What follows is a bit of a diary of my trip to Europe to ride the 109-mile Paris Roubaix Challenge followed by a bit of bike-dork tourism in Belgium and the Netherlands.
A Saturday in Hell: Getting There
Day 1—Orange County to Roubaix
My trip started well. The bike packed well, albeit tightly, into the rented bag and I managed to get all my clothing (for all sorts of possible weather) into a single bag. As is usual for me, I was stressed about checking in. Adding to that stress were the facts that my vintage Brooklyn Team bike was in an undersize soft-side case that would allegedly slip past detection, saving me additional fees and that I was, for the first time in decades, traveling without Sky Priority Medallion status.
With status, I could fly for free with two bags weighing up to 70 pounds each. Without, I was limited to one free bag and my bag had to weigh a max of 50 pounds. When I checked in on line, I clicked two bags and was automatically charged an additional $75. I didn’t click on “special item” for a bike bag, which would add $50 more to my fees. Both my bags weighed in at 50ish pounds on my home scale. I was stressing about getting dinged for the bike and for two overweight bags.
At my 5:30 a.m. check-in, it was chaos. The lines were long and not moving. Frantic ticket agents were darting between travelers, checking boarding passes, asking questions and explaining that the computers were down. Despite not having status, I got in the shorter Sky Priority line. I prepared my argument with the counter agent—“When I bought my ticket, I still had Medallion status, I would say. “I had no idea I had lost it.”
The woman standing in front of me got busted for not having status and was sent to the end of the looooong line for the “others.” That boosted my stress level.
When the agent asked me if I was Sky Priority and I answered yes, and she accepted my answer without any question. Then she explained to me what was going on with the computer and that we’d be checked in manually. She took both my bags without weighing them or asking questions, slapped yellow Priority labels on them and sent them on their way. She handed me boarding passes and that was that.
Now, all I had to stress about was if my bike would make it to Brussels safely, which was out of my control, so no need to stress.
At the gate, we were told the computer glitch was going to delay our flights. Initially, I was unfazed by this. Delta always seemed to get me where I am going on time. But when we were more than an hour past our boarding time, I checked how much time I had in Salt Lake City to make my flight to JFK—30 minutes. Yikes!
We left OC about 90 minutes late. The captain said he’d do his best to make up the time to SLC. I put my faith in him.
As we approached the airport, the flight attendants were answering questions about arrival and departure times and gates for travelers. I asked about my departure gate and if it might be a good idea to change my flight to Brussels as the Delta app was suggesting. The flight attendant told me I should have a good 15 minutes to make it to the gate. Okay, I said.
In SLC I ran three terminals over to get to my gate. When I arrived, they were still boarding. I hopped into the Priority line and was on in a flash. No problems.
We landed in New York on time. It turned out that my arrival and departure gates at JFK were only about 100 feet apart. That never happens. In fact, the last time I flew to Brussels via JFK, I had to take a shuttle to a far-away terminal. This time, I had time to go to the bathroom and fill my water bottle before I took a seat at the gate. When they called my section, I popped up and was third in line. I scanned my ticket , setting off an alarm. The agent rescanned it and got the same alarm.
“Are you on this flight?” she asked.
She looked at my ticket, which clearly confirmed that I was, and tried again. “It says you’re not on this flight. Please step to the counter.”
I took my place behind a couple who were trying to get last-minute seats on the plane. When It was my turn, the managing agent was unable to find me on the flight list. She looked up my name and said I was no longer on this flight and my seats had been given away. Then she told me I was booked on a flight to Brussels the next day through Atlanta. Atlanta? How was I supposed to get to Atlanta?
It took a while, but I’ll spare you the details of my stress and of the heroic effort the agent made to get me and my bags on the flight and to keep me in Comfort +, which I paid considerably for. The one caveat she had for me was that my bags may not make it. That did not sound good. I was arriving with one extra day before the Paris-Roubaix Challenge, which was in France, not Belgium where my bags would arrive.
As I settled into my seat, I tried to forget about my bags and if my bike would make it to Brussels on time. Not long after I got situated, Delta’s app sent me a notice that both my bags were loaded on the plane. Awesome.
In Brussels, my clothing bag rolled off the carousel almost immediately. That was a good sign. But my bike bag was nowhere. I asked an airport employee if there was a separate baggage claim area for oversize bags. She said there wasn’t. I asked her again, just to be sure she understood my question. Again, she said no.
Having no confidence that we were communicating well, I had a look for myself. Right away I found there was, in fact, a nearby carousel for oversize and special bags. I waited there for about 10 minutes with no luck. I returned to the original carousel and waited until the last bag came out.
As I searched for a place to file a lost-bag report, I saw a few employees standing near a counter. I thought I’d ask them where I could do this. As I approached them I saw they were stationed at a second carousel for oversize bags. Scanning the handful of bags gathered on the floor in front of them, I saw my bike. All was good.
While waiting for may bags, I happened to meet a guy named Andy (I never did get his last name.) A retired Airforce doctor from Atlanta. He was also riding the Paris-Roubaix Challenge, but the short route and he was doing it on a rental. He asked me if I knew how to get to the train. I did. But I offered to give him a ride to his hotel in Roubaix. I’d like the company, I said, but I had to make a stop in Gent along the way. He said he had no obligations until later in the day, so he accepted my offer.
Prior to leaving the US, I arranged with a friend in Gent to receive a package containing the 1973 Brooklyn jerseys 2 Velo was giving me to ride in. Andy and I picked up the rental car, plugged in the TomTom GPS unit I brought from home and hit the highway headed for Gent. Five miles out and the TomTom crashed. Annoyingly, it would crash and reboot numerous times before I got to Gent (And many more over the next week before I discovered my rental had onboard GPS.), but I made it. I collected my beautiful new jerseys plus a 1973 Brooklyn Team sweater and had a nice lunch with my friend Gil.
Andy and I then drove the 40 minutes to Roaubix where I dropped him at this hotel. I my AirBnB in Villeneuve-d’Ascq, about 10 kilometers from Roubaix.
The AirBnB was in a remodeled garage, which included plenty of appropriate space to work on my bike. I set about rebuilding it almost immediately. Except that the front derailleur had shifted slightly, the bike was in perfect condition when I removed it from the travel bag. I took my time rebuilding it, which included rewrapping the bars with fresh, white, cotton bar tape. The bars and stem wouldn’t fit in the bike bag (It’s designed for bikes with treadless stems.), so I put them in the bag with my clothes. Worried the brake levers might get damaged, I removed them and, thus, the bar tape, as well.
I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the area, grocery shopping, unpacking and getting the lay of the land. I shot some photos of my new clothing and reassembled bike for social media and made my first-ever video of me talking about my bike.
I’m not one who feels comfortable talking on camera. (Although when I’ve had to do it for work, I’m usually pleased with the results.) I thought a look at the old Gios Torino bike I was planning to ride the cobbles with would be a nice thing to share with “the fans.” Unfortunately, my discomfort with watching myself on camera led me to wait to review the video until later. When I downloaded it the evening before the PRC, along with some video of me riding Carrefour de l’Arbre, I discovered the camera wasn’t even on when I was talking about the bike. I apparently double tapped the button, turning it on and off. All I got was a 9-second video of my bike sitting against the wall.
Day 2—Exploring Five-Star Cobbles
After a very good sleep, my second day in France began with a breakfast scrambled eggs, ham and cheese and a pain au chocolat. The coffee included with the stay was mediocre Nescafe pod stuff. Two cups of coffee made with two pods per cup were necessary to get the day started. Much to my surprise, this would not be the last bad coffee I’d have during my trip.
My plan for the day was pretty simple. I wanted to do some recon of Carrefour de l’Arbre and any other nearby cobbles, which my AirBnB host said was almost walking distance from the apartment. I also needed to find a grocery store larger than the small organic shop a couple blocks from where I was staying.
It was cold when I stepped outside. Very cold. But the sun was shining, so it was pleasant. The forecast called for a high of about 45ºF/7ºC. I was planning to do an “easy” spin, plus whatever it took to get over the cobbles, so I dressed warmly, choosing the new, long-sleeve, 1973 jersey from 2Velo and a pair of vintage Vittore Gianni tights. I used Apple Maps to find the famous bar located at the end of the infamously brutal, five-star, cobbled sector. The 20-minute ride to the cobbles was flat and pleasant, mostly on protected bike paths.
When I arrived, the Astana and UAE team buses were parked on the road bisecting cobbled sectors 25 and 26. Unfortunately none of the riders from either team were around. A handful of other cyclist were there riding, while a small number of fans walked the length of cobbles or waited in folding chairs along the route to catch a glimpse of any pros who might be out for a pre-race recon.
Without hesitation, I hopped on Carrefour de l’Arbre. I had seen the road on television and in videos many times before, but it was completely unfamiliar to me. Probably because I heading in the opposite direction the PRC and race would go.
I did my best to follow the instructions given by every how-to-ride-the-cobbles article I’ve read and video I’ve watched, most of which was pretty intuitive to me—weight back, hands on the tops of the bars, big-ring, push a big gear and float over the surface, etc. The reality is, all that is bullshit if you don’t have the legs and power to push that big gear at a high enough cadence. I didn’t and generally, these days, don’t.
Instead, I settled into the biggest gear I could push at 80+ (guestimated) RPM and searched for smooth dirt or grass in the gutters. On this day, there was little of either. It also became immediately clear why not all the pros ride in the gutters, opting instead for the crown at the center of the roads.
As I’ve heard Bob Roll say countless times while commenting on TV, the cobbles that line the edges of the roads are unlike the loaf-like rocks that make up the main surface. The thinner edge cobbles are set in the ground vertically, with the sharp sides up/down and the wider tops/bottoms perpendicular to those on road surface. This was done to hold the surface cobbles in place. What it creates for the cyclist is a narrow and very inconsistent row of jagged stones separated by deep gaps in which to smash a tire into or wedge a wheel between. Deep potholes and puddles hiding who-knows-what also randomly appear in the gutters.
I followed the road to its end (or beginning) in a quiet neighborhood where almost nothing indicated that a race of Paris-Roubaix’s magnitude was only two days away. I did a U-turn and headed back to the cobbles to ride it in the correct direction. Along the way, an AG2R La Mondial team car blasted by me at race pace on the narrow road, giving me sense of what it’s like to be off the back of the peloton and “in the way.” Although, on this day, I’m not sure what his hurry was.
The ride back was no easier, but it was more familiar. When I hit the left hand bend in the road, I knew where I was. And, as a fan along the route shouted at me, “Allé Roger!” I found a bit more power in my legs to pick up the pace and finish with a little more speed. At least until I hit the really chunky and slightly uphill cobbles toward the end and in front of the bar that gives the sector its name.
It was good to roll on to smooth road. So good, in fact, that I missed the next cobbled sector, which starts almost directly across the street from the bar.
I headed back to my AirBnB and called it a morning. Next on the agenda was to head over to the Staad Velodrome in Roubaix to pick up my rider packet and number. Having been to the velodrome before and knowing what parking was like in the area, I had feeling this was going to be a bit of an adventure. After that, I needed to visit the local Decathlon for energy bars and drinks and CO2 cartridges.
Once to Roubaix, I made my way to the velodrome. As expected, there was no parking. The streets and sidewalks, as it’s done in much of Europe, were choked with parked cars. I circled the area around the velodrome several times before I found what I hoped would be considered a parking spot on the sidewalk about as far from the entrance as was possible while still staying on the same block.
I jogged about a half mile to the main gate, entered the hallowed grounds and only then saw the queue—it stretched as far as the eye could see and was probably the longest I have had stood in. Organizers had yet to open the doors and I assumed I’d be there for hours. Once the doors opened, however, the line moved smoothly and things were far more organized than they at first appeared. The only problem, no one could tell me where the parking lot was for those, like me, who purchased a parking pass for the event. I’d have to wing it.
I headed to my car—it hadn’t been towed to ticketed—and drove to the massive flagship Decathlon store in Villeneuve-d’Ascq. Form the outside it was impressive. There was a bike test course, a pump track, a BMX track. Inside, however, it was a typical warehouse store, lacking even a hint of soul, aisles of generic house-branded bike gear and a dearth of employees to provide assistance. I grabbed what I needed and headed back to the AirBnB.
According to the weather reports, it was going to be cold on ride day—right around freezing at the start and not much above 40ºF/4ºC later in the day—so I gathered all my winter kit. It was unclear if ride organizers would transport extra gear and bags from the start in Busigny and back to the finish in Roubaix. I was going to take only what fit in my pockets, plus a pair of Kucharick wool arm warmers; a long sleeve, 2Velo, Brooklyn jersey; wool tights and a pair of light gloves. I hoped that when we disembarked in Busigny, the temp would be high enough that I could put the extra jersey and tights in a musette bag and drop them off for transport back. Worst case, I figured, I’d wear them until it got warm and carry them in the bag. Not ideal—I hate riding with a bag slung over my shoulder. But I was willing to do it.
I ate a solid meal, hydrated and went to bed early. My alarm was set for 3:30 a.m., giving me plenty of time to get to the bus in Roubaix, even if I got lost.
Day 3—The Big Day
I awoke with my alarm and despite the early hour, felt relatively well rested. It was cold in the AirBnB, so I slipped into my Tiralento Brooklyn tracksuit before making breakfast. I ate more than I usually do—scrambled eggs, ham, yogurt, pain au chocolat and coffee (if you can call it that). For inspiration, I watched a A Sunday in Hell while I ate. Afterward, I redressed in my riding kit and loaded my bike and gear into the car. It was just after 4. I should have plenty of time to get to Roubaix, I thought. Even if I had no idea where the parking lot was located.
No one was on the roads, so the drive was smooth. My TomTom was still crashing about every 10 or 15 minutes, so I used my iPhone and Apple Maps as a backup—an excellent idea. At the Velodrome, I looked for signage telling me where to park. There was none. I asked an official-looking man standing at the entrance of the Velodrome. He told me to park anywhere along the road. I considered doing that briefly, even temporarily parking on the sidewalk with several cars owned by other riders. But I paid extra for parking, I thought, so I decided to take a lap or two around the block in the hope that I’d see a sign or two or other cars with bikes I could follow into the lot.
It worked. I followed a couple cars turning into a nondescript driveway. Although organizers included a parking pass with my goody bag, there were no parking attendants to collect it or direct us to the lot. I hesitantly made my way across a narrow road between soccer fields to an open grass lot where a hundred or so others were parking, gearing up and riding off to wherever the buses were waiting for us.
It was cold—below freezing—and still very dark. I chatted with the carload of Brits parked in front of me. They were dressing and, apparently, planning to ride in shorts, despite the cold. I asked about the bus and they, like me, had no idea where it was. We figured we’d just follow the other cyclists and hope we got there. I offered them embrocation creme, but they declined. I, however, slathered it on my legs before pulling on my tights.
With a Kucharik wool undershirt; 2Velo, short sleeve, wool jersey and Kucharik arm warmers under the long sleeve 2Velo jersey and Tiralento wool shorts under the Vittore Gianni wool tights, I was pretty warm, considering. But, having opted to ride sans booties, I was worried about my feet getting cold, even with some sweet Patagonia wool socks.
With my pockets packed with food, an empty musette bag, CO2 cartridges, a multi-tool, a bottle of Güp, wallet and cell phone, I hopped on my bike and headed toward the street where I hoped I’d see a mass of cycling humanity riding toward the bus pick-up point. I did. And I joined them for the five minute roll to a nearby grocery store where a dozen busses and trucks were assembled. My feet and forehead were impossibly cold.
I lined up with dozens of other cyclists speaking a variety of languages. Many were British, others from somewhere in Eastern Europe, plus plenty of French and Dutch riders. Looking around, I noted I was the only guy there in full vintage mode. There were a few steel frames, but the bikes were all equipped with integrated brake/shift levers and clipless pedals. Everyone was fully kitted out in Lycra and nylon. There were a lot of Rapha, Assos and Specialized logos.
