Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bent Arrow: de Brabantse Pijl Challenge 2014

Saturday, April 12: the day before the Paris-Roubaix professional race amateurs had an opportunity to ride the storied cobbles themselves during the Paris-Roubaix Challenge Sportive.  But for those not willing to publicly display their pavé riding ineptitude, on the same day to the east another sportive mirroring a pro course provided an opportunity to publicly display one’s climbing ineptitude.  So of course I had to I had to do the two hour drive from Düsseldorf to Belgium to experience the 2014 Brabanste Pijl Wielertoeristen.


While not nearly as old as Paris-Roubaix, which dates back to 1896, de Brabantse Pijl (the Brabant Arrow), also known by its French name of La Flèche Brabançonne, has had many famous winners since its inaugural edition in 1961.  In fact the first winner, Belgian Pino Cerami (who is still with us at 91) won the 1960 edition of Paris-Roubaix and eventually went on to become the oldest winner of a Tour de France stage at 41 in 1963.  There is even a GP Pino Cerami held every year  since 1964 in Belgium; it was won by Alessandro Petacchi this year (also on April 12).  But the rolls of the Brabant Arrow offer many famous victors:  Tour de France winners Jan Janssen and Eddy Merckx;  Mr. Roubaix Roger de Vlaeminck; sprint legend Freddy Maertens; double Flanders winner Edwig Van Hooydonck (who won the Arrow four times); triple Flanders and triple Roubaix victor Johan Museeuw; triple World Road Champion Oscar Freire (three Arrow wins too), along with some guys named Boogerd, Chavanel, Bartoli and Sagan.  In 2011 Philippe Gilbert became the only rider to win all the Hilly Classics (Amstel  Gold, the Fleche Wallone, Liege-Bastogne-Liege) plus the Arrow in one year.  Categorized as a UCI 1.0 race since 2011, it is pretty important.  But I wasn’t riding that race but instead an event five days prior.

Proximus Cycling Challenges manages a series of 12 Belgian events for amateurs spread over eight months.  These “Wielerstochten” include versions of  the Scheldeprijs, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Gent-Wevelgem, among others.  Entry is a reasonable 10 Euros, with feed stations included, route signage and, well, not much else.   There is the promise that some retired pros will show up and apparently on Saturday these included Johan Museeuw, Nick Nuyens, Ludo Dierckxsens and current cyclo-cross racer Niels Albert but they weren’t there when I arrived at 7:15 to sign in at the start in the old university town of Leuven, 25 kms east of Brussels.  In fact, most of the organizers had not shown up either as the ride was scheduled to start at 7:30 and there were no signs anywhere.   But cleverly obeying the Follow-Someone-Else-With-Bikes-on-the-Car-Roof Rule I soon enough found my way to the impressive Ladeuzeplein , Leuven’s major square which is overlooked by the huge old university library.

A moment to check in and given a wristband for the feed stations (no numbers or pins to mess with) and I was on my way through the streets of the city, founded in the 9th Century and featuring many beautiful 15th Century buildings typical of Flanders.  In fact, the city is the capital of Flemish Brabant, a region that came about in 1995 when the province of Brabant (which has a long and headache-inducingly  complex history) split into three parts: the Flemish one, the Walloon (French-speaking one) and the Brussels autonomous region.  The Arrow goes into both Flemish and Francophone areas.
There were not many riders at this time of morning as the start was open until 10 am and the majority of cyclists were probably doing the shorter 72 km route rather than the 131 kms I was aiming at.  It was easy to get out of Leuven, which only has a population of 100,000, and follow the purple arrow signs showing the way west towards Bertem.  The loop heads south and then east of Leuven before working its way back and while it covers sections the pro race will take the fast guys will head more southwest in a straight line—hence the “Arrow” name.

The organizers thoughtfully provide a list of the hills and feed stations that you can stick on your toptube, giving you a distance countdown from 131 kms.  The first few of the 16 indicated hills are not really noticeable until you get to Langestraat at 113 kms, which is still an easy 6% average for 600 m.  The weather was not very good as riding in dense fog I had to stop to wipe the condensation off of my glasses and there was a steady dripping of water from my helmet.  But traffic was light although I was passed from time to time by big groups of fast Belgian club riders who were clearly not planning to stop to take photos.

