zzzzzzzHusband. Drummer. Marketing, Sales and Customer Service Specialist. Music and Art Collector. Road Cyclist. Volunteer. Traveler. bbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbb Amateur Photographer. Media/News/Coffee Junkie. Hockey Fan.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Frite To Be Tried: My Belgian Spin

My last few hours of 2+ weeks in Belgium. This has definitely been a trip to remember, full of terrific memories and unique experiences that I will savour for quite some time.

The Belgians are great hosts. It's not that they go out of their way to provide a warm welcome or great customer service. It is simply the way things are done; there is no 'phoning it in' over here. Not doing great work is simply unthinkable. That alone, I think, is what will resonate longest: the lack of pretence and a profound lack of attitude (OK, I came across a couple of D.B.'s and was snubbed by the greatest cyclist in history, Eddy Merckx - he can be rather cantankerous - but really that was it). Most interestingly, the concepts of 'who you are' or what one's 'status' is comes across as quite insignificant. "What do you do?", often one of the first questions asked upon being introduced back home, may come up in conversation here but much, much later. It's considered a rude lead off, actually. Better evaluations by local standards (or by any standard, in my view): Are you a good person? Respectful? Do good work no matter what that work is? From my experience anyway, these are paramount attributes in Belgium. It certainly shows in the treatment of guests, clients and the way Belgians interact with friends and family, and it is on display on roads and highways. Think of that, Vancouver: a country full of keen and courteous motorists. 

I covered Belgium's rich cycling tradition here the other day so at the risk of repeating myself all I'll say is this: cycling is to Belgium what hockey is at home. In fact, I would suggest it is even more tightly woven into the collective fabric. Even though most Canadians tune in and watch hockey, not many actually play either casually or as part of league. And you certainly don't see many seniors out there back-checking. 

Oh, yes...there's the beer. I've never been much for beer, preferring stiff drinks made with bourbon, scotch, rye, vodka...you get the idea. During my time here, however, I have not had a single cocktail, nor have they been missed. Triple Karmeliet is my new favourite drink, all 8.6% of it, a beer introduced to me by a helpful waiter in Oudenaarde. All hail to the monks that indulged in developing this other (more interesting and fun?) faith.

Of course, many of my observations are not unique to Belgium or Belgians. Over the last 16 days, however, I have taken keen notice of what I have experienced and it really has been very impressive - and humbling. I have witnessed and learned much (I hope) and intend to bring some of this exceptional hospitality and thoughtfulness home with me. I owe that to everyone who made this trip so extraordinary.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Hubs and Spokes

Ever since my first trip overseas in late 1989, I have always loved travelling in Europe. I am enthralled by the architecture, the art, the countrysides, the myriad cultural complexities within such tight geography. Since I am a road cycling enthusiast, Europe has held another fascination for me: the world of professional cycling.

For many North Americans, it was a certain Texan with huge talent, a Lone-Star sized ego, and a large dose of performance-enhancing mean-spiritedness who brought road cycling into their world. Still, it was Europe where Lance Armstrong (and American Greg Lemond back in the 1980's) really got rolling and where all pro cyclists first earn their name and reputation. It is also where the biggest stars enjoy the most fame and it has been this way since the invention of the bicycle. Nowhere is this love more intense or more obsessive than in Belgium. The Italians (pioneers in today's standard road bike technology) will protest loudly. The French will likely go on strike. Fine. Belgium has cycling woven deep into its cultural fabric, and it courses through their collective bloodstream. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in Flanders. Weekdays and weekends, in rain, mud, brutal and biting cold winds, on pavement  or on the cobbles, you see Flandrians out riding. They can be solo or on group rides with their local teammates; or, like most Belgians, just heading to work or some other destination. After all, it's only rain.

Cobblestone lanes wind lazily through the Flanders countryside connecting quaint towns and pretty villages; during a race, however, these cute paths become treacherous, often separating winners from painfully scraped and, quite often, broken competition. Many of these routes are as famous and pivotal to the sport of cycling as Wimbledon, Daytona, or the Montreal Forum (RIP) are to tennis, racing and hockey. The cobbled hills (bergs) are legendary and during Spring Classic season (March to mid April) the biggest crowds gather to cheer their heroes upward. Paddestraat (above), Oude - or old - Kwaremont (below), The Paterberg, The Kemmelberg, The Koppenberg; these scary beasts, while not nearly as long still evoke the same reverence as the high mountains of the Tour de France. Try walking up one on a rainy, muddy day and then imagine racing up 4 or more on skinny wheels, jostling for position with 150+ cyclists riding flat out at up to 45km/h for hours in the wet and wind.

