Thursday, September 30, 2010

Liability and medical issues

Liability and medicine are two topics you should know about before going to Belgium. The reasons are quite simple: Belgian laws are diametrically opposed to American laws in these matters. For more on seeing doctors and visiting hospitals check here.

The whole concept of liability is interpreted quite differently in Europe. Whereas Americans appear to treat everyone as ignorant and uneducated, Europeans tend to view people as rational and aware individuals. When you buy a product or service in Europe, the onus is on you to know how to use it properly, to know what can go wrong with it if you use it incorrectly, how it can harm you or others, etc. etc.

Essentially you have to be informed. Much like you can't say you did not know something was against the law in America, you can't say you did not know the object or service could harm you in this or that way in Europe. It is your responsibility to check out the object or service beforehand, to read up and learn about it, to make sure it meets your needs, and to be aware of its pitfalls and dangers, including those that are not obvious. Additionally all the risk in using the object or the service is yours.

It is your responsibility to know you are fit for bike racing and to know all the dangers you are exposing yourself to when racing. Belgian racers need a yearly medical checkup to get their license. As a foreigner it is up to you to decide what you need or want. By entering a race, you are assuming all the risks associated with racing, even those risks that you may not know about.

The immediate corollary is that most items come without tons of warning labels and self-evident instructions, and most activities can be enjoyed without filling out 50+ pages of paperwork. The additional advantage is that most services are a whole lot cheaper too since nobody has to take out millions of dollars worth of liability insurance.

When you send your 15 yr old to Belgium to race, he or she will be able to enter any race by just showing their license, permission letter and kalenderkaart. All they will have to do is pay the fee and sign their name. Nobody else has to sign anything and there are no forms to fill out either. There are no liability forms, medical permission forms, or any other forms. No adults need to be present and usually none are other than the officials.

The drawback -if you can call it that- is that you won't be able to sue if something goes wrong, and if you do sue and your lawsuit does not get thrown out, your chances of winning are virtually non-existent. Furthermore, even if you were to somehow miraculously win your suit, your compensation will be hardly worth the effort you put in. Pain and suffering is not part of it, and neither are punitive damages. All payments for medical bills will be severely capped.

The same applies to medical malpractice. Malpractice suits are almost unheard of in Belgium. While you may be able to get your cleaning bill paid when your doctor spills blood over your new jacket, taking that same doctor to court for mistreating you is a loosing proposition. Your chances for success are less than your chances of winning the California lottery.

That said, medical care is every bit as good in Belgium as it is in the US. And a whole lot cheaper too. That much I can vouch for as a knowledgeable party.

There is one other medical twist that you need to be aware of before going or sending your kid. In Belgium, trained personnel must attend to medical emergencies. If they don't they can lose their license and cases like that do happen. If a doctor or nurse witnesses an accident, they must intervene. There is no "consent to treat" here. You will be treated and nobody will be able to turn you away for any reason. Nobody will be able to intervene and stop them either.

Not surprisingly, first responders are covered by blanket good Samaritan laws. Whatever anyone does to help you in an emergency -as long as there is no foul play- is protected from liability, even if the first responders make a mistake. While this may sound draconian, all in all it is tremendously beneficial for everyone involved.

Note that many US healthcare policies won't pay for charges incurred outside the service area, let alone in Europe. Always make sure you have emergency medical coverage when traveling abroad. You enjoy some coverage through USA cycling and your racing license but it is always wise to make sure this insurance will meet your needs, and to buy additional insurance if necessary.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A closer look at the calendar

The race calendar can be found under

When you look at the calendar on the website of the Wielerbond Vlaanderen you will notice that races are listed by date in a particular format. It is worth learning to decipher that format.

The races are listed by date. Unlike the US, date format in Europe is day/month/year.
Within dates the races are listed alphabetically by title (eg. RONDE VAN VLAANDEREN). When there is no official title, the name of the city or town where the race is being held is listed. So for instance you may find that on August 1, 2010 the following races took place:
...(etc. etc.)
The above titles are all names of municipalities (city, town or village). In paratheses you find additional information (town subdivision, parish, etc.) or special type labels (P.K. Provinciaal kampioenschap -provincial championship, B.K. Belgian championship, etc.).