At Km 99 there was an interesting change in the fairly flat landscape as we turned a corner near Huldenberg and were suddenly confronted with Smeysberg, a startling climb that maxed out at 17 percent but luckily only went on for 600 m.  Looking around, I discovered that Belgians are not afraid of using enormous pie-plate-sized cassettes to deal with the poisonous little climbs of the region.  Soon after this we had the Ijskelderlaan, a more reasonable 12 percent maximum grade and the first Hellingen that we would see that would actually be on the pro course, marked with black and yellow arrows.  A few more turns through a residential area brought us to Overijse and the first feed station.



For your 10 Euros you have a pretty good selection of eats, including bananas, oranges, chocolate-coated cookies and, everyone’s favourite, waffles.  There was energy drink as well as a station with hoses and faucets where everyone could easily refill their bottles.  A mechanic was on duty and keeping busy and overall one could not help but be impressed by the organization of the whole thing.
Waffles!


The sun had burned off the fog an hour before and we headed off for the next segment, which seemd to be doing a lot of looping around Overijse to include climbs (Schavei, Hagaard, Heerstraat) on the pro route.  In spite of the dizzying parcours (Wait: is that Huldenberg yet again?) by the time we descended Heerstraat we were turned east towards Walloon Brabant, crossing into the French-speaking region at Km 65 and leaving the pro route behind for the remainder of the day. 

The course was definitely flatter now as we headed through the open fields or past orchards of apple trees in full blossom around Beauvechain, passing near a military airport.  There was only one climb on the list worthy of mention, the Rue de Pecrot which hit nearly 14 percent.  It average 6 percent but went on for a long time.  It was quite warm now and I took off my armwarmers and was comfortable riding in shorts and short sleeves.  Many of the locals were fully outfitted with tights and jackets but they also looked like their body fat percentage was modest compared to mine!

There was a wonderful moment when I turned a corner and stopped to take a photograph of the cobbled climb that had suddenly appeared.  I moved over to the wide and smooth sidewalk/bikepath and as I took out my camera large groups of riders also appeared.  Everyone’s response  to the unexpected challenge of the cobbled was the same and as each group came by the lead riders swore audibly in Flemish, apparently from an inexhaustible source of curse words that seems to be their linguistic heritage. 


I was starting to get a bit tired now from the climbing (to say nothing of my laughably insufficient training) and was relieved when the second feed station appeared at Willebringen.  Some more waffles and the home stretch began.  I mentally braced myself for the hill at Neeverlpsestraat at Km 29 but it was pretty easy.  What was tougher was the final climb at Km 8 on Korbeekdamstraat, another 500 m with a maximum of 11 percent, and where I was not the only cyclist to suffer from leg cramps.  But soon enough the road dropped and we found ourselves on a fast run-in to Leuven and the Ladeuzeplein.

Crossing the finish line resulted in nothing more than a good feeling. No photographers.  No podium girls.  No podium.  Unlike the Paris-Roubaix Challenge there are no medals or, well, anything except marquees where plenty of club riders were already putting down plenty of beer.  Leuven, in addition to its ancient Catholic university, is also the home of Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest producer of beer.  Unlike German rides which often begin at sports grounds there were also no showers but it was a short drive for me to Kortrijk and my hotel.  The next day I would watch the Paris-Roubaix pro race with my own beer in hand from the comfort of a luxury tour bus but my experience at Brabantse Pijl, riding with 2400 others in the phantom wheeltracks of Eddy Merckx and the rest, just confirmed that Belgium remains one of cycling’s Promised Lands.

For more information about other amateur events organized by Proximus Cycling Challenges, go to the not entirely comprehensible sort-of trilingual website here.


Sunday, February 23, 2014

Book Review: Tour de France 100



100: that's a big number. Frenchman Robert Marchand was 100 years old when he set a new age group category record by cycling 100 kms in 4:17, soon after setting the One Hour Record for the same 100+ age group (of which he currently seems to be the only member) to crown his birthday activities. Well done, Robert! And to mark another 100th in France, VeloPress has produced an elegant photobook to celebrate the first 99 editions of cycling's greatest event, the Tour de France from 1903 to 2012.

