Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween

The colors work too. Want to know why I choose these? Read after the race, belgian beer.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

What else is happening?

I have been focused on racing in Belgium over the past month so you may wonder what else is happening? I no longer use this blog to keep track of my workouts because it was simply too complicated to keep all the different sites updated. I did not give up training though -except for swimming which I no longer do on a regular basis- and I am happy to announce that I am planning some major event in the near future.

I have my sights set on a 50 mile ultramarathon. Just recently I ran another 100k week, only the second time I have done so. Earlier I ran my 100 on a treadmill, but this time around I ran outside in the hills. That means a very hilly one hundred kilometers! I also ran it over six days at a rate of 10.5 miles a day. All went well and I suffered no injuries.

I had planned to run 12 hours in the San Francisco One Day event on October 23, but a severe weather warning kept me back. Turns out to have been a good call. The weather was miserable and the event was a slog for all participants. I would not have minded the rain, but I did not want to run my first ultra in the rain. Too many other variables to consider.

TeamCindy has also been doing well and BAF just announced they have several slots for key events in 2011. They have five for Escape from Alcatraz, five for IM Lake Placid, five for the Nation's triathlon and five for the London Tri. Quite a step up from our very first solo adventure at IM Arizona! Unfortunately I do not think I will participate in any of the events as I plan to spend much of the 2011 season in Belgium for racing. While there I hope to spend a bit more time exploring the bierkroegen.

I will continue my series on things to know about Belgium and racing in Belgium next week. Stay tuned. Also, if you have a minute give me some feedback on what topics you would like me to cover. Thanks for reading.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Belgium racing series: an index

I think it is time to bring some order to my posts about Belgium and bike racing in Belgium. So far I have posted 32 articles about Belgium, life in Belgium, how to get there, local customs, and what bike racing in Belgium is like. Here is an overview of those posts:

If you wonder why so many people dream of racing in Europe but never seem to be able to get there, read
Racing in Flanders, and Racing in Flanders continued Racing in Flanders: critical mass, explains why you really should go to Flanders if you want to experience bike racing, especially when you are a junior.  Junior racing in the US tells you why racing here is different and how it can be changed.

It is not hard to organize a trip to Belgium. What you need tells you about the license and documents you need and where to get them. Traveling to Belgium for bike racing explains how to get there, how to ship your bike and what items to pack. Where to stay looks at what cities and regions are best for cycling, and How to get around tells you all you need to know about public transportation and car rentals. I discuss cyclist housing in Belgium as well.

A closer look at the calendar teaches you how to read the WBV calendar on the web, while Liability and medical issues tells you what you should know in case a problem develops.

If you want to know about Belgian laws, habits or understand why some things are different, read Riding a bike in FlandersBelgian cuisine, Shopping or Ordering drinks. These are based on real life experiences of Americans visiting Belgium. They can save you a lot of headache and avoid nasty surprises.

For the better things in life, check out Belgium: haute cuisine, Belgian Beer, More on Beer, and Belgian Cartoons. I will post on chocolate soon.

Enjoy reading.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

More on beer: de bierkroeg

For my personal take on Belgian brews see, after the race: Belgian Beer. Here I want to focus a bit more on where you get the liquid gold. As I mentioned in my earlier post, most traditional Belgian beers are rather delicate and don't travel well. They need to be taken care of and such special care can only be provided in special places. If you wanted to skip the bars altogether and buy beer to consume at home, be advised that local brews are also hard to find. You could easily visit a dozen grocery stores (beer is sold in grocery stores in most places) and never see one. Even specialty liquor stores may not have them, focusing on wine and spirits instead.

Your average neighborhood bar, called a cafe in Belgium will only have a limited selection of beers. Furthermore, they may not be very brand conscious and just serve you what they think is a regular beer, or a more fancy upscale beer, or even a Trappist, regardless of what and how you order it. Truth be told, with the large influx of tourists, most places in bigger cities and tourist hangouts will usually ask you if a substitute beer is OK. But it is not like you will have much choice.

Fortunately you can get a decent Duvel anywhere in Belgium. That is another reason why I like this beer so much. You don't have to go out of your way to get it.

Contrary to what you might think, tourist hangouts are to be avoided. If you want to go there, go there for the sights and sounds, but don't expect the really good stuff. Also expect to pay through the nose for whatever it is you order. Some places, like the Markt in Brugge simply focus on charging the highest price for whatever item, while others, like the Markt/Grand Place in Brussels, seem to specialize in serving odd looking contraptions that make foreigners pause. One such contraption is Kwak, a fairly decent brew that comes in a special glass that attracts tourists like honey attracts bears.

While tourist hangouts may serve Lambic, Kriek, Cassis, and Peche, all of it will be artificially sweetened stuff -usually from Lindemans. Not that that is necessarily bad, and I too enjoy a Kriek after riding up the Kapelmuur in Geraardsbergen, even if it isn't the real thing. The exhaustion and the setting take care of that and any Kriek I have had in Geraardsbergen has tasted as good or better than the real thing.

When riding remember to visit the Cafe of the Ronde Centrum in Oudenaarde after your ride and taste the Flandrien on tap. The Ronde Centrum is an ideal spot to start and end all your rides because all the major tourist routes originate and end here. Here you can access the blue loop, the green loop and the orange loop I mentioned before. You can also take a shower and use the facilities before indulging in some local brews. The cafes on the Markt in Oudenaarde are more scenic, but the Flandrien is a beer worth trying and you can only find it here. Plus you can buy the glass with the bicycle wheel on it.

That said, to drink the real thing, go visit a bierkroeg or streekbiercafe. Some are easy to find and easy to get to. That is the case with Herberg De Dulle Griet on the Vrijdagmarkt in Gent or the nearby De Trollekelder by St. Jacob's church. Also in Gent you can find good food and excellent drink at Brasserie Deus in de Vlaanderenstraat.

Cafe de la Paix on the Grote Markt in  Poperinge has a great selection of both speciality and regional beers but you will probably want to drive there. As the Michelin guide would say, it is well worth the detour. On sunny days there is a nice outdoor area where you can sit and watch the townspeople go about their business.

In Bruges, your best bet is 't Brugs Beertje in the Kemelstraat. That is easily accessible and close to the underground parking 't Zilverpand.

There are many excellent bierkroegen in and around Antwerp and Brussels but to go there you will probably need a car. If you go in summer and race the kermis races of Hoeleden-Dries near Leuven, be sure to make a slight detour and visit the town and brewery of Hoegaarden. You should also go by Leuven. Leuven is a wonderful town with beautiful buildings and if you have time to spare you can visit the Stella brewery there.

Finally a tour of the Lambic area in the Zenne/Senne valley, Southwest of Brussels is a must for the true connoisseur.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

My favorite climbs (in the Ronde)

The Ronde website lists 59 hellingen (slopes or climbs) that have appeared in the Ronde throughout its history. Fifteen were part of the 2010 edition. Nine of those were cobbles, the rest are asphalt or concrete. Apart from cobbled climbs the Ronde also features flat stretches of cobbles. For a review of those, see my favorite cobbles.

