This year, I’ve come to Belgium less as a cyclocross tourist and rather seeking results as a rider. Nevertheless, only a small percentage of each day is dedicated to training and racing.
Much of my time is consumed by normal day-to-day life in Flanders.
The Inconvenient Truth and Flemish Secrets
As a full-time athlete (only recently removed from having a full-time job), it seems like I should have plenty of time on my hands … to do the social media thing, to write and maybe even to recreate. I’m finding that’s not the case at all. Oftentimes, it seems all I can do to train, get enough rest and get all the food shopping, cooking and washing done.
Belgium is a country that operates at a different speed than the United States. On my first Monday rest day, I planned to go out for coffee. However, I found out that even in the “city” of Oudenaarde, Monday is “basically nothing is open day,” especially cafes and restaurants.
These days, some stores in Belgium are open on Sundays. Those that are make a really big deal of it on their signage: “Open op Zondag!” However, “open op Zondag” actually means “open for approximately three hours on Sunday morning.” Accordingly, don’t plan to pick up groceries after the weekend’s races!
Given the cost of fuel, both clothing dryers and dishwashers are less universal here. Since my flat has neither and I produce dirty clothes like a cyclocross rider and dirty dishes like an American, I spend a lot of time cleaning.
Grocery shopping also consumes my time. I admit that it’s a hobby of mine to walk the aisles and look at the different foodstuffs. However, given the presence of specialized shops—the butcher, the fruit shop, the bakery—and the smallness of grocery stores, going to multiple places is the norm.
Also, acting on a tip from Helen Wyman, I learned that they sell flour (and bread mix, pancake mix and cake decorating supplies) at the hardware store, so there’s reasons to go there as well!
On the other hand, some things about Belgium are overly convenient. In a tacit acknowledgment of shops’ inconvenient hours, there is an “automaat” for everything: bread, potatoes, strawberries, and eggs.
Within three kilometers of my home, there is a frite truck and a “dagschotel” automaat.
“Dagschotel” is essentially the “daily special” and the meals are “kant-en-klaar,” or ready-made to just heat-and-eat. The location of these conveniences means I could end every ride at the frite truck or get a kant-en-klaar meal in a pinch.
I’ve come to believe that there are certain things that Flemish people know as their birthright, but which are not transparent to me.
Case in point, the start of the Women’s race in Mol was 15 minutes later than noted in the tech guide. I arrived at the start and found it hauntingly quiet save all the other foreigners circling. I strongly suspect, were I Flemish or Dutch or otherwise spent years in Belgium, I’d know that Mol always starts at 13:45.
Similarly, driving requires local knowledge. Construction is ever-present and my GPS device seems to have knowledge only of construction on major roadways. While detours are occasionally marked, it is common for road signs simply to be struck through with tape, suggesting, “you can’t get there from here.”
All this is to say that everything takes longer here. I admit, sometimes, when I make my third lap around a village with my GPS yapping or wash my bike for day five of five, I fantasize about having a team or a partner here. While I have a great team of mechanics and supporters, I am doing some things the hard way, acting as my own manager, driver, and soigneur.
Learning Dutch Saves Watts
One thing that has made life in Flanders easier is knowing some Dutch.
Last March, I returned home to Minneapolis and stopped making any effort to learn Dutch. I considered my Dutch study a failed experiment. Everyone in Flanders spoke English. If I spoke Dutch to them, they quickly aided me by switching to English.
Dutch remained in my life at some level since much of my Twitter feed is in Dutch and I spend a whole lot of time watching Dutch broadcasts of bike races on the weekends.
When I traveled to Quebec this fall, I realized I might know more Dutch than I recognized. I don’t speak French, but Dutch phrases popped into my head with every Quebec interaction. It seemed Dutch has become my second language, even though it didn’t help me in Quebec!
This year, when I stepped off the plane in Brussels, I felt significantly more fluent. Last year there was so much newness and stimulus, I could hardly take in the language. Now, with life being a little less overwhelming, my comprehension is better.
