These words are being written on the night after Wout van Aert takes his first individual stage win in the Tour de France! An amazing day for him, for cycling but for all of us cyclocross riders.
The first thing that needs to be said and needs to be clear is that I never aspired a career as road cyclist or even worse… a professional road cyclist. From the first day I started cycling I have always seen myself riding, running and struggling through deep mud. I just wanted to be outside, be offroad and get home as dirty as possible. That was in the time when I was still living with my parents, now-a-days that opinion has changed because I have to do my own laundry.
The two years I got to experience racing on the continental level learned me how to be a cyclist and how to play the game on this level. Racing on this level in UCI races together with continental and pro continental teams is already very professional. Teams are actually starting the races with a race plan, there is control in the peloton and almost all riders have a specific job during the race.
But where is this going…
After leaving this (semi) professional team and starting to race as in individual rider I wasn’t allowed to start those road races anymore. But to get in shape for the cyclocross season you need some of those hard road races and preferably stage races. Racing every day is very hard, but a good investment towards the winter. Well, since you can’t enter a stagerace on the road on your own the only option left was to travel to Belgium and become a ‘’kermiscoureur’’. There are so many races here all over the country that you can race every day if you want, all those races are around 110-120 km and the laps are always 5-12km long. I’ve finished my first block of racing now and I’ve done three of those races in a row. I came to a complete new world for me, with complete new riders, new rules and a complete different way of racing.
Let me first try to describe a few key elements:
Even though registration and all results are found online hardly anybody does this. When I registered online for the first three races they all had 15-22 riders registered for their race. My first thought where: ‘’well it will be harder to not get prize money then to win the race’’ (prizes go 20 deep). But apparently hardly any rider signs up online and they all just show up to the local bar/pub/café or whatever place the ‘’race officials’’ put their tables. And no matter where you come in Belgium, there will always be a café somewhere around and the finish line is at 95% of the races a straight line to the entrance of this café.
The first I did was in Emelgem-Izegem, registration was in ‘’café Rumba’’, this was just a normal road with all just normal houses besides it. Then out of the blue one of those houses had a big sign which said ‘’café Rumba’’ and the owners just turned a big living room into a bar. Neighbours where living on each side of the bar and the little 10 square meter front garden was the outside part of this bar. But the registration, number pickup and prize money handout was all being organized from the back of the Rumba!
Google streetview tells us that this café was already there 10 years ago… (Picture is taken at June 2009) & Finish street of the race.
But it wasn’t only café Rumba, last Sunday I was racing in Oosternieuwkerke. For this race the registration was in ‘’café de Posthoorn’’, as always I show up around one hour before the race when the organizers are building up the finish area. The Posthoorn doesn’t really seem to be so busy that day and there is only one person standing outside. I put my bike against the building and I open the door. The smell of going back 50 years in time was the first thing that reached my sensed when I opened the door, but I still couldn’t see inside. Before the first glimpse of this legendary café I had to move aside the brown, and hairy insect curtain. I am not a germaphobe, but I could’ve become one that afternoon in July… As I was inside this café, it was very crowded and the combinations of spilled beer, smoking, weird food, old stuff and all those people the smell was very unique in it own Belgian way. And of course as always the registration was all the way in the back of the café so you had to swim yourself through it to get your number. I was happy to be outside again because at just five minutes inside I’d already forgotten what this thing called fresh air actually felt like.
Enough about the registration and what goes on before there is a number pinned to your jersey.
The first race I did over here had over 50% of foreign riders! Even though I am technically also a foreigner it still feels a bit different if you’re in a country where they speak the same language and where you know your way around so well. But the amount of English speaking riders was insane, and this was actually the case in all the three races I did so far! I’ve seen riders from all over the world already in three days racing kermesses in Belgium. A lot of Australian riders are always over, English riders, a few American and quite a few Eastern European riders. I’ve been in a breakaway with a Russian rider, I’ve ridden next to a Lithuanian rider and I’ve seen quite some Southern American riders (but I am not sure where they exactly come from). Besides that I also saw quite few French riders and of course Belgian, strange to say that I’ve actually seen one other Dutch guy in one race. So in all these little villages, in all these kermesse races there is actually a very big international starting field in every race!
As I said before online registration is not really popular but every race there are 70-80 riders showing up to race. And there are also races where these numbers double. And the strange thing is, it seems like every day there are almost complete new pelotons from different riders.
Way of racing
This can be described very short as: free for all! There is hardly any organisation during these races and almost everybody is racing for themselves. These races are always going really fast, they are always attacking and there is never any rest. I saw attacks at the weirdest moments and at the strangest places. But this keeps the pace up all the time and makes it really hard racing but also really good training!
Basically everything I learned on the continental level from riders with a lot of experience could be thrown away because this is a complete different game and mainly also with different riders. I’ve heard that there are quite some ‘’specialists’’ and they only focus on these kind of races. These guys know exactly what to do and how to do it. And then I am there as a ‘’newby’’ to this game and having no background information about any of these riders. Every attack is a gamble for me… ‘’should I jump with this group or not’’. For me this is a gamble every time, I just try to base my decisions on the size of the legs and mainly the calves. Also the bike position and the way they are riding, if a rider is very relaxed and in control of the situation you know he is playing this game already much longer and then I just assume that he knows what he is doing.
And yes I’ve wasted a lot of energy attacking with wrong riders, but I also have been lucky to jump away with the right riders. In this kind of racing a lot can happen and there are a lot of different riders can win.
What is left to come
At the moment it is late in the evening of my first race day. Three of the 8 races are done and there are five more to do! In the next two days I’ll be racing in Wachtebeke and in Vrasene, these two races are in the area of Antwerp where I am also currently staying. On this rest day I had a transfer from Roeselare where I had an awesome time to Sint-Gilles-Waas where I am staying now with some long known friends. Life is good here in Belgium but racing is hard!
Stay tuned because more is coming, in the next part we are going to take a closer look in the gambling in these races!