Welcome to the Centre of the Universe
First days in Belgium
After an F1 style pit stop in Bath, the day after returning from Girona, to catch up with friends and pack for the next 7 months, I was back on the road en route to Ghent and a new life. I’d packed most of my worldly possessions into a bike bag which subsequently weighed the better part of 50kg, and I was somewhat apprehensive at having to sweet talk the bus drivers to let them take it on. This apprehension made my three hour layover in Victoria bus station, possibly the worst place on earth even at the best of times, particularly stressful.
Bursting at the seams
I needn’t have worried however and was able to get the beast on board, getting in an impromptu weight training session in the process. As an aside, the Megabus service across the channel was actually pretty comfortable – more so than an aeroplane – and I would definitely recommend it for cheap travel to the Low Countries.
Thirteen hours after having set off from Bristol, the bus pulled into the luxurious surrounds of the Ghent Campanile car park amid some pretty horrific wind and rain. Welcome to Belgium!
Just next door however, the Holiday Inn carpark was being taken over by the pro teams preparing for Het Niewsblad the following day. I spotted the Cofidis and FdJ buses up front, with the Belkin bus further round the corner.
For my director sportif who had come to pick me up, the sight of World Tour team buses was a pretty day-to-day occurrence, but for me, an unashamed fanboy, this was a pretty exciting moment. I’d truly arrived at the centre of the (cycling) universe. All apprehension melted away – this season was going to go just fine. Only the torrential rain stopped me from heading over with my camera and embarrassing myself.
This impression was reinforced the following day when I headed out for my first ride on Belgain soil with Andrew, our ridiculously fit director sportif with 3 cyclocross world champs appearances to his name. He’d mentioned that we were going to tag onto a group ride, but nothing prepared me for the sight of hundreds if not thousands of cyclists milling around at the meeting point, getting ready for the off.
Now THIS is a group ride
Turns out, it was an organised sportive which followed the final 80 kilometres of the Kurne-Bruxelles-Kurne which would be taking place the following day. However, from what I saw, most people (including us) were just there to follow the marked routes on the cheap, which seemed to be accepted practise as long as we didn’t partake in the food stops.
Having spent the previous month in Spain training solo on smooth roads, riding on the typical Flemish shit-covered farm tracks with 200+ riders all chopping and changing was a bit of a wakeup call. It was easy to see why the locals dominate the northern classics as the roads were relentless – left right left right – ensuring that there was a full gas sprint every 300 metres.
At one point, we hit the relatively tame Nokereberg and the group suddenly exploded – turns out this is a traditional sprint point. Unless you knew that there was a smooth gutter on the right of the road, you just got bounced to the back of the pack. Having always heard the tale trotted out time and time again that the Flemish cobbles are “smooth” (perhaps compared to Roubaix), I can assure you that they are still brutal. (The following day, the pros would fly up this same climb with astonishing ease. If you blinked, you would have missed it. Humbling.)
One of my new housemates, Adam Lewis, arrived later that afternoon and we all headed out the following day, Sunday, for another marked route. What was billed as an easy introductory ride for Adam soon turned into an all-out smashfest as our director sportif introduced us to the Belgian school of training – if you aren’t averaging over 32km/h, you aren’t trying hard enough! Inevitably when you bring together a group of young guys all keen to make a good first impression, things escalated from there…Suffice to say, I’m treating that ride as my first race of the year.
Having just beaten ourselves silly on the self-same roads in the morning, it was with a whole new perspective and sense of admiration that we watched the Sporza coverage of Kurne-Bruxelles-Kurne in the afternoon. There really isn’t anywhere else in the world where the races are just so obviously primitive and brutish. One hesitation and you’ll find yourself swallowed by the pack and spat out the back.
At 40km to go, we hopped onto the town bikes and headed over to the finish, 5km from the team house, just catching a glimpse of a lean looking Boonen as the first group flashed by for the penultimate time. The next time we’d see him - and I use the word “see” very liberally here as the barriers either side of the finish were stacked deep with people – he’d have his hands in the air.
Winner winner chicken dinner
Here comes the 2nd group
Once the first few groups had finished, the crowds spilled into the roads and headed en masse to the Quickstep bus – there was little doubt as to which is the most popular team in these parts. Notable mentions also go to Belkin who were doing a good job of appeasing the kids asking for bottles, and Topsport-Vlaanderen the local lads.
Though most of the riders headed straight for the comfort of the team buses, the access that the public had to the race in general was still pretty impressive. At one point, we were swallowed up by a late finishing group including the likes of Tyler Farrar, performing ninja manoeuvres to weave in and out of the crowd.
Some of Lotto-Belisol were riding the Ridley Fenix, the bike that I'd enjoyed in Girona. Look for a review soon. All teams were riding 25mm tyres on what were otherwise pretty standard setups
After a great introduction to Belgium this first weekend, we get down to business next weekend with the UCI 1.2 Paris-Evreux in Normandy. Nothing like jumping in at the deep end. Gulp.
Thanks to the Dave Rayner Fund (@DaveRaynerFund) for supporting my 2014 season in Belgium with team Terra Safety Shoes. In addition to the blog you can catch my day to day ramblings on twitter: @liamtglen