Most climbs are called berg. The word berg means mountain in Dutch but fear not. None of these are mountains and none of the climbs are longer than 3 Km (1.8 mi). Although short, most of these climbs are very steep and you are advised to ride a small gear. The cobbled ones are even more tricky and can be very slippery. Good mountain bike technique with adequate pressure on the back wheel is needed for a successful ascent of a cobbled climb.

The longest climb in Flanders is the Hotond or Hoogberg, near Ronse at 105 m/344 ft (total height 159 m). All of it is alongside major roads. The nearby Knokteberg aka Cote de Trieu, situated near the language border, is a much more scenic climb on a smaller asphalt road starting in Russeignies. It climbs 92 m /301 ft over 1,260 m or three quarters of a mile.

Most die-hard cyclists have heard of the Oude Kwaremont, the Paterberg, the Muur/Kapelmuur and the infamous Koppenberg so I won't review these here. Instead I will focus on some other fun climbs that are easily accessible from Oudenaarde or nearby locations.

The infamous Koppenberg. Don't worry it looks much better now!!

One of my all-time favorite climbs is Nokereberg, a cobbled quarter mile (350 m) climb through the center of Nokere, a part of Kruishoutem. It is famous because of Nokere Koerse and other races that end here. The average grade is 5% and the road climbs 20 m or 66 ft. It is part of the blue loop (blauwe lus).

For something a bit more challenging, try Tiegemberg  aka Vossenhol, a stretch that has been in the Ronde 20 times. It is a shaded, asphalt climb that is 750 m long and climbs 42 m/ 138 ft. The grade is 5% with a maximum of 9%.  It is not part of any tourist route but easy enough to find when you head for Tiegem. It is a favorite with the local bike clubs.

Very close to Oudenaarde is Edelareberg, a road that has been featured 33 times and climbs 64 m over a nearly mile (1,525 m). It is an asphalt climb located in Edelare, a sub-municipality of Oudenaarde. From there you can go to Volkegemberg, another asphalt climb with 200 m of cobbles near the top, that climbs 54 m over 1 km. Also in Volkegem is the Wolvenberg, a half a mile short but very steep (max 17%) stretch that climbs 41 m/135 ft.

In favorite cobbles I mentioned the Steenbeekdries, a 700 m climb that comes right after the Mariaborrestraat located in Maarkedal, just south of Edelare. If you like punishment, you can ride a loop over the Oude Kwaremont, the Paterberg, the Koppenberg and the Steenbeekdries. You can ease into this by starting from Oudenaarde, going South along the river ("the canal")  to Berchem. There you leave the canal route and climb through the village and follow the Ronde signs up to the village of Kwaremont.

Oude Kwaremont

If you go up the main road, you are climbing the Nieuwe (new) Kwaremont, a wide asphalt road that climbs 106 m/ 348 ft over a distance of 2,550 m or 1.5 miles. It has been in the Ronde 53 times. If you follow the orange loop signs and go left before going south, you can climb the Oude (old) Kwaremont, a cobbled climb of 89 m/ 292 ft over the same distance. Although more famous, this climb has only been part of the Ronde 37 times.  Both roads join up near the top. From here you can go down a bit and then left and find the road to the Paterberg. Or continue on and climb the Hotond / Hoogberg.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Befuddled and perplexed: ordering drinks

No free water
No simple act is more confusing to Americans than ordering drinks in Belgium. Here is where subtle cultural differences that go largely unnoticed in other areas of life can hit you squarely in the face and they do so when least expect it. Let's start with some ground rules to clarify the situation.

Unlike much of the Western United States, Belgium has a wet temperate climate. There is no imminent danger of dehydration here. Nobody feels the need to walk around with fluids or drink while walking and doing so is generally frowned upon. The only people that walk around with drinks are tourists or teens trying to imitate them. Eating or drinking while walking is not cool.

Nobody needs cup holders in their car or even likes the idea of you bringing drinks into their car. This is not a country where you order drinks for take out. If you want to have a drink you go to a cafe, sit down and order something. Unless you are a child, a woman, or an athlete, you don't order sodas or water either. You drink beer, even at McDonalds.

Here is rule number two: nothing you order, or ask for, or do, in a cafe, bar or restaurant is free, not even going to the bathroom. People expect you to pay for everything. So don't ask for water or inquire about refills. Also, do not expect drinks to come in large sizes or in glasses filled with ice. To the average Belgian, ice is frozen tap water and diluting a drink you pay for with tap water is cheating. Unless you are at a festival or fair, all drinks will be served in a glass and drinking from the bottle is uncouth.

Traditional places won't serve ice cold drinks either. There is a strong belief that cooling drinks excessively masks the taste and is just another way to deceive the customer. The ideal temperature for beer is cellar-cool. That is a bit hotter than the average refrigerator.

In general, Belgians do not order water to drink. You can do so in an expensive restaurant along with your wine, or late at night, when you had too much to drink, but it is not customary otherwise. If you ask for water, the waiter is likely to ask you whether you want plat (non-carbonated) water or spuit (carbonated) water. The water will most likely come in a small bottle (25 cl) that is as expensive as any other drink on the menu. If you ask for ice, you may get one or two smallish cubes.

When it comes to regular drinks -which includes everything but expensive wine and beer, and then  only in specialized places-, Belgians are not brand conscious and you will get served whatever the establishment serves. When you order a cola, or a Coke or a Pepsi, you will get whatever cola drink the cafe or restaurant serves. Belgian cafes and restaurants have business deals with their distributers and it is the distributers who decide what is available. Nobody will ask you to specify your choice, or inform you that your favorite brand is not available. It simply does not occur to them that you could be brand conscious. Nobody will say "Pepsi or Coke?" or ask you if Pepsi is fine when you order a Coke.

The same applies to beer unless you go to a cafe that specializes in beer varieties. At your local cafe you can order generically (een pintje--a beer) or by specifying a brand, say a Stella, but you will get whatever it is they have. The same applies to more upscale brands such as Tuborg. You can order a Tuborg, but you are about as likely to get a Carlsberg or a Becks or any other brand the cafe considers more upscale. Een spa-tje, named after the city of Spa, is generic for (carbonated) water.
In Belgium, SPA is generic for carbonated water

One thing that really throws foreigners for a loop is when they order a Scotch. In most cafes Scotch will mean Scotch Ale and not wisky although most catch the error before the drink arrives. Belgian cafes are not used to serving hard alcohol since it was only recently made legal.
Scotch, Belgian style

As a rule, Belgian grocery stores do not have cold drinks ready to go. It used to be impossible to find cold drinks in a grocery store even if the place had in-store refrigerators. The notable exception to this rule is night stores (nachtwinkels).  These usually have a large selection of cooled drinks.

Nearly all Belgian coffee is dark roasted and most is of decent quality. The cheaper brands are bitter but in general the coffee is stronger and more flavorful than in the US. Contrary to popular belief, dark roasts have less caffeine than the light roasts that are popular in much of the US.

The most common way to serve coffee is the so-called filter. Some people just order een filter. When you do so you will get a contraption that includes a cup and a small coffee filter with reservoir on top. It may come already filled or the waiter may pour in boiling water. You wait until the drip stops and enjoy your coffee. A coffee will always come with a small piece of chocolate or a small cookie.