Next you see the labels "OO" or "GO." OO means Open Omloop, or open course, whereas GO means Gesloten Omloop or closed course.
OO races are not completely closed to traffic. Rather, a rolling closure is used. What that means is that dropped riders will most likely be pulled by the police when the gap grows to greater than 3 minutes. In a GO race, all competitors can usually stay in the race to the end.

Underneath you find a three letter UCI code (eg. 1.14.3 for BALEN). The code works as follows:
x.y.z, where x designates whether the race is a one day race (1) or a multi-day stage race (2). (The race in BALEN is a one day event as evidenced by the 1.y.z)

y is the category. Nieuwelingen are 17, women elites 15, juniores 14, Elites without contract and U23 are 12. Other designations are common and may refer to category, eg. GENTL, which means gentlemen, or type, eg. MB means mountain bike, etc. UCI designations such as MJ meaning men junior and ME, or men elite are also commonly used.

z is the competitive level. 3 means an individual (not a team) race. 1 is the highest level (except for things like TOP which means top competition, or HC, which means hors categorie or out of category).

So the race in BALEN is a 1.14.3 or an individual race for juniors. Many such races are held at the time of the village festival, known as a "kermis" in Dutch or "kermesse" in French. Most US riders call these races kermesses but the kermesse is the festival. The race is a kermiskoers or course de kermesse. Not all x.y.3s are kermiskoersen.

Note that as a rule, there will only be one race, for one category at any one location on a given day. BALEN or any other city may well have a nieuwelingen race (1.17.3), a juniors race (1.14.3) and even a pro race for its "kermis" but these events will be held on different days.

The race in DENDERWINDEKE is a 1.17 TOP or a race for nieuwelingen at the TOP competition level. The actual UCI code for that race is NAT or National Calendar. That race is not open to individuals. Only members of a team can compete.

In general, visitors can enter any race that has a x.y.3 designation, provided they are members of the "y" category. So nieuwelingen with a UCI license, a permission letter and a kalenderkaart can enter any 1.17.3 race.

There is no need to call in advance to race. All you do is show up and pay the EUR3 (plus a refundable EUR5 for the race number) and you are set.

To find out where and when you need to do that, you click on the race title or the ">" mark and find out the "technische gegevens" or technical info.
Let's check out the Technical info for the BALEN race.

It reads:
84,5 km-447 EUR - I: Feesttent, Steegsebaan, 2490 Balen -U: 13:30/14:45/15:00 - Contact: Andre Van de Weyer, St. Rochusstraat 26, 2490 Balen (Tel: 0473 97 26 96) -Extra info: 13 ronden van 6,500 km.

What that means is:
84.5 km total distance (note that Belgians use a comma instead of a period)
447 EUR that is the total prize money
I means inschrijving or registration. It is held at the Feesttent or festival tent and the tent is located on the Steegsebaan in Balen. 2490 is the zip code.

Although the street address may sound confusing, remember that races are almost always held in the center of town where everyone can watch them. The Feesttent in Balen will be very easy to find. It is meant to be found and is used for other kermis events such as dinners, dancing, and maybe even a performance. Everyone in Balen will know where the Feesttent is.

Registration will open at 13:30, staging will be at 14:45 and the race will start at 15:00 or 3PM. Note the use of a 24 hr clock (aka military time in the US).

The contact person is listed with their address and phone number. The number is a cell phone (starting with a zero plus a three digit area code that starts with a 4). You can call Andre -who probably speaks fluent English, but there is almost never any need to. If you just show up with your paperwork and your money, you will be allowed to race. You won't have to fill out any complex forms and you don't even need to bring your parents. Any 15 yr old can go into the bar (yes registration is usually in a bar or a feesttent, which is a temporary bar) and nobody will be upset when the young racers enter that bar.

The extra info says the race will be 13 laps (ronde) of 6.5 kms each.

