Some people call it a Flemish Facial. Others call it Belgian toothpaste. It’s the beginning of spring cycling in Belgium. A perfect day calls for something between drizzle and torrential rain, [wet snow is always an option], mud and secteurs of ancient cobblestones. The season began with the 69th edition of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in the the Belgian province of East Flanders. The 198.4 Km contest was won in the aforementioned soggy conditions.
There’s some history here. These races are woven into their nation’s story. Even in the midst of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Iron Curtain, cycling somehow transcended hardship and war. During the Nazi occupation of Europe there were no Olympic games, but a number of cycling races endured. Where else can such a rich mix of regional and national pride be found? For a few weeks the little country of Belgium becomes the soul of cycling…though Belgian’s would argue that they’re the soul of cycling all year long. Insane crowds stand in the mud to catch a 60 second glimpse as a grimy peloton roars by. The intensity builds as the season moves toward the biggest of the Spring Classics:
- E3 Harelbeke, 57th edition
- Gent – Wevelgem, 76th edition
- Tour of Flanders, 98th edition
- Paris – Roubaix, 112th edition
- Amstel Gold, 49th edition
- La Fleche Wallonne, 77th edition
- Liege – Bastogne – Liege, 100th edition
There’s a couple of warm weather stage races in France and Spain – but the true recognized monuments are the one day events that match absolutely wretched conditions to an already demanding course. There’s a good reason why so many great climbers are Belgian. It’s not that the Bergs are so high, but that the cobbles and wind deliver such a flogging, that cyclists from this region learn to cope very well with suffering. This also goes a long way toward supporting my theory that cyclists racing in mud, snow and rain are Minnesotans at heart.
Unless roads are impassable from snow or a mudslide, cycling races don’t get cancelled due to weather. Cold? Put on some knee warmers. Wet? That’s what rain jackets are for. Soldiering on in conditions that scream at us to quit is what makes for a ride to be remembered. It’s why cycling fans discuss the spring classics in hushed tones of reverence.
We come uncomfortably close to our own mortality in these spectacles of suffering. Rightly understood, they provide perspective. Maybe getting caught in traffic or getting a crappy cup of coffee from sixbucks isn’t the end of the world [?]. The images of hollow-eyed racers coming unhinged on a 21% cobbled climb, digging deep, and chasing back on, have power to inspire. They redirect us to the simple lesson that many valuable things are found in hard work and sacrifice. Leaving our comfort zone – whether through endurance sports, or by some other means – creates a renewed appreciation for the fundamental good things. It leaves surprising little room for boredom.
So, get out on your bike. Don’t wait for a sunny day. There’s much waiting for us in a so called BAD DAY FOR A BIKE RIDE. Don’t be satisfied by just watching someone else. Go get some grit in your teeth…find your limit, and exorcise your demon of doubt. Sometimes we blow up and limp home, but more often than not we find something special.
It’s worth it.