Nearly all other coffee drinks are misnomers and it is always exciting to see what you will get when you  order one. If you want an espresso, order a moka, because espresso (spelled expresso in Belgium) will get you a larger cup that may or may not be filled with coffee from the espresso machine. A Belgian cappuccino is a large cup of coffee with whipped cream on top.  In France, and some French speaking parts of Belgium ordering a coffee will get you a cafe au lait instead.

Belgians are not tea drinkers. Although nearly every place where you sit down and eat pastries with a drink is called a Tea Room, very few people drink tea. When you order tea, you are most likely going to get a cup of warm water with a lipton tea bag on the side. Some fancy places serve many different herb teas -what the French call infusions- but their selection of real tea is generally quite limited too.

Although Belgium has many unwritten rules, there are lots of exceptions too. The rules on walking around with drinks and food do not apply to tourist hotspots, such as the markt in Brugge, festivals, kermissen, and hence most bike races. Here you can order beer and food to go, although you will generally be served beer in a glass, and be expected not to wander too far so you can return the glass to where you bought the beer. At open air festivals such as the Gentse Feesten, you can wander around all over town drinking beer from the bottle, although most will want a glass even here. You can also order Frieten  (fries) to go. But once again, you are not expected to wander around too far from where you bought them.

Monday, October 25, 2010

After the race: Belgian beer

After the race, a good brew
Like most Belgians I grew up with beer. When I was a kid our family, like so many other Belgian families, drank "table beer" with meals. Table beer for us was a low alcohol version of the local pilsner and it was the drink we had with lunch and dinner (see Belgian cuisine). There were no sodas in our house, although I am sure that as kids my sister and I would have preferred the sugary taste.
Simply the best...

The village I grew up in had two local breweries, and on foggy days the smell of yeast hung in the air. You could ride your bike by the breweries, and apart from the distinctive smell I can remember looking at a dripping pipe that stuck out of the side of the building and hung over where the side-walk ought to have been. It seemed to be oozing beer (or was it pre-beer?) constantly.

The local breweries went out of business before I reached puberty but as a teen I remember that local pilsner on tap was the brew of choice in nearly all cafes. Stella wasn't a big name yet and near Bruges, Maes was a worthy competitor. At my grandparents house they drank Vieux Temps, which I will always remember as vile liquid with a strange aftertaste. But my grandfather seemed to like it. Especially when fortified with genever, the local gin.

At the time, you drank een pintje (a beer) when you were thirsty or when you went out partying. Some older folks preferred a Geuze, and they often poured in grenadine syrup to make it sweet. If you were a bit better off you had a Tuborg or a Carlsberg, or in some places a Becks. None of these are Belgian by the way. If you really wanted to be fancy you drank Trappist or a Pale Ale -which ironically enough was almost always a dark British beer -I later found out these brews were specially fortified versions of British ales made for the Belgian market. Some places had Stout or Guinness.  But in general, dark beers were for winter, and in summer you had a fancy fruity Kriek instead.

Oude Gueuze

A lot has changed since then and for one thing, Belgian beers have become a lot more famous. Belgian beer has always been famous in places like France, where it was hard to find a good beer, or the Netherlands, where Heineken or Grolsch were the local stuff, and Stella was fancy.

Here are a few things you should know about Belgian beer. First, Belgian beers are stronger than beers in any other country. I already mentioned that the British breweries make special fortified versions of their regular brews for the Belgian market. Even regular beers in Belgium are quite a bit stronger than American beers. Second, most authentic Belgian beers are ales or top fermented beers, and all the good ones use secondary fermentation in the bottle. That means they don't travel well and they should not be exposed to excessive temperatures. Third, true Belgian beers are an acquired tasted, even for Belgians. Fourth, Belgium is a country where, unlike Germany, people use anything and everything to make beer. Belgians are also very creative when it comes to beer. As a consequence, Belgium is the land of very good and very bad (very sugary) beer.

Unlike most beer connoisseurs I prefer blond beers and my all time favorite Belgian beer is Duvel. I have gone through more favorite-beer periods than I care to remember, but I find that I always come back to Duvel. It is quite simply, the best beer in the world as far as I am concerned.

The other Belgian beer I really like, and one that is ideal for summer is Hoegaarden, locally -where I come from- known as een Witteke or een Blancheke. 

When it comes to fancy stuff, I could mention Trappist from Westvleteren, but that would only be to make you jealous as the beer is next to impossible to get -unless you want to spend a summer in Belgium and are very resourceful on top of it. Westvleteren is very good, but a large part of its charm is that it is so difficult to get a hold of. I am not a real fan of Trappist but Orval is probably the best one you can actually buy.

For a real taste of Belgium though, try a Geuze Lambic. Lambic is a brew fermented with wild yeast and it is only made in the valley Southwest of Brussels, where atmospheric conditions are right. Geuze is a mixture of lambics, some old and some young that undergo a secondary fermentation in the bottle. Although you can buy Geuze everywhere, finding an authentic brew is hard to do, and the best Geuze does not travel well at all. Cantillon Geuze and Cantillon Kriek are excellent. Also great is Lindemans, Cuvee Renee -not the other stuff, only Cuvee Renee, and 3 Fonteinen Oude Geuze and Kriek.

It looks like Dom Perignon and costs almost as much too!

Geuze is an acquired taste but one that is well worth acquiring. It is a fabulous drink, on par with a great wine. Another exceptional beer is Deus, Brut des Flandres. It is also one of the most expensive beers you can buy. Deus has a label reminiscent of Dom Perignon and some say it tastes like that famous champagne too.

If you want to try some excellent refreshing local brews, try Rodenbach from Roeselare, or Hommelbier from Poperinge. Rodenbach is crisp and sour and it is often put in a category all by itself as a "red" beer. It was one of my grandmother's favorites (along with Guiness and Stout).  Hommel comes from the hop capital of Belgium and it is best when lightly chilled.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

My favorite cobbles

Every race in Belgium has some cobbles, but none are more famous than the kasseistroken (cobblestone sections) in the Ronde van Vlaanderen. The Ronde website identifies 11 stretches that have been featured in the race at various times. Seven were covered in the 2010 edition. The website distinguishes kasseistroken from climbs or hellingen,  although most climbs -and certainly all the well known ones- are cobbled as well. 

Kasseistroken are between 800 m (1/2 mile) and 2,500 m (1.6 miles) in length and all are flat or nearly flat. Nevertheless riding a cobbled section is hard work and requires extra effort. It also requires extra attention and vigilance to avoid flats and other mayhem.

Kasseistroken are invariably on narrow country roads. Some are nearly flat in cross section while others have a distinctive crown or elevation in the middle. When the crown is extreme, the road may pose hazards not just to bikers but also to vehicles and it is not unusual for cars to get badly scraped or even to get stuck on certain sections. Always watch out when you ride or drive on cobbles.