The line moved slowly. After about 10 minutes, a pair of volunteers working their way through the queue let us know that the line was for those who needed to buy tickets for the bus. Those, like me, who already had a ticket, needed to move to another, much-shorter line to collect new tickets that would pair us with a specific bus and cargo truck. Mine were F5.
The trucks weren’t marked and we weren’t told where to wait. Everyone wandered about asking other confused riders where to go. It was all a bit of a cluster. I settled in with a group of riders at the front of a truck someone identified as F5. Ten minutes later, a volunteer let us know we were at the wrong truck and we should gather at the rear of our truck. We waited there another 20 minute, easy, before three men carefully loaded our bikes into the truck. These same three men were the only people loading the trucks. It was a slow process.
While standing there, I noted that my wool kit was keeping me plenty warm.
On the bus, I sat next to another American. He lived in Northern California now, but had spent a lot of time in Southern California where I live. He was with two childhood buddies. The three of them had been riding around Italy for several weeks before coming to France. I never got his name. But I did see him at the last rest stop on the ride and again later on the road when he and his buddies passed and dropped me.
Warm in the bus, we sat in the grocery store parking lot for at least another 30 minutes. The drive to Busigny was supposed to take abut 45 minutes, but, I swear it was more like two hours. The countryside we drove through was typical of Northern Europe—bucolic farmland, rolling green hills, plowed fields, quaint villages. As the sun rose, we could see a layer of frost and occasionally ice covered everything. It looked really cold out there and a strong wind was buffeting the bus.
Stepping off the bus in Busigny, I discovered just how cold it really was. It was not time to decide what I would wear for the ride. As I waited for my bike to be offloaded, I shivered uncontrollably. My gut told me to drop off the extra clothes—mainly the long-sleeve jersey and musette bag—for transport back to Roubaix. But my frozen hands and feet and frosty breath were telling me not to remove a single stitch from my body.
My bike came off the truck quickly. Since I was riding solo, I was ready to go. I looked around trying to get my bearings and figure out which direction to ride—people were riding up and down the street we parked on—and where the bag drop-off might be, if there was one. I correctly decided to roll downhill.
A few hundred yards later, I saw a gathering of cyclists in a parking lot. Again, there was no signage, so I wasn’t sure what was going on. Was this place to check in? Could I drop my stuff there? (I still was undecided about whether or not I would.) Was food or drink available there? Maybe coffee?
I stopped and gave a look. It was unclear what was going on, but based on the fact that I saw several riders removing backpacks before disappearing into the crowd, I assumed it was bag drop-off. I was still freezing, so I made the decision to ride with my extra gear and just deal with the hassle of carrying the bag.
I rolled on, hoping to find an open coffee shop and a bathroom—I had to pee. Deeper into the village, I found two port-a-johns, which seemed to be far too few for the thousands of riders about to start a 109-mile bike ride at dawn. I stopped. Waited for a four guys—one from the Bay Area and a member of Team DFL—to do their thing. Did my thing. And headed off, still looking for a coffee shop.
Not far from the port-a-johns, I passed a small bakery with a dozen bikes parked out front and queue out the door. Getting started with the ride was more important to me than coffee. I rode on. Shortly after I passed the boulangerie, I found the spot where organizers set up a dozen or so port-a-johns. There also were a few vendors selling water, bananas and pastries. Some signage up the road would have been nice. I rolled past, crossed the starting line and headed out of town. I was still cold.
The sun was low in the sky, just above the horizon, and cast a golden glow over the frosty grass of pastures and grey dirt of freshly plowed fields. The sunlight may have been warm in hue, but it wasn’t in temperature. I was quite cold, my feet and forehead, in particular.
My body felt okay, but I wasn’t really riding strongly. I hoped it was just the cold, the 15-mph winds or maybe a lack of coffee and that it would pass with the miles. Several groups of riders passed me. Despite trying, I was unable to sit on until a strung-out group went by on a slight downhill. I hopped on the back and cruised for the next few miles until we hit a slight uphill grade. I slipped off the back and settled into a rhythm. At the crest of the hill, I was overheating. I stopped to remove the long sleeve jersey, stuffed it in my musette bag and slung the bag over my shoulder. It was going to be a long 100 miles with that thing sliding around on my back. I regretted not dropping it off at the start.
A number of the riders who passed me early in the ride gestured or called out their approval of my bike and gear choice. “Allez Roger!” “De Vlaeminck!” “Respect!”
I was a little unclear how far we would ride before getting to the first sector of cobbles—sector 29 at Troisvilles a Inchy. I knew it wasn’t too far. I figured less than 20 miles. But it was taking longer to get there than I expected. I was recording my ride with my iPhone on Strava, but it was in my back pocket and I had no intention of pulling it out all day to check my mileage. Knowing how far I had gone or how far I had to go wasn’t going to make the miles pass any faster.
Then I saw it—the banner signaling the entrance of the sector. A smile broke across my face. We turned left onto the pavé—an “easy” two-star sector of only 0.9 kilometers in length. I was glad our first section would be a light appetizer of the pain I knew was to come. I switched on my GoPro and rode in.
I had ridden the cobbles of L’Enfer du Nord before. Twice Specialized invited me to attend press conferences in Roubaix. Both events included 50-kilometer rides over some five or six cobbled sectors, each time including Trouée d’Arenberg. It had been some 14 years since the last time I rode the pavé, but I hadn’t completely forgotten what it was like. Those rides, however, were on first-generation Roubaixs, bikes designed specifically to conquer the cobbles.
On this day, I was on a bike built in 1972. The frame and all the components were more than 45 years old and I was unsure what to expect. I was, however, confident that my tire choice—27mm, Challenge, Paris-Roubaix tubulars—would be superior to the smaller clinchers I used in 2004 and 2005 with Specialized.
Despite my smile, almost immediately upon hitting the cobbles of Sector 29, I knew it was going to be a long, difficult and painful day. (I actually knew this when I signed up last December.) My watch, a vintage 1970s Rodania like those worn by Roger De Vlaeminck, Eddy Merckx and Freddy Maertens, immediately began bouncing violently against my forearm. At first the pain was dull. Then it became clear to me that the pain wasn’t limited to stainless steel bouncing against bone. The crown was digging into my skin. I rode on.
The short sector ended quickly. Other than the pain I felt in my wrist, which stopped as soon as I hit smooth asphalt, it wasn’t too bad. I wasn’t powerful enough to float over the pavé like the greats do, but I managed to maintain enough speed and found enough “smooth” gutter to get through the section with confidence that the day wouldn’t be too horrific.
Then, I hit Sector 28.
Sector 28 at Briastre a Viesley was the first of seven four-star sectors. In this case, the high rating was likely due to its 3-kilometer length. Of the 29 sectors, only three would be 3km or longer. It was chunky, but there was a fair amount of dry dirt gutter to ride in. It took me 4 minutes to cross the rocky expanse, but it seemed like 30. It was also clear my watch was going to be a real problem. I didn’t loo, but I was pretty sure my arm was bleeding where the crown was digging into the skin. Still, I was having fun.
Sector 27 was rated only three stars. It was chunky and 1.8km long, but again, there was plenty of gutter to ride in.
I noticed that my legs weren’t coming around. Even on the roads between pavé sectors, I was riding slowly. And when we hit a hill, I struggled. I’m too heavy to climb fast these days, but I don’t usually go backward on the sort of short pitches along the route. I was a little worried I hadn’t hydrated well enough.
The 3.7km, four-star Sector 26 started with a slight uphill, then dropped fast. It was a hoot to ride. I passed a lot of people while “descending.” At times my vision was so blurred I had no idea which of the three or four objects I was seeing was real. I just hung on and tried to keep my bars straight. At the bottom I chatted with an Aussie, who also was pumped on the super fun sector.
The next sector at Saint-Pythin was the first two-star sector. It was 1.5km long, but fairly well maintained with smoothish gutters and a descending finish. I wasn’t felling great at this point, so it was a welcome relief. I would find out later that not all two-star sectors, however, are as “good.”
Sector 24, a 2.3km three-star section at Vertain a Saint-Martin-sur-Escallion would be the last before the first rest stop. My bike had only one bottle cage and I had emptied my bidon miles before the rest stop. I was feeling parched and in desperate need of liquid refreshment. I considered adding an extra bolt-on bootle cage to the bike, but thought the vibration of the cobbles would cause it to come loose and possibly mar the beautiful paint on my frame. My hope was that I’d be able to buy water at shops along the route. Unfortunately, I hadn’t seen a single open shop since we left Busigny.
When I pulled into the rest stop, I immediately went to the water station, filled my bootle with water and chucked its contents twice before filling it a third time and adding a powdered energy drink I brought with me. I grabbed a handful of gels and gobbled down bananas and orange slices before getting in line for the port-a-johns. There were three—far too few for the crowd.
During the wait, I noticed there was blood on my left glove. I pulled up my arm warmer to get a better look and saw that my wrist under my watch was smeared with a mix of dry and wet blood. Worried that my watch would bounce out on the pavé if I put it in my back pocket, I moved it to my right arm with the crown pointing up my arm. I hoped flipping the watch and putting the crown farther from my wrist might prevent it from gouging my arm.
When it was my turn, my pee came out somewhat brownish. Needless to say, I was a little bit alarmed. I was clearly dehydrated, which may explain why I felt so sluggish. I returned to the water station and downed a couple cups before getting back on the road.
I was only six sectors into the ride and basically felt like shit. I had felt that way for the last 10 or so miles. With 23 more sectors to go, I wasn’t feeling very optimistic about my chances of finishing. As I rode, I broke the route down into thirds and set my goals accordingly. I focused on being only four sectors from getting into the teens, rather than 23 from the finish in Roubaix.
Much of the ride between Sectors 24 and 20 is a blur. I vividly recall feeling terrible and working really hard to talk myself out of climbing off at the next rest stop. And at some point, I stopped and removed my tights. I was unsure it was good idea, but I did it anyway. Vintage Vittore Gianni tights may appear thin, but they are extremely warm. Initially the cold winds stung my exposed legs, but I got used to it quickly,
When I hit the cobbles in Haveluy a Wallers, I knew I was nearly to the legendary Troupe d’Arenberg. The thought of riding there again, sent a surge, albeit a small surge, of adrenaline through my body. A massive does of fear and trepidation accompanied it.
I approached Arenberg, the first of three five-star sectors with another rider. As he passed me we exchanged a few words and rode the last kilometer together. It was bit of a circus at the entrance to the “forest.” Among the hundreds of people at the entrance, were two gentlemen directing traffic—pedestrian, cycling and automotive—away from the pavé. Among those they directed down the road to the right were the two of us.
We were confused and quite sure this was a mistake. Several riders ahead of us were allowed to enter the sector, after all. We rode a couple hundred feet down the wrong road, threw U-turns and headed back the Arenberg. This detour meant we would enter the pavé going far slower then the recommended 30-40 kph. Before I even entered the forest, I was already screwed.
As soon as my tires met the cobbles, I knew this was going to be brutal. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make it through. And if I did, I might call it a day at the end. The pain of my heavy watch bouncing on my wrist was nearly unbearable. I tried to focus on other things—catching riders a head of me, keeping the pedals moving, the faces of the fans walking along the adjacent path, looking good for the photographers—and searched for a non-existent gutter or sections of smooth road. I felt like I was going 5 mph.
My bike and body bounced in slow motion over the centuries-old loaves of granite that undulate through the 2.4km forest. With every up and down, I felt as though I was being punched from all directions. It was inhumane and I couldn’t believe I was putting myself though this. At times I laughed to myself about the stupidity of it. Then, someone I assumed was a young stud would blow by me at 30 kmh as if floating just above the pavé. What the fuck? How the fuck? I felt as if I was about to fall over. It was the longest nine minutes of my life. Every second along the way I wished it was over.
When I reached the end, I stopped to ponder what I had just done. Dozens of others were also stopped at the end of the road. I shot some selfies—the only ones I‘d take all day—drank some water and sucked down a gel. My right wrist was aching. I didn’t look at it. I remounted and joined a small group on the road. The smooth asphalt was heavenly. I was now dreading every one of the 19 remaining sectors. But at least I’d made it to the teens.
All I remember about the miles between the Arenberg forest and the next rest stop was that each of the cobbled sections seemed worse than the one before. And that I was intensely thirsty. I think it was along this part of the route that I began to contemplate giving up cycling all together. It was the most idiotic activity I could imagine.
As before, I chugged a couple bottle of water and inhaled a half dozen orange slices, grabbed a bunch of energy bars and went to eat bathroom at the rest stop. My pee was no longer brown. A relief. But was still really thirsty. And I was knackered. I vowed to myself to ride on, no matter what. I was, after all, half way to Roubaix.
Between the rest stop and the finish on the Velodrome in Roubaix, I was going to have to conquer two more five-star sectors. One, Carrefour de l’Arbre, I had ridden twice the previous day. I was the third secure from the end and I knew, as bad it as it was going to be, it would signal the end of the ride.
I was pleased with how my bike had held up. No flats. No lost water bottles. No loose bits. I saw dozens of riders along the road with punctures. I also saw a few broken rims. Others were sitting on curbs or the front stoops of building, cell phones in hand, probably calling for a ride home. I was glad I wasn’t one of them.
No doubt there were crashes on this day, but other than someone climbing out of one of the many drainage ditches along the route, I saw no evidence of carnage. I never had any close calls despite riding in the “more dangerous” gutters and grass whenever possible.
Between the five-star Sector 11 at Mons-en-Pévele and the finish are three two-star sectors. I looked forward to riding what I expected to be smoothish pathways. What I learned, however, is that two stars doesn’t imply a lack of chunks and bumps. I recall one three-star section being very tame for most of its length, but none of the last three two-star sections were easy. They were short—0.5, 0.7 and 1.1 km long—but at least one of them was in worse condition than Arenberg or Mons-en-Pévele. None of them was easy nor was riding them comfortable.
At one point, I heard one of my fellow riders proclaim to his friends, “Fuck cobbles.” I couldn’t have agreed more.
It was a monumental struggle for me to keep riding. I pedaled squares on the assault between cobbled sectors and I wallowed in my pain and fatigue on the pavé. Nothing about it was fun any more. I had become empty inside, feeling nothing but contempt for those who created racing over cobbles and for myself for ever thinking I enjoyed such a thing.
Not long after I left the third and last rest stop, I was freezing again. The sun had disappeared behind a haze of clouds. I doubt the temperature had dropped, but without the sun shine, it sure felt like it. I stopped and put my tights back on. Twenty minutes later, I was hot again. Taking them off, however, seemed like too much effort. I kept going.
I dreaded Carrefour de l’Arbre. The previous day there was almost no place to ride along the sector in the gutter. It was long at 2.1 kilometers and followed almost immediately by another 1.1-kilometer sector. I had a feeling it was going to break me. I tried to focus on the fact that it was a mere 10 kilometers from Roubaix.
By the time I hit Carrefour, unlike the day before, thousands of cyclist had already been there. Apparently many of them chose to ride in the gutters and grass, creating a fairly wide swath of comfort for me to follow in. I was grateful. It wasn’t until the end of the road when it tilts up a few degrees that it got really difficult. But it was basically over.
Only two more sectors to go. (We would skip the last, strictly ceremonial one-star sector a few blocks before the Velodrome in Roubaix.)
I plodded through the last few kilometers until we entered the city center of Roubaix. There, I linked up with a dozen or so others. Carefully, we rode single file in rush-hour traffic. It was sketchy at times. More than once, a car would drift into our path forcing one or several of us to slam on the brakes or hop the curb onto the sidewalk. Once, a guy hit his brakes and fell in front of me. I was still strapped into my pedals and despite falling to the right, just managed to pull my left foot out, swing it over my rear tire and plant it on the ground to the right side of my bike. It was an acrobatic move and the only time I almost crashed all day.
Soon, I recognized the road that leads into the Velodrome. Relief mixed with anticipation and excitement rushed over me. I was about to ride into one of the most hallowed grounds in cycling, following the path of all my cycling heroes. I tried to focus and soak it all in. If ever there was time to be in the moment, this was it.
The steepness of the banks surprised me. I had watched the race finish from the infield of the velodrome twice before, but this was my first time on the track. I briefly went up the bank before dropping down to the light blue strip along the infield. Should I sprint all out, I wondered?
Before exiting the turn, I looked toward the finish line and saw photographers. I decided it would be best to slow down and back away from the riders in front of me so I could cross the finish alone for an unobstructed photo. Unfortunately, the riders in front of me apparently had the same idea. My finish line photos suck.
After I crossed the finish line, I immediately slowed, pulled my foot from my pedal and stopped in front of a young, female volunteer who placed a medal around my neck. I looked at it, pleased with the design and quality. When I dismounted my bike and stepped into the infield, I nearly fell. I was shattered.
It occurred to me that it would be nice to be sharing the moment with someone. I looked around hoping to see a familiar face. There were none. It was a particularly lonely moment.
I considered what my next move would be—Grab a beer? Sit down in the infield and watch others finish? Get some food? All the above? Go back to the AirBnB? One thing I knew for certain, I was never going to ride a bike again. I was over it. I was going to find a new passion.
Standing there in the infield with a 1,000-yard stare affixed to my face, I felt a presence behind me. I turned to see a large man dressed in street clothes getting ready to speak. With a German accent, he said his friend who had also just finished, was admiring my bike and jersey. I thanked him and told him the bike was a real Brooklyn Team bike. He said it was a cool bike and went back to his friend. Then, he came back and asked if he could take my photograph. I was doubted I looked good enough to have my photo taken, but I agreed to stand for him. He snapped a few frames and thanked me. I regret not asking for his name or contact info.
I looked around the velodrome and tried to soak it all in. I was tired. I was cold. I was sweaty. I was hungry. I wanted to go home. I made my way to the carpark, undressed and redressed, and loaded my bike into the car. My right wrist, like my left, was caked with dried blood. The crown and dug into two spots only forearm and wrist.
I was super stoked I finished. But I was exhausted and unable absorb its meaning.
Back at the flat, I took a long hot shower. It was good. I was starving and craving a hamburger, frites and a Coke, a beverage I gave up years ago. I knew there was nowhere to get any of that nearby and I had no energy to set out on an adventure to find a place. Instead, I made a huge bowl of penne arrabiata and paired it with one of the selection of Belgian beers I had purchased the day before. I think I chose the Trappist Rochefort 6.
I had booked the AirBnB through the next day. My plan had been to check out in the morning, as was required, then find a place to hang out for the race, either at a bar or along a cobbled sector, before going to my next AirBnB outside Gent. As luck would have it, I was only a handful of miles from one of the best sectors to watch the race go by, Carrefour de l’Arbre. Even better, the AirBnB owner said I could keep my car at her place until after the race finished. Sounded like a plan.
I tossed in a load of laundry and packed up my stuff. I climbed into bed, turned on the TV, which was showing a rebroadcast of the 2018 Paris-Roubaix race and passed out.
Day 4: The Morning After
When I went to bed around 8 on Saturday night, following my ride at the Paris Roubaix Challenge, I planned to sleep in. Generally, sleeping much more than seven hours is difficult. But with the metal binds in the room closed to keep the room seriously dark, I managed to doze past 9 a.m. I got up and ate the remaining food I had while watching a rebroadcast of the Tour of Flanders—during Classics season, cycling is on TV in France and Belgium all day, albeit mostly rebroadcasts.
I checked the weather and started putting together a mental plan of my day. I was tired. Dragging. It was early, I needed to check out in about 2 hours and it wouldn’t be until 2 or 3 o’clock before the riders came through the area. It was also really cold. I realized I didn’t really have the clothing with me to spend hours standing along the Carrefour de l’Arbre sector waiting for the race.
I tried to convince myself it would be fun—I’d surely switch into my outgoing mode and meet some people, drink some beers, take some good photos, enjoy and absorb the atmosphere. But, I wasn’t feeling very good. It seemed like more than just fatigue from the day before. Continued dehydration, maybe.
The thought of driving around to find parking near Sector 4, walking god-knows how far to get back to the cobbles, standing outside in the cold with only a light poofy coat and otherwise generally unprepared for a long day in the damp, grey French countryside and then doing it all over again as I exited with crowds of people and heavy traffic was dreadful.
Maybe I could find a bar? Surely there would be a number of local bars open with the race on television. Like the one in a Sunday in Hell where the film introduces us to Freddy Maertens.
As I packed up my car, the owner of my next AirBnB sent an email letting me know the room was ready. Hmmm, maybe the thing to do was go there. I could hit a grocery store for some food and beer on the way, soak in the deep claw-foot bathtub (the main reason I picked the place), then watch the race on the large TV I knew was in the living room. During the 90-minute drive I could keep my eyes peeled for an open bar. If I saw one that looked inviting, I’d stop.
I was headed to Tielt, somewhere in Flanders. The sky was a milky grey and it was intermittently raining. I would take the E17 then go north on the N35, a two-lane road through the Flemish countryside. The surrounding area was mostly a mix of rich green hues dotted with farmhouses and the occasional village. It was lovely. I couldn’t wait to ride some of the many, many small roads cutting through the fields.
When I arrived in at the house—a small mansion with statues of lions on each side of the front door—I found it impressive and a little intimidating. I was surprised to find it in the center of one of the small villages—Aarsele—not further out in the countryside, as I had imagined it based on the photos on AirBnB. It was also a good 6 kilometers from Tielt, the city in the address. On first look, I saw no restaurants, bars or shops of any kind. I wondered where I’d eat and if I had picked another place located far from good food and restaurants. Just before rounding the last turn to the house, was a grocery store and it was open for another 30 minutes—score. I stopped and stocked up on supplies for the next couple of days.
I arrived at the house early. Although they wrote to let me know the room was ready any time, they didn’t expect me until 3 o’clock, the regular check-in time. I killed time in the grocery store, then sat in my car until I got the okay to check in.
The house was awesome. I had private parking, plenty of space to work on my bike and a garage in which to store it. Inside, was a well appointed living room with a big comfy sofa and a huge television on the wall. The decor was a mix of the building’s original 18th century architecture and modern furnishings, which is pretty typical in Europe. I liked it. Charlotte, the owner, who lived in half of the mansion with her family, told me I would have 24-hour access to the living room and breakfast would be served every morning. I had never been served breakfast at an AirBnB.
My room was upstairs. Similarly decorated, it was spacious with an equally spacious bathroom where that fabulous bathtub sat centered in the room. The large shower, closed only on two sides—the wall on back and a large sheet of tempered glass on the front—with a huge rain shower head was a huge improvement over the last four or five AirBnBs I’d stayed in. The only negative, the toilet was across the hall. But I was the only guest there, so I wouldn’t have to share it.
When I went downstairs to unpack my car and get my luggage, the television was on and tuned to the Paris-Roubaix race. I paused to see where the racers were and how much longer they had to go. Steven, Charlotte’s husband, stepped into the room behind me and said he had tuned on the race for me to watch. When I sent my request to rent the room, I explained that my purpose for being in Europe was to attend the race and ride my bike. How cool was that?
I dragged all my stuff to my room, grabbed my groceries and returned other living room. I made a sandwich in the adjacent dinning room and opened a beer. Although I was alone, I was in heaven on that sofa watching the race. The riders were not far from the Arenberg forest when I tuned in. I was going to see the bulk of the good stuff.
I sunk down deep into the cushions with my sandwich and a Belgian triple and watched in disbelief as the leaders effortlessly sped across the cobbles and seemed to transfer from one sector to the next in a matter of seconds rather than the many dozens of minutes it took me.
Having just ridden them the day before, every cobbled sector was intimately familiar to me. I remembered various landmarks along the route—a church, a bar, a roundabout, a barn—each of them passing in a blur at the pace of the peloton unlike when I saw them in person the day before. Then, they would appear to me off in the distance and much later pass by slow enough to see every detail of the architecture or even to read the signs displaying the hours of business on the front door. On TV, going at the speed of the peloton today, everything was a blur.
I was rooting for Peter Sagan, even though I knew he was a bit of a long shot. I was happy to see him among the leaders when they hit Carrefour de l’Arbre. The other rider I was pulling for was Belgian cyclocross star Wout Van Aert. Neither man would have a great race, although Sagan’s fifth place finish wasn’t what I’d call a failure. Sure he fell short of his win last year, but fifth ain’t bad.
Philippe Gilbert’s win was a surprise. And though I am not a fan of his Deceuninck-QuickStep Team (something feels fishy there), I am a fan of many of its riders, among them Gilbert. I was pumped for the old man.
I had been thinking about doing a post Paris-Roubaix-viewing ride to check out the area and to loosen up my legs. But I had nothing to give. I was depleted. In some ways, more so than I expected. I spent the afternoon unpacking and setting up my bike for Flanders. I had installed a 12-23 freewheel and 52/44 chainrings for the Paris Roubaix Challenge. For the hills of Flanders, I put my usual 13-28 freewheel with 53/41-tooth chainrings back on.
I also took a walk around the neighborhood, looking for restaurants and cafés. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot to choose from. The AirBnB owners provided a very good binder with all the usual info—Wifi password, TV how-tos and a comprehensive list of local businesses a guess might need. Among the eateries on the list was a place called Frituur Joke. A quick check of its website told me they served hamburgers and frites. I had been craving this exact meal the day before, so it sounded best among the local venues.
Two minutes after stepping onto the streets of Aarsele, it began to rain. For whatever reason, I didn’t let it bother me. I pulled up my hood and embraced what I had always heard was typical Belgian weather. Frituur Joke was about a two kilometer walk. It was nice to be outside.
The restaurant was busy when I stepped inside. There was a line of three people waiting to order and several small groups of people waiting for their orders. Most were doing take-away. On the television was another rebroadcast of Paris-Roubaix. It took me a good 10 minutes to figure out the menu and come up with my order—the fresh (not the frozen one) house burger, frites and a Coke—and to muster the courage to ask the young woman at the register if she spoke English. I always feel a huge amount of guilt when I can’t speak the local language. Unfortunately, the only other language I’m competent in is Japanese, which pretty useless in most countries.
Fortunately, the young woman and another woman I took to be the owner, were more than competent in English and were super helpful. The burger was quite good and the frites were amazing. The Coke, my first in years, was also delicious. But I couldn’t stop thinking I was drinking poison.
To my surprise, my appetite wasn’t very strong. The small order of frites was actually quite large and I could only eat about a quarter of it. I also struggled to finish the burger, leaving half of the bun. The meal would have been so much better yesterday, I thought.
My walk back the AirBnB was drier. Along the way, I lamented the fact that it’s so difficult to walk in the U.S. and, at least where live, the scenery is just plain ugly. I enjoy walking to restaurants, grocery stores, the butcher, the veggie stand, the pharmacy and other local businesses like I had everyday when I lived in Tokyo. I missed it.
The rest of the evening was spent in bed watching television—mostly rebroadcasts of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix—and organizing my kit for the next day’s ride. I was going to dive to Oudenaarde to visit the Centrum Ronde Van Vlaanderen ( Tour of Flanders Cycling Museum) and, if possible, ride the Red Route of the Tour of Flanders Course.
I was asleep shortly after I closed my eyes.
Day 5: Back on the Bike
When I woke up, I noticed a slight tingle in my throat. I hoped it was dehydration, allergies or resulted from me leaving the windows open while I slept. But I knew better. I chose to ignore it and make the best of the day.
The dinning room was filled with a warm natural light and the sound of Django Reinhardt-esque guitar jazz. A dozen lit candles on the mantlepiece and enormous rustic dinning table helped create a relaxed atmosphere. A spread of food like what you might find in a four-star hotel awaited me. This was a great way to start the day.
As I ate the fresh fruit, granola, yoghurt, sliced meats and cheeses, pastries and a hard-boiled egg, I soaked in the atmosphere and enjoyed my view of the large backyard. The sun was shining, finally, and my appetite was back. Steven popped in to check that everything was okay—it was—and to see if I needed anything—I didn’t. He told me bit about the area and I told him my plans for the day. He gave me a few helpful suggestions and left.
The drive to Oudenaarde took me through a number to towns and villages. It was a slow drive and not very scenic. I decided I’d have to find a better route if I was to go back by bike, a possibility for the following day. I had considered riding to the museum that day—about 50 kilometers/30 miles roundtrip—but my real goal was to ride the 112-kilometer/70-mile Red Course, which I knew passed nearby the city center. Not wanting to ride 160+ kilometers/100+miles, I loaded my bike into the car and wore my riding gear under a tracksuit in preparation to ride after I toured the museum.
The Centrum Ronde Van Vlaanderen is located near the city center of Oudenaarde. I knew that meant parking would be stressful. As I’ve mentioned before I hate parking in Europe. It almost always requires that you pay with coins or that you buy a ticket from a machine that takes only coins. I never have coins. And often have no cash. On this day, I had some cash, but forgot to bring my coins.
Almost as soon as I found a spot and parked in a small lot adjacent to the museum and near a very cool old building that I took house city hall or a similar government office, the stress started. The ticket machine was not intuitive and when I pressed the button for English instructions, nothing happened. I had no idea where I was supposed to put my money or credit card. Fortunately, a woman stepped up behind me as my confusion reached its peak. She told me it only took special parking cards. I was screwed.
She pushed a button and the machine gave her a ticket for her dashboard. She looked at it and joyfully said, “It’s free! I don’t know why, but parking is free.”
I pushed the button. She grabbed the ticket, looked at it, pointed to set of numbers and said, “See, it’s free.” The numbers were indecipherable. I took her word for it.
I went through the museum in about 20 minutes. It was a bit underwhelming. (Read about it here.) With the 10 euro entry, I also got a drink ticket for the museum café. A coffee sounded good. And maybe, just maybe, if the menu had something appetizing that wasn’t over priced, I’d grab a bite to eat.
I ordered a cappuccino and a bowl of pasta. It was huge. Too big to finish. I checked my emails and social media while I ate and looked at maps of the various Ronde routes. I paid my bill and headed to my car to get my bike and ride.
Before removing my tracksuit and getting ready to ride, I check out the parking ticket I placed on the dashboard earlier. I studied those indecipherable numbers. It didn’t take long for me to realize, the numbers were a date and time stamp—about 10 minutes from the current time. I concluded it meant my free parking expired in 10 minutes.
I pondered my options—I had no way to pay at this machine, so I had to move. The thought of driving around to find parking weighed heavy on me. I looked around to see if I could see a nearby spot, or any signs at the museum pointing to recommended, and hopefully free, parking. I saw neither. (I would learn a day later that free parking is available behind the museum.)
I wasn’t felling great—definitely not up to the 70 miles of the Tour of Flanders course I had planned to do. Screw it, I’ll I go back to the AirBnB and ride from there, I decided. Tomorrow, I’ll come back and do the ride,.
The weather had improved, but it was still windy and cold. I dressed in long-sleeve jersey and wool tights. I strapped my GoPro to my helmet and headed out with absolutely no plan. I was simply going to explore the area and ride until I no longer felt like riding.
It took all of two minutes to exit Aarsele. I crossed the N35 and rolled downhill toward some farmy-looking buildings. I noted the road signs—Belgium, like most of Europe, had amazing road signage. You almost don’t need a map, ever.—and rode on. When I came to a new road, if it looked interesting, I took it. Once, I made the mistake of turning onto a heavily traffic road, but for most of the ride I was surrounded by farms, fields, livestock and small villages, occasionally needing to move over for a massive tractor.
At one point, I hit the day’s first and only “hill.” It was so short and only moderately steep that I was surprised anyone would made the effort to name it—the Peolberg. The road topped out and turned right on to what seemed more like a manmade bank than a natural ridge line (I’m still unsure which it was.). Even though it wasn’t particularity high, the view was pretty spectacular. So was the wind. I passed some locals on bikes before coming to an old windmill on the ridge.
When I left the AirBnB, my throat was scratchy and I feeling pretty good. I hoped riding might help me sweat out the sickness, if that’s what it was. But about a half hour in, I was still feeling sluggish and my hands were sore from Roubaix. I had no idea where I was when I passed the windmill, so I thought it might be a good time to start trying to make my way back home. I randomly picked roads that seemed like the might take me back to Aarsele.
In less than a half hour, I popped out on the N35—a heavily trafficked road with a mediocre bike lane that passed by the village. I was unsure which way to turn and made the mistake of choosing left. A couple kilometers down the road and I knew I was going the wrong way.
Back at the AirBnB, I enjoyed a long soak in that killer bathtub before stepping out to look for a place to eat. According to the information binder in my room, there were two restaurants that served dinner in Aarsele. One was less than 100 meters away; the other one about twice as far away. The first was still closed, but it had a menu on the door. Although the food sounded good, it was a bit on the fancy side and definitely out of my budget. I never found the second place. I did however, find two bars, one of which was closed. The second one only showed beer on its outdoor menu and a peek through the windows didn’t give me any indication that it served food.
I returned to my room and made a sandwich with the supplies I bought the day before. I chugged half a bottle of orange juice, hoping the vita C would kill off any illness inside me. For dessert, I had some yoghurt. It wasn’t a great meal, but it filled me up.
Still feeling unwell, I prepared for the next day’s ride before going to sleep. I wanted to ride to the start of the Red Route in Oodenaarde more than I wanted to drive there. But it would make for a very long day. If I was still feeling crappy, or worse, actually sick, riding might be a mistake. I researched the various Ronde routes and found a way to ride from the AirBnB and intersect with the Yellow route, which, according to the website, sounded as interesting the Red route had. If I felt good, I could do the whole thing. If I felt bad, I could cut the ride short and go back to the house. With that settled, I went to sleep.
Day 6: Riding the Ronde?
I didn’t sleep as well as I had the nights before. My dry, scratchy throat was not getting better. It wasn’t quite worse, but I was starting to really believe I was about to get sick.
Just as I had the day before, I entered the dinning room to be greeted the same inviting atmosphere and amazing spread of food. My appetite was strong and I ate just about everything. I was running low on supplies in my room, so I grabbed a couple slices of bread and the remaining cheese and meat for later.
I dressed in my 2Velo 1973 Brooklyn jersey and new, custom, Tiralento Brooklin wool shorts and went to the garage to collect my bike. My ride started on the same roads I used the day before. About 7 kilometers/5 miles in, I followed the signs and tuned off the route toward Oudenaarde. I rode through neat neighborhoods and several small towns that seemed as if they’d been recently abandoned. Where were all the people?
About an hour in, unbeknownst to me, my phone lost its connection and Apple Maps stopped prompting me. I rode until I hit a particularly nasty road where, unwilling to mingle with the traffic, I stopped to see what my other options might be. With my phone “dead,” I tuned around to search for a signal. Eventually, Maps started working again and I was on my way. It was about this time when I emptied my water bottle.
The next time Maps stopped, I was on a particularly enjoyable farming road. I followed it until I hit a “T” intersection. I had no clue which way to go, but my gut told me to turn right. About 50 meters after doing so, I spotted a sign informing me that I was on the Yellow Tour of Flanders Route. Lucky me. It was the road I was looking for, but I somehow found it at least 7 kilometers/5 miles sooner than expected and when I was well off my planned route.
The road wound its way through green fields and past cute, brick farmhouses. Occasionally the air was thick with the smell of cow urine and manure. It was along this road that I found my first Flemish cobbles. They rolled up and down through a village whose name I have forgotten. The cobbles were well maintained and were not nearly as painful as I expected. I hoped I might find an open shop or bar here where I could buy a bottle of water. I was really thirsty. But, there was no such luck.
A few miles later, I passed a windmill before hitting a second sector of cobbles—a legit farming road. Its chunky surface undulated like the back of a dragon from one side to the other. It was only slightly wider than a car and it stretched out in front of me, perfectly straight, as far as I could see. This was going to be along one.
As I had in France, I pushed on my bars and slid backward on my saddle. I floated over the road’s surface, not quite effortlessly, but better than I had in Roubaix. I was optimistic that I’d make to the end of the road before I lost all power. The cobbles, however, had a different plan. The road was much longer than any I’d ridden in France. After only a few minutes I slowed and settled into a pace that I could maintain. I felt the road surface more, but at least I’d make it to the end, maybe, before I was forced to ride at a crawl.
Smooth gutters barely existed, but I took advantage of them when I could, diving from the crown to either side sporadically. I was having fun. Riding cobbles really could be enjoyable.
I wondered through the verdant Belgian countryside, following the Yellow Route signs, which were randomly hung on either side of the road and at various heights. I missed a some, each time realizing my mistake with a few kilometers before doubling back to find the route. Generally, however, I rode without care.
Several more cobbled sections and villages passed before I hit the first “hill” of the day and shifted into my small chainring. It wasn’t particularly steep, but it was certainly a hill compared to pancake-flat roads I’d been on. Again, I noticed how thirsty I was. My bottle was empty, but I gabbed it and tried to suck out a drop or two just to wet my throat a little. There was nothing around me except a few large homes, many behind fences and walls. I rode on.
Eventually, I popped out on a rather busy roadway. There were no Yellow Route signs, so I gambled and turned left, following another cyclist. A few hundred meters on, I entered a small town lined with shops and other businesses. Everything seemed closed. Near the opposite end fo the town, I spotted a sandwich shop with bottled beverages displayed in the window. The lights were on and it looked open, so I stopped. It wasn’t.
By now, I knew I was going in the wrong direction. I turned around and headed back through town the way I had come. Just after passing the town’s boarder, I spotted a Yellow Route sign. No wonder I’d missed it, it was on the opposite side of the road from where I had been. I turned right and headed into a park.
The road was lined with forest. It was beautiful. Quiet. Other than in a few small parking lots at trail heads, there were no cars. Along the road several male, ringneck pheasants casually strolled through the underbrush. They were big and their plumage brilliant. As I passed a fallow field, I spotted a northern lapwing. Its fighter plane-like flight pattern was impressive. T\Other than hundreds of wood pigeons and jackdaws, these are the first birds I’d seen clearly in Belgium.
Soon, I was riding along the Scheldt River. It was peaceful. The air was cool and damp. A number of huge barges silently lumbered up the river. And I was thirsty. Really thirsty.
When the bike path split, I chose the route that pointed toward Oudenaard and went through an urban area. I hoped I’d find some bottled water. Or a fountain. Anything I could use to fill my bottle. A few minutes up the road, I rolled past a small shop that sold I’m-not-sure-what. But they had bottled water. I bought two; chugged one and filled my bottle with the other.
My thirst quenched, I pondered my next move—go onward to Oudenaard and look for the Koppenberg, Paterberg, Oude Kwaremont and/or any of the other climbs of the Ronde, or head back to the AirBnB. I was tired. I felt puny. And it was clear to me that I was in the early throws of some sort of illness. I estimated that I’d done 25 or so miles and had about the same distance to cover before I got back home. That seemed better than wandering around Flanders, basically lost, for who-knows how long.
The ride back to Aarsele was uneventful, although I got lost almost immediately. Somehow, I stumbled upon one of the roads I’d taken in the morning, which led me to several of the cobbled sections I’d ridden earlier in the day. In total, I think I rode eight sectors over 54 miles. Not too bad. It wasn’t the 70 miles/90 kilometers plus the legendary cobbled climbs I had hoped to ride. But as crappy as I was feeling, I was satisfied. I promised myself I would be back and I would ride the climbs of the Ronde, if not the entire race course.
I got back to Lion House, chugged some water, took hot bath in that awesome tub and headed out to find some food. Joke Frituur was calling my name.
I walked the 2 kilometers to Joke fantasizing about the frites and a how good a Coke was going to taste. From 100 feet away, the shop looked closed. I pulled on the front door anyway. The sign clearly stated that Tuesday was a holiday. I had missed this before. And I was pissed that the owners hadn’t somehow let me know before I wasted my time walking there. I stood in the parking lot and stared at the restaurant for a minute or two willing someone to walk into the place from the back, switch on the lights and unlock the door.
Dejected, I turned and started my walk back to town. I took a new route, hoping I might stumble upon another restaurant. I didn’t. I took a stroll around the neighborhood and checked out the local church before returning to my room. Sadly, it was going to be another meal of leftover lunch meat and cheese from breakfast. A bottle of Delirium Tremens helped me get it down.
It took me a long time to fall asleep. During the night, my dry throat turned into a full-blown sore throat paired with congestion and loads of snot. When I woke up around 7:30, I could no longer kid myself about being sick. It was either a really bad cold or the flu. I half considered cancelling my plans for the day. But, with the exception of the ride in Roubaix, this was the day I was most looking forward to. I was going to Gent to meet the man who sold me my Gios Torino. He had arranged for me to meet Julien Stevens, the man who raced the bike in 1972 and 1973. It was a highlight of the trip and I wasn’t going to miss out.
Day 7: Meeting Julien Steven
A new symptom—coughing—was developing. I coughed a bit during the night, but after I woke up, it got worse. My throat was on fire and I had to blow my nose almost constantly. Breakfast went as usual. I ate as much as I could and downed all the orange juice and chopped fruit salad in the hope that a boost of vitamin C might cure me of my ills.
I was to meet André Delagrense early at his home in Gent. André had sole me my Juline Stevens frame, as well as various other vintage parts. From there, we’d drive to Julien Stevens’ home and visit with him for a short time before he left to go to the Brabantse Pijl race. I had no clue what André had in store for me after that. I figured if we finished early, I’d come home and go for a ride, or, as seemed more likely, take a nap. If I felt okay, but not well enough to ride, I might visit another cycling museum or go to the In Vrede Café and abbey for what is considered the best beer in the world, Trappist Westvleteren.
It was still overcast and grey and it was spitting rain. The drive to Gent was easy, but getting to André’s house was an interesting experiment in European urban driving. I had driven in Gent before, but apparently in a completely different area. It had been simple and traffic was light. André, however, lives in what I’d call downtown. The narrow roads followed zig-zagging routes probably established 500 or more years ago when donkeys were the favored form of transportation. At every turn, Apple Maps led me down a road that was smaller than the last. I followed a descending Fibonacci sequence of spirals deep into one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, ultimately finding myself in a single-lane alley with a dead end.
André’s house was the fourth or fifth one in. Luckily, there was a spot where I could temporarily park in front of his garage door. Almost as soon as I got out my car, he stepped into the alley to greet me. He said we should go right away and asked if I wanted to drive or if he should. I offered and as soon as I finished using his bathroom, we were on our way. Getting out of his neighborhood was a lot easier with him as my navigator.
Julien Stevens lives in a small town some 30 or so minutes from Gent. Like all the neighborhoods I’d seen in Flanders, his was quiet and well kept. Steven lives in a small brick home perched on a perfectly manicured lawn, typical of Flanders.
We parked in the driveway and knocked on his side door. When he appeared at the door he looked as if he’d been napping. His hair was mussed and a he had a groggy hue over his face. He was wearing a black fleece jacket embroidered with the Continental Tires logos and faded blue jeans. Sensible, black, leather shoes finished his ensemble.
I recognized him immediately. I had, of course, seen many photos of him as a racer, but also more recent images of him online. He has several very distinct features. His severely curved nose, that I can only assume was broken when he was young, looks as if it was painted on by Picasso—it’s almost in profile when you look him straight on. And he has an slant to the left side of his face, making it look as though the features there had dropped a centimeter or so over the years.
He and I are about the same height—5’8″—which makes sense as his bike is an excellent fit for me, although these days I think I like a slightly higher top tube (in other words, a longer seat tube and taller head tube). His large, beefy hands were surprising.
Stevens is well known in Belgium among cycling fans, but not so well known elsewhere. If he were racing today, however, with the wide range of cycling media worldwide and 24-hour coverage of cycling, his palmares would certainly make him know to fans around the world. A strong sprinter and track racer, his role throughout much of his 14-year career he raced on legendary teams such as Faema, Molteni, Dreher and Brooklyn where he often rode for Belgian greats like Eddy Merckx, Patrick Sercu and Roger De Vlaeminck.
Among his palmares, Stevens placed second at the 1968 UCI professional road World Championships in Zolder, losing by less than a centimeter to Dutchman Harm Ottenbrus, he said. He was also the Belgian national road champion that year. He wore the race leader’s yellow jersey at the Tour de France in 1969 after he won the second stage into Maastricht. He finished as high as 20th at Paris-Roubiax, 4 minutes, 40 seconds behind Dreher teammate Roger De Vlaeminck in 1972—the first year he raced on Gilard-built frames, one of which was mine. He also won a number of Six Days and held a number of national championship titles on the track.
I have met and talked to Merckx a couple times and I’ve met other legends from Stevens’ era—Fiorenzo Magni, Vittorio Adorni, Felice Gimondi, Francesco Moser, Giovanni Battaglin and others. I also did a sit-down interview with Greg LeMond once. But for some reason, I was extra excited to meet Stevens. It had been years since I met a pro from his era and many of those meetings were in group settings at a press event or a factory tour. My excitement over meeting Stevens was due to the fact that he was the only racer with whom I had a connection—a bike I ride regularly and the bike I had just ridden at the Paris-Roubaix Challenge. We also were meeting one-on-one at his home, which I found particularly interesting.
Speaking in Flemish (Dutch) André introduced me to Stevens, telling him I was from the United States and owned one of his old bikes from the Brooklyn team. He was listening with his head down and eyes looking at nothing in particular on the ground. I saw his eyebrows raise slightly when André told him I had just ridden the Paris-Roubaix course on his old bike. He chuckled, looked up at me and said in English, “Crazy. You’re crazy.”
He stepped outside and André showed him my bike, which I had brought along. The two men continued to speak in their native tongue as I tried to glean what I could from their conversation using my beginner’s level Dutch. As Stevens looked at my bike, I heard him say the name “Lupo,” the nickname of Umberto Mascheroni, the Dreher and Brooklyn mechanic who commissioned Luigi Gilardi to build the frame, followed by a phrase or two I couldn’t make out. Then, I heard him say, “That was a good bike,” as he studied my build. The look on his face made me believe a rush of fond memories filled his head. He then pointed out that I ran my brakes backward, with the front controlled by the right lever.
The two seventy-something men continued to talk. I could make out some of it, but very little. At times, André would translate something Stevens said for me or parle one of my questions. Other times I could tell they were talking about something else, like his plans to watch Brabantse Pijl later on.
Through André, Stevens asked me if I rode the full Paris-Roubaix route. I told him the route I did was 109 miles/175 kilometers, but covered all 29 sectors. He told me that when he raced Paris Roubaix in the 1960s, the start was still in Paris, making it some 280 kilometers long. He said back then there were more cobbled sections and they were longer. One section, he said, was 18 kilometers long. I can’t even imagine how painful bouncing over a cobbled road for some 30 minutes (at my pace) would be.
A neighbor and friend of Stevens’ stopped by on his bike while we chatted. While the three men conversed, I made a futile effort to listen in. Occasionally, André would tell me what they were talking about or ask me a question. When the neighbor left, I took a few photos of Stevens with my bike and André took some with me. At one point, Stevens signaled to me to wait as he went into his house to get something for me. He returned with a plastic bag and in it, a number of old Record brake pads and pre-CPSC brake pad holders. He handed me the bag and said I could have them.
André explained to me that Stevens had been race team mechanic after he retired from racing. He said he had a garage full of old parts and tools, but when he moved to his current house, he took it all to the dump for recycling. It was a story I would hear several more times before I left Belgium. I couldn’t help but wonder if he he still had a collection of trophies and jerseys. I had hoped we’d be invited into his home and I’d see the odd dust-covered trophy or other mementos from his career.
We stayed for about 30 minutes total. It was a real pleasure to meet Stevens and show him his old bike. I hope he also enjoyed it.
On the drive back to Gent, André asked me if I’d like to see the Gent Velodrome. I assumed he meant the place where the six days were held, and eagerly said yes. When we pulled into the parking lot, André explained to me that the velodrome was new and well funded and was not the home of the old six day track. We went inside and walked around. He showed me where he sometimes works as a volunteer mechanic and we looked at the track itself. On the infield were a a variety of courts for other sports like handball, some of which were in use.
As we left the beautiful facility, André said we could go to the six day track, which was closed, but if we got lucky we might be able to get us inside. I thought it was a risk worth taking, so we headed that way.
The Kuipke velodrome is part of Citadelpark and is housed in a building opened in 1965 after the original 1927 building burned down in 1962. André instructed me to park the car behind the building. We checked a couple of locked doors before walking to the main entrance. The doors also were locked, but we could see a workman inside. André knocked on the door and motioned to the man when he looked up at us. He cracked the door and the two men spoke. I heard André drop a name, to which the man said something that led me to believe the man was on the premises. The workman held the door open for us and we went in.
André was intimately familiar with the building. He pointed out things of interest, while I was trying to get a look at the famous track through the open doors we were passing as we walked through the building. Eventually, we went inside the arena.
Although the track was mostly covered with black curtains, I was able to get a good feel for it. Its steeply banked walls were mind blowing. And at only 167 meters in length, the track was ridiculously tiny. I tried to imagine Merckx and Sercu, even Stevens who won the Gent Six Day with Sercu in 1972, ripping around the track while fans ate dinner and drank on the infield of the track.
I snapped a few photos while André spoke with the man he had asked about at the front door. He was general manager of the place and was overseeing some new construction. After a short visit, we went on our way, André continuing to fill me in on Kuipke trivia and the building’s history. A connected building was designed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, he told me. Its arching steel roof and support system were easily recognized as a relative to the famous Parisian tower name after the French engineer.
We drove across Gent and back to André’s house, an apartment in a building built before the United States existed. There, he showed me some of his recent cycling purchases—a pile of Campagnolo wheels he got from a race team mechanic, a bike he hoped to sell soon, more wheels. We settled into his second-floor man cave where he had a beer or two and I drank a coffee. We talked bikes and bike racing for a half hour or so until his girlfriend called to remind him he was having lunch with her and her mother.
Before I left, I bought a Campagnolo Nuovo Record headset still in the box and André gave me a few cycling gifts. I gave him one of my 1973 Milano-San Remo RDV T-shirts.
Escaping the city was easier than it had been to get in and I was back in Aarsele in short order. All day, I had been getting sicker. It was good to be back at the AirBnB where I could rest. I made a sandwich with leftovers from breakfast and watched Brabantse Pijl on television before dozing off for a nap.
When I woke up, I felt a panic. “Fuck! I’m wasting my limited time here in Belgium!” I thought. “I need to get up and do something.” I considered about my options—The Koers Museum, the Abbey, go for a ride…
Not feeling up to doing anything too strenuous or complicated, I decided that casually wandering through a museum and looking at bikes and cycling ephemera was the best bet. A quick look at the Koers website told me I had about two hours to get there and through the museum. If I left right then, I should have about an hour, I guestimated, to view the exhibits. I got dressed, grabbed my backpack and hit the road.
The drive was supposed to be 30 minutes, but took closer to 45. I had to circle the block three times before I spotted the museum—twice, I missed a right turn down a tiny street. I found parking about four blocks away, purchased a parking ticket and jogged to the museum. Inside, I found a stark, modern, echoey space with high ceilings. Two women were seated at the counters. Adjacent to them was a spartan gift shop consisting mostly of books and postcards.
I purchased a ticket and the woman at the cash register let me know the museum would be closing in an hour. I told her I understood. She then gave me a detailed description of the museum’s various galleries and floors and handed me a map and brochure. I headed in.
I throughly enjoyed the museum and wished I’d had given myself a little more time there. Still, I was able to see all I had hoped and wasn’t too rushed. (See article below.)
I exited the museum just before 5 p.m. and was feeling a little peckish. On my walk back to my car, I checked out several restaurants along the way where I thought I might grab a snack or even dinner, but everything was closed. This was becoming a regular thing. I decided I’d drive home, look for something along the way and, if I found nothing open or appealing, stop at Joke Frituur.
At Joke, I was the first customer of the evening. The parking lot wasn’t striped and there were no indicators where to park, so I chose a spot near the front door and off to the side that I thought would give people plenty of space to park around me. Inside, I ordered the same meal as I had a few days prior, but went for the kids-size frites. Brabantse Pijl was on the television while I ate. I love Belgium, I thought.
After I ate, I found my car pinned in. In my mind, there were all sorts of other places to park that wouldn’t block me or the two cars that followed my lead and parked next to me. Apparently, the driver of the black wagon had a different opinion.
I panicked a little. Was I going to have to go inside and go form table to table asking all the customers if their car was the one blocking me? I’m not a fan of that sort of confrontation when it’s in my own language. Doing it in a foreign language would be a nightmare. Before I left, I noted that most of the new customers were waiting for to-go orders. I decided I’d just wait in the car until the car’s owner left, hopefully sooner than later.
After ten minutes of waiting and two other customers leaving in different cars, I went inside. The owner saw me looking around the restaurant and somehow figured out why I was back. She asked a customer if it was his car and he, somewhat reluctantly, got up and went outside to move it. She then told me I should have parked in a different place. How I was supposed to know that, I’m not sure. I nodded and went to my car.
Back at the house, I became very aware of just how sick I was getting. I had little in the way of medicines other than a few NyQuil capsules. I walked to a nearby pharmacy to see if they might have something to soothe my sore throat. The pharmacist on duty spoke English and was very helpful. She recommended some strong throat lozenges with lidocaine. At 15 euros they weren’t cheap, but I was desperate and needed something to ease the discomfort. Lidocaine sounded like it would work. I popped one into my mouth for the all back home. It was good.
Back in my room, I drank a large bottle of water and finished off a bottle of orange juice before I popped two NyQuil capsules, shot some Afrin up my nose and climbed into bed. I was tired, but found falling asleep difficult. I watched more cycling and then a run of bad American television shows and movies before I finally differ off to sleep around midnight. Congestion and coughing woke me around 3 a.m. From then on, unable to breath freely and violently coughing, I tossed and turned until my alarm went off at 7.
I got up, took a hot bath and referred to Apple Maps to check the travel time to Serskamp, where my friend David Verbekem lives. He and I had arranged to meet and visit Jan Goeman at his shop in Everberg to look at his bike collection. I was really looking forward to meeting David and seeing Goeman’s private collection, which David told me included some Splendor bikes and at least one Claude Criquielion bike. As sick as I was, I was still excited about the day’s plan.
Day 8: Looking at More Bikes
Again, breakfast was as usual—I ate and grabbed some bread, meat and cheese for later—but my appetite was low. Outside I was greeted by warm sunshine for the first time during this trip. The many neighborhood jackdaws a were chirping their lightsaber-ish chirps and the wood pigeons were cooing. It was a beautiful morning.
The 45-kilometer (27-mile) drive to David Verbeken’s house in Serskamp was uneventful, but took longer than I expected. It seems like everything in Belgium is close together, but because many of the roadways are dual-lane or smaller and most meander through the countryside and small villages, drive-times are longer than you expect. After driving up and down his street three times looking for place to park, I lucked out and a spot near David’s home opened up. He met me outside, invited me in, offered me a beverage and took me to his garage—more of a small barn—to see his bikes.
David owns one of my holy grails—one of Claude Criquielion’s 1987 Rossin bikes. That particular Rossin in that particular livery has been one of my favorite frames since I started riding road bikes. Claudy has been one of my favorite riders for almost as long. David had sent me dozens of photos of the bike, but I was super excited to see it in person. He was more excited to show me his Colnagos, his favorites. He told me a bit about his history as a “collector” and how he got into it. (See my interview with David for more on this.)
After the bike tour, we returned to his house where he showed me his small collection of Hitachi clothing, which includes a skinsuit and short and long-sleeve jerseys all made by Castelli. David said he is unsure of the history of the items, but the odd construction of the long-sleeve jersey—the sleeves were essentially made from black arm warmers with thumb loops sewn to a short-sleeve jersey. This and the fact that it’s unlikely that Castelli sold team replica skinsuits to the public (at least in markets outside Europe), lead me to think they may have been team-issue items. I was as excited to look at, study and photograph the clothing as I was to see the Criquielion bike.
In a bit of a hurry to get on the road, the visit was short. We hopped into David’s car and started the 69-kilimeter (47-mile) drive to Evenberg to visit Jan Goeman and look at his bike collection. Goeman, a bicycle retailer and former professional team mechanic, keeps a private collection in his attic, including some Splendor bikes, one of which was Criquielion’s. Along the way, David stopped at an ATM to pull out enough cash to buy a Coca-Cola water bottle Goeman said he had. David wanted the bottle for his Criquielion Hitachi bike. Along the way, we got talked freely and got to know each other.
Evenberg, like so many other Belgian towns, was quiet, even sleepy. Goeman Fietsen was closed, but we rang the bell there to find Jan. He came to the door, said hello and directed us to the door of the home connected to the shop. He was serious and businesslike and initially only spoke to David. We entered the house and went up a flight of stairs to the living quarters where Jan’s parents seemed to be finishing up breakfast. David chatted with them for a minute before Jan ushered us up a flight of stairs to the attic.
The two rooms were unfinished, but nearly overflowing with a generally well-organized collection of bikes. Set against a background of rustic brick walls and OSB flooring and under flat fluorescent lighting were some 100 or so road bikes. (I should have asked how many were there. Subsequent emails to Jan have all gone unanswered.) Most of the bikes were lined up close together on the floor in rolling rear-wheel bike stands. A few prized bikes were displayed at eye level in wheel trays that spanned the length of the two longest walls. Other bikes casually leaned against the walls, some stacked two or three deep.
I didn’t know where to look at first, but it was clear that all these bikes were legitimate high-end racing machines. All were complete and their spec thought out, if not original. Many also included vintage team water bottles in the cages. I saw Bianchis, Flandrias, Raleighs a Peugeot. Then a Splendor bike caught my eye.
Placed at the end of one row, the periwinkle blue bike with bright-yellow panels, stood out against a background made murky by the chaotic jumble of frame tubes and wheels and poor lighting. Like many of Jan’s bikes, it had a bottle in the cage. Hanging from the top tube was a vintage promotional postcard featuring the rider who use the bike when it was new—Rudy Matthijs of the 1984 Splendor-Mondial Moquette-Marc team. A quick check of his racing stats shows he placed second on GC in the Tour of Luxembourg and the Four Days of Dunkirk that year.
The frame was much less workman-like than I had expected based on descriptions of Splendor frames that I had heard before. Jan said the bike was all original. The frame, not built by Splendor, has nicely filed, long-point lugs with diamond cutouts, chrome fork and chain stays, Campagnolo dropouts, two sets of bottle cages bosses, a brazed-on chain hanger and a Columbus SL turning sticker. The gruppo is Campagnolo Super Record with Cinelli bar and stem and a Selle San Marco Rolls saddle. Unfortunately, I blew it when it came to ID’ing the rims. From the only photo I have that even remotely shows a rim sticker, they appear to be Mavic, red-label, GP4s.
While I dawdled at Matthijs’ bike, David and Jan began walking through the collection. By the time I joined them, making my way through the bikes they had already looked at, they were looking at a Freddy Maertens-labled Flandria bike. Speaking perfect English, Jan explained that the factory-made Flandria frames, like the factory-made Splendors, were not very high quality, so many pros had theirs custom made in Italy or by one of Belgium’s better builders, like Plum, Kessles, Martens or a couple of others I’d never heard of.
The next bikes we spent time with were two late-1970s Renault Team Gitanes, one of them ridden by Bernard Hinault. Because Hinault and I are about the same height, I was particularity interested in his bike and how he had it set up. Regrettably, I forgot to bring my tape measure with me. I carried it all the way from Southern California, in large part to take measurements from Jan’s bikes, only to leave it at the Air BnB on the very day I needed it most. My camera and the photos I was able to take would have to do for future reference. Sadly, the poor lighting in the attic museum and my occasional lack of attention (I’ll blame the flu I was battling.) meant many of my photo leave much to be desired.
The frames of the two Gitanes are similar—the same paint color and graphics—but they have different lugs, seatstay caps and braze-ons. The Hinault frame also lacks the Reynolds 531 stickers of the other bike. (The photo I took is too blurry to read the name of the rider who used it.) Perhaps most interesting on the frame, the water bottle bosses are repurposed down tube shifter bosses. Making this even more interesting, there are no shifter bosses. Instead, the shifters are the clamp-on type. I also was intrigued by the French-made Atax stem and Guion Phillipe Tour de France handlebars, both of which I had never heard of. I admit that other than Mavic, I know little about the French component makers. Both were quite nice.
The next bikes to catch my eye were a 1980 Colnago Roger De Vlaeminck signed on the top tube by Alfons De Wolf and a beautiful Kessels-made Eddy Merckx from the C&A Team ridden by Lucien Van Impe in 1978. As David owns a Kessles Merckx and is interested in the brand, he peppered Jan with questions. From time to time, one of them would explain to me in English what they were discussing. The Van Impe bike is hung with a variety of nicely pantographed components while the frame and fork feature the pantographed lugs and fork crown Kessels is known for. Prior to this bike and David’s earlier in the day, I had never seen a Kessels. I have become a fan and hope to own one someday.
Not far from the Van Impe bike was the Claude Criquielion bike I had come to see. It’s a 1986 Hitachi-Splendor Team bike—the year the Splendor design team came up with the ugliest livery of the team’s history. Unfortunately for me, the Splendor bike was buried deep in a row if bikes and was difficult to see, much less photograph.
Equipped with a mix first-generation Campagnolo C-Record and Super Record components, the bike is a time capsule of what was happening in component technology at the time. It was in 1986 when C-Record made its debut in the peloton alongside Look clipless pedals and carbon fiber frames. Criquielion was one of the handful of riders open to trying those new technologies. At the Tour de France that year, he rode both steel and carbon frames and switched between clipless pedals and those with toe clips. Jan’s bike has Campagnolo Super Record pedals and a single bootle cage, which may indicate it was used earlier in the season. The original Hitachi-badged Campagnolo Record rims were nice to see.
On our way to the second room, a red Dreher bike caught my eye. I hoped it would be one of the Gilardi-built frames the team used in 1972, before the team became Brooklyn. If it was, it would be the only one of those frame is know of in its original livery. It wasn’t. More likely, with its chunky fork crown, clamp-on components, lack of braze-ons and eyelets on the dropouts, the bike was one of those used by the team in 1970 or 1971. The photo I took of the rear derailleur is unclear, but looks like it may be stamped Patent-1970. Jan knew relatively little about the bike, so we moved on.
In the second room were several Brooklyn Team-era, Gios Torino bikes, including those Jan said belonged to Eric and Roger De Vlaeminck and Ronald De Witte, as well as several very cool Flandria Team bikes, on of them, Maertens’.
Earlier, I wondered aloud if some of the components on the bikes were replacements. I noticed the stems on some bikes looked particularly short. Many of the bikes had late-model Christophe toe clips and toe straps and vintage-looking modern bottom cages, as well as incorrect bars and “off-brand” saddles. When I asked Jan about one specific bike, he kind of shrugged and gave a sort of non-answer. Looking at the Roger De Vlaeminck bike, I began to think my earlier questioning of the originality of all the parts on some bike was spot-on.
I’m no expert on Brooklyn Gios Torino bikes, but I have spent many an hour looking at a lot of photos of team bikes, in particular, De Valeminck’s. Jan’s RDV Gios Tornio is no doubt built around an original frame, although one that is unique—it’s the first that I’ve seen with chrome stays—but I believe the parts were collected from other sources and added to the frame.
For example, the GIOS Tornino-pantographed, Cinelli, 1R stem is too short for Roger (He used a 125, I was told.) and the all-caps Gios logo didn’t come until after the Brooklyn Team shut down in 1977. The Selle Royal Superleggero saddle is not Roger’s usual Cinelli Unicanitor. The pantographed chainrings and crank spider are painted more than was done by Gios for the team. Roger usually rode with a pantographed seatpost. This bike has a plain Nuovo Record post. The Nisi Laser rims are all wrong—Roger almost exclusively used Mavic rims on the road and the hard-anodized Lasers are too new for a Brooklyn bike. The curved-lever quick release levers also are too new.
I’m not being picky, nor am I criticizing Jan’s collection or his build method. If I had as many bikes as he does, I’d do my best to build them 100 percent so they were ridable, even if some of the parts weren’t original or even accurate, then update them as I could. I’m simply pointing out that one needs to be careful about using his bikes (or any collection’s or museum’s bikes) as references, which was one of my goals. As when I visited the Flanders and Koers Museums, I hoped to see 100 percent accurate race bikes. Although I would hardly say I was disappointed by any of the collections I had seen, I was well aware that few of the bikes were perfect examples for future reference. Still, many of Jan’s bikes did appear to be mostly-to-all original, other than minor details like toe clips, bottle cages, chains and the like.
Among the many other bikes in Jan’s collection that got me excited were André Dierickx’s 1976, Maes-Rokado Groene Leeuw and 1974, Flandria-Merlin-Plage bike; David Wilfried’s 1973, Carpenter-Flandria-Shimano bike; a Watneys Groene Leeuw and a Watneys-Maes Pils Groene Leeuw; Christian Callens’ 1972 Double Bubble Novy; a 1974, Team SCIC Colnago Super; Ronald De Witte’s 1978, Team Sanson, Benotto; Patrick Sercu’s Fiat Team Kessels Merckx; an Eric De Vlaeminck cyclocross bike and a Freddy Maertens Flandria. Some of Jan’s collection can be found on line. http://goemanfietsen.be/index.php/retro
After we toured his collection, Jan took us into his closed shop and made us coffee served in a Peugeot cup for David and a Brooklyn cup for me. We sat at his counter and talked about Jan’s collection, his life as a bike mechanic and shop owner and a recent family tragedy. It was during this time that he mentioned that he also has a collection of hundreds of vintage jerseys. If I’d only known…
He told that one of his neighbors when he was a young kid was aunt to Roger and Eric De Vlaeminck. As a kid he met the brothers many times and collected a stack of their jerseys and other memorabilia, all of which he threw away years ago, before he started collecting such things.
When David reminded Jan that he wanted to buy a Coca-Cola water bottle, he asked Jan if he might have a bottle that would match my Hitachi Merckx bike. Jan said he thought he did and left to fetch the bottles. When he returned, he had a Coke bottle for David and a Hitachi bottle for me. It was missing the nipple, but I paid him 20 euros for it anyway. I have seen them on eBay before but always for about $25 and in France, where shipping one to the US costs about $30. Hopefully, I’ll find a suitable cap from which to scavenge a new nipple.
David and I planned to grab a late lunch on the way back to his house, but we had stayed so long at Jan’s that David was in danger of getting to work late. He works evenings for a security company in Brussels, which we would pass on the way to his house.
Before we said goodbye, David urged me to take a final look and even a short spin on his Criquielion bike. My ride was no more than a 20-foot circle in his driveway, but it was quite satisfying and I was sure the 54 x 56 bike would fit me just fine as my daily rider.
My illness had worsened to the point where all I wanted to do was get back to Aarsele, eat something light and climb into bed and watch some TV until I fell asleep. I parked at the AirBnB then walked to the nearby grocery store and bought some simple food—yoghurt, orange juice, sandwich fixings and cookies.
When I got back to my room, I heard the sounds of a radio station coming from some nearby room. When I checked in, Charlotte told me I’d be the only guest there. She also pointed out several of their private rooms, which I noted at the time, but forgot about soon afterward. It sounded like the music was coming from a room I believed to be the private bathroom of the owners. Oddly, it was quite loud and I didn’t hear anyone moving about in the room. The music was annoying, but I assumed, and hoped, whomever was listening to it would follow the house rules and keep the volume low once they realized I was home.
I had been popping throat lozenges all day and wished I had something more to calm my worsening symptoms—sore throat, runny nose, congestion, body aches and an increasingly intense cough. In my room and I checked my stash of medicines. I didn’t have much, and nothing for a cough. Then it occurred to me to go see if the pharmacy had something better. It was 6:50 p.m. and I wasn’t sure the pharmacy was still open.
I sprinted the four blocks to the pharmacy. and lucky for me, it was open for 5 more minutes. I described my symptoms to the pharmacist and he sold me bottle of cough syrup that he said they made on the premises.
Back at the AirBnB, the music was still coming out of the bathroom. I turned on the TV to drown it out and fixed myself some “dinner.” I ate a sandwich, a couple cups of yoghurt, drank a half bottle of orange juice and had some cookies with tea for dessert before taking a hot bath.
Although I was quite sick and took some medicine that would usually put me to sleep, I wasn’t feeling sleepy. This was my last night in Belgium. In the morning I planned to drive to Zepperen to meet Luc Blocken and visit Leo’s Bicycle Collection before heading to the Netherlands where I was going to ride (if I wasn’t too sick) the Amstel Gold Xperience. It was going to be big day and I was sick and getting sicker and needed to sleep. But I couldn’t.
I watched television until around 10 when decided I should try to get some sleep. With the television off, I could hear the radio was still blasting in the other room. I poked my head outside my door and made some noise hoping someone would hear me and realize I was home and it was late and time to shut off the loud music. It didn’t work.
I retuned to my room and started a new movie on television. I envisioned Steven, the friendly owner and host, passed out drunk in the room with the radio blasting. His wife and daughter were out of town, so I thought maybe to went on a little solo bender.
Around midnight, I turned off the TV, put on my headphones with the noice-cancelling function tuned on and tried to get to sleep. The headphones were uncomfortable and every time I moved, their plastic casing would creak and groan, making it impossible for me to fall asleep.
Nearly at my whit’s end, I remembered that Charlotte told me they had Sonos throughout the entire house. I had never used it before, but I did have the app on my phone. I opened the app, not at all confident I could figure out how to use it. Much to my surprise, however, I found the private bathroom listed on the app, selected it, and, before I turned it off, checked to see if I could adjust the volume. I could. I turned it down at first then hit “off.” Finally, I had silence.
I tossed and turned most of the night, but did get some sleep. I had packed before going to sleep, so I was ready to leave for Zepperen when I woke up. But because Luc and I had not set a meeting time, only that we’d meet in the afternoon, I slept in. I tried, but as usual, I had trouble sleeping past 8:30.
It was clear I was really sick now. I got up, dressed and went down to breakfast. I had no appetite, but Steven had promised to make me a special breakfast for my last morning there. I had to at least try to eat something.
Day 9: Leo’s Bike Collection
Steven, the AirBnB owner, made me a special breakfast of ham and eggs my last day there. His wife, who normally made breakfast, was out of town with their daughter, so he took over the duties. He said Charlotte is the one responsible for the healthy foods like fruits, yogurt and muesli. He is the one who bought the good stuff—the pastries, meats and cheeses and eggs. For my last meal at his beautiful home, he made me scrambled eggs with ham and made a trip to the local bakery to get a fresh supply of delicious pastries.
Unfortunately, I was really sick and had no appetite. I made an effort, however, and focused on the food I knew he cooked special. I ate about half the eggs and ham, and downed one pastry.
As was his usual thing, he stopped in to see if I was enjoying my stay. Then, he asked me about my loud music the previous night. (See previous post.) I told him I thought it was him. I recounted my experience trying to locate the source and how I figured out I could turn it off with Sonos. He was as confused as I was by how it got turned on in the first place. He though maybe he had “butt dialed” the app.
Our conversation then turned to my obvious illness. He asked if I wanted to see a doctor. I did, but I was in a foreign country and was unsure how that worked. I knew the healthcare system in Belgium (and the rest of the world) was very different from here in the U.S., but I had no idea how to access it. He volunteered to find me a doctor and left the room to call around.
He returned about 5 minutes later and told me I had an appointment in about an hour and half with his doctor, who was located two blocks down the street. He then left me to finish my meal.
I loaded my car for the trip east to the Netherlands and took a seat in the backyard where I enjoyed the warm sunshine and the birds. It was another beautiful day. Perfect, I’d say. And it was going to be that way all weekend. I was bummed though, because I had serious doubts I’d be able to ride the Amstel Gold Xperience. Perfect riding weather. But imperfect health.
I walked to the doctor’s office. The office was nondescript and looked as much like a house as a healthcare provider. If I were to guess, the building was both—his house with the office in front. I went in and took a seat in the waiting room. There was no receptionist or check-in desk like I was used to in the U.S. After about five minutes, the door to the “surgery” opened, a patient walked out and left the office followed by the doctor who invited me back to the exam room.
In the brightly lit room were the doctor’s large desk, bookcases, cabinets stocked with the usual medical supplies, an examination table, a stool—in other words, it was very familiar and, with the exception fo the desk, exactly like what I’d see in the U.S. The doctor spoke perfect English and greeted me as any doctor would. I took a seat in the chair in front of his desk. He asked me what was wrong and we went through he normal list of questions before he asked to take a seat on the exam table, which he proudly pointed out was made in the U.S.
He listened to my heart and lungs. Took my temperature. Looked in my ears. And concluded that I had a virus of some sort, just as I expected. He said he’d give a prescription and asked if I was familiar with a couple of different drugs. I wasn’t. We returned to his desk where he wrote up the prescription before typing some notes into his computer.
I had been stressing about what this was going to cost. After all, I didn’t have any insurance in Belgium. When the doctor told me it would be 25 euros, I chuckled. He then told me that Steven pays 6 euros,. He explained that since Steven had had cancer (now in remission), he paid a lower rate for healthcare. Why? Because as a cancer survivor it was likely he would need ongoing care in the future. “We have very good social medicine here,” he said.
I was floored. In the U.S., health insurance companies do the opposite—they punish you for getting sick and jack up your rates and reduce your coverage.
Steven kindly took my prescription to the pharmacy to get it filled. He retuned with two drugs and told me how to use them. He was very familiar with both. Apparently, they were quite common. He and I chatted about the differences between the U.S. and Belgian healthcare systems—we agreed Belgium’s is better—and how best to get to the highway that would take me across Belgium to the Netherlands.
He walked me to my rental car and continued to tell me which roads to take to the highway. He asked if the car had GPS. I told him it didn’t, but I had been getting by with my malfunctioning TomTom and iPhone. It was then that I looked at the dashboard of the Opel wagon and noticed something new. I pressed a button and up popped a map on the touch screen. Seriously? I had GPS the whole time? I plugged in the address of the restaurant where I was going to meet Luc and was on my way.
I needed gas, so I stopped the station not far from the AirBnB. Getting gas in Europe is another thing that stresses me out. Why? Because nearly every time I’ve had to do it, I’ve had issues with my credit card. I’ve always mamboed to work it out, but I retain a fear of being on empty and unable to buy gas. Also, I stress a little about accidentally putting diesel into a gasoline car or visa-versa.
This time, in fact, the self-service pumps rejected both my cards. For one, it required a PIN code I had never set, so I had no clue what it was. The other, which had worked previously, was simply rejected. The pumps were located in a lot in front of a restaurant. I went inside to see if I could pay there. The sound man working the counter told me the pumps had nothing to do with his place of employ. He said I had to pay at the pump.
As I was nearly out of gas and was unsure when I’d find another gas station, I gave it another shop. When the pump asked for my PIN, I guessed and tried one I had used years ago. It worked. Hallelujah.
The drive across Belgium, as usual, went smoothly. I hit a little traffic near Brussels, but nothing to complain about. I love driving in Europe where people stay to the right and only use the left lanes to pass.
When I got to the restaurant—a small sandwich shop—I texted Luc and let him know I was there. He suggested I get something to eat and he’d be there soon. I ordered a tuna melt and a Coke. This was my third Coke in a week and more than I’d consumed over the past two years.
Luc offered to drive the five miles or so to Leo’s. On the way, he told me Leo wouldn’t be there because that morning he received an invitation from Deceuninck-Quick-Step team CEO Patrick Lefevere to have breakfast in Maastricht, an annual pre-Amstel Gold Race tradition. Leo has had a long relationship with Lefevere and the team as the supplier of roof racks. The relationship has been a boon for Leo’s collection.
Luc said Leo’s wife would be there to let us in and because he and Leo are good friends, he would be allowed to show me around the collection.
On the way, Luc told me a bit about the local cycling history pointing out buildings that once housed bike factories or a famous pharmacy where riders would visit to collect their “vitamins.” He also filled me in on Leo’s history as a bike collector. I had heard he got his bikes as payment for supplying roof racks to major bike teams. This was true, in part, but his collecting began before that. And many of his bikes pre-date his rack-making days.
According to Luc, Leo had been a successful antiques dealer and refinisher with solid fabricating chops. When he saw the roof racks on the team cars he thought he could do a better job and started producing them, offering to trade them for team bikes and jerseys and other memorabilia. Tight on cash and fat with extra bikes, several teams jumped at the chance. It’s well known that many teams sell off surplus new and used components and bikes to supplement their budgets and to pay mechanic’s salaries. Trading bikes for racks is an extension of this tradition.
Leo also is friends with many of Belgium’s former and current champions, many of whom have gifted him bikes and jerseys. His collection is stuffed with bike ridden by legends dating back the other 1960s. And each year, his collection grows at he adds the bikes of today’s champions, riders such as Tom Boonen, Cadel Evans, Tom Dumoulin, Greg Van Avermaet, Philippe Gilbert, Marianne Vos and many others.
Leo’s Bike Collection is located in a building adjacent to his home. The building is purpose-built to house his collection. His wife, who like me was suffering with the flu, met us at the side door of their home. She is small in stature with a bright and bubbly demeanor, even when sick. She explained to Luc that Leo was out and she would be our guide.
Inside, I was struck with the extreme level of professionalism of the private collection. Leo’s is a true museum and incredibly well executed. The level of curation easily rivals, if not surpasses, those of the Flanders and Koers museums I visited earlier in the week. Upon entering the building, visitors stop at a reception desk where a requested donation of 5 euros is collected. From the desk, visitors are given a taste of what they will see inside.
The collection begins in the lobby adjacent to the desk with one of Eddy Merckx’s Ugo De Rosa-built, 1973, Molteni Team bikes. The ubiquitous orange machine is flanked to the right by one each of Merckx’s world champion jerseys and maglia rosa from the Giro d’Italia. Perfectly lit with spot lights, the bike sits in one of Leo’s custom-made bike stands at eye level in front of a slightly bigger-than-life-size image of Merckx at the Tour de France. As with almost all the bikes in the collection, it includes a matching, vintage, Molteni water bottle and race number.
In the center of the lobby is a sitting space with two facing leather sofas and a coffee table. I assume this is where the friends and spouses of cycling fans sit and wait when they’re tired or have had enough of old bikes. An old juke box sits nearby. When I was there, it was silent, but I assume it is used to provide background ambiance during special events.
The collection is housed out of sight in a connected room off the back of the lobby. The gallery is divided into three sections and is well-lit and entirely white. Dozens of bikes, organized by the decade they were used, sit on the floor behind ropes. Others hang on the walls between old race photos and jerseys. A few head forms wearing helmets and mannequins dressed head-to-toe in vintage team kits break up the bikes. A staircase leading down indicates there is more to the museum than what you see.
Leo’s bikes are all displayed on his custom bike stands, which expertly support each bike without obscuring any details or drawing attention away from the machine. The stands, which also feature wheels for easy relocation, are the envy of every bike collector.
Leo’s attention to detail is something to marvel at. Most of the bikes, the older ones in particular, include bottle cages, bottles, spare tires under the saddle, race numbers and, of course, toe clips and straps. Many of these elements are vintage and accurate to the era of the bike. Luc told me Leo admits to being an obsessive perfectionist.
The main criticism of Leo’s collection that I have read is his obsession with making the bike “perfect” or “like-new.” He often highly polishes components—more than they would have been when they were new—and refinishes his frames. For those who prefer original finishes and natural patina, his shiny bikes can be a turnoff. But even these snobs have to admit, his pristine bikes are beautiful and offer much to be appreciated.
