of a Brit, an Aussie, three Russians, and two Americans. Two of the Russians speak little to no English so that makes things interesting. They also drove here from Russia!

Once everyone was ready we rolled out. The race was about 40 minutes away so we rode there. The nice thing about racing here is almost all the races are within riding distance.



Gent, like most of Belgium, has fully dedicated bike lanes that are separate and distinct from the car lane. This is a blessing and a curse. While it's great to be protected and have your own "road," when you're riding two wide and three deep it can get a bit sketchy. Especially because the lane turns and twists with the road and there are lots of curbs.

We arrive at the race and wait for registration to open. The registration is held in one of the many town bars.



You can tell the officials are ready for business because they have their computers and beer setup.

Jean and Freddie are already there with the team car. (Jean is the bearded one.) They're both retired and help out with the team for kicks.



While riding around the course I notice the "Tom Boonen Fanclub" at a bar. I don't think they have a chapter in the U.S.



There's an electric atmosphere about the race. People are set up on the sides of all the roads just the watch the racing. I found this group of Belgian women waiting for the race to begin.



And some others...



Almost all the riders have their own peanut gallery. This usually consists of any or all of the following: girlfriend, mother, grandmother, father, grandfather, uncle, aunt. The girlfriends usually pen the numbers on while the uncles air up the tires and check the bike.



A few minutes later and they're off!



To give you an idea of how fast they go, within the first three laps (25k) nearly two thirds of the starters have dropped off.

In addition to completely closing the roads off, they have a lead car, a follow car, and an ambulance that drive along with the riders.



At each of the intersections there is also someone there to make sure no one enters the course while the riders are coming.



Within about four laps most of our guys have dropped off. We still have a few left though. Jack Bauer, the Kiwi on the team, is still rocking in the front group. He’s a local hero and treated like a beloved son by the team owner.

The thing to do for the non-racers is to ride around the course backwards so I took heed. The countryside is beautiful and peppered with fantastic architecture.



I keep thinking about what Andrew told me “this is home to Europe’s rednecks…” Despite the amazing architecture it’s pretty redneck. Favorite pastime: drink beer, smoke, and watch skinny guys in spandex hurt themselves. Oh and do it every day for nine months out of the year. My kind of people!

Eventually the race is whittled down to about 20 riders. The races usually pay through 30 with 15th-30th still getting 10 euros. Thus, lots of the guys who get pulled still get some moulah, a little something for the effort.

Jack is in a breakaway with one other guy when he flats. The wheel change takes a good minute and he’s bummed. Jack works hard to catch up but loses by about 20 seconds. If only he’d had another lap. He still gets kisses from the podium girl.



We all get packed up and head home. On the way Jack tries to bunny hop a crack but his hand slips and he crashes. He gets scratched pretty good but nothing’s broke. He gets back on and we continue home.

Back at the farm Jean has brought home Jack’s trophy.



Collin, one of the Americans, got 30 euro!



We go home, get showered and then head out on the town. One of the necessities for getting around here is a “townie.” A townie is a relaxed beater bike made distinct by its rust and squeaks. Our apartment building has probably 5 on the patio alone.

We head out for pasta then end up along the river. At night it’s like a movie set with all the old buildings lit up. It seems as though it’s the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen.

A lot of what I’ve seen here I can’t put into words. It’s just such a beautiful place on its own and then you add this intense love for cycling. Going out to the races and seeing the whole community come out to watch the race just blows me away. Riding in the U.S. one becomes accustomed to being sneared at, scoffed at, and spat upon. Here you’re greeted with smiles from old and young. This is heaven for cyclists…

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