The condition of the various kasseistroken varies. Some are in very poor condition while others are brand new and as smooth as a cobblestone section can get. When conditions deteriorate too much, the race sometimes skips the really bad sections. Such was the case with one of my all time favorite sections, the Huisepontweg in Wannegem. That road was in such bad shape that the Ronde skipped it until it was fixed in July of 2008. It is now as good as any cobblestone road out there.
Huisepontweg and Schietsjampettermolen

The Huisepontweg starts at the church in Wannegem and runs along the crest of a slight rise in the landscape making it a very scenic ride. It is easy to reach from Oudenaarde, either on the well-marked blue loop (blauwe lus) of the Tour of Flanders route or for those who want to go there directly, by taking the Wannegem-Lede exit on the road to Kruishoutem. It is preceded by 500 m of cobbles in Wannegem dorp. Those are as hard to ride as the marked section and a great deal more slippery in the rain.
Huisepontweg before the 08 remodeling

The Huisepontweg has two scenic attractions apart from the spectacular views. It goes by a great historic windmill (see photo) and by Wannegem castle (not a castle really but a 17th century mansion). The latter was just recently sold and is unfortunately no longer visible from the road because the new owner planted tall hedges.

If you follow the Huisepontweg to the Ledekerkweg (essentially turn right at the end of the cobbles--it is a blind turn so be careful) you will get to another famous section, the 1,650 m Doorn section. There are some unmarked cobbles when you course through the center of Lede (by the church) and you should be careful there when it rains because the road is off camber. Then follow the blue signs and hit Doorn. Doorn is a slight downhill section but the contrast with Huisepontweg (in its current state) is shocking.

Doorn is considered a 4/5 when it comes to difficulty. The cobbles are in relatively bad shape and there are many potholes here. You really need to watch out. If you ride Doorn fast you will know immediately  how good your technique is. If at the end of it you don't feel your arms anymore, or if you teeth feel like they are about to fall out of your mouth, you have some extra work to do. But either way Doorn will punish you.

I also like the Mariaborrestraat in Maarkedal/Etikhove, on the Southeast side of Oudenaarde. You can get there by following the road to Ronse and making a left to Maarkedal. This stretch is on the orange loop (oranje lus). It is a long and difficult stretch (4/5) that starts with a slight descent and ends in the climb known as the Steenbeekdries. The cobbles are in good shape but the road is punishing nonetheless. Add the climb at the end and you will get a flavor of what the Tour of Flanders is all about.

Finally there is another section of cobbles that is great fun and one that you can experience first hand as part of a real race. It is not in Tour of Flanders but it is featured prominently in local kermis races. It is the kasteeldreef in Lovendegem. Every year, there are races there in the beginning of August, both for nieuwelingen and juniors. The kasteeldreef is 750 m long (1/2 mile) and in excellent shape. It is flat and there are no potholes worth talking about. But it is a real cobblestone stretch in the good tradition of Flemish racing.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Another Belgian specialty: cartoons

The Tour Circus cartoon story
Apart from chocolates, beer, and fries, Belgium is also the land of the comic strip. There are more comic strips in Belgium than any other country in the world, including Japan. Belgium has been instrumental in putting European comic strips on the map. Many of Europe's most famous comic book authors, like Albert Uderzo, creator of Asterix, learned their craft while working in Belgium.

Some Belgian cartoon characters are famous worldwide, although people often do not know they are of Belgian origin. Tintin has sold so many books that famous French president Charles de Gaulle once said, "My only international rival is Tintin." In 2006, the Dalai Lama honored Tintin and the Herve Foundation for the celebrated adventure Tintin in Tibet. The ceremony was held in Brussels and included another award to bishop Desmond Tutu.
TinTin one of the most famous Belgian cartoon characters

But Tintin is not the only famous character. The Smurfs, little blue fictional characters are also of Belgian origin. They were first introduced in 1958 by Spirou, a competitor to the Tintin magazine. The original cartoon characters in Spirou were Spirou and Fantasio, known in Flanders as Robbedoes. Spirou originally focused on children and young adults and created Lucky Luke, Gaston Lagaffe and other well known cartoons. The Dutch edition ceased publication in 2005.
Robbedoes/Spirou cartoon character

Marcel Neels, known as Marc Sleen, who drew the cartoon seen above is in the Guinness Book of Records for drawing the same strip singlehandedly for over 45 years. His main character known as Nero, after the infamous Roman emperor is one of the best known Belgian cartoon characters. Nero is one of the only anti-heroes in the comic strip world.  From 1947 until 1964, Marc Sleen also drew a daily strip about the Tour de France (Ronde van Frankrijk). Marc Sleen had such a dedicated following that when he changed newspapers in mid-career, thousands of subscribers followed him to the new paper.

One of the key attractions in Brussels is the cartoon museum, known as the Belgian Comic Strip Center. It is located in the Zandstraat/Rue des Sables and opened in 1989. In 2009, a museum dedicated to Marc Sleen opened across the street. Cartoon characters can be found on houses throughout the center of Brussels as seen in this example below:

The Brussels comics walls tour is one of the best ways to explore the center of the city and take in some great Belgian cartoon art. 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Medical care in Belgium

Earlier I posted on liability and medical issues. Here I want to explain how the Belgian medical system works from the point of view of a patient. If you go racing in Belgium, sooner or later you will come in contact with the medical system and it is a good idea to know what to expect before that happens.

You need not worry about the quality of care. It is generally agreed that Belgium has one of the best healthcare systems in the world, and I can personally attest -both as physician and patient- that medical care in Belgium is every bit as good and a whole lot more convenient and less expensive than in the US. As a matter of fact, I try to take care of most non-emergency medical and dental issues my family faces whenever I visit Belgium. You also need not worry about language issues as most medical personnel speaks English fluently.

Contrary to what you might think, healthcare in Belgium is not socialized medicine and both private and state supported care is available. Many Belgians have both. The whole issue is totally transparent to the patient. You go see the doctor, pay your bill and get reimbursed later. Here is a key difference with the US: when you go see a doctor in Belgium, bring cash (not credit cards or checks) and be prepared to pay at the end of your visit. You can inquire about fees beforehand if you like but usually these are very economical and you won't experience sticker shock.

There are two key reasons why healthcare is cheaper in Belgium. One is the absence of what I consider a huge, largely ineffective and super-expensive system of liability and medical malpractice. Malpractice in Belgium is largely unheard of and in most cases limited to physicians refusing to help people when they should have done so. It is not there to dole out huge sums of money for supposedly bad treatment. Yes people make mistakes in Belgium, but these are easy to handle without involving another paid (legal) professional and a hugely expensive legal system. I see it as plain common sense.

The second reason is that the reimbursement system is very streamlined and doctors do not need clerical help or office staff to run their practice. Some have staff but most don't.

When I worked as a general practitioner in Belgium, I rarely spent more than fifteen minutes a day taking care of reimbursement issues and I never had office staff. I answered my own phone and I, like most other GP's, did house calls when requested. When I closed the office door at night, the work was done, except for emergency calls.

Here is what happens: when you are very ill, call a general practitioner - any general practitioner - and have them come to your house or hotel. Be prepared to pay in cash. Doctors will visit day and night and cannot refuse to come when you indicate a serious problem. You may have to wait but when you indicate a serious issue or potentially serious issue, they are obliged to respond quickly.

Be aware though that calling a doctor at night is a whole lot more expensive than visiting one during the day. You can also go to an emergency room or call an ambulance but note that emergency care in Belgium is not set up to replace your doctor and anything that can be handled by a GP will be sent there. Don't go to the emergency room unless the issue is potentially life-threathening.

If you are involved in an accident or witness an accident, call "100" and an ambulance will be dispatched. Emergency care will never be refused, regardless of whether you have money or proof of insurance or lack thereof. You will always be treated and you will be treated the same way as everyone else. Nobody will worry about payment until you are ready to leave the hospital at the end of your stay.