After the race, you are asked to return your number. You will also get your prize money -often 20 deep- and if you happen to finish in the top three, you are kindly asked to stick around for the festivities. The latter is not to be taken lightly and if you bail, you will be blacklisted.

Results will be on the web within hours after the race. Furthermore, they will likely be correct too.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Junioren (juniors)

The Dutch word for junior is "junior." The plural is "junioren" or "juniores."

Competition gets a lot harder once a youth reaches the junior categories. If you visit Belgium for the first time as a junior, expect some very hard racing.

Not surprisingly, this is the time when many decide to leave competitive cycling. The reasons are severalfold.

First, individual differences due to the onset and time course of puberty are disappearing.

Second, most riders know how to ride in big packs now and their bike handling skills are no longer an obstacle to success. European riders have also learned to ride as a team and individual riders know how to use the car caravan to get back into the race after a flat or mishap.

Third, because the fields are more homogenous, nearly everyone who is committed has to train hard and does so.

And finally, a lot of distractions (girlfriends, parties, cars, etc.) become more easily accessible and those who are less serious quickly abandon the sport.

In short, European juniors mean business!

Like nieuwelingen, juniores are subject to restrictions such as gearing (7.93 m is the max, or a 52X14), maximum distance (regional events: 100 Km; national events: 120 Km; international events: 140 Km) and number of events. The distances are more restricted for the first three weekends of competition (80 Km and 90 Km for IC events). Juniors can take part in a maximum of 4 events per week, three of which can be in the same discipline.

The overall limit for juniors is 60 competitions per year, with a maximum of 50 in the same discipline. Juniors may enter a maximum of six stage races per calendar year. A stage race counts as one race, but no competition is allowed the day before and four days after the stage race.

Juniors are allowed to use disk wheels in time trials and individual time trials are common in stage races.

Monday, September 27, 2010


15-16 yr olds are called "nieuwelingen." The word "nieuw" means "new" and nieuwelingen are novices or new riders. The category is further divided up into "1ste jaars" and "2de jaars" or first year and second year novices. These categories ride together in most races but there are separate provincial and national titles for first and second year riders. There is a Belgian champion for the first years (who wears a white jersey with a Belgian tricolor) and the second years (who wears the more traditional light blue jersey with the tricolor).

Nieuwelingen are subject to many restrictions. First is the gearing: they need to ride a gear smaller than 6.94 m (or equivalent to a 52X16) on the road, track and for cyclocross. There are no gear restrictions for mountain bike or BMX. Although Shimano makes cassettes that start with a 16 cog, most riders uses spacers and a derailleur adjustment instead. A derailleur adjustment alone is not allowed.
What most racers do: put two spacers in and make it an 8 speed

A 16 cog on the inside won't fit in many newer carbon frames, so the spacers are an easier solution overall. Gear checks are common for stage races and interclub (IC) races, but far less so for regular events, often called kermesses by US riders -although not all are kermesse races.

Nieuwelingen are also restricted to races no longer than 60 km for the first three weekends of the season and 70 km thereafter. For IC races the max is 80 km. Cyclocross events are limited to 30 minutes max. Mountainbike events are limited to 1h15 minutes.

Nieuwelingen are allowed a maximum of three races per week, with a maximum of two in the same discipline (road, track, cyclocross, mountain or BMX). The road season starts on Feb 1 and lasts until mid October. Track is year round. Cyclocross starts on Sept 1 and runs until March 1. Mountainbike and BMX are year round, but mountainbike is mostly a summer sport in Belgium.

All weeks start on Mondays and end on Sundays.

The kalenderkaart is used to keep track of the number of races. Belgian riders have a race-log instead. The kalenderkaart has 3 spots per week to allow for official entries. Each time you race the official will fill out a box.

Stage races (rittenkoers) are counted as one race, but one is only allowed to compete in three events per calendar year. Nieuwelingen also can't compete the day before and up to four days after a stage race.

