Sunday, June 30, 2019

Cycling Among the Treetops and Through the Water

The Flemish hardly need any inducement to ride their bikes. They are regularly out and about riding recreationally and tending to their business. There are hundreds of miles of signposted bikeways. There may be competition trying to entice recreational riders, as one vast network of popular cycling paths through thick forested terrain fifty miles east of Brussels near the border with Holland has added some outrageous razzmatazz to make them even more attractive to cycle—a winding path on stilts that climbs up among the tree tops of towering pines and another path that dips down to cut through a lake putting cyclists at eyelevel with the water. They have to be seen to be believed.

“The Guardian” has written about them twice in the last two months and thanks to my journalist friend Jeff back in Chicago, who is insatiable in his reading and alerted me to the articles, I was able to partake of these spectacles on a sunny Sunday with swarms of other cyclists. Otherwise I wouldn’t have known of them. I’ve been in Belgium for ten days cycling all over telling people I was visiting cycling sites before setting off with The Tour France, yet no one mentioned these recent cycling treasures. It was a stark contrast to South Africa where people were constantly telling me I ought to ride “The Cape Argus,” an annual ride in Cape Town along its spectacular coastline that attracts thousands of cyclists from all over the country.  

Cycling Among the Treetops just opened and is being promoted with billboards in the surrounding area, while Cycling Through the Water has been possible for three years. I certainly will be asking all I encounter in Belgium during my remaining week here if they have experienced them yet and encourage anyone who hasn’t to make sure they do.  

I rode both with locals who had driven 30 and 50 miles to ride them for the first time. Both segments are several miles from the small towns they are near deep into the forest, so I was fortunate to be led to them by people who had the directions, as they were no specific signs to them, just part of the cycling paths that one comes upon. The couple who led me to the Treetop ride weren’t even sure where it was on the 25-ride they had planned for the day. It came after five miles of pristine riding through the forest, that would have been a noteworthy ride by itself.

When I stopped to ask the couple if they knew the way to the tree ride they were beside their car in the town of Hecktel-Ecksel about to set out. They said they had electric bikes so they wrote down for me the numbers of the paths to follow (258, 257, 272, 275, 266...), as they didn’t expect me to be able to keep up with them. They were only riding at 12 miles per hour, so that was no problem.  

They had converted to electric four years ago when the wife started hauling their grandchildren to school in a trailer attached to her bike. There was no going back. There were quite a few others on electric bikes, including a grand dame of a woman wearing pearls and a fancy dress, merrily enjoying a day in the woods on a bike. I felt lucky to be sharing it with them all. Most were maintaining the same pace, so it was just one long promenade.
I don’t know which would have been more pleasing, coming upon these paths beyond the realm of imagination not expecting them or having the anticipation I felt as I neared them and then having a burst of delight seeing their incongruity. It might have been too bewildering not to know what it was.  

The rise was gentle enough no one needed to dismount and walk, though plenty of people were pausing for a photo, including us. It’s a circular route up two tenths of a mile and then bending back down around itself two tenths of a mile. I had to do it twice and might have done it a few times more if I weren’t eager to get to the path through the pond twelve miles away in another locality.  
There too I was fortunate to encounter a cyclist at a stop light at what I presumed was the turn to the nature preserve of Bokrijk-Gent who knew the directions and was a first-timer. He too was on an electric bike who forced me up to fifteen miles per hour for the three miles to the waterway. He was in a bit of a hurry as he was meeting friends from Brussels that he had come with who had gone ahead to spend some time at a horse preserve. When we met up with them he said I could mount one of the sturdy work horses if I wished.
I gave me head a shake of disbelief at the first sight of the small lake intersected by heads just above the water gliding through it in the distance. 

It’s true, just like the photos in “The Guardian,” some consortium of Belgians made like Moses and parted the waters of this lake for cyclists to have some surreal experience. Rather than feeling as if I were submerging as I dipped between the waters I felt lofted. This was another cycling experience like no other that had to be repeated.

There were even more people here pausing, not wanting to leave, than back in the treetops. Maybe if there’d been simians in the trees, as there were ducks and geese here to behold, people would have lingered longer. The water creatures here kept people around. This too I had to bike through more than once, and like many, I reached out for a scoop of water as I cycled along. 

This is still Flemish Belgium, by far the longest spell I’ve spent in this portion of the country. I continue to be struck by the cordiality and downright neighborliness of just about everyone I encounter.  People are genuinely welcoming and helpful, as not too many outsiders visit the region.  No one flinches at having to speak English as most have a significant degree of fluency.  Until this year I much better knew the French half of Belgium as The Tour has taken me through the hilly Ardennes several times with two Grand Départs in Liege and another in Rotterdam, as it prefers to test the peloton with the more demanding terrain than the largely flat of the rest of the country. I rode 80 miles on Sunday without once needing the small chain ring.  

The Flemish half of the country is decidedly more committed to cycling than the French. It is a dominant feature of life among the Flemish. Motorists matter-of factly defer to cyclists. Even 18-wheelers will stop to let a cyclist cross the road.  Motorists aren’t rushing to cut me off as the speedy French are prone to. do.   In the French half I’ve been subjected to hostility unlike I’ve experienced anywhere else in year’s past, as there there seems a residue of hostility among some towards cycling as if it is an expression of their regard for the Flemish. Cycling with Vincent of Melbourne one year a passenger in a car whipped a tennis ball at me as hard as he could, with it glancing off my back. Another year with Andrew of Sydney a car swerved into us and then shot us with spray of windshield wiper fluid that he had positioned to squirt at cyclists.  

