My friend had a point. Growing up on the Eastern seaboard I had always envisioned grand European adventures – the geographic accessibility alone seemed to make it a no-brainer, along with the culturally euro-centric focus of the east coast: good things come from just across the pond.
“Um, well, it seemed like an unusual opportunity,” I stammered into the phone. “When one presents itself, you’ve gotta take it.”
In the four years that I had been racing internationally I had never been to Europe once. Bike racing had afforded me the opportunity to travel to and compete in a handful of incredible and unlikely locations, mainly in South America (though the Kazakh visa is still my favorite page in my passport). Europe, the crown jewel of cycling sport and culture, had been conspicuously absent from my rider resume. Patrik Lyons, a friend and cycling agent who had been trying to get me into 6-day events for a number of years, tipped me off to a grand prix that had just added women’s sprint events. A few days after the Los Angeles Grand Prix in early November – and with the encouragement of my coach and family, as well as the help of a heap of frequent flier miles – I was on a flight over to race the International Belgian Open in Ghent. I was about to dump myself into a city I had barely researched, without a local contact, to do a race I had only learned of about a week prior. Good God and dry gin, what am I doing?
Solo travel can be daunting in one’s own country. Solo travel in a foreign country with no ground support and crap-load of bike equipment is an odd mix of terrifying and exciting. Get on a plane. Tumble off the plane and onto a train – the correct train (and find somewhere to stuff the bike box on said train). Pile off the train and onto the little tram that finally stops at the hotel on the outskirts of the city. The strain of attempting to read each stop in Dutch, Flemish, and French was enough to give me gray hair – but, unlike the organized chaos to which I had grown accustomed in South America, at least everything in northern Europe runs blissfully regimented and on time.
Upon arrival at the Holiday Inn, an unassuming brick-and-plaster cube across the parking lot from an Ikea and an empty expo center, I was able to connect with fellow rider Jake Duerhing and his Dutch mechanic Jan-Willem van der Heijden. Jake and our third U.S. teammate Ian Holt would both be racing the men’s ominium that weekend (a lucky coincidence for me); I was thankful to have a couple familiar faces here with me in such unfamiliar territory.
Ghent may be Belgium’s best-kept secret; once medieval Europe’s second-largest city after Paris, it has developed over the centuries as an incredible showcase for European arts and culture – but has remained less on the tourism radar than Brussels and Bruges. Here hides one of Europe’s finest panoramas of canals, ancient spires, and extravagant grand houses against a backdrop of steely skies. Under the imposing grace of Gravensteen Castle and St. Bavo’s cathedral the city hosts an ornate opera house, 18 museums, 100 churches, and over 400 historical buildings – as well as a handful of monasteries-cum-breweries that put Belgium on the map for some of the finest beers in the world.
The city sits at the confluence of the Scheldt and Leie rivers in the heart of the Flanders region – arguably one of the most infamous racing realms in professional cycling. Belgium takes its cycling seriously and Ghent is not stranger to this obsession – it boasts two separate velodromes, one being the Eddy Merckx Cycling Center and cycling school. This particular 250-meter oval office would be the venue in which we would do bicycle battle for a weekend.
The Eddy Merckx velodrome is a stunning expanse of track from the inside and a perfect tribute to Belgium’s most celebrated cyclist. Glass panes on all sides of the building allow light to pour through and illuminate the black-brown boards in a rollicking explosion of color and contrast. Not all tracks are created equal; I became irrevocably sure of this as we walked into The Cannibal’s shrine for the first time for pre-race training.
Getting acquainted with a new track is like going on a blind date. No matter what your friends and the internet tell you about him, the only way to properly determine how well you guys mesh is to meet in person – and the first encounter is almost always awkward and a bit uncomfortable. If one can be comfortable with being uncomfortable, everything will go fine. Probably. Maybe.
I had three days to figure out this particular track before racing began. Each track has its own quirks and nuances – a facet of racing that one comes to appreciate instead of dread if she’s adaptable. Steeper turns made this track a slightly different animal than my usual training venue of L.A.; otherwise the shape and tightness of the two seemed the same and made it easier to get a handle on timing and strategy. In an unknown field the only thing a rider can control is her own ability and her own execution; this velodrome would suit me just fine.
Rituals tend to be an important part of the racing process, especially in an entirely unknown place. In my case, these anticipated patterns became centered largely on convening on caffeine and food. Each morning I found Jan-Willem in the dining area of the hotel atrium – where we swapped cultural notes over bad Keurig coffee.
Jan is a Dutch racer-turned-mechanic; a light athletic build matched with bright blue eyes, angular nose and cheekbones, and sandy Flock of Seagulls-style hair give him the quintessential euro-dude countenance. At 20 years old he’s one of USA Cycling’s go-to mechanics at its European base of Sittard, The Netherlands – and, to compliment his wrenching skills, also happens to be an excellent guide on all things Euro. We discussed everything from the precarious predicament of Ukraine to Bulgarian travel to the culturally divisive nature of Europe as a whole.