Author Richard Moore, in “Tour de France 100,” begins at the beginning, seeking out the Cafe Zimmer where early in the last century on a November evening in Montmartre the Tour de France was first proposed by staff of the struggling L'Auto newspaper. From that small group discussion emerged a race that has, befitting its origins as a commercial vehicle, received exhaustive press coverage from the start, that has adjusted itself over the decades to meet the varying demands of print, radio, film, television and the Internet. The race has outlived the Cafe Zimmer (although it still exists as the Indiana Cafe) and grown into a global enterprise. Its strengths include the glorious stage of the entire nation of France (with a few foreign excursions), a cast of great athletes with larger-than-life eccentricities or tragic tales and titanic clashes to overcome geography, weather and rivals. The rules have been constantly adjusted as the organizers sought out ways to heighten the tension, broaden the challenge or, apparently, kill the riders.


Reaching backwards to that first decade, the book opens with a grainy black-and-white photo not of a triumphant racer cresting a ridge or hammering to a sprint finish or even passing any spectators. It is 1910 and Octave Lapize is there shoving his bicycle up the Tourmalet in the year that Tour included the Pyrenees in its itinerary. A Tour legend was born: Lapize (who was faster on foot than his nearest competitor riding up the pass) famously called Tour organizers “Assassins!” (or “Murderers!” in this account) as he crossed the Aubisque. From the first flattish race in 1903 the rate of difficulty had progressed until this day, July 21, when the organizers saw fit to have a stage beginning at 2 a.m. and running 326 km over seven major climbs. Lapize was the victor in a sprint finish (!) and was the overall winner in Paris at the end. A Tour legend was born: Lapize (who was faster on foot than his nearest competitor riding up the Tourmalet) famously called Tour organizers “Assassins!” (or “Murderers!” in this account) as he crossed the Aubisque. Tour founder Henri Desgrange seemed to confirm this with his comment at the finish line:

We brought far too many people to Paris, and there was not enough wastage...Out of 110 starters, 41 riders finished the race. I repeat this is far too many.

Lapize was to win a single Tour and was one of three champions to die in World War One.

The Tour has had its constant themes but there have been so many rule changes, seemingly at Desgrange's whim from time to time, it gets confusing to follow how the race was judged in the past. “Tour de France 100” is helpful in dividing the race into eras and offering explanations of exactly what was happening. The early days were never much about fair play or sporting nobility. The first winner, Maurice Garin, was stripped of his second title for cheating and the first double winner became Lucien Petit-Breton (1907 and 1908). An atmospheric photo shows Petit-Breton (who also died in the Great War) looking filthy and haggard on his heavy team Peugeot bicycle, held up by an immaculately-dressed white-clad gentleman (an official, perhaps or his trainer?). And moustaches all around.


The race continues after a break for World War One as the riders regroup in the shattered countryside. Another legend is born with the Unluckiest Man in the Tour (well, aside from those who actually got killed) as Eugene Christoph breaks a fork in the 1913 edition, drags his bike to a village blacksmith and hammers it back together at the forge, receiving a time penalty because a boy operated the bellows to keep the flames up for him. Christoph was the first to wear the Yellow Jersey in 1919, broke his fork again that year, probably costing him overall victory, and, yes, again in 1922 descending the Col du Galibier. He found yet another blacksmith's shop and did his repairs, noting in later years: “That accident didn't upset me as much as the others. By then I was a bit of an expert.”

The photos are wonderful, showing the bikes built more for strength than anything, their riders more like muddy desperadoes than Olympic sporting heroes. In 1924 there was a protest when Desgrange enforced another one of his flippant rules, this one requiring cyclists to finish with the same clothing as they began, meaning you could not shed any layers after a descent. The Péllisier brothers had enough and withdrew and a third rider joined them in a bar where a journalist wrote down their thoughts, eventually turning them into a book “The Convicts of the Road,” emphasizing the suffering cyclists had to endure. Henri Péllisier described the race as “a Calvary,” and his brother Francis produced a box of pills, saying “We run on dynamite.” Anger, suffering, controversy, doping: more fuel for the Tour publicity machine!


Henri Péllisier, who was prone to violence himself, ended up being fatally shot with five bullets in 1935. The rider who went on to win the year the brothers dropped out was Ottavio Bottechia, the first Italian winner who took the victory in 1925 as well as 1924 but died in mysterious circumstances on a training ride two years later.