I was somewhat leery about having to return to Belgium for The Tour this year, but it has been almost idyllic.  It’s been a bit warm, but not as extreme as France.  Belgium can be wet and cold, so I am happy it has been sunny and dry.  I will be slipping into French Belgium for three days before returning to Brussels for the presentation of the teams on Thursday with hopes that my good fortune prevails.

Friday, June 28, 2019


Eddy Merckx has been heaped with honors for decades as the greatest cyclist ever, not the least of which is having a subway station in Brussels named for him, but he is no doubt taking special pleasure that The Tour de France is commencing in Brussels this year in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of his first of five Tour wins.  

Sidewalks all over the city are emblazoned with the phrase “Are You R’Eddy.” One is under the most striking of the many decorations around town honoring The Tour—an arch of Yellow Bikes on the Mont des Arts overlooking the capital designed by a team of local sculptors led by Xavier Mineur.  It is almost as stunning as the magnificent globe of bicycles that highlighted the many Tour decorations at last year’s Grand Départ in the Vendée.

The Place de Brouckère is decorated with Yellow Wheels hung over the boulevard-turned-walkway while a giant Yellow Jersey hangs on a city building at the far end of the plaza.  Young children cavorted in jets of water in the plaza under the Yellow Jersey.  It has been hot, near 90, but not as blistering as France.

Elsewhere around the city, the columns on a centuries old civic building were wrapped in The Tour colors, a gesture of stark juxtaposition that always brings an extra measure of delight, moreso than giant Yellow Jerseys or the many other versions of yellowification that towns adopt.

On the outskirts of the city,  the emblem of Brussels as well as Belgium, the Atomium that dates to the 1958 World’s Fair,  had one of its giant nine spheres, each representing a province of Belgium, plastered in Yellow with the figure of a cyclist.  This giant sculpture/architectural marvel represents a unit cell of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times.  There is a restaurant in the top sphere and galleries in the others.

I would have thought the other emblem of the city in the town center, a statue of a boy peeing, would have been cloaked in Yellow, but not yet.  It was a focal point for tourists, many shooting selfies.

In my wanderings around the city I paused in a shady park for my usual Belgian lunch, a two-pack of cheeseburgers that supermarkets sell for 99 cents.  The other supermarket bargain is peanut butter, at least in contrast to France, where a small jar of Jiffy goes for five dollars.   A Belgian brand goes for prices comparable to back home, so for a time I don’t have to restrict my peanut butter intake to an occasional sandwich, but can indulge in a spoonful or two in the middle of the night when I awake hungry or when the urge strikes during the day for some instant energy, truly savoring it as I mainline a hit.

I was surrounded in the park by clusters of four or five Africans sprawled on blankets in the shade, immigrants from the former Belgian colonies who may or may not be enjoying their new life.  A white van pulled up shortly after noon and an older guy and two young women set up a couple of tables and put out a basket of bread and a large bowl of soup.  For nearly an hour they served a never-ending line of mostly Africans.

My wanderings also took me to the Eddy Merckx subway station four miles from the city center in the south west corner of the metropolis, one stop from the end of the line.  As I was trying to figure out how to buy a ticket at the fully-automated station so I could go down below and see the Merckx bike that was said to be on display, I confirmed with someone leaving the station that there was indeed a Merckx bike there.  When I asked him how to buy a ticket, he handed me his and said it was still good.

At the bottom of the escalator on the platform between two sets of tracks was the unlikely site of an illuminated, sparkling like new, orange track bike in a glass display case.  It was the historic bike that Merckx had set the hour record on in Mexico City in 1972, a record that stood for 28 years until Chris Boardman broke it.  I have often read mentions of and heard references to this subway station, not the least of were cracks from Lance Armstrong, a pal of Merckx’s, that he would like to steal the bike at the station, that I almost considered it a myth. It was a thrill to finally lay eyes upon this relic.  It epitomizes as much as anything the elevated status of Merckx in his homeland.

Even before he won his first Tour, he was a national hero. When he was evicted from the Giro d’Italia in 1969 before the 17th stage while wearing the Pink Jersey for a doping allegation that was rescinded so the Italian favorite Gimondi could win the race, the president of Belgium sent the presidential plane to Italy to bring him home. In another era this affront might have led to war. Merckx had won the Giro the year before and the Italians weren’t happy at all that  this young upstart was about to do it again. As it was, he went on to win it four more times, the most of anyone. He had yet to ride The Tour at the time, his team not wanting to subject him to its rigors just yet, but when he did ride The Tour a month after this Giro debacle, he won it in a dominating fashion that had never been seen before, truly establishing his legend.

Merckx’s 1969 win ended a thirty-year drought for Belgium.  It had once owned The Tour winning it seven times straight from 1912 to 1922, with four years broken by WWI, by four different riders. Belgians also won it three of the four years before WWII.  Only one Belgian has won it since Merckx, Lucien Van Impe in 1976, two years after Merckx’s last win.  The day before my arrival in Brussels I had passed a statute of Van Impe in  a roundabout in Mere, his place of birth.  France laments not having a Tour winner since Hinault in 1985.  Belgium has been without nine years longer. 

Brussels was not only celebrating the 50th anniversary of Merckx’s first Tour win, but also had an exhibition honoring the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Yellow Jersey.  It was a worthy appendum to a similar, much more exhaustive, exhibition at a sports museum in Nice I checked out after Cannes.  It didn’t have the many relics of the museum, but it gave a thorough history of the Yellow Jersey and supplemented it with a host of fascