Thursday, November 4, 2010

A season in Belgium: are you ready?

Before you embark on a season-long trip to Belgium, ask yourself this simple question: are you ready for the challenge? Being ready doesn't just mean being physically fit, although being very fit is a prerequisite for success. You also need to consider other issues such as your financial fitness. Although it is possible to survive in Belgium by being frugal and doing well in races, not everyone can do both. Living off your racing is something that is only feasible for those 19 and older. It is not an option for junioren or nieuwelingen. It is also quite difficult for first-year beloften (racing age 19).

Race entries in Belgium are EUR3 plus a refundable EUR5 and prizes often go 20 deep. If you manage to place you will easily get your money back. Many American juniors who go to Europe in summer are able to race at least one event where they come out ahead. But that is a far cry from making a living, or even paying for the other race-related expenses. You can save money by riding to the venue as most towns are within riding distance. That will save gas money but you still need to eat and pay for your stays. Bringing home EUR12 may sound impressive but it isn't going to pay for the day, let alone a three month stay.

If you really want to make ends meet simply by racing, you need to join a local club. Not only will the club pick up most of your expenses, and often pay for bike maintenance as well, joining a club is the only way to enter the more lucrative interclub events. Joining a club and getting a spot on their team is only realistic if you have a respectable race resume so it is typically not something first time visitors can do. Interclub races have bigger pots and they often have prizes for sprints, king of the mountain competitions and the team as a whole. For a good team that can quickly add up to a respectable sum.

Another way to make a living is to sell your races. Although you can argue that selling races defeats the whole purpose of going to Europe, it is a common practice among expatriates. It is something you can't really plan for and it is only an option for riders who are in a winning break and are known to be good sprinters.  They can often sell their spot for much more than the winning prize money.

Foreigners also survive by taking on odd jobs such as bike mechanic, soigneur or waiter but this is something that cannot be legally done without the appropriate visa and permits. Although the government is cracking down on the practice, there is still a lot of under-the-table work in Belgium.

Apart from fitness and finances, the other key issue is separation. There is no doubt that cell phones and the internet have made things easier, but many people still have a hard time being away from family and friends for an extended period of time. Many experience culture shock, and go through several phases of adjustment, often without their knowledge. Symptoms of the honeymoon phase are clearly evident in facebook postings from nieuwelingen attending European camp or juniors racing for the National Team. Many of these kids are simply in love with Belgium and all things Belgian. Even the rain and the wind have a romantic charm to them. For someone like me, who was born and lived in Belgium and wanted nothing more than to escape the miserable weather and trade it in for California sunshine this is a bizarre thing to witness.

Culture shock can cause many other problems, but the one most often seen is excessive racing and overreaching. More than half the U23 racers I met who were staying at a popular cycling housing outfit last summer were suffering from overreaching. Many were exhausted and burned out and quite a few admitted that they were overdoing it. The resident coach told me this happens every year and despite his best efforts and frequent admonitions people repeatedly ride themselves into the ground during the season.

One way to prevent overreaching is to take some time off to go sightseeing, or partake in other activities such as kermesses, the beach, and one of the many festivals.

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