The rules changes are not always clear as Desgrange and his men tried to find ways to make the race more exciting. Freewheels were not allowed for a number of years and variable gearing was not permitted before 1937, when cycle tourists had already been using it for at least a decade. Trade teams were dropped in favour of national teams (and sub-national ones) and Desgrange was appalled by the idea of support riders, belittling Maurice Brocco who helped François Faber to victory in 1911 as merely a servant, or domestique. The noble domestique, giving up his own chances for his team leader, became part of the Tour legend. It made Desgrange so angry that one year he basically turned the Tour into a series of time trial stages. The book offers a fine photo of Lucien Buysse leading Bottechia through Saint-Cloud in 1925 on the final stage that year. This faithful helper won the Tour himself the following year.



By the 1930s the reach of mass media broadened interest in the tour and that decade saw management passing from Desgrange, who retired in 1936 due to ill health and was replaced by Jacques Goddet, who was to run the race for the next half-century, immediately dropping the rule against multiple gears and opening up the opportunity for some technical advances in equipment. Roads were actually paved on some of the mountain passes, replacing the previous goat tracks, but the beginning of Goddet's reign did not make the challenges less, as a fine image from the 1937 race shows, picturing the peloton lined up at speed on the cobbles stones of Vannes in the cycling heartland of Brittany.


My own favourite era of the Tour begins after the Second World War, with black-and-white photos, superb in their details, highlighting the adventures of famous riders including Koblet, Bartali, Copp and Bobet, leading us eventually to the Five Time Winners. Anquetil and Merckx still belong to this period, seemingly so far in the past.


The era of colour photography begins and it is a bit jarring to see Anquetil, Merckx and Hinault together in 1987 in bright yellow jerseys, two retired riders and the still-aggressive “Badger” in the modern world. One likes to think that those jersey are still wool as clothing moved then into half-developed polyesters and some of the most tasteless designs ever.


The great joy in a comprehensive visual history of the Tour de France lies in the unfamiliar photos and here the old images bring the most pleasure as once we pass the time of blurry colour to today's super-sharp photos there is a sense no longer of wandering in a foreign land. This is not to say the photos are not excellent. High-speed cameras have frozen Ullrich attacking or Armstrong crashing better than anything in the old days but these seem familar and workaday to us.




The book concludes with the 2012 win of Bradley Wiggins, continuing the trend of victories by non-French riders and preparing the stage for Chris Froome's domination in 2013 at the 100th running of the race. And the race will probably remain the only sporting event with 100 races completed and only 93 winners but we don't need to rehash this.


The magic of “Tour de France 100,” which does feature excellent written commentary by Richard Moore, seems to be more in the distant haze of yesterday. Yes, there was plenty not to be nostalgic about and the reader can pick and choose his or her own view of the Tour de France and what it means. But the race's history is well-served by this finely-produced book with far too many excellent photos to describe. It should find a respected place among the many tomes dedicated to the ne plus ultra of bike races.

The Tour de France will surely go on to many more editions. And back in France on January 31 this year, Robert Marchand proved that 100 is only the start of things. Clearly having upped his training program in the last two years, Monsieur Marchand smashed his own One Hour Record in the 100+ age group.




Tour de France 100: A Photographic History of the World's Greatest Race

by Richard Moore
223 pp., ill., hardcover, VeloPress 2013
ISBN 978-1-937715-06-9
Suggested retail price: US$34.95

Available at www.velopress.com

Friday, February 14, 2014

WieMu: The Belgian National Cycling Museum




Belgium is an unusual country, with a population split between two different languages and religions and essentially having two separate governments except on national issues such as defence. A history of stubbornness and argumentation make it the ideal capital of the European Union, with its 27 contentious Member States. But everyone is agreed about the great things in Belgium: beer, chocolate, beer, frites, beer and its status as a cycling mecca, famed for its brutal Spring Classics and cobbled roads and muddy cyclocross races. And of course it has to offer not one but two excellent cycling museums. I already reported on my visit to the Tour of Flanders Center in Oudenaarde but for a more general picture of cycling in the country we go elsewhere, to the West Flanders town of Roeselare.

In Flemish the name Wielermuseum is “Bicycle Museum” and it refers to itself as WieMu. Housed in an impressive 19th Century armoury, the museum aims to provide a history of the bicycle as well as giving focus to racing, primarily on the road but also on the track and cross course. Entering through the arched doorway and after paying the reasonable admission price the visitor walks down a hallway with exhibits covering the very early history of the bicycle: there is a replica of Baron Drais' 1817 “Laufrad” as well as a very good replica of the Kirkpatrick Macmillan bicycle of 1839, allegedly the first to use pedals but the claim is now doubted by historians. Next up is a very fine Michaux velocipede from c. 1869.