Nieuwelingen cannot ride disk wheels in time trials. They need to ride wheels with a minimum of 16 spokes per wheel.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

What you need

To race in Belgium as an American cyclist you need at least 2 things besides your bike:

1. A UCI, so-called "international" license. You can get this license on the USA Cycling website for $150. If you plan to race in America and go abroad, just get a UCI license. You can race state-side with it too. I noticed earlier this year that when you order a UCI license and you already have a regular license, USA Cycling will deduct the price of the regular license. I was a bit surprised when that happened because I had been told you better order the UCI license so as to avoid paying twice. In either case, it never hurts to order a UCI license.

2. A foreign permission letter. This letter can be ordered at the same time as the UCI license and only costs an additional $5. It basically states that you are a rider in good standing and will be visiting the foreign country. It also states that you are allowed to affiliate with any team when doing so. You will need the letter to enter a race although I also noticed that not all races ask for it.

These are important documents so it is helpful to make copies and keep these in a different spot. In a pinch, a copy may do the job so keep one around.

If you are under 19 yrs of age (racing age) you also need another document. This document is called a "kalenderkaart" and you need to order it from the KBWB. You can use the web to do so, it is under "formulieren" (forms).

The kalenderkaart is used to keep track of all the races you do. The reason you need it is that racing for youths is subject to restrictions. I will discuss this later.

The kalenderkaart costs EUR12 and you won't be able to race without it. Although it is easy to order on the web, getting the money wired can be a problem. Be especially aware of outrageous bank fees or delays.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Flanders: critical mass

I am always surprised how far Americans will travel to race their bikes. Granted we live in a big country and in the West in particular, the distances between population centers are huge. Even so, it is remarkable that amateur racers living in the Bay Area think nothing of going to Phoenix to race and have their kids race in Valley of the Sun; or driving to LA to have those same kids ride the track at ADT.

These treks are in stark contrast to the disinclination many feel towards European travel, especially when it comes to racing. Bike and wine vacations in France and Italy may be popular with adults, but the idea of sending the kids to Belgium to race appears frightening to most.

Just recently I talked to a family who had spent almost $5,000 to go to Quebec so their junior could race in Tour de l'Abitibi. The unhappy youth had crashed on the first stage and the family was forced to return home after that. The end result was much money spent for no racing. Yet the idea of going to Belgium sounded outlandish and expensive to them.

I think it is time to set the record straight. Belgium is a very safe country and 16yr olds come and go everywhere and anywhere they please. Unlike American kids who are chauffeured around and escorted, Belgian kids freely ride on their bikes unescorted, even at night.

While there are occasional incidents of fighting, especially at nightclubs and parties, the level of violent crime in Belgium is way below that of an average American city. Nearly all of Belgium is a perfectly safe place for a teen to wander around.

Secondly, when it comes to money spent, $5,000 will easily get you a very rewarding month-long stay with plenty of races and more competition than you will see in a decade in America. If you happen to be unlucky and crash in one race, there will be plenty of others within riding distance where you can try again. The reason for that is simple. It is called critical mass.

Just like you should think twice about taking a high tech job in the Midwest, or an acting gig in the Deep South, or a movie enterprise on the High Plains, you need to sit down and reflect about racing anywhere in America (except close to home).

It is not that there aren't any good business people in the Midwest, or artistic talent in the Deep South or promising directors born on the High Plains. Talent, like other human attributes is widely distributed and can indeed be found anywhere. But for talent to thrive and to mature, a critical mass is needed.

Critical mass is the secret behind Silicon Valley, Broadway and Hollywood. And the same applies to bike racing and Flanders. Critical mass means you won't be stuck when your original plans fall short. In Silicon Valley, when your start-up fails, all you have to do is walk across the street and you'll have another job. Good luck trying that anywhere else in the country.

The same applies to racing in Belgium. There are so many races within such a small area, that no matter what happens, you will always be able to find what you are looking for and more. If you manage to get to Belgium in good health with your bike, you will be able to race without spending hardly any additional money. That is true anywhere in Flanders, from March to October. No matter what age group you are in, you will find more races than you can possibly enter, and you will find more competition than you can possibly handle.

And that is why you should consider Belgium before you board that next flight that will take you to some small race, in the middle of nowhere, at the crack of dawn. Why not race in a big race, with plenty of spectators, in the center of town, at a reasonable hour instead?

Do what so many other people from the Netherlands, France, Israel, Britain, and other countries do. Go to Flanders and race where racing is king.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Racing in Flanders Belgium continued

Belgium is a very small country. It is approximately the size of Maryland. Unlike what most may think, Belgium is a very young country. It was formed in 1830 by the British. That means it is younger than the US. Belgium is formally a kingdom -another gift from Britain- although it is a parliamentary democracy.

Belgium has two population groups that did not always share the same history. These groups also speak different languages. The Flemish live in the Northern and Western half of the country. They speak a dialect of Dutch, called Flemish. Flemish and Dutch are like British English and American English. They are one and the same language, pronounced differently and using different words for some situations.

The Southern and Eastern part of Belgium is called Wallonia. The Walloons speak French, albeit with a distinct dialect that is in many ways similar to that of Alsace region. In the far Eastern part of Belgium, there are two German speaking communities that were annexed after World War I (Eupen-Malmedy) and have remained part of the country since. Because of that Belgium is tri-lingual with three official languages: Dutch, French and German.

The capital of Belgium is Brussels and it lies well within the Flemish region. Even so, most people in Brussels speak French and Brussels often aligns itself with the French speaking region of Wallonia. Technically Brussels is bi-lingual but often the capital (and other regions) chooses English to avoid the hassle of using two languages or appearing to favor one over the other --with all the associated political issues.

Recently, Belgium has become a federal state with three semi-autonomous regions. The regions are Flanders (Vlaanderen), Wallonia, and Brussels. No, the German community is not semi-autonomous.

Cycling in Belgium is controlled by the Koninklijke Belgische Wielrijdersbond (K.B.W.B.) aka the Royale Ligue Velocipedique Belge (R.L.V.B.), a non-profit organization. To avoid confusion or partisan politics the website is at KBWB is a member of the UCI, the UEC and the BOIC. KBWB is where you want to be for forms. Fortunately, most of the information here is in English and the relevant personnel is fluent in English. KBWB is located in the Brussels suburb of Vorst/Forest.

KBWB has two daughter organizations, called Wielerbond Vlaanderen (WBV) and Federation Cycliste Wallonie-Bruxelles (FCWB). Both have websites with calendars that list competitions and results. Even a cursory look at both sites and their calendars will convince anyone that all the action is in Flanders.

WBV has recently revamped its website, The older site, is still around and has some very useful features that are absent at the newer site. The relevant info on the WBV website is under competitie (competition).

Racing in Flanders has several disciplines: road (weg), track (piste or baan), cyclocross, mountainbike, bmx, and indoor, which includes such things as cyclo-bal (cycle dance) and kunstwielrijden (or artistic cycling).

By and large Belgian and Flemish cycling follow UCI rules. The rulebooks are on the website and comprise several chapters, but unfortunately English versions are not available. One thing to note is that USA cycling -for the most part- is organized quite differently and does not adhere to UCI rules.

There is no equivalent to racing categories ("cat racing" as it is affectionately called) in Belgium. Furthermore, youths are only allowed to race with their age-grouped peers. They cannot enter (the non-existent) "Cat" races or race with adults.

While everyone ages 10-18 is called a "junior" in the US, UCI rules stipulate that juniors are 17-18 yr olds. Other age groups have different designations (and rules). The youngest UCI group is the junior group. All racing prior to age 18 is governed by local rules. To race in Belgium as a foreigner you need to be 15 years or older.

18 yrs and younger groups have restrictions with respect to how often they can race, how far they can race, and what type of gears they can use to race.