Luc and I started the tour with the steel bikes from the 1950s and 1960s to the right of the entrance and walked down the rows, passing through the decades until we got to the 1980s at the far wall. With each bike I was more amazed at what I was looking at. The brands—Plum, Groene Leeuw, Libertas, Flandria, Mercier, Colnago, Pinarello, Rossin, Bianchi—teams—Mann, Solo-Superia, Flandria, Panasonic-Raleigh, Buckler, Telekom—and riders—Roger Swerts, Georges Claes, Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck, Eric Vanderaerden, Bjarne Riis—represented in rolling steel a who’s-who of post-war professional road cycling through the end of the last century.
One of the coolest things in Leo’s collection is the gold cobble stone trophy given to Eric Vanderaerden after his mind-boggling 1987 victory at Paris-Roubaix. The trophy consist of a small, gold cube on a gold, stair-stepped platform. It’s displayed inside its original blue velvet-lined, black-leather box. Three doors, one that opens at the top and two that swing in opposite directions in the front, are held closed by two ridiculously large clasps, the kind you find on old suitcases.
I also took some time to look at the few jerseys hung on the walls and the fully dressed mannequins. I mentioned to Luc that I was surprised the Roger De Vlaeminck Brooklyn jersey he wore when he won Milano-San Remo in 1973 wasn’t on display. I told him it was one of the things I most had hoped to see.
On the opposite side of the room, is a spectacular collection of modern and contemporary bikes
Luc took me downstairs where we were greeted by some of the coolest time trial and pursuit bikes ever used in cycling, among them bikes used by Chris Boardman, Peter Winnen and Dirk De Wolf. In another area were a handful of cyclocross and track bikes, including a 1979 De Vlaeminck Benotto track bike and a Gios Tornio cyclocross machine ridden by R. Liboton in 1982. These and some of the other odd-ball bikes in the basement were some of my favorites in the collection.
Back up stairs, we relooked at the bikes and I noticed some I had somehow missed the first time through. One, a beautiful red, yellow and blue Rossin with Campagnolo C-Record identical to one of my dream bikes. We also took some time to admire the Fons De Wolf Gios Torino he raced to victory at the 1981 Milano-San Remo.
Leo’s wife popped in while we were admiring the pristine blue bike and Luc explained to me that De Wolf is friends with Leo and often visits the museum. I’m not sure what she said to us, but heard Luc mention the De Vlaeminck jersey. Based on her body language, I thought maybe she was going to bring it out for us. Luc didn’t tell me what they talked about.
We slowly made our way back to the entrance of the museum, discussing the amazing variety of Quick-Step and BMC team bikes and those ridden by Rigoberto Uran, Mark Cavnedish, Thor Hushovd, Oscar Freire, Heinrich Hausler and others. Leo’s collection is impressive and there is something for every fan of road cycling to marvel at.
Back in the lobby, Leo’s wife was waiting for us. I got the feeling she was ready for us to be on our way. Then, while speaking to Luc, she opened one door on a bank of cabinets on the wall behind the reception desk. Inside were stacked plastic tubs labeled with dates like 1973 and 1975. I was unsure what each contained until she pulled one, labeled 1976, from the shelf and sat in on the desk in front of me. This was Leo’s jersey collection. On the top of the tub was a jersey housed inside a plastic bag and labeled R.DEVAMINK [SIC] 76. Whoa…
She sat a second then a third tub on the desk in front of me. One was labeled 1974, the other 1972. She asked Luc what year the jersey I wanted to see was used. Before he could ask me, I answered, “1973.” He relayed the information as he opened the 1972 tub. Luc handed me a Molteni jersey labeled E. Merckx 72. My heart was racing.
He held up the jersey as I snapped a few photos. Luc then turned his attention to the 1974 box and pulled out another De Vlaeminck jersey. It was an unusual jersey with a design that combined elements of the second 1973 jersey with the well-known Brooklyn jersey the team used from May 1973-1977. It was dated 1974, however, which I found very confusing.
Leo’s wife spotted the 1973 box high up in the cabinet and asked Luc for help retrieving it. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I knew I’d soon be holding Roger’s Milan-San Remo jersey. Luc brought the tub down, set it on the desk and opened it. On top was, much to his and my surprise, was a Brooklyn jersey labeled Stevens Julien 73. What? I was shocked to find one of Julien’s Brooklyn jerseys in the collection. I’m not sure why I was shocked. He was, after all, one of the Belgium’s top sprinters and six-day riders in the 1960s and 1970s.
I didn’t ask to remove the jersey from the bag, although wanted to. Still in my head was the idea that Leo’s wife was ready for us to go. I didn’t want to overstay my welcome by asking to remove all these jerseys from their protective bags. I thought I’d save such a request for the RDV Milan-San Remo jersey.
The Stevens jersey was another strange one. It is unlike any I had ever seen in photos. The Brooklyn logo is on a white field, but instead of it being chevron shaped, it is a rectangle. Below that are the words “La Gomme Del Ponte,” or, in English, “the gum of the bridge.” Most unusual about the jersey is that it is solid blue—there are no red and white vertical stripes.
As I snapped more photos, Luc worked looked through the tub. He handed me a very cool Sonolor TV jersey labeled L. Van Impe 73. He continued to work his way through the tub until he found what we were looking for. I could feel a huge smile stretch across my face as he handed me the Milan-San Remo jersey. This was the new highlight of my trip.
I snapped a few photos of the jersey inside the bag, then summoned the courage to ask if I could take it out.
I was thinking we might have to don white cotton gloves to handle it, if she would even allow it. Leo’s wife snatched the bag from my hands, opened it, pulled out the jersey, grabbed it by the shoulders and gave it a good snap to shake out the creases. Clearly, I had higher regard for the jersey than she did, I thought as I let out a little chuckle. She walked to the sitting area and laid the jersey on the table. Luc and I followed her.
When I made the design for the 1973 jersey for 2Velo, I did so using the photos of this very jersey taken by Marco Gios when he visited the museum. I was able to get a reasonably good design that way, but I knew my dimensions were certainly not perfect. Now, I had the opportunity to correct my design. I took nearly two dozen photos, many with my tape measure stretched across the priceless jersey. I couldn’t believe I was holding it in my hands. When I finished, I handed it back to Leo’s wife and said thanks.
Outside, Luc and I looked at each other in disbelief over what had just happened. “I think you were lucky Leo wasn’t here today. I’m not sure he would have let you do that,” he said. I had been thinking the same thing.
I was still smiling and my heart was still racing during the short drive back to my car as Luc and I recounted the wonderful visit to the museum. Before I left for the Netherlands, we talked more about Leo’s, our vintage bike collections and interests until his wife called to remind him they had a date that night. We said goodbye and I hit the road for Maastricht.
The drive to my AirBnB in Limburg was easy and relatively short. On the way, I received a text message. I know I shouldn’t have, but I gave a quick look to see how it was for. It was Luc, my tour guide at Leo’s Cycling Collection. The message was still visible on the screen and I could see it said one of my cycling heroes had died.
I would later learn that Patrick Sercu, teammate to Julien Stevens and Eddy Merckx, among others, died after a long illness. He was 74. The Belgian sprinter had been the topic of many conversations that week. He was much beloved and respected by Belgian cycling fans. It was very sad news. I was bummed.
Perhaps it was because I was thinking about Sercu or still reliving my encounter with the jerseys, but I didn’t even notice when I left Belgium and entered the Netherlands. It wasn’t until I was 10 or so miles over the boarder that I noticed the street signs and road designs were different. The roads also seemed more organized and everything a little more tidy.
The Air BnB was located smack-dab in the middle of Dutch suburbia and just a few miles from the Amstel Gold Race finish in Valkenburg. I would be staying in a simple guest house behind a cute white home where a free-spirited Belgian yogi named Katty lived. A theme of spirituality and Eastern religions dominated the decor and complimented Katty’s warm and generous demeanor.
I unloaded the car and reached out to my friend Richard, who lives nearby. He and I met several years ago at the Papendal BMX track at the Dutch Olympic Training Center in Arnhem where I was working for Box Components and he was spectating with his son, then a young BMX racer. We kept in touch over the years. He helped me find my Hitachi Eddy Merckx. When he learned of my trip to Limburg, he reached out. Through a friend, Richard was able to get me entry into the Amstel Gold Xperience even though it had been sold out since November.
Richard picked me up around 7 and took me to dinner at an F1-themed restaurant owned by a former professional BMX racer he knew. The place was packed. We took a seat at a table outside along the sidewalk. The restaurant was informal, but the menu was slightly upscale. It was the first “adult” meal I’d had since I arrived in Europe some nine days earlier. And it was delicious.
I had a beer with my meal, that the waitress described and a “special beer made by a local craft brewery.” Although I had no idea what she meant by “special,” I felt like being adventurous and took her word for it that it was good. I figured, I’m in Holland, a few miles from Belgium, of course it will be good. Then, I had a fleeting thought—Maybe here in the land of Belgian ales and Trappist brews, “special” means something exotic like an IPA. To say I’m not a fan of IPAs, is an understatement. But since I had seen all of about three IPAs on grocery shelves since I arrived in Europe, unlike in the U.S. where it often seems like 90 percent of beers are the bitter brew, I blew off any concerns I might have had.
As soon as the beer moved across my lips and hit my tongue, I tasted the sharp tang of pine needles. It was an IPA. I drank it anyway. And although I wouldn’t order it again, it wasn’t too bad. Since then, I’ve actually tried and finished IPAs twice, once unknowingly.
After dinner, Richard drove me around the area and showed me where Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race would finish. We drove down the Cauberg and through Valkenburg. Having watched the race in videos and on TV many times, it all was all very familiar. The finish up the Cauberg had become one of my favorite race features in any race and I Iooked forward to Amstel Gold every year because of it. It bums me out that the race no longer finishes there.
Richard also showed me where I would pick up my rider packet and start the Amstel Gold Xperience the following morning, if I was feeling better. Richard’s tour was awesome and so was the meal.
When I got back to my room, I decided was too sick to do the 80-mile ride along the route of the famous Ardennes Classic the next day and I wouldn’t need to bother getting up early.
Steven at the AirBnBn in Aarselle, had described one of the drugs he got for me at the pharmacy that morning this way: “Take one packet before bed. You will sweat like crazy all night, but in the morning you will feel better.”
I took the meds, climbed into bed and immediately went to sleep. I woke up several times during the night, each time well aware that I was lying in a virtual pool of sweat. Steven wasn’t kidding.
Day 10: The Netherlands
In the morning, I was still very sick. It was a beautiful sunny day and perfect for a bike ride, but I was going to have to miss the Amstel Gold Xperience. I was gutted. I ate a little breakfast and discovered that not only was the coffee in my room instant (I noticed this the night before.), but it was decaffeinated. What was the point of such an abomination?
I disassembled my bike and put it into the travel case. I had been dreading stuffing it into the bag again, but it went smoothly and now it was done and the bike out of my way.
I checked the Google for local coffee shops and found a couple of possible options. I chose the one not in the city center, which I knew would be crowded with tourists. On my way, I shared the roads with riders doing the Amstel Gold Xperience. There were hundreds of them. I was envious they were riding in the beautiful sunshine and I was too sick to join them.
I spotted a bakery well before getting to the destination I had plugged into my map. I stopped to see if they also served coffee. On this day, the day before Easter, the place was packed. I looked around and saw no signs of coffee. The pastries looked amazing, but I had no appetite for sweets and needed an espresso, pronto.
Parking was sparse near the bakery so I had to grab a spot on the curb several streets over. On my way back to my car, I gave an adjacent “tea house” a closer look. On the patio were 10 or so tattooed bikers, most of whom were dressed in black leather. Undeterred by their sideways looks and cigarette smoke, I entered the place and saw a big espresso machine. Jackpot. I ordered, took note of the gelato and pastry selection and returned to the patio to find a seat. I chose a table as far from the bikers and their smoke as possible. Unfortunately, they had taken most of the tables under the canopy, so I took a seat in the bright sunshine. Its warmth was pleasant, but I could feel the uncomfortably intense sun on the bald spot on the top of my head.
The waiter, who I took to be the owner, was dressed in jeans, a black T-shirt and boots. Ink sleeves covered both arms. I assumed he was the reason the Dutch biker gang was hanging out at a tea house. He dropped off my coffee and wandered over to the bikers to take their orders. With limited distractions available on the patio, I entertained myself watching the gang. Most of them looked as if they’d made some bad life choices, among them smoking and possibly heavy drinking, which left plenty of premature lines etched on their faces. Still, they carried an air of middle-class comfort. Their bikes were nowhere to be seen.
I finished my coffee faster than I might normally. The sun was burning my balding head, despite the fact that I had grown my hair 1970s long in an effort to match my appearance to the age of my bike. I also was bored. And I needed to blow my nose. The snot was flowing out of control and I was out of tissues and quickly used all the napkins on the table.
Being that Easter was the next day and I had nothing at the house to eat, it seemed prudent to hit the grocery next door before I headed back. I grabbed my usuals—orange juice, water, a baguette, sliced cheese and meat, cookies, muesli and some milk. I looked at other foods, but the AirBnB had no place to cook and I only had two more days in Europe, so I kept it simple. Not to mention, I still felt like shit.
Not long after I got back to the house, Richard messaged me to see if I wanted to get some good coffee. He had seen my FaceBook post about the decaf instant that was in my room. He was appalled and embarrassed and wanted me to know there is good coffee in the Netherlands. He picked me up about an hour later. He was with his son, Ruben, who was a good foot taller than when I had last seen him a couple years prior.
Richard wanted me to see more of his hometown, so we went to Maastricht where he knew of a good coffee shop that doubled as a bike shop. On the way there, we visited a bike shop that had a small range of vintage road bike and jerseys for sale. I wasn’t feeling very much like spending money, so I didn’t look as much as I might usually, nor did I ask about the prices of the various, cool, wool jerseys that hung around the shop.
Maastricht, Richard explained, was unique because so much of its architecture was influenced by France. It felt like so many other Northern European counties I’ve visited—the building facades were hundreds of years old while the businesses they housed included banks, restaurants and bars, grocery stores and shops selling modern design goods.
The coffee shop, Alley Cat Bikes and Coffee , had a cool vibe, great coffee and killer pastries. It was easily the best coffee experience I had in Europe that trip. The bike shop seemed to be less important that the coffee shop, and it seemed to focus on clothing and accessories and, possibly, repairs and service. The service department was “closed” and the lights turned out, but there were a few customers there shopping for jerseys and helmets. You can check out the shop with Team Sunweb pro cyclist Coryn Rivera here.
Richard, Ruben and I caught up on things and chatted about the city, BMX racing (which is how we met), tomorrow’s Amstel Gold Race, Ruben’s new interest in photography and whatever else came up.
While I was working on my second cup of coffee and sampling the carrot cake, I received a text message from Celment Lucas, a BMX racer and friend. He wanted to know if I was planning to attend the European Cup BMX race that weekend in nearby Zolder, Belgium. Not long after that, I got a second text from a racer there asking the same thing. I shared the messages with Richard and Ruben. Although we had no plans to drive the 40 or so minutes to watch the race, we really had no plans at all, so Richard suggested that if I wanted to go, he would be into it. I gave it a few minutes thought and decided it would be fun to see a European round of BMX.
After we casually finished our coffee and food, we took a walking tour though Maastricht, ending in the city center where an antique swap meet was going on and, in an adjacent parking lot, the Pro Tour team cars were starting to line up for the Amstel Gold Race team presentation that would take place later in the afternoon. We browsed for a bit before heading back to Richard’s car.
The drive to Zolder was pleasant. The roads were small and narrow and there were relatively few people on them. The sun was finally shining. The trees were budding, the grasses along the roadways were green again and the spring flowers were beginning to bloom. I was feeling okay, but the snot was flowing. I must have used two dozen tissues on the drive. Lucky for me, Richard had a stash of tissue packs in his center console.
Driving into Circuit Zolder, the one-time home of Formula 1 racing in Belgium, I was hit with memories of my last time there for the BMX World Championships in 2015. At that time, the company I worked for, Box Components, not only sponsored the event with number plates, but also sponsored many of the world’s top professional racers, including Niek Kimmann and Stefanie Hernandez who would end the rain-soaked race weekend wearing rainbow jerseys. It was great weekend for us and I had many positive memories from my time there.
Working with Zolder and the World Championships in Belgium is also how I met my friend Gil, who took delivery of my Brooklyn jerseys in Gent and with whom I had lunch on the first day of the trip. Gil recently told me he took a new job with Flanders Classics, the organizers of Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders and the other big Flemish Classics. Sadly, all the race but Omloop Het Nieuwsblad were cancelled or postponed this year.
Although I had been to many BMX World Cups in Europe, as well as a few World Championships, I had never been to one of the Euro rounds. The Euro rounds, like a National here in the United States, includes amateur and professional racing. The amateurs are of all ages and experience levels. It was cool to see how a race of that scale is run in Europe and to experience the vibe and be among the people who appreciate BMX—the racers, parents and spectators who had to pay a 20 euro entry fee. And despite that fee, there were far more people there watching than you ever get at a US national.
I spent my time checking out the venue and visiting with some of the World Cup racers, coaches and mechanics I know. I swung by the Dutch team pit and talked to Willie Meijer, the head mechanic and the Australian pit where I visited with coach Wade Bootes and racing siblings Kai and Says Sakaibara. Along the way I ran into New Zealand’s Sarah Walker, France’s Manon Valentino and 2018 world champion Sylvain André, Danish coach and former racer Klaus Bøgh Andersen and others.
The racing was exciting and fast paced. And it was nice to spend the day outdoors in the sunshine. After about three hours of BMX, we decided it was time to head back to the Netherlands. The walk to the exit took longer than it should have. Richard knows as many people in BMX as I do, so along the way he and I both stopped numerous time to visit with people we hadn’t seen for a long time. One of the people I finally found was Clement Lucas, whose query into wether or not I would be at the race was in impetus for us going. Clement was my marketing intern at THE about a decade ago. He and I have stayed in touch over the years. He’s stayed with us when he as vacationing in California and we met (along with Klaus Bøgh Andersen) when he was living in Copenhagen and I was there for a couple days after a BMX World Cup in Sweden.
Without a doubt, the best things to come out of my career in the bike industry, particularly my years in BMX, are the many friendships and acquaintances made over the years. Richard and Ruben, Clement, Klaus, Sarah, Wade among the dozens more people I have been fortunate to meet and get to know. Although unplanned, the day trip to Belgium and the BMX races was one of the best things I did this trip. It reminded me that I need to live in the moment and be open to making changes in my plans.
We got back to Valkenberg after sunset. Richard drove us around the city, showing me a variety of landmarks and architecturally interesting buildings. We asked through a sculpture garden outside a super-fancy and expensive hotel, whose name I forget, then headed to a very cool restaurant in an old barn. The restaurant was closing, but they let us come in for a nightcap. Informed of my preference for Trappist-style ales, the waiter recommended something completely different. Open to taking risks and loving in the moment, I took his recommendation. I forget what the beer was, in large part because I really had no idea what it was to begin with, but it was tasty.
My illness had zapped my energy and by the time we got back to my Air BnB, I was toast. My nose was also stuffed to the point where I was breathing almost entirely through my mouth. It had been a very long, but extremely enjoyable day, but I was ready to call it done.
After taking the Belgian meds and shooting some Afrin up each nostril, I climbed into bed and went to sleep. As with th night before, I would wake up from time to time and find myself wrapped in sweat soaked sheets.
Day 11: Easter Sunday
Easter morning, I awoke to a perfect spring day. The sun was shining and the temperature was perfect. It was perfect wether for an Easter egg hunt. Perfect for a bike ride or bike race. Perfect for a hike. Unfortunately, I was felling anything but perfect. I made myself a simple breakfast of juice and muesli and checked the day’s race schedule. Unfortunately, I discovered that I would be unable to watch the Amstel Gold Race remotely. There was no television in my room, so I would have to stream it. Much to my disappointment, however, all the live streams were blocked in the Netherlands.
After doing numerous fruitless searches for ways to watch the race online, I wandered into the backyard to sit in the sunshine. Katty, my AirBnB host, came out to say hello and check on me. She told me she was headed home to Belgium for the day to prepare Easter dinner for her family, so she would be away. She asked about my plans. I was hoping to find a nearby coffee shop or bar I could walk to and where I could watch the race on TV, I told her. She was unaware of the race and had no idea where a bar might be, but she gave me several restaurant recommendations. She also told me there was a coffee shop at the end of her street, just a few blocks away. This was, indeed, great news.
As we talked, she was kind and voiced her concern about my illness. She offered to make me some ginger tea, which she said would help me. Reluctantly, but somewhat desperately, I accepted her generous offer. She left me and returned a few minutes later with a hand-drawn map showing me the way to a vegetarian restaurant and to a Thai restaurant. Some spicy Thai food sounded like a great lunch or dinner option.
The short walk to the coffee shop—less than 1 kilometer away—was a good test for me. I was feeling much weaker than I expected. And I was lightheaded and a bit woozy. The coffee shop was inside the walls of the castle at the end of her street. I had driven past the castle several times in the short time I was there, and was curious about it. Richard had mentioned there was a restaurant inside. The coffee shop had seating in and outside. Many of the tables, however, were occupied. I grabbed table for two away from the rest to the diners. I was practicing social distancing before it was the cool thing to do.
I ordered a cappuccino. The various food items on the menu didn’t appeal to me for some reason. The coffee came with a side of strawberry ice cream. It was delicious. It may have been the best thing I had ever eaten. It was so good that as soon as I finished the cappuccino, I ordered a second just to get more ice cream. The second coffee came with a citrus sherbet. Although not as tastily as the strawberry had been, it was satisfying just the same.
I walked back to the Air BnB feeling better than I had on my morning walk. The lightheadedness and wooziness were gone. I took a new route in the hope I’d pass a bar or restaurant that was open and full of Amstel Gold Race watchers. The neighborhood was virtually silent. I saw no one and the two or three bars I passed were dark and empty. And I saw no signs anyone would be there later to host a viewing of the race. How was I going to watch the race? It was sad that I was so close to the race route and lacked the energy to make my way to the roadies to watch the riders pass by.
Shortly after I returned to my room, Katty knocked at the door carrying a thermos filled with her homage ginger tea and box of tissues. She also brought me some bags of other teas. She wished me a nice day and left for Belgium.
The ginger tea was fan-fucking-tastic! Whatever I though about the delicious strawberry ice cream I ate that morning, the ginger tea was a thousand times better. I expected an herbal concoction heavy with the taste of tree bark, fungi and bitter berries with a hint of ginger and maybe some lemon. What Katty made was amazing. It was warm. It was sweet. It burst with the flavor of ginger. It soothed my sore throat and calmed my cough. To this day, I wish I had the recipe.
I spent the bulk of my morning laying in bed, streaming television series on Netflix like the recently released Hanna. From time to time, I’d try to stream the bike race. At some point late in the day, my efforts payed off and a stream of the race opened up on my laptop. I don’t recall exactly where in the race it was, but it was late. I’d guess it was within 40 or so kilometers. I do remember that I saw Julian Alaphillipe and Jakob Fuglsang attack my race favorite Mathieu van der Poel. And when Van der Poel chased them down with 500 meters to go for the win, I was ecstatic. What an amazing race. It had me wishing I’d pulled myself out on to the roadside or made my way to the finish.
After the race finished, I went back to my TV shows and took a nap. When I woke up, I was feeling a little better. I drank some of Katty’s delicious ginger tea and planned my adventure to the Thai restaurant.
Using Katty’s map and information, I looked up the restaurant on Google. It appeared to be about 2 kilometers away. Katty told that on the way, and very near the house, was a nice path for hiking. I planned to take a walk there first, then make my way to dinner. The “trial head” was really a pathway between some homes and a farmer’s field. It was very short and not very secluded. Still, it was nice to walk among the trees. And in those trees, I spotted a few local birds I had never seen before.
The route to the restaurant took me through Katty’s neighborhood, past a number of pastures large and small, most of which were inhabited by a horse or two. The way the Belgians and Dutch mingle the rural—small farms and livestock—with the urban, is a beautiful thing. I really love the towns I visited and walked through in both countries.
About half way to the restaurant, I started feeling an uncomfortable urge in my bowels. It was unusual for me to need the bathroom so late in the day. With each passing block, it got worse and I began to wonder if I would make it to the restaurant in time. I also worried what I would do if the place was closed. I continued in the direction of dinner, but weighed my options as I walked. Based on Katty’s map, I was unsure exactly how far I had to go. Nearly three-quarter of the way there—probably—I decided that the known was safer then the unknown and turned back toward the house. My bowels were not happy.
The closer I got to the house, the faster my pace was. But I couldn’t run. In fact, I could barley walk fast for fear I’d lose control of myself. The last 500 meters or so, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. I did.
Apparently, one of the side effect of one of the meds I was taking is diarrhea.
When it was all over, I considered heading back out to the restaurant. The fear of another attack, however, kept me at the house. I made some sandwiches, ate the rest of my muesli and washed it down with orange juice and herbal tea. For dessert, I had cookies an the remainder of Katty’s ginger tea. It wasn’t an ideal last meal in Europe, but it got the job done and it used up all my food stores. After getting my luggage packed and loading some of it into the car, I watched a little more Netflix and went to sleep.
Day 12: Headed Home
I woke up early wanting to get on the road before the Monday morning rush hour. The drive from Katty’s to the Brussels airport was supposed to take about one and half hours, but possibly up two or even two and a half with traffic. As is my norm when going to an airport, I planned for the worst case scenario—three hours—and added a couple hours to make my check-in time. I also needed to stop and fill up the gas tank before returning the rental car. My flight was scheduled to leave at 11:30 a.m., so if I was on the road by 5:30, I should be there with plenty to time to spare.
I forgot that I was traveling on the Monday after Easter. I don’t really know what that means in Europe—does everyone return to work early Monday morning or do they take an extra day off—but based on the empty highways, I tend to think the latter may be the case. My drive to Brussels was fast and uneventful. Stopping to get gas gave me the usual stress, but it only took two tries with two different credit cards to get the pump to turn on. I arrived at the airport early, squeezed into the ridiculously tight underground parking lot and dropped off the car at unattended rental car return.
No longer a status carrying Delta customer, I was pleasantly surprised to see the short line for “regular” travelers—another benefit to arriving way too early. I got to the counter quickly, loaded my bags onto the scale and handed my passport to the woman behind the counter. Her first question: “Is this a bicycle?”
So much for all I had heard about how the bike bag I rented always slips past bag checkers. She changed me an additional 50 euros on top of the $50 I paid for an oversize bag.
After passing through security, I searched for a place to spend the pocket-full of change I had collected on breakfast. I recalled that the last time I ate breakfast in the Brussels airport, I had a nasty cappuccino and the worst pain au chocolat I had ever eaten. I hoped for better this time. I walked past the crowded Starbucks and found a counter where they sold a wide variety of parties and sandwiches as well as espresso drinks. everything looked pretty good. I calculated what I could buy using just my change and ordered a cappuccino, a pain au chocolate and a cheese danish. With that, I had only three coins left over.
I made my way to the gate, took a seat and enjoyed my breakfast as best I could in a crowded airport. While watching the passing travelers, I reflected on the past 10 or so days. Getting sick sucked and really put a damper on the trip. Still, I made the best of it. With the exception of missing the Amstel Gold Xperience, which was a last-minute addition to the trip anyway, I did everything I set out to do. Okay, yes, I didn’t visit a Trappist abbey for beer. And I generally ate pretty crappy food. But really, I have no regrets and few disappointments. I really fell like I made the best of my situation and managed to push through the shitty virus and get things done.
The Paris Roubaix Challenge was brutal and fun and demoralizing and inspiring and horrible and beautiful. When I climbed off my bike in the velodrome, I was shattered. I imagine the look on my face was akin to those on the faces of men fresh off the battlefield. Of course, I got over my experience by the time I was went to sleep that night, but I’m pretty sure I was in a state of shock.
I can still remember how difficult it was for me to walk and ride back to my car. I was dazed and confused. I remember how much I had to focus just to undress and redress in dry warm clothes. I remember how slowly I moved as I disassembled my bike and put it in the back of the car. I remember sitting on the back of the car, dazed and staring out into space, slowly eating some sort of European energy bar and drinking water, trying to muster the energy to drive back to the Air BnB. Between then and going to sleep that night, all I remember is that would have killed for a hamburger, frites and a Coke.
Two days later, when I was sure some sort of illness was coming on, I rode the cobbles again. This time, I was somewhere in Flanders, and likely somewhere along the Ronde van Vlaanderen course. It was fun. It was easy. Much easier and much more enjoyable than I expected it would be a couple days after finishing Roubaix. It was overcast and chilly. Just as I would expect it to be in Flanders. My wool Brooklyn jersey and shorts paired with wool arm and knee warmers kept me perfectly comfortable.
A year later, as I write this final chapter, I have to admit that dozens of times, I’ve thought about how I’ll do the Pairs-Roubaix Challenege next time. And, of course, I’ll also do the Tour of Flanders the Sunday before. Maybe I’ll even make it a two-week tour and add the much mellower Amstel Gold Xperience to the end of the trip.
My plan now is to ride on an a vintage steel bike again. But I’ll fast forward to the mid-1980s or even the early-1990s. Even though I wished I could shift from the bars a thousand times while I was on the cobbles in Roubaix, I still want to do with a pre-STI/Ergo Power bike. But I definitely want to ride with aero brake levers, at least seven rear cogs and maybe a 39-tooth small chainring. Maybe I’ll ride the Bucker bike I’m building now. Or maybe my Etienne de Wilde Splendor, the frame of which I like to think raced both Flanders and Roubaix in 1986. I’d use Time pedals if I rode the Buckler; Campagnolo SLs with clips and straps on the Splendor.
To be honest, I’m not sure either bike would really improve the ride or make it any easier to finish the 109-mile course. For sure, it would feel less impressive than doing it on a bike built in 1972. And it may even look less impressive to those I see out there on the road. But I’m not convinced the bike matters much. At least not until you get to the type of bikes used since Fabien Cancellara won Paris-Roubaix in 2006. I think that’s when he and a few others started using bigger tires with lower air pressure on bikes built around frames and components that are insanely better than anything you could get back in the day. For sure, the current crop of gravel bikes—the descendants of Cancellara’s 2006 bike—would make the ride a more bearable.
I can see myself doing the two Monuments on either of those bikes and in matching kit, of course. I’d like to be 30 pounds lighter. I’d like to share the experiencer with a friend or two. I’d want support along the route so I don’t run out of food or water again or so I can drop off or pick up extra clothes. I’d like to shoot more video with at least have two cameras—helmet and bike—with much longer battery life. Even better, I’d like to have a buddy along the way who can shoot me riding some of the cobbled sectors, say Arenberg or Carrefour de l’Arbre, from above or at eye level with a drone.
Between Monuments I’d like to hit one of those Abbeys I missed last time around. I’d also like to see the Ronde, Gent–Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix live and from the roadside or experience watching a race in a bar with the local fans. The rest of the time, I’d want to ride and keep my legs subtle for P-R, visit more cycling museums and private collections, maybe buy some cool bike stuff, visit more friends and I definitely want to eat better food at better restaurants.
Also, as I write this a year later, it would be rude of me to ignore what’s going on right now. The world is in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and everyone I know in the U.S., Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Italy…is affected in some way by the pandemic. All of us are in some level of lockdown, with the exception, maybe, of Japan. I’m extremely thankful I’ve had so many opportunities to travel the world—for work and privately—and meet new people and make new friends.
Last April, I was the most recent time I was able to do this and it’s thanks to all the great people I met on my trip, from the Air BnB hosts and the bike guys I had befriended prior to the trip via FaceBook to the various people I met for the first time. Without them, my trip would have been mediocre at best. I’m grateful for their contributions then and for the continued friendships we have today. I wish all my international friends and their families good health during this crazy time we’re all experiencing and success after it’s all over.
Peace & Love,
A Side Note: A Visit to Two of Flanders’ Cycling Museums