At the end of a visit or house call, pay the doctor or dentist and he or she will give you a slip with a reimbursement code. What happens next depends on your coverage method. If you are working in Belgium and a member of the state's health coops (called mutualiteit or mutuelle), you will attach a sticker (you will receive stickers in the mail if you are a member) to the slip and collect the reimbursement at your coop. You are free to join any coop you like and although these are either religiously or politically affiliated, your reimbursement money is the same regardless. It is set by law and governed by the code the doctor gave you. If you have private insurance you will submit the form to your insurance company.

If you live and work in Belgium money will be deducted from your wages and you will have an SIS card (a credit card like ID card) that identifies you as a beneficiary. Always take this card with you when you seek medical help but once again nobody will refuse emergency care if you don't have your card.

The doctor will also give you a prescription slip (either for medication or additional care).  You have to take your drug prescriptions with your SIS card to a pharmacy. There are pharmacies (apotheek) everywhere and they can be identified by a green cross. Pharmacies are independent businesses and they are never found in supermarkets or other chain stores. There are no drugstores in Belgium. All medications, even over the counter medications are sold in a pharmacy and dispensed by a trained apothecary.

Doctor's offices and pharmacies are usually (but not always) located in the practitioner's residence. Most GP doctors and dentists have walk-in hours everyday, where you can just go in without an appointment. Hospitals may have a walk-in clinic for key specialists.

You need to go to the pharmacy or send someone there as prescriptions are never called in. Pharmacies are open during regular business hours and there is a rotation for after hours and weekends. The rotation is published in the local newspaper or displayed at the pharmacy you visit. You pay the pharmacist directly but in this case you only pay the difference between what the drug costs and the reimbursement. Once again, if you are a coop member you will need to affix a sticker to the slip. If you want generic drugs you should tell your doctor although in some cases the pharmacist will make a courtesy call to the doctor if you ask.

You are free to go to any doctor, dentist, pharmacy or hospital you choose, anywhere. You are also free to go to any specialist directly without using a GP referral. As long as the doctor works within the healthcare system you are fine in terms of reimbursement. Nearly all doctors do and those few that don't will advertise the fact. In some big cities like Brussels, Antwerp or Liege you may find doctors or dentists that only use private insurance. Anywhere else this rarely happens.

The government health insurance does not fully reimburse your bill. Expect to pay anywhere from half to a quarter of the bill yourself. While that may sound like a lot, the low cost of healthcare means it remains affordable for nearly everyone. Low income people also have other means of financial aid. Hospital bill are reimbursed more generously.

If you need to go to the hospital an ambulance will be called. Your doctor can treat you at the hospital and he or she will visit you there even if you are referred to a specialist there. Your attending physician is obliged to stick with you until the matter is resolved, unless you decide to switch doctors.

Once again, you are free to choose any hospital. If you are injured during a race or if you need emergency care, someone will choose a hospital for you. In an emergency the ambulance will take you to the nearest hospital. In a race, the organizers advertise the hospital they intend to use. If you are unhappy with these choices you can request a transfer later.

When you do go to a hospital remember to bring everything or have someone bring everything for you, including soap and towels. As a rule hospitals do not provide anything. Also remember that you will be put in a shared room or ward unless you request -and agree to pay for- a private room. Accommodations vary from hospital to hospital with some providing TV's and phones while others have neither.

Hospital stays in Belgium are very generous compared to the US. Nobody will try to usher you out and a weeklong stay is not unheard of for most indications so be prepared to bring or have someone bring personal items. The general consensus is that hospital food is pretty poor quality, but that too is no different from the US.

It is customary to give presents at the end of a longer stay and you should bring something for the staff and the doctors if possible. Flowers and chocolates are common but fancy wine and liquor are the rule.

Remember that anything and everything you say to a doctor or medical staff is covered by doctor-patient privilege. It can never be revealed to anyone, not even in a court of law. You cannot even release your doctor from this duty. Nothing you tell your doctor, or nothing your doctor discovers while treating you can be revealed to an outsider or be used against you or anyone else. If you go into a doctors office with a gunshot wound, they cannot tell the police about it. Minors are covered too and doctors cannot reveal issues to their parents without consent. This too is very different from US law.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Junior racing in the US

Although I know most will disagree I think USA cycling is doing a disservice to American junior racers by allowing them to race in adult "categories" and by not enforcing international age-appropriate gear restrictions. The gear restriction issue has been covered before so here I will focus on the race categories.

There are a lot of pressures at work and while all may be well-intentioned, allowing juniors to race with adults is not a smart thing to do. That is clearly evident when these juniors go to Europe for the first time. Racing in Belgium is quite different from racing in the US.

Race organizers are happy to delete junior categories because it makes things easier for them. Juniors also typically pay less money to race so if they can be persuaded to race category instead it is financially advantageous for the organizer. Organizers will often complain that there aren't enough juniors to justify having a race for juniors only. However, even a casual inspection of the entry lists will reveal many juniors skipping the age appropriate category in favor of adult races.

Racers often have parents who race and so it is not surprising that these parents want to race with them. Surely racing parents find it most convenient not to have to drive to another race so junior can get his or her workout. If anything, they like to get a complete package. Kids too like to be in the same race with mom or dad and nothing is more fun than beating your parent in a big event.

Teams, and especially sponsored teams also push their young riders to race category. A variety of excuses are used to justify this position. Team directors may not take junior events seriously or fear their sponsors won't do so. They will say that there isn't enough competition in the junior categories. This is of course a self-fulfilling prophecy. If one pulls all the young talent out of junior races, there won't be enough competition for sure.

Teams like to brag that their juniors beat the adults or are capable of beating the adults. That is hardly an accomplishment as the majority of US category racers are older guys who race for fun on the weekend. Most young people are faster and if they are smart enough to draft during the event, they have a very good shot at out sprinting the age groupers. The only thing holding juniors back is often the gear restrictions, which may be one reason these have survived so far.

Adults also like to show kids how it is done. Unfortunately humans learn by exposure to new environments. The more variety there is the better. And variety is something that is sorely lacking from most category races in this country. Although you can race in a big category pack, a master's pack is quite different from a junior pack.

A final reason is similar to what drives parents to put their toddlers in college prep courses. These parents are fearful that their offspring will miss out on a big opportunity lest they start their college education before age 5. Time and again research has shown no benefit from such programs and it seems more than likely that the same applies to sports. Forcing kids to compete with adults is not helpful and can only have negative effects. For one thing, most adult cycling races are too long for young people. The races effectively wear out younger riders, preventing them from developing speed and agility.

Instead of forcing kids to race adults, organizers should focus on making it easier for kids to race. By being less intimidating, age appropriate races are likely to attract more youth and parents who may not be racers. The tremendous success of NorCal mountain bike league shows that providing safe and inclusive racing conditions for youth encourages widespread participation. NorCal also shows that kids from non-racing parents are eager to compete in cycling. Apart from attracting large groups of youths, NorCal has also accomplished what few road races in the US manage to get: a large and eager crowd of spectators.