In Belgium the following labels apply:
8-11 yrs miniemen
12-14 aspiranten
15-16 nieuwelingen (novices)
17-18 juniores
19-23 beloften/espoirs (sometimes also called U23)
23 and up Elite, except that anyone 19 and older with a pro contract is also an Elite.
Elite z/c (zonder contract) are amateurs.
All ages listed are "racing age," i.e. the age your reach on Dec 31. of the calendar year.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Racing in Flanders Belgium

I will post some information on racing in Belgium for juniors starting next week. Most American juniors dream of racing in Europe but think it is impossible to do unless one is a pro or part of the National Team. They believe one has to be selected by the National Federation -in this case USA Cycling- in order to be allowed to race in Europe. Others are aware of alternatives but think racing in Europe is restricted to the adventurous few. They believe it is really difficult to arrange or horrendously expensive to do.

In my opinion, cost may be an issue for some but ignorance is the main culprit. Most Americans spend far more money driving to races in America than they would for a comparable period of stay in Belgium. When it comes to cost, Belgium is a bargain. So why are people holding back?

Parents simply do not know how to go about organizing a trip to Europe for racers. They don't know where to go or what needs to be done. Even parents who are familiar with the American racing scene are baffled when faced with the logistics; to say nothing of European rules and regulations.

Language is another barrier. Americans do not speak foreign languages and they find it hard to communicate with foreigners. The problem becomes much more acute when they aren't simply traveling for fun, but are instead trying to obtain permission or make practical arrangements.

All of this can be remedied quite easily and that is my main objective here. Make it easy for people to find out what Euro-cycling is all about and how one goes about doing it.

I will be focusing on Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium because, when it comes to cycling, that is where the action is. Although many Americans think Italy or France are key countries when it comes to bicycle racing, the truth is that Belgium, and especially the Flemish region of Belgium stands head and shoulders above any other country or region.

If you dream of bicycle racing in Europe, Flanders is the place to be. Nothing even comes close. Lance Armstrong may well have lived in Girona, Spain or Nice, France, and those places are indeed ideal if you want to avoid jet-lag during the season and like nice weather for training rides, but when it comes to racing, Flanders is the center of the universe and Girona and Nice are places you want to avoid.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Long summer

It's been quite a while since I posted something on this blog. Unfortunately it is not because nothing happened. Quite to the contrary, I had a very eventful and exciting summer. I think I simply needed a break and some time away from blogging. Call it a long vacation.

Here is what happened since the end of June and Nationals in Bend. We had our house broken into while we were away and computers stolen, but overall the damage was pretty limited. Some bike stuff was stolen too, don't ask me why. Maybe because it was easy to grab and looked expensive? In any case, the damage was limited and from the looks of it, it appears the thieves were in here for less than 10 minutes. Most of the damage was to the front entryway where they made a mess prying open the door.

Over the summer I coached a group of 18 riders who are raising funds for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF). I organized several rides in different locations and rode with beginners, intermediates and advanced riders, most of whom were getting ready to ride 72 miles around Tahoe in September. The JDRF ride was part of a larger ride, known as Tour de Tahoe or Big Blue. Not all riders went there and there were others who will ride the Death Valley and Tucson rides later in the year. The Tucson ride is part of the El Tour de Tucson.

In August, I went to Belgium with Alistair and a fellow junior Kyle Torres. We had a great time and did lots of sightseeing, lots of riding and (the kids) lots of racing. For the first time I drove a team car in a large caravan of follow vehicles. It was a very exciting experience that I won't soon forget.

Alistair and Kyle with Team Rosen Meents

Overall the trip was a huge success and it motivated me to try and do it again next year. I think I can offer coaching and trips to Belgium for junior riders of all ages (nieuwelingen: 15-16, juniores: 17-18, and beloften (U23). I am working with some folks in Belgium to get things ready for next summer so if you are interested stay tuned. Hopefully we can offer something special that makes a difference to folks.

Since we got back from Belgium at the end of August I have been taking it easy. I completed the Tahoe ride on September 12, adding an extra 8 miles looping back and forth to make sure people were OK. Overall it was great fun but I think Tahoe would be so much better without all the traffic and the aggressive driving. It is a beautiful place for sure, but much of that beauty is now gone, covered in concrete and hugely oversized mac-mansions.