Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Traveling to Belgium for bike racing

The easiest way to get to Flanders is to fly into Brussels (BRU) aka Zaventem after the village it is located in. From the East Coast there are many direct flights, but from the rest of the country a layover is needed. The shortest, but not necessarily the easiest or least expensive route is to fly through London Heathrow (LHR). Even Frankfurt can be shorter than a US layover.

Brussels National, Zaventem, or BRU for  short is the only major airport

In the US Chicago is best and the further south you go the longer the trip, especially if San Francisco or Seattle are your final destination. In those cases Dulles, Atlanta or Dallas are far less desirable stops.

Another easy way to go is to fly Amsterdam, aka Schiphol (AMS), just a short train ride away. Frankfurt or Paris also work but they are more inconvenient entry points. Just remember to add the extra cost for rail before you decide to take advantage of a cheap flight to one of these. The advantage of AMS, Paris and Frankfurt is direct flights from SFO and other West coast cities. I would not recommend flights to Britain. It is just not worth the extra trouble, even though Britain has the best airline deals.

Amsterdam airport, Schiphol or AMS

These days you nearly always pay extra for bringing a bike. A one way fee of $150 to $175 is the rule. Even airlines that advertise free bikes, such as Continental -that won't last much longer now that United bought them- do not guarantee free passage. Continental for example code-shares with United and the United airport personnel in Brussels charge EUR150 to load a bike, regardless of what airline you made reservations with.

Always add $350 to your fare when comparing offerings. You may away with paying less but you will almost never manage to get the bike to fly for free both ways. On my last trip I paid $100 on the outbound and EUR150 on the return. A friend who flew Continental, paid $0 outbound and EUR150 on the return. Given that the United flight was $200 cheaper I got the best deal.

When it comes to shipping bikes there are as many prescriptions as there are people doing the prescribing. I prefer hard shell cases, but many frequent travelers like soft padded bags. I like to stuff the bike bag to the maximum allowed weight since they charge a flat fee for it anyways. That leaves me more room in my regular luggage. Others do the opposite and try to make their bike cases as light as possible, even packing bike parts in their regular luggage.

I have traveled successfully many times using either a Trico Ironcase or a Performance Team Bike Case. The Trico case is sturdier but heavier and less convenient to load in a (small) rental car. The Team case is lighter and fits more cars, but on one occasion mine lost a wheel due to rough handling. It happened on the way home from COS and I had a spare wheel but it would have been inconvenient if it had happened on the way out. However, since the case is made by SRM in Germany I probably would have found it easy and cheap to repair in Belgium.

These cases fit easily in European cars

I put my shoes, helmet, and bike clothing in the case. It all helps with padding and a full case prevents items from moving around. Be careful how you pack though and rest assured that TSA will open the case and repack it with far less attention to detail!! So make sure all small items are in bags and that the wheels are well protected with end caps.

The only tools I bring are a (portable) set of allen wrenches and a small pedal wrench. Make sure to leave out your CO2 lest you want tons of trouble at the airport. Bring a small pump instead. It is totally unnecessary to bring extra items as all can be bought locally and often for far less money. I always buy Michelin race tires when I go to Europe, and the Ronde van Vlaanderen Centrum in Oudenaarde has the cheapest high quality bike clothing on earth when they do sales.

You will need one of these

Leave your expensive carbon wheels at home and opt for a sturdy wheelset that can take a beating. Make sure to tighten all nuts and bolts before you hit the first section of cobbles. And if you absolutely need a fancy bike computer to record your deeds or measure your awesome power output, use an extra rubber band to secure it, lest it ends up crushed in the gutter.

Racing in Belgium is especially instructive for younger riders as it will show them that you do not need a $5,000 bike or a lab bench full of measuring devices to win races or be competitive. Although promising local riders tend to have more fancy equipment, most get by with a much cheaper bike and lot less gadgets than their American counterparts. When it comes to tracking your speed and vital signs, just remember that as long as there is someone in front of you, you are not riding fast enough. That is really all the speed data that matters.

Before you go take a closer look at the calendar so you know where your first race will be.

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