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.

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