Ukraine is screwed. Don’t ever fly Bulgaria Air. Despite how everyone here likes to pick on their neighbors, they all seem to unanimously hate the French. Makes sense.
“Give me your bike for a second,” Jan said.
“Um, ok. What’s the matter?” I blinked at him and wheeled it over.
“Your bar tape. It looks like shit. I won’t let you ride like that, you’re not in South America anymore,” he replied as he plunked my bike onto the stand.
Yes, that became grossly apparent by the giant Lithuanian and Belgian girls who just strode onto the infield for the open training session. That’s cool. No problem. I got this. Yep.
“Thanks, cupcake. Good lookin’ out.”
Whoever coined the saying “attitude is everything” may have very easily been a cyclist. The attitude that one brings to the line can often dictate how a race will unfold even before the gun goes off. I considered this briefly as I sat at the start of the keirin final, hands on hips and staring straight ahead at the sweeping boards in front of me.
The attitude doesn’t tend to change regardless of whom I race – from a good friend to a French stranger. Look me in the face; know that I want to rip your heart out and eat it raw. It’s not personal.
I had managed 5th in the sprint tournament the previous evening. I knew very little about the riders on either side of me except some 200-meter times and their respective placements; everyone had speed, varied skills. I didn’t care, it didn’t matter; I want to rip your hearts out and eat them raw. I gave Jan a couple thwacks on the shoulder as he held me before I sank into my drops; the gun went up.
“Hey, are you almost ready to go?” Jake asked. “We need waffles!”
“No way, dude, I gotta go do that podium thing first. We’ll get to the waffles soon enough. And beer, that’s non-negotiable.” I zipped up my skin suit, checked my hair, and moseyed across the infield.
I had drawn fourth position and slotted in directly behind Belgian rider Shana Dalving. I was anticipating a move from the German behind me and patiently protected my precarious fourth spot until the derny swung off. I throttled out of turn two on the final lap and swept up Dalving in three, barreling through the corner and into the home straight after Olivia Montauban and Mélissandre Pain on the front. I finished on the wheels of the two French to round out the podium.
After the photos and proper “félicitations” I was still reeling, thrilled for my results and thankful for the help I had to get there. It was indeed time for a beer.
Belgium’s claims to culinary fame are all items that are decidedly deemed bad for athletes – beer, chocolate, waffles, and fries. In fact, my theory regarding the Belgians’ cycling prowess is that they’re inherently strong because they have to ride so much – how else can they consume all of these things and still remain lean? They need to burn them off somehow. It’s the only logical conclusion in my American brain.
Naturally, the mission once racing had concluded was to sample all of these items – not necessarily in any particular order. After dumping off equipment and swapping spandex for normal clothes, Jake, Ian, Jan, and myself took the tram into downtown Ghent to see what we could find.
Ghent has a cool elegance during the day, but it comes truly and lavishly alive at night. The streets and building walls teem with electric light that bathes the city’s intricate architecture in a brilliant golden glow; sparkling facades in the old port markets of Graslei and Korenlei pair with bubbling banter from canal-side cafes and bars long into the evening. Unfortunately, this excludes bakeries and waffle stands (which close promptly at 6PM on Sunday evenings, apparently. Damn it) and so we settled for beer first. We bought a round at the cozy Picardie – I sipped the best brown ale I’ve ever had (Trappistes Rochefort 10, for the record) in a basement bar that was older than my home country. We cut across the square for some proper Belgian fries and a second beer before calling it a night.
Cobbles are awful. After a day of running around on the cobbled streets and sidewalks of Ghent I will never understand how folks manage to race their bikes over them. I suppose that’s one of the many reasons I remain a track racer. My extra day on the ground after the grand prix allowed me to fully embrace every tender step; the boys had left early that morning and I was on my own. I spent the morning getting hopelessly lost in the medieval neighborhoods of Patershol and Vrijdagmarkt before stumbling into a teeny café on a tight side street for a recovery waffle. Indeed, I finally got my waffle – airy and delicately crunchy with a dappling of powdered sugar, accompanied by a perfect cappuccino at Fritz.
Ghent is best viewed from the ground up – or, rather, from the canal. Gravensteen’s walls were as striking looming over me on the water as they had been as I viewed the city from their tops an hour beforehand. For six euros a boat tour gave an intimate look at Ghent by way of the very canals that gave it life; incidentally, it’s also better than walking. I used the remainder of my on-foot energy to snag to chocolates and cuberdons in Korenmarkt and an afternoon glass of Gruut at a canal-side bar across the square. That evening I lingered over post-dinner coffee in a corner of Restaurant Valentijn, allowing the rich Belgian cuisine to settle in my stomach, before reluctantly ambling through the bright streets to the tram station.
As I stuffed the chocolates into my bike box back at the hotel, I realized that I had just completed my first crash course in European bike racing. If that’s the intro course, what are the core credits? I can’t wait to find out.