Kermis in Flemmish literally means "fair" but it's also what they call the bike races here. Basically the town gets together some money and sponsors (local car dealerships and bars) and puts on a race. The course is usually 5-10k long and you do 100-120k. Today the course actually went by "the farm."
I got up at the Belgian bike racing hour of 10 AM and had some cereal. Then I read and went back to bed. After I woke up I ate some eggs and then headed to the store for groceries.
Around 130 I headed over to the farm. The races start at either 3 or 6. This one was at 3.
From there we rode over to the bar near the start for registration. (All registrations are held in smokey bars where old men-and women-size you up like horses. I've yet to see a betting board but I hear there are bookies around.) We got lost for a bit then finally found the course. I got "my papers!!!" last night so I was psyched about being able to race. I went in and Staf, the team owner, ushered me to the front of the line.
I handed over my permission letter from the USA Cycling Federation to ride in Belgium. The race official looked it over and then asked for 12 euro. Three to race, five for a deposit on the number which you get back after you give back the number, and five for the Belgian racing license.
I was overflowing with excitement. My first real Belgian race. I couldn't stop smiling as the official filled out my license. I finally felt like one of the gang.
Before continuing I need to say a word or two about "the gang." So today was my fourth day here and I've become fairly familiar with the team. Around the second day I started to notice a few quirks. Like say, you only get coke if you finish a race. And, one of the guys rarely finishes the first lap but another wins races regularly. Or say, the fact that they're sponsored by Giant but no one actually rides one. Slowly I began to see the team's resemblance to the Bad News Bears.
So anywho, we rode back to the farm and got ready to race. Pinning my number lacked the pomp that the registration had because there were only 30 minutes before the start. I still had time for a pic though...
I rolled over to the race with a Belgian named Bart. He rides for the team but was just coming back from being hit by a car a few months ago.
We arrive at the start/finish. I'm getting pretty antsy and have to take a leak. In true Belgian fashion I roll into the park and have a break natural.
As I'm lined up at the start a guy yells at me.
"Hey Cal! What's your name???"
I look over to what appears to be an American in cycling gear.
"I'm gonna go find the bookie!!"
That cheers me up a bit and before I know it the race has begun.
The races here begin pretty nonchalantly. There's no race official out there on a soap box lecturing about how you can't do this and that. It's just a guy on the microphone and then a whistle. (They could be lecturing me but I don't understand Flemish.)
I saw Jack, the local hero, shoot off the front along with some Silence development riders. Within the first k there were at least eight turns. They go through the turns super slow here, which is good theoretically since you're less likely to wreck, but then you have to sprint after each turn.
After the second turn I hear what I think is a crash. I come around the turn to see Steve, the Brit from Liverpool, stopped in the middle of the road. I found out later his derailleur came into the wheel and snapped off. Poor lad.
I try and hold as much speed through the turns as possible but the pack slows a lot. There are fans out yelling things but all I can think about is holding on.
About halfway through the lap I start to fall off. The accelerations are taking their toll. I see a guy up the road who's also fallen off and try to catch up.
Eventually I catch him and we work together for the next four laps or so. We trade off pulling and sitting in. I like pulling because we can take the turns fast. I know not to quit until they make us stop (when the gap gets too big). As Fred "Hey Freddie!" Rodriguez once told me while riding up Pinehurst, "Cycling's a race of attrition." I just keep cranking and hope for a wreck to take out the field.
After a few laps we catch up with Bart who has fallen off the back. We all work together for a lap or so.
As we near the start/finish Bart and the other guy start cranking. I've already fallen off and had to bridge back once. This time I can't keep up with them.
The official at the line waves a red flag and I see both of them sit up. Whew!
I ride really slow for a bit before collapsing on a park bench. Belgium, you the real deal baby.
After a few minutes I try to get back on my bike but lose my balance and almost fall. I try again and then ride back to the start. Here there's no shame in getting pulled. The fans realize how hard it is and they just smile at you for giving your all. Plus, most of them are in the bar preparing for the finish.
I roll over to Bart and have a talk with someone who seems like his mother. She tells me it's normal for my first race and congratulates me.
A bit later Bart and I head back to the farm. He tells me his cousin rides for Cervelo and we chat about PRO stuff. We stop off as the race comes back through. There's a heavyset guy in bike gear monitoring an intersection. I open a pack of really bad powerbar chews.
"Hey, you're already fat enough!" says the guy.
I chuckle and continue eating as I rub my stomach. We head back to the farm shortly after.
I get some good consolation from the people back at the farm. Freddie gives me a pat on the back.
The race is still going on and Jack is in a breakaway with another rider from the team. I have a seat and watch them come around. A few minutes later Party Pete rolls up.
There are only a few laps to go and at this point Jack's group has about three minutes on the pack. This means that almost everyone will get pulled. They only let you fall back so far off the lead before they pull you.
More and more riders from the team roll up. Collin shows up and we head to the start to return our numbers. I'm also told we have to be around at the end in case they do a doping control.
I walk through the smokey bar again to where the race officials are. I give them my number and they give my five euro deposit along with an envelope.
And so it was that on my first race in Belgium I got paid. Here the top 30 pays and that included me. (Editor's note: the race began with only 27 starters so one couldn't not get paid. Even Steve, whose race ended 400 meters after the start got paid.) My first winnings from cycling ever, how sweet it was. I thought of sealing it up and sending it to big J dub for all the selfless hours driving me to races. (He was racing too but he still had to listen to me. "And then this one time I came around the turn and there was Freddy!!! Really! Oh and I have another 50 m of brake housing if you want me to hook you up?")
Today I caught the bug again. I guess you could say I've had it all along but it waxes and wanes. I go through periods where I lose faith, check job listings, think about committing carbocide. It's times like these that make it all worth it. Whether it's sprinting at the end of the Port Ride or riding up Tunitas Creek in the fog, these experiences carry me. Life's good.