Only by widening the pool of racers and interested spectators will racing become a major sport in this country.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Before you go...and when you get there

Before you leave to go racing in Belgium, make sure you are at a high level of fitness. Racing in Belgium is very competitive and unless you do well at the regional level in the US, you will have a very hard time staying in the races in Flanders. It is probably best to try to peak around the time you go, especially the first time.

Don't set your expectations too high. Most foreign riders don't do so well on their first trip. Several who attend the USA cycling camp for nieuwelingen don't even manage to finish one race without a mishap or without getting pulled.  And these are pre-selected riders, so don't let early poor results worry you too much.

Racing in Belgium takes some getting used to. For young people it is best to try out European racing at the earliest possible age, which is 15 years (racing) age or 1st year nieuwelingen. For anyone younger than 17 it is probably best not to go alone. Although it can be done it is better not to, in case something happens and you need medical assistance. At that time, it is better to have an adult around.

Make sure your bike handling and pack riding skills are well honed. You can sharpen your skills by mountain biking and mountain biking is a good way to prepare for Belgium in more ways than one. I mentioned this before in this post.

Expect to ride in aggressive large packs, even in local kermiskoersen and expect the race to be very fast, especially in the beginning. When you go to Belgium, try to arrive several days before your first race so your jet lag clears somewhat. Ride around to become familiar with the roads, the width of the roads, and the pavement types. Go out to where your first race will be held and see if you can ride the course. Definitely arrive early on race day and ride the course. Most are relatively short loops so there is time to explore. Pay attention to the many obstacles that you will have to maneuver around in the race.

Try to ride near the front of the pack as much as you can. Don't overdo it though and don't go pulling all the time. Belgian riders will gladly let you pull and do all the work. But remember, it is the finish that matters, and the key reason for riding near the front is to stay out of trouble, not to show off. To stay near the front, you have to try to start in front and that means arriving early and holding on to your spot.

When you stay in Belgium for a whole season, and especially when you are an U23 rider, make sure not to race too much. Even younger riders should watch their calendar, although the restrictions that are in place for younger age groups do help somewhat. Even so, most riders overreach and burn out. Racing in Belgium is not like racing in the US. If you race several times a week, chances are very high that you will overreach and your performance will suffer.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Belgium: haute cuisine

There is an earlier post on Belgian cuisine and eating habits. It can be found by clicking here.
Flanders has a lot to offer to those who appreciate gourmet food. According to a recent review, Belgium is third overall (behind Switzerland and Luxembourg) in the number of restaurants with coveted Michelin stars per inhabitant. In the 2010 guide, Belgium had 114 starred restaurants, two of which had three stars.

Both three star restaurants are in Flanders. The first, Hof van Cleve is in Kruishoutem, close to Oudenaarde. If you ride your bike in the Flemish Ardennes, sooner or later you will ride by it. The setting is spectacular. Hof Van Cleve is one of the best restaurants in the world and I can personally attest that the food is truly extraordinary and has been so for years. This is the one restaurant I am always prepared to go to when visiting Belgium. People come from all over Europe to dine here.

The other three star restaurant is the De Karmeliet in Brugge. Although I was born in Brugge, I am less fond of going there as the whole place has a Disney fake feel to it now. Every year more luxury hotels open up, more tourists crowd the streets and prices go through the roof while quality suffers. I much prefer to stay away from Bruges. If you want a decent place to eat lunch in Bruges, go to the Middenstand on 't Zand. It is not a fancy restaurant but the food is great and the price is right. By all means stay away from the market place, at least when it comes to dining.

If you stay in or near Oudenaarde there are two other exceptional restaurants to consider. Both have two Michelin stars. One is Le Chateau du Mylord in Ellezelles close to Ronse/Renaix, and the other is 't Oud Konijntje in Waregem. Both of these are excellent too. I personally prefer 't Oud Konijntje but either one of these will satisfy the most demanding palate. A wonderful place for more casual dining in a unique setting near Oudenaarde is Tanderus in Nokere.

If you want to eat well but are on a budget, look for a Bib Gourmand restaurant. There are 125 bib gourmand restaurants in the country. To qualify for this honor, restaurants must serve an excellent three course meal for under EUR35. One excellent choice is the hotel Auberge du Pecheur in Sint Martens-Latem on the river Lys, another spectacular setting. The hotel has a great restaurant Orangerie with a Michelin star and the brasserie has a bib gourmand.

Eating out in Belgium is an expensive and time consuming proposition. A dinner will easily set you back over EUR100 per person. Plan to spend 3+ hours and make your reservations early. Even lunch can easily run 2-3 hours at a fancy place. Also, remember to dress smartly. Although dress codes have relaxed considerably in the last decade, you probably want to stay a bit above business casual for most places.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Interclub races

Beker Vlaamse Ardennen
Interclub races are the highest level of competition. You cannot enter an interclub race as an individual. That rule applies to all age groups. You need to be a member of a team. Usually the team consists of six riders with a minimum of four. Local teams sometimes have open slots in the older age groups (juniores and U23) but rarely for the nieuwelingen. You can ask the race organizers if they know of any team that needs extra riders. A mixed team can also be entered, but only if the riders are not team mates of a regular team that is also in the race and only if certain rules are obeyed (minimum two riders from one team, etc.).

Interclub races can be one-day events or multi-day stage races (rittenkoers). In a stage race, the organizers may allow substitute riders to register beforehand. That happens often in the younger age groups. The substitute riders can step in when a team mate has to abandon the race. Stage races in the nieuwelingen category will usually allow riders to enter all stages, even if they are forced to abandon an earlier stage due to either a technical issue or if they got pulled in an earlier stage. All the team needs to do is to have the team leader talk to the officials and state the rider's intention to race again the next day.

Stage races often have time trials but nieuwelingen ride team time trials instead of individual time trials. Time trials for younger riders are quite short and distances are limited by law. Nieuwelingen also cannot use disk wheels or trispokes in time trials. All wheels need to have a minimum of 16 spokes. Aero helmets and time trial bars are usually allowed although it is better to ask beforehand as rules may vary.

The interclub race is a lot like a miniature pro race. The team leaders have to sign in and pick up materials for the riders. There is a team leader meeting to explain the rules and go over the course. All that happens several hours before the start. The teams are then asked to present themselves on a podium and sign the start sheet. Photographs are taken and individual riders are introduced to the public.

Often there will be betting going on and the audience will know many of the local riders and teams. Odds will be posted at nearby tables. Betting happens in all categories but anyone involved in the race is forbidden from participation. Looking at the odds tables will often give you a good indication of whom to watch during the race.

During the race, there will be a caravan of team cars, whose order is drawn by lottery at the team leader meeting. In a stage race the order for the second and following stages will be determined by the overall results of the team. The exact rule will be published (it could be the best rider, or the total time of the three best riders after a TTT for example).

Interclubs also have medical staff and a doctor will be present on course for all events. The caravan will be followed by an ambulance and injured riders will be taken to nearby hospitals if necessary. The officials will inform the team leaders what hospitals will be used in an emergency. As explained in an earlier post, emergency treatment is not by choice and riders will be treated as medical personnel sees fit. No prior consent is needed or required.

Every car driver will get a race radio set for race frequency. The radio will give race updates, tell team leaders if riders are out or taken to the hospital, and call team cars to the front when riders are in trouble. When called, team cars can break out of line and move to the front to assist the rider. All assistance needs to be given on the right hand side of the road. Team cars are also allowed to motor pace their rider back to the pack, but only after a mechanical and only for a short distance. Anyone breaking the rules will be fined.