The world's greatest professional cyclist by far is the Belgian legend, Eddy Merckx. He won 525 major races between this late 1960's and '70's. If you count all of Lance Armstrong's premier wins (even those recently stricken from the record), they tally below 100. In addition to his wins in all major Tours, Merckx won countless Classics titles, including the daddy of them all, the Ronde van Vlaanderen, or Tour of Flanders. More recently, Belgian heroes include Tom Boonen, who is arguably the biggest star, along with local lads Stijn Devolder, Sep Vanmarcke, Stijn Vandenbergh and others. Tom was injured in a recent crash and while I'm sorry for his injury, I'm selfishly bummed he is not racing while I'm in Belgium. Nicknamed Spartacus, another local favourite is Fabian Cancellara, a human piston. In Canadian terms, these cycling stars are Belgium's Crosby, Stamkos, Voracek, Price and Ovechkin. Cancellara is Swiss but the respect he has earned on the cobbles in East and West Flanders gives him honorary citizenship in Flanders; so large is his reputation there is actually a room (a shrine, really) dedicated to him in the Ronde Van Vlaanderen Museum in Oudenaarde. According to the proprietor of my hotel just outside town, Cancellara has the determination and sensibility of a Flandrian. Sadly, he broke two vertebrae last Friday on the cobbles of Flanders (I took the photo below of him - and his custom-painted bicycle - merely two hours before that fateful moment). His 2015 Classics campaign - indeed, most of his season - is thrown into doubt. So it goes in professional road cycling - and on the cobbles. 

What about Canadians in the pro peloton? Until recently, Steve Bauer, the Canadian powerhouse from the 1980s was our most decorated hero. More recently, Victoria's Ryder Hesjedal (yes, Ryder....his name is the Joe Strummer of cycling) won the 2012 Giro de Italia (Tour of Italy), a 3 week stage race many believe is harder to win than the Tour de France. He is the only Canadian to ever win a Grand Tour, a massive feat of skill and endurance that most Tim Hortons drinkers missed, unaware and therefore unable to appreciate its difficulty - and prestige. Langley's Svein Tuft rides for Australia's Orica Greenedge team. A real 'hard man' of the pro peloton, he always finishes even the toughest races. More famous souls will quit when in a 'spot of bother' but Tuft will rarely, if ever, 'abandon'. He is a brilliant time trialist, and if it were not for a flat tire near the finish in 2008, he would have won the World Championship. Still, he took silver. Again, a huge yet all but invisible win for Canada. Other top Canadian pros include Tuft's teammate Christian Meier, French Team Ag2r's Hugo Houle, the bearded guy below - note tiny Canadian flag on the top tube by his right knee (he shook my hand prior to the race 'E3 Harelbeke' upon learning I was from Vancouver), and Team Europcar's Antoine Duchesne. And we cannot leave out the great careers of women pros like Clara Hughes and the Canadian legend Alyson Sydor, as we focus on up and comers like Leah Kirchmann and Joelle Numainville. Unfortunately, like the men their herculean efforts are rarely, if ever, celebrated in Canadian media. Which takes me back to why I came to Belgium.

The culture around cycling here runs very deep. It was wonderful to witness one woman, easily in her late '60', all geared out in her rain booties, logo'd jersey, tights, shorts and arm warmers, riding a very light and very expensive road bike tackling the cobbled climbs with her husband and their local club. Until I experienced first hand last week's horrendous weather, cold and wet that no hot shower could thaw, I really had little appreciation of just how dedicated and resilient Belgian cycling fans really are. They will happily suffer for hours in awful weather just to cheer on their favourites who whizz by in a split second and are gone. They then gather in local pubs, cafes and community halls to watch the rest of the race on the big screen, quaffing sponsored beer in branded glasses, debating the merits of such and such rider or team, eyes glued to massive screens. It may be about the teams and cyclists and the media which extols - or eviscerates - them, but it all revolves around the fans, exemplified by the 2 cute Belgians below. They know.

Belgian cycling culture: like their beer, it is strong and impossible to resist.