Monday, October 11, 2010

Belgium: the race layout

To understand a race course you need to understand how villages and towns are laid out. Most races start and finish near the center of a village and consist of a 4-8 mile loop into the country side. Out there riders will be hit with head, cross and tail winds and encounter small winding roads often no larger than a bike path that are littered with mud in spring and fall, or dry dust in summer.

Villages in Belgium are organized in typical pattern that dates back to medieval times. In the center is a church, whose tower is usually the tallest building around. Next to the church, on one side you find a central square, the Markt, site of the open air market, and on the other side the cemetery also known as the church yard. Larger towns may have covered market halls, also known as Hallen and bell towers.

Over time many cemeteries were moved away from town centers and replaced by commercial buildings. A lot of that happened in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and these days you rarely find church yards except in the smallest villages. Sometimes the older stones are preserved, but the newer cemetery is located outside of town.

The buildings that surround the town square invariably consist of cafes, restaurants and other businesses. A cafe in Belgium is a bar. A coffee shop, when one exists is usually called a tea room, although few people drink tea. American style coffee shops only exist in large cities.

Roads that connect villages to one another radiate out from the central square in a star-like pattern. If you are ever lost, find the nearest church tower and head towards the center of the village. Belgium is very densely populated and there isn't a single spot where one cannot see at least one house or bell tower in the distance. Most roads, other than smaller farm roads, or bike paths will lead to the center of a nearby village or town. Small farm roads on the other hand tend to connect the main access roads to such villages and circle around at a fixed distance of 3-5 km. These roads are often used to complete the loop in a race. Dead end streets are rare except in newer suburban developments.

In the center of the village you will find the signs you need to get you back on your way. A village may have three to five main access roads and near the center these are connected by other concentric roads lined with houses that make up the village proper. In many towns traffic is led around the center along a widened concentric road. These roads are often called Ring or Ringlaan.  Larger cities have inner and outer rings. Some cities, like Oudenaarde have incomplete rings.

The town center may be pedestrian access only and it is often paved in cobblestones or stetts. If traffic is allowed in the center, there will be additional features such as speed bumps, larger elevated sections of roadway (plateaus), and various obstacles to slow down traffic. In some cases islands are used as well. Many villages and towns have added roundabouts or traffic circles to further slow things down. These features can create serious hazards for a speeding pack. Crashes are common here and serious injuries can result from hitting stationary objects.

Races usually start in the very center of the village, or the on the closest straight road to that center. In bigger races, if the center is difficult to access for the follow cars, a rolling start will be used and the riders are neutralized until they reach the main access road, usually a two lane highway. Once there, road-side buildings quickly disappear and riders are exposed to steady winds that sweep the flat country side. They will now head out for 2-4 kms and then suddenly make a 90 degree turn onto a farm road no wider than a small passenger car.

The sudden change in conditions invariably results in crashes and other mayhem, especially among younger riders. Riders near the back will have to slow down considerably at the turns and even if they avoid crashes, most will be out of the race at this stage. Those that survive the ordeal will be faced with a furious pace along tiny slippery roads, buffeted by wind and quite often rain. After a few miles of twisting and turning they will rejoin another access road and head back into the village where various traffic obstacles await.

The finish is nearly always on a wide straight road. Crowd control fencing is used to clear the path for the final sprint. Placards indicating the distance to the line (500 m, 200m , 100 m) are standard. A modest uphill is the rule as most village centers are built on slightly higher ground.

Belgian races are fast and furious especially in the younger categories where gear restrictions apply. The lead pack will be spinning at or near their max for the duration of the race, and any riders unfortunate enough to get dropped are unlikely to ever catch back on. The same applies to those who crash or suffer flats. Roads are often secured by a moving closure and anyone falling behind the trailing car is out. Dropped  riders will be pulled by referees near the finish. If a larger pack gets dropped they will usually be allowed to finish an abbreviated race once the gap nears 3 minutes.

Registration for the race is in a cafe near the center. Showers and dressing rooms may be available at the village sport hall if one exists. More rarely, the start is near an open meadow where a tent is erected for the kermis festivities and where competitors can park. If that is the case, be careful where you park. Your car may get stuck in deep mud, or you may inadvertently step into some cow patties.

Always make sure you return your race number after the race. It is not just a matter of a EUR 5 deposit. Organizers want their numbers back. Belgium is a small country and officials will remember who you are. Those who don't return their numbers are not well received. Even though conditions are often poor and many riders finish with mud all over their faces, jerseys and bikes, riders are expected to show up with clean clothing and a clean bike for the next race. Penalties apply to those who are not dressed properly and race entry maybe refused in some cases.

Also remember that the bigger events have doping control, even for young riders. Always check the postings to see if your number is called. Evading controls will result in serious sanctions with world-wide applicability. If you miss the control the odds are stacked against you and you may end up losing your license for an extended period of time.

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