A couple of years back my very good friend and cycling companion Dave Chamberlain told me that we have to go cycling in Belgium. “What for?”, I asked. “Because there’s a lot of great riding there with many historic climbs.” I’d heard about the famed Koppenberg, but not much more. I also knew that there were many spring classic 1 day races like the Ronde Van Flaanderen, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and of course the Paris-Roubaix. So when the opportunity to actually come out to Flanders and do some hardcore cycling and to watch a few pro races, I didn’t hesitate to jump right in!
I quickly realized that we were in for some great cycling when the name of our housing accommodations was Cycle House-Izegem. Our headquarters for the week would be in near downtown Izegem where Norway’s and Switzerland’s youth cycling team also stayed. Evidently many teams stay there for some early season training and racing. Our contact person and excellent host was Noel DeJonckeere, past director of USA cycling and former pro cyclist. Noel an almost 60 year old with energy, enthusiasm and cycling ability of any 25 year old, “you know what I mean”. Now working for team BMC Noel was going to make sure that our experience here in Belgium would be first rate and memorable. He was also going to test our legs and cycling ability.
We arrived mid morning on Easter Saturday at the Brussels airport and by 4:00 pm we picked up our rental bikes and were off on a 25-30 km warm up/stretch the legs ride. The very next day we drove over to see the Tour of Flanders, we situated ourselves in the thick of the “Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg” climbs, two of the most famous cobbled sections of the race. From there the week flew by like we were in a fast moving peloton, it was non stop. Monday was our first ride with Noel, an 85 KM group ride that cost us 4.00 euro and our introduction to navigating the “small roads” of Belgium and how there is no time for photos or rest stops when your riding with Noel.
Tuesday: Dave and his brother Lew planned and mapped out a super ride that would have us climb 11-12 of the 16 cobbled climbs of the Tour of Flanders. The Koppenberg,Valkenberg, Kwaremont, Paterberg and the Wolvenberg to name a few. Wednesday: train to Antwerp to see the Start and finish of the Sheldeprejs race that Kristoff from Norway won on a sprint finish. Thursday: Train and Bike to Brugge and to the North Sea. Friday: Recon ride of 5 sections of Cobbles of Paris-Roubaix including the “Carrefour des Arbres”. Saturday: 100KM group ride with Noel from Zulte with 10 decent climbs, here we experienced some typical Belgian weather for the first time in a week, rain wind and cold!! We embraced our suffering. Sunday: Out the door at 6:30 AM to get to the start of Paris-Roubaix in Compiegne, France. We decided that we would jet over to Wallers and the Arenberg Forest to watch the race go by on perhaps the most famous of the cobbled sections, sector 18. Wow, what a whirlwind tour!
Did I mention the BEER? Perhaps that reason alone is worth the trip to Belgium. Dave kept saying, “there’s something about this beer, it taste so fresh.” It sure did, Belgium, the land of beer and frites. We sure sampled our share (there are over 800 different kinds of beers) and learned a few things about Belgian brew, including Lambic. The mother of all beers, from wild yeast. Most beers are fermented from carefully cultivated strains of brewers yeast whereas Lambics’s fermentation is produced by exposures to wild yeast and bacteria that are said to be native to the Senne valley near Brussels. The result is a slightly sour beer. The 3 classes of this type of beer are; Gueuve, Fruit lambic and faro. Here’s a short list of some of the beers we tried; Stella Artois, Lieff, Duvell, Palm, Rodenbach, Jupiler, Bavits, Hoegaarden and Kastel and there were many more. Many of these beers were sampled in perhaps the coolest pub in all of Begium, “De Oude Sin Pieter pub”.
I asked Noel what was so special about all these folks coming out to Belgium to ride their bikes. He simply stated that you can train and condition yourself anywhere to be a good or even a great cyclist. But you must come to Belgium to learn how to race a bike, and that is the truth!!