From the crude beginnings of the bicycle we move now to the era of the high-wheeler and the museum gives visitors to sit on one and crank like mad, powering a camera so that they can see themselves. Of course the bicycles is firmly supported so no risk of falling on your head, unlike the brave velonauts of old.


There are work bicycles and military bicycles with guns and prim ladies' specials, all pre-dating the Great War. Next is a very interesting display that is actually a bike workshop that was relocated from the village of Heule, where it was opened by Maurice Hallaert in the 1930s. In 1946 the owner expanded operations to include bicycle saddle production in addition to bike repairs and sales. Joining his father in 1952, Marcel Hallaert oversaw further expansion, leading to handbuilt frame production under the Fietsen Hallaert tradename until 1969. In 1989 Marcel Hallaert donated the workshop to WieMu and one can see how self-contained bicycle production was back in the old days.





With the exception of the workshop, most of what is on display at the museum up to this point really does not have much to do with Belgium, a country that did not actually see any of its own bicycle production until the rather late date of 1891, when the Derby brand (yes, an English name for cachet) was introduced. But now comes the heart of the museum and probably the most interesting part: racing history.






The museum has an excellent collection of classic racing bicycles but really is strongest in post-World War II items. Of note is the red Flandria that Rik van Looy (“the Emperor of Herentals”) used to win the 1962 Paris-Roubaix race, one of the many highlights in a 17 year career that saw him become the first man to win all five “Monuments,” a feat since only accomplished by two other riders (both Belgian, of course).


Certainly the Belgians have produced many legendary cyclists and the museum devotes some space to a number of them, including Eddy Merckx (who does not get as much as space as one would imagine, given his palmares) and the more recent Johan Museeuw, Tom Boonen and Philippe Gilbert. There is a comprehensive collection of jerseys of long-forgotten-except-by-fans teams.



A sobering moment comes when the visitor reaches the entire display room devoted to the life and career of J ean-Pierre Monseré, nicknamed “Jempi.” A son of Roeselare, he turned professional in 1969, winning the Tour of Lombardy for Flandria the same year. In 1970 he became World Champion in Leicester, the second-youngest to do so at the time, and also won a national title on the track. His 1971 year began well with victory at the Vuelta a Andalucia but while competing in a local Belgium race he struck a car that had entered the course and died of his injuries. He was 22 years old and his medals, jerseys and the Lombardy bike are all on display at the museum. A memorial race in his name continues to be held every September.




The visitor next walks by a case of Tom Boonen memorabilia and can stand next to Philippe Gilbert's Canyon Speedmax time trial bike, displayed with team and Belgian champion tricolour jersey. Then there is a break from all this road racing history with a too-small display area devoted to track racing, including a stayer motorcycle, a derny pacesetting machine and some posters from Six Day Racing. Of particular note is a display case with souvenirs of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, including a fine portrait of Patrick Sercu who won gold in the 1000 m time trial and went on to become the greatest Six Day racer of the modern era with 88 wins.

Nick lusting for the Speedmax



A tip of the hat is given to cyclocross, but not much more which is surprising in light of the great success of Belgian riders and its extreme popularity in the country. But perhaps there will be exhibits in the future. A quick peek into the museum's attic will convince anyone that what is on display is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to WieMu's holdings (which include a box of Paris-Roubaix cobblestones!).





Of course the real tourist can enjoy getting photographed with a cutout to make himself look like Eddy Merckx or Freddy Maertens and there is a nicely-stocked store featuring historic replica jerseys, books and even, yes, beer. Who could resist a six-pack of Malteni beer, labelled in those familiar Merckx colours?


The Belgians have a great history in cycling and the WieMu,which offers changing exhibits, should be on the must-see list for a cycling fans. Unlike the other Flemish museum, the signs are in three languages so no dictionary is needed to enjoy it all. And even though cycling is a Big Deal in the country, they don't always take it so seriously either.


WielermuseumPolenplein 15
8800 Roeselare
Belgium 
Telephone:051 26 87 40
e-mail: wielermuseum@roeselare.be
Website: http://www.wielermuseum.be/en/home/ Note: a good part of this in English but at some point they just gave up translating so be prepared to switch to Flemish or French!
Opening Hours: Tuesday to Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm