Thursday, July 1, 2004

Oudenaarde, Belgium

Friends: Belgium continues to offer up one bicycling homage site after another. In Roselare there was the National Cyclist Museum, equally divided between tracing the history of the bicycle and celebrating those who have raced with an emphasis on the Belgians. There were several rooms of penny farthings and other historic bikes.

There have been enough exceptional Belgian racers that every few months the museum devotes a special exhibit to one of them. On hand helping to administer the museum and greeting visitors was 52-year old living-legend Freddie Maertens, a contemporary of Eddie Merckx. Maertens was crown prince to his kingship. He won the world road-racing championship twice, one less than Merckx. He holds the record for most stage wins in a single year at the Tour de France with eight. He also holds the record for number of wins in a year with over 50.

Just the Saturday before his home town a few miles north of Roselare honored him with the placement of his bust in the town's square. I had read about it at He was taken aback that an American knew about his latest accolade. We talked about many of the roads that I have recently cycled and that he had raced upon. I asked him which was his most feared climb, Mont Ventoux or L'Alp d'Huez or another. He was a sprinter, who just endured the climbs. He said he hated them all. How he fared on each depended on how he felt that day. We had such a amiable conversation I thought he was going to invite me to camp in his backyard, but unfortunately it was 50 miles out of my way. I would have liked to have seen his bust, but I was headed to the Museum of the Tour of Flanders in the opposite direction.

Earlier in the day I had swung by Ghent, a working-class city of 200,000 similar to Liege, but without all the hills. It too was steeped in bike lore. I expected to find something bike-related worthy of genuflection, but all I encountered was a retired English couple a month into a tour on a tandem recumbent. I was circling around the main plaza when someone hollered at me in impeccable English, "Where are you from." The bike again. If I were backpacking or pulling a suitcase on a leash or being led by a dog, no one would have paid me any mind. Ian and his wife had just arrived in Ghent by freighter from Scandinavian and were still recovering from the voyage. Ian was fuming that they were part of a cargo of auto parts. "The damn auto industry runs the world," this English Jim Redd ranted. "If I'd known our cargo, I would've waited for another freighter, but here we are. Isn't this a great city? Where are you headed?" Unfortunately not the direction of this character, nor could I entice him to join me on my museum route.

The Museum of the Tour de Flanders in Oudenaarde was another full-fledged, well laid-out museum in spacious and substantial quarters and in the town center for easy access to all. The Tour of Flanders is one of the premier one-day spring classics. It dates to 1913 and though it was halted by WWI, it didn't let WWII deter it, unlike the Tour de France. It is famous, like Paris-Roubaix, for its stretches of cobblestones, some on gradients of up to 20 per cent. The museum promised a virtual reality immersion into what it was like to ride the 150 miles of the Tour de Flanders past screaming crowds and up steep, cobbled inclines.

First off was a 17-minute film in an auditorium with a three-paneled screen that fully captured the festive spirit of the fans and the heroics of the riders. There were at least 25 video monitors throughout the museum showing the riders and the fans at fever pitch over the decades. There were countless close views of the racers gives extreme efforts of such intensity it appeared as if their lives depended on it. Some were trying to stay away, others to keep up or catch up. Most thrilling was the burst of extreme jubilation of the winner. It was all most stirring.

One could mount a bike for a simulated ride up any of the race's sixteen climbs in front of a screen. A clock on the screen timed one's effort. A second clock showed the time of any legend one cared to ride against. The pedaling resistance increased as the slope steepened. There was an echo chamber of a room with the sound of fans going berserk cheering on the racers as they passed. The fans give almost as much effort as the racers. Charts showed the amount of energy riders expended and calories they needed to consume--about 6,700 compared to the basic metabolism of 1,800 and the 10,000 of a mountain stage of the Tour de France. The gift shop contained dozens of books on bike racing, including a couple of biographies of Freddie Maertens.

Now its off to Roubaix, just across the border into France, and its velodrome, the finish to the
grand-daddy of all the one-day races, Paris-Roubaix. It was first held in 1896, preceding the Tour de France by seven years. But before I leave Belgium, I will stock up on waffles. They are so popular, they can be found in several sections of the Belgian supermarkets. Some are among the pastries, while the gourmet ones with various stuffings are under refrigeration, and then there are those that can be found among the produce. One can't leave the supermarket without a pack or two. They may be best warm out of a toaster, but I am happy to eat them cold, smeared with honey.

Later, George

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