Friday, September 6, 2013

Big Timers Only, Small Fries Need Not Inquire

Nico Mattan stood us up. But that's a story for later.

After some breakfast, museuming, and a bit of high intensity napping, we made our way towards Izegem to check out the Izegem Koers pro race. The town has a bit of an American/Montana connection, it's where the Euro Cross Camp is headquartered, and Tom has spent a lot of time there.

This area of Flanders is steeped in cycling heritage and rabid fanhood, and this race in particular has a long tradition of being a local holiday. We were told later that the factories in town close each year on the first Thursday in September so that no one can miss the event. I had heard tales of the drunken uproarious crowds, slinging accolades and jeers from behind riot barricades and bloodshot eyes; of old men, mothers, and children, worn bleary from beer, mayonnaise, and the exhaustion that comes from a whole day's efforts seeped in partisan rage. I couldn't wait to charge into that fray wielding sausage and beer, and immerse myself in Belgian cycling culture.

And yet our arrival set us upon a tepid corps of disinterested lookers on. At the finish line the riders came through to see one lap to go. The chaos and discord that I had so anticipated was in fact a viscous mass of thin lips and puckered faces. The race leader was alone off the front. He had earned five seconds and was resting his forearms on the tops of his handlebars, his face a picture of misery as he time trialed off the front before the tattered remains of a chase group which bore down behind him. It was an ideal of the glory and self flagellation that I think synonymous with the Flandrien, and yet they were met with silence. Muffled conversations continued without pause, a man sitting near me never looked up from his newspaper. As they came through the riders edged to the right side of the road to avoid the wispy plume of cigarette smoke that wafted from the beer garden and onto the course.

Hours later a fan explained to us that while, yes, the race is a local icon, perhaps 100 years old, it is still a local race. "Oh yes. The riders here are professionals, but they are very low level," Glen explained when I asked him about the lackluster fans, "with the Vuelta going on now, all of the big riders are there."

And there it was. These young men had born their flesh and their souls for the amusement of a crowd that wanted celebrity.

But to say that the fans were ungrateful would be misleading. They just didn't seem particularly invested in the results of this race. The entire city was in the grips of a celebration of cycling. An extemporaneous carnival filled the marketplace. The only businesses that were open were the bars, and the recent bout of fine weather ensured that they were empty inside. Instead the streets were flooded with jubilant packs of friends and families.

The Wild Rockies Landscaping European Office was enlisted to assist with the pretty impressive infrastructure that they had in place for a Thursday afternoon race:

And during the podium presentation, as twenty or thirty people looked dumbly on, we were instructed to applaud by a pirate, and 1974 Eddy Merckx supervised.

TomRob sizes up the street meat situation in Izegem.

These are the three person outdoor urinals that were strewn about the city.

"No no, your shoes are definitely more 'Euro' than mine."

And we made it to one of the scavenger hunt sites: De Pekker.

The revelry couldn't last forever, and before it got dark we decided to go. We talked about looking for the Team USA development house in Izegem, we'd heard that it was damaged in a fire (accident or insurance fraud, it's up to you to decide) and wanted to check it out. "The only thing about going to the house," Tom pointed out, "is that I really don't know where it is." And so we rolled back towards Roeselare. Most of the 10k between the towns is along a paved bike path which parallels a shipping canal. At one point, though, at the outskirts of Roeselare is a bar with an artificial beach, which doubles for commuters as a cyclocross sand section.

Outside of the bar is a spa that advertises with its own UNIMOG:
Best spa ever?
In the end we made it back to R&Breakfast just after sunset. "A Belgian sunset," Tom pondered, "I haven't seen many of those. One year when I was in Belgium I only saw the sun twice."

I'm mostly just glad that the finer parts of American culture are making it across the pond.

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