by Justin Lindine
There are so many bike racing clichés when you travel to Europe, so many things I could say that would sound rehearsed and stereotypical. So many things, in fact, that it has made me paralyzed, afraid to start what should be a basic web-journal. So now that I’ve leapt over that particular hurdle and actually started the piece, what is there to say about being back in this place that can lay claim to being the heartland of our sport? Well, I haven’t raced yet, so I’ll reserve my comments about bike racing for a bit and do something a little different … a love-letter.A lot of people label Belgium as “not that attractive,” as damp and somber and flat, windy and maybe even a little dreary. And it’s true that when my plane touched down in Brussels the other day, and I opened the window shade for the first time in about seven hours, it was raining and grey out … much as I remembered it to be the last time I was here. But for someone who hasn’t been here all that much, and someone who admittedly doesn’t really like “flat” places, I can’t help but like something about Belgium. I like the way that the city limits and the countryside blur quickly and smoothly as you head out of town. I like the fact that the streets are inconceivably tiny and that everyone manages to share them, from the old woman riding her commuter bike – resplendent with chrome fenders and rack – to the semi-truck and the farmer driving his tractor through the center of town. I like the fact that agriculture here is still a tangible part of the everyday life, as in the cycling house has it’s own chicken pen and I passed a horse paddock in the center of a fairly built-up down town on my two hour ride today.
I like the architecture, all bricks and stones and cobbled lanes. One town giving way to the next, interspersed with farm fields and the occasional pig farm whose identity is belied by its particular aroma. I like that that aroma exists just down the street from a hair salon and a bakery and a butcher. The aesthetic here is, and this is quintessentially cliché so I am sorry, so Euro. I can’t exactly put a finger on what that even means, and perhaps it tells more about my naiveté as a world traveler than anything else.
But there does seem to be something tangibly different in the way buildings are painted- all color blocks and minimalist, or the way the space seems maximized without being overwrought, like the “WC” in the house that features just enough room for a toilet and literally, half a sink (the faucet is on the side). Roundabouts save time and space, and cars are small and fuel efficient. People have gardens in their back yard, and take an insane amount of pride in their hedges.
People commute on their bikes! Everyone! At 3PM there are kids riding bikes everywhere and I had to think for a minute before I realized that they are riding home from school, which of course means they rode to school. And they navigate the streets un-chaperoned, and of all ages, like pros. Weaving onto bike lanes and through intersections with uncanny ability. I can’t help but smile.
This place might be grey, and rainy and flat, but there is something I undeniably like about it. It might be because every ride I take turns into a reason for me to indulge my imagination and envision myself flying along in one of the spring classics, rain and wind and grit eroding my lesser self into a hard and efficient bike racer. It’s hard not to romanticize that sort of thing if you are a true lover of this sport. Which is why, even though I have goals that relate to racing while I am here, and they are undoubtedly important to me, I have also set myself the goal of enjoying the trip and really trying, as my parents are always telling me I must- “to take it all in.” When I was here last, the trip passed in a flash of missing bikes and culture-shock racing. It feels almost dreamlike now to think about and I really want to cement more and better images in my mind from this trip. Of course I want to hammer the races, and hopefully have my best results so far, but I am also embracing the journey that has taken me here, and the one I am about to have. And despite what everyone says, I love Belgium.