I have been learning a lot here. That was the focus of the trip and it hasn’t disappointed. From vague “shoulds” and “should-nots,” to generally an improved race sense, to specific points of etiquette and technique, the five weeks I have spent in Belgium so far have been eye-opening. But, I think I am starting to see the bigger picture of what makes racing in Belgium so special… And the thing I have learned that overshadows all the other lessons is: how much there is still to be learned before I am a complete bike-racer.
The first thing that makes racing in Belgium special is the races. Of course, there are the classic training races that we here a lot about back in the States - kermises. These races are super intense efforts, almost always between 150 and 180 minutes long (100-120 km). The fields at these races range in size from 50-200 and the caliber of riders varies within each race by quite a bit as well. However, the top guys are really, really good. Just like crit-specialists in the US, there are kermis riders and teams here that have the routine dialed (then of course there is betting and under-the-table deals, etc!). So, day in, day out, you can race 60-75 miles against some of the best guys in the region, not to mention 10-20 miles commuting each way to and from the race! And the thing is, these are the small races. Within a given area (in my case, West Flanders) there are usually two to five kermises on a given week. That means that there are enough top-quality training races to be had that if you wanted, you wouldn’t have to do a single interval for months (but maybe not the best idea).
Since I am with JBCA, I get to take part in larger UCI races as well. Technically, kermises are UCI 1.12 rated, too, but the “Interclubs” are often just called “UCI races” and are mostly 1.12’s and 1.2’s (and 2.12/2.2 as well). The UCI races are in some ways glorified kermis races, but there are some key differences. First off, the field is deep (always around 200 riders), with tons of riders that are very strong; some that are “just” strong, and only very few that fall short of that. The UCI races are not limited to short, technical loops like kermises, but rather usually involve one or several laps of a big, moderately technical loop (well, very, very technical compared to your typical road race in the US… The only races that compare to it that I have done in the States are the two road races in the Redlands Bicycle Classic, especially the Sunset Loop), before entering the “local laps,” which are smaller, technical, crit-like circuits for fans to watch the finish unfold. Typically the last 50 km or so are held in the local laps - so basically imagine a 110 km loop (a 65 mile RR) that finishes on 50 km of local laps (a 30 mile crit)! Also, UCI races feature a huge caravan of at least 30 cars, including commissaries, doctors, ambulance, teams, etc… Everything is very professionally run, and there is tremendous fan support from locals, family, and friends!
So, the bigger-picture lesson I have learned out here? Yes, I could be a better sprinter. Yes, I could also stand to climb better. Yes, I also could be better at bike-handling, cornering, navigating through a tight peloton, attacking, argy-bargy, surfing the front, and reading races… All those things come with years more experience at this level than I have. These are some of the things I thought I could do fairly well back home, but they’re things that I have found I can’t yet do well enough - these are the basics of cycling. But, the single greatest lesson I have learned out here so far transcends every nuance and particularity of our sport… And it is the pure, steady manifestation of all competition: focus, discipline, confidence, and unemotional, unshakable desire - the ultimate test of mental capabilities!
To create a stark contrast, I would say that everything I have accomplished as a cyclist in my years racing in the States was done via brute strength and instinct. Here, killer-instincts and big numbers are obviously still important, but the thing that really sets the winners apart from the rest is mentality. What this means to me is having the focus to be as efficient as possible throughout the race (ie no extra braking, proper pack-placement to avoid needless accelerations, staying out of the wind… Basically, at every moment of the race, literally at every second, being aware of any possible means of using less energy). It also means to me having the discipline and mental toughness to endure as much suffering as possible. There is no limit to this capacity, theoretically - it is a mind game. When physical limits are so closely matched (the best and worst riders in the UCI fields are probably only separated physiologically by 5-10%, at most - say in W/kg or whatever metric), it makes sense to me that the guy that can dig deeper will achieve more… You should “have no mercy with yourself,” as my director, Bernard, puts it. Then, pair that mindset with self-confidence (and lack of self-doubt… for instance believing that if you are suffering everyone else is suffering the same/more and that you can beat them despite the pain). The final ingredients are the ability to read a race situation and other riders in a heartbeat and obviously to have a huge hunger to win, without a strong emotional attachment to a particular outcome that will cause you to panic and race out of fright or anger or jealousy or desperation. Everything is cool, calm, focused, and calculated… Never mind the fact the race is cruising around the countryside and through small towns at over 40 km/hr!
This is seen as the essence of sport over here. And if nothing else, when everyone around you is so strong, you can’t just throw your efforts around willy-nilly. If you are not efficient, you will be toast after 150 kilometers at 45 km/hr. If you are not positioned well going into a crosswind section, you certainly won’t be racing for the win at the end of the day. If you move up in the wind or are near the back through town or commit any number of similar mistakes, you will not win the race. I think it is rare that a guy who wastes energy during a race has a shot in the finale.
Even our neighbor, Mike, an ex-boxer, has tried to share some insight into the sporting mentality: “When I was fighting I would look these big, strong, tall, guys in the eye and think ‘I am going to fucking beat you.’ There is no difference between a one-on-one cage fight and a bike race…” except that in a bike race there are many, many people in the cage at once.