It is clear to me that my pronunciation of Flemish is horrible, partially because I first learned Dutch as it is spoken in the Netherlands, but mostly because I do not hear Flemish at home. When I speak Dutch to my mechanics, I do so very slowly, one … word … at … a … time. I can see in their eyes the concentration it takes to puzzle through my speech.
However, I have my newfound ease in my day-to-day life in Flanders. The reality of life alone in a foreign land is that you spend a lot of time confused, trying to puzzle through things. Since I am a decent reader of Dutch, I can work through most signs, menus, and directions. At the grocery store, I understand the total and can discern whether they are asking for my shopper’s card or trying to sell me a “zak” to hold my groceries.
Because I can read and understand some spoken language, I am only confused maybe 40 percent of the time rather than 90 percent! Confusion, as well as the stress of potentially embarrassing oneself, is tiring.
In the long run, this strain on the central nervous system is watts on the bike. The two semesters worth of effort I put in at home to learn Dutch has saved me countless watts over here.
I’ve done a lot of racing since Koksijde, but none as memorable as Zonhoven.
As I did last year, I chose to forego U.S. Nationals, as the cost of returning to the U.S. with bikes is too much. When I discovered Zonhoven on the schedule in December on the same day as our Nationals, it was certainly a consolation!
You know Zonhoven, yes, the one with “De Kuil,” the sandpit.
“De zon” in Zonhoven is the sun, and in October when the race is usually held, the sun is more likely to make an appearance. This year, when I awoke to several centimeters of snow the morning of Zonhoven, it seemed like a Christmas miracle!
While the snow made for dramatic photos, it had little negative effect on the traction. The race is held at De Molenheide, a nature preserve. The land is described as “heathland” and reminds me of Wisconsin’s “sand barrens.”
Essentially, it is an area with so much sand that little vegetation is able to grow. There was no loamy soil to make mud, and sand, you know, provides traction when mixed with snow! The common tire choice was a light tread, like Grifos, but I ran files for several laps, which were fine save for two corners.
Zonhoven has a different atmosphere than most races this time of year.
Being as it’s not yet Kerstperiode or Worlds, I’ve gotten used to there being mostly serious cyclocross fans at the races. There’s no shortage of alcohol and partying, but by in large, the people who attend races outside Kerstperiode and Worlds are devotees of the sport.
Walking around the Zolder parcours, I couldn’t help but notice the security presence. The start and finish area were significantly gated and guarded by hired guards, rather than the usual local citizens in a race jacket or safety vest. Zonhoven security reminded me of Worlds, so I should have foreseen the atmospheric shift.
Those lining the walls of De Kuil? They came for the crashes and to become utterly and totally falling down drunk, not the racing. The Kuil audience roared every time there was a crash, so the roars were constant.
I feared the worse when it came to my ability to ride De Kuil, so I traveled to Zonhoven on Friday to pre-ride. I wanted to talk myself through any fear in relative privacy.
In fact, the drops were not all that overwhelming. There’s something to be said for knowing your crash landing will be soft. As long as you point the bike straight and minimize brake use, gravity is on your side. Forward momentum will get you to the bottom. The only real difficulty is steering, like say, if someone crashes in front of you. The first lap was carnage and I somehow steered around a lot of crashes.
My result at Zonhoven was a strong one, as I finished 24th and on the lead lap. The Sunday before, at Overijse, I earned my first UCI point abroad with a 15th in that C1. I am slowly and surely improving race by race and putting together a solid season here.
Still, I remember from last year that it only gets harder from here on out.
We are about to enter Kerstperiode. I will race in five races in three countries in a little over a week’s time. I experience a little trepidation just writing that. Continuing to thrive is all about energy management. For the next couple of weeks, I’ll be hunkering down and minimizing trips to the grocery store!
See the CX Apprenticeship archives for more diaries from Coogan Cisek.