Announcements will be made in Dutch, but French and English are common too when foreign teams compete. Still it is better to have a native speaker in the car as some announcements are only made in Dutch and some are not translated properly.

The caravan will have several referee cars and officials will keep track of proper driving behavior and illegal drafting. Driving a team car is an exciting thing to do but it is not for the faint of heart. As soon as the race gets underway, there will be riders everywhere, and cars trying to maneuver and pass on small country roads that are barely wide enough for one vehicle. Turns are especially tricky to handle and cars should go wide and slow down to let riders pass. Teams also need to instruct their riders how to handle the caravan if necessary.

A team car needs to be a regular sized sedan. Vans or even SUV's are not allowed. Cars use their horns to let other drivers know they need to pass or to announce the presence of riders in the caravan, especially near tight turns or tricky sections. When a car goes to the front or stops to help a rider, it will get back in its proper spot later. Cars have numbers on the rear window that show the order in the caravan.

Interclub races frequently have doping control and team leaders should check the manifest after the race before leaving. Any riders who place in the overall classification or in any accessory classification (KOM, sprint) should stick around for prize ceremonies and picture taking.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Housing for bike racers

Apart from vacation rentals, hotels and cycling-friendly bed and breakfast places, Belgium also has establishments that cater exclusively to foreign bike racers. Many different types exist and they all explicitly or implicitly attract or restrict themselves to a subgroup of racers. Cycling specific accommodations are most popular with the 18 and up crowd.

Here are three examples. More information can be found on the web.

USA House in Izegem is the best known in this country. It is run by USA Cycling and is located inside a residence occupied by a Belgian family. It has shared rooms and single rooms as well as a mechanic's shop and mechanics support. It provides both long term and short term accommodation. The latter is often in the form of camps. It operates year round, in summer serving road racers and in winter hosting camps for cyclocrossers. Access is for US racers through a USA Cycling selection. There are camps for nieuwelingen, and national team trips for juniores and U23's. Some juniors and U23 take up season long residence there.

USA House provides state of the art accommodations and racer support. It also comes with easy entry into all levels of competition. The main drawback of USA House is limited access by USA coaching selection only. Other weak spots former residents have remarked upon include high price, strict house rules, a set schedule, isolation and less than optimal location with respect to popular riding routes.

Izegem house, from USAC website

Cycling Center located in Oostkamp is run by Bernard Moerman, a local with a small staff that includes a bike fitter and a team doctor. CC has pro team affiliations and it caters to racers of all ages. It also has strong US connections and lists Ben Sharp, now the USA junior team coach, and Barney King as its ambassadors. CC has a long list of previous CC members, most of whom hail from the US, but there are Canadians, Israelis, Mexicans, South Africans, Swedes, Swiss, and even Belgian racers who stayed there. Gregg Germer, who now runs the Chainstay is listed as a former resident. Although CC is close to Bruges, it is in a less than optimal location in my opinion. In addition to lodging CC provides advice, support, and coaching, but residents are generally quite independent and come and go as they please.

Cycling Center, from their website

The Chainstay, located in Oudenaarde is run by Gregg Germer, a former US racer from Texas and his wife Holly. The Chainstay's key advantage is its location and cultural openness. The Chainstay has both long term and short term accommodations for the road and cyclocross season. It has an affiliation with the Flanders racing team and some residents race with the team during the season. The Chainstay has a well equipped bike room and a van that can be used by residents to travel to and from races. Residents at the Chainstay have a very high degree of independence and they are expected to take care of their own cooking, cleaning and bike maintenance. The Chainstay has a very international crowd, mostly U23's and Canadians, Israelis and Britons take up long term residence here.

The Chainstay from website -I slept here

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Things to know about Belgium

You probably already know that Belgians produce a lot of chocolate (22 kg per inhabitant per year), and a lot of beers (800 varieties at last count). Maybe you heard that Belgium grants the most new citizenships per year of any country other than Canada? That despite the fact that income taxes are the highest of any OECD country. Fully 15% of Belgians are immigrants.

Although Brussels airport is the world's biggest chocolate selling point, you can find the best chocolate in artisanal shops around the country.

The most famous statue in Belgium is Manneke Pis, found in Brussels. The city of Geraardsbergen has a similar statue that has been around since the middle ages.

Belgium manufactures up to 80% of the world's billiard balls and the diamond bourse in Antwerp remains one of the most important in the world. Before WWII fully 95% of crude diamonds went through Antwerp.

Belgian billiard balls express delivery

Euthanasia and gay marriage are legal in Belgium (since 2002 and 2003 respectively) and more than half the government ministers (55%) are women. Although abortion is legal in Belgium and the Netherlands, abortion rates are the lowest of any country in the world, and that includes countries where the practice is illegal. Click here for more on medical care in Belgium.

Belgium has the smallest difference in pay between men and women. Education is compulsory up to age 18, the highest in the world. Legal drinking age is 16, one of the lowest, and possession of up to 3 g of cannabis is legal in Belgium.

Belgium has the densest motorway and railway network of any country and the illuminated Belgian motorways are said to be the only man-made structure visible from the moon -at night that is. In Belgium, you have to drive on the right hand side of the motorway, except to pass and you will get a ticket if you don't. You also can't make a right on red anywhere and as a cyclist you better obey traffic rules. If you don't have a Belgian address you will need to pay all fines on the spot. Fines range from EUR50 and up.

When in Belgium you need to carry ID at all times and the country was the first to introduce electronic ID cards. All citizens and legal immigrants have official ID's, while visitors need to carry their passport at all times. US driver licenses are not valid ID's. ID checks are rare however, except in big cities and late at night.

All bicycles in Belgium need to have two lights and reflectors in both wheels and the pedals, although the authorities never bother to enforce this rule when it comes to racers on training rides.

Belgium has more major one day UCI races (classics or semi-classics) than any other country and two of the five Classics Monuments are in Belgium (Ronde van Vlaanderen and Liege-Bastogne-Liege). The Belgian season starts with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (formerly Omloop Het Volk) held on the last Saturday of February or the first in March. The season closes in mid-October.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Race day

Most races in Belgium start at 15:00h or 3PM. In the nieuwelingen category the races last for about 1:30 hrs. Juniors race a little over 2 hrs, while beloften (U23) and amateurs have at it for 2:30 to 3 hours. A typical race will consist of 10-20, 4-8 mile loops that start in or near the village center and go out into the country side. US style criteriums are almost unheard of. Races with very long loops are rare too, especially in Flanders.

The registration (inschrijving) will happen at a cafe along the course or near the church. It is nearly always within walking distance of the start/finish. Most commonly registration is in a large room at the back of the cafe, that is also used for dancing, dinner parties and festivities (feestzaal). Access is through the bar or -more rarely- using a separate entrance around the back. There may be signs, but most often there aren't any. Local riders remember where to go from the year(s) before.

In smaller villages or in some outlying districts, inschrijving may take place in a special large tent (feesttent) that is set up for the kermis and will host the night time festivities. Officials are bound to arrive a few hours prior to start and they usually open up for business at 13:00h or 1PM. Shortly beforehand riders, often fully dressed, will line up inside the cafe with their credentials in hand. As a rule, no parents or guardians will be present in line and riders register on their own. Make sure your riders have all their paperwork handy and also bring safety pins as none will be given out by organizers.

When you first enter the village you will notice stacks of barricades and movable fences that will be used to line the start/finish area. You will see club cars and riders exploring the course and warming up. You will also see many riders and family members walking to the registration.

You may notice an overhead crane or two with placards that read aankomst (finish) or "1 km" to go signs. The important thing to do at this stage is to find a good parking spot. In larger races there will be showers and dressing rooms (kleedkamers) in the local sport hall. You can find that information on the Wiebo calendar. The sports facility may have a good sized parking lot but it is likely located outside the town proper and so it may be a fair walking distance away from the action. It is better to park closer by if you can. Many locals will ride in for the race.

Fifteen minutes or so before the start, riders will start lining up at the line. In Interclub events (where you need a team), things work a bit differently. The team managers will pick up all materials around noon at the permanentie. There will be a mandatory manager meeting and officials will go over the rules with the managers. The teams will be required to show up for a team presentation, usually two hours before the start. Team presentations are done near the start site.

Half an hour beforehand, riders will be guided into a corral for gear checks and released from there into a sealed start area. Although gear checks also happen at regular races, they are far less common.

It is important to secure a good starting position near the front of the group, especially when the race starts on a narrow road. For some events, local riders or provincial and national champions will be called out and allow to roll up to the line first.

Be prepared for a very fast start in all categories. In the nieuwelingen group crashes near the start -often before the line- are quite common and you can almost bet that a crash will happen at the first turn.

Riders will get dropped from the very first lap and the pack will quickly whittle down to about half its initial size. The younger the age group, the sooner that will happen. Crashes are likely on every lap and these usually happen in or near the same spots. An ambulance will follow the racers, but those able to walk will be guided back to the first aid tent.

Riding in the back of the pack is a recipe for disaster and the probability of getting dropped or crashing is close to 1 if you ride there.

Breakaways happen often and early, but in the younger age groups they rarely create a big gap or last for more than a lap. What is more common in these packs is a split or several splits, often initiated after a crash or near a technical section of the course. Also common is for the pack to split as soon as riders leave the village proper and the protection of the buildings. Here they are exposed to the inevitable winds on the open road.

In younger groups it is not so much that the leaders break away, but more often it is the followers who are unable to keep the pace. If the split results in more than one pack and the second pack loses more than 3 minutes, officials are likely to announce a bell lap for the dropped pack. These riders will then finish an abbreviated race and be counted at a fixed delay.

Individuals or smaller groups (2-4) are pulled, unless they end up in between two packs, in which case they may be allowed to finish as the leaders of the dropped pack. Dropped riders almost never show up in the final results, except in stage races for nieuwelingen and juniores.

In the beloften and amateur groups (elite z/c), real breakaways do happen, but it is usually only the second or third break that makes it to the end. That break is most likely to happen when the first break gets caught or shortly thereafter.

Even though interclub races are team events, very little team riding happens in the IC's at the younger age groups. It is very rare to witness true team work, such as one team mate giving up a wheel to the team leader who has a flat, or team mates waiting for the team leader (or best placed) in case of a mishap.  Sprint lead outs are more common but even here, team riding is not the rule.

The one thing most US novice riders remark about Flanders is the very high and very steady tempo of the race. Races for nieuwelingen and juniores rarely show a letup and speeds are pretty steady at 42-43 km/h (26-27 mph) throughout. Given the gear restrictions these riders have to live by, that means that getting dropped for whatever reason is usually the end of the road. In the beloften and elite z/c groups races are longer and there is a relative letup after the first hour of racing. The letup is no time to  sit back and relax however, and that is when important moves are made.

After the race, the winners and runner-ups are expected to stick around for the rewards ceremony. Riders also have to go back to the inschrijving to return their numbers, receive their refunds and pick up any winnings. Pay is often 20 deep and in bigger events it may run 50 deep. There are special prizes for sprints (or more rarely) climbs, as well. IC's also have club prizes, but in IC races, team managers collect all the winnings.

Everyone should also check for doping control if one is present. A list of numbers will be posted near the start-finish. Doping control is rare in small town races for young age groups.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Riding a bike in Flanders

There are a few things you should know before riding a bike in Belgium. Although the rules of the road are pretty similar to those in the US there are a few important distinctions.

One is the bike lane ("fietspad"). Nearly all roads have one or two bike lanes and cyclists must use the bike lanes. If the road has a bike lane on either side, you simply ride in the direction of traffic. If there is only one bike lane, you must cross the street and ride on that bike lane. These bike lanes are two way by default and that is often indicated by paint marks. Remember that mopeds must also use the bike lane so watch out for fast traffic. Always ride single file on a two-way bike lane.

The bike lane is usually separated from the main road by a section of cobbles,  hedges or plants, or a small neutral zone. Sometimes it is simply carved out by broken white lines. Near city centers it is often a part of the sidewalk that is painted red.

One of the most tricky traffic rules, and one that fools even the locals and leads to many accidents, is the "voorrang van rechts" (yield to the right) rule. It is the default at any intersection that those coming from the right have the right of way, regardless of the size of the road you are on. This rule applies to all intersections, unless overruled by a specific sign. Most city centers have no signs and so the rule applies there.

Furthermore, the law states that those who stop when they have the right of way, loose that privilege, so drivers are inclined not to stop or slow down too much when coming from the right. Whenever you approach an intersection in Belgium, always look to the right and unless you know you have the right of way, be prepared to stop.

The triangular traffic sign with an X warns road users that the voorrang van rechts rule is in effect.

There are specific signs to indicate the voorrang van rechts rule does not apply. These signs let you know that you are on a main highway and that you have the right of way. The older sign is a triangle that shows a tick arrow (signifying the road you are on) with one or two small side-sticks (signifying the minor roads you are crossing). It applies to the upcoming intersection only.

The newer sign, that is also used in other European countries is a yellow diamond. It stays in effect until another sign showing the same diamond with diagonal bars appears.

Another indicator that the people coming from the right have to yield are the so-called sharks teeth painted on the roadway. These are white triangles that mimic the yield triangle. Those coming up to the triangle from the pointed end have to yield.

There are very few stop signs in Belgium, and stops are rarely used to slow down traffic as is common in the US.

Also be aware that Belgian traffic lights are positioned before the intersection and not across from it as is done in the US. Many intersections with traffic lights have cameras and you will get a fine when you run the light. Automatic cameras are also used to enforce speed limits. There is no right on red rule in Belgium, ever. You cannot move beyond a red or yellow (orange) traffic light placed to your right. You need to wait for a green light. If you run a yellow light you will get a ticket too.

Traffic circles or roundabouts are another feature you need to watch out for. The general rule for a traffic circle is that those on the circle have the right of way. As a biker you are riding on the outside of the circle and so you have to yield to those on the circle who want to leave the circle -unless there are shark's teeth as in this photo below.

Also note that on Sunday mornings the roads belong to cyclists. So many amateur (and pro) riders are out, riding in large packs with one or two follow vehicles, that they take up the entire road. On Sunday afternoon, those same roads will likely be blocked of for a bike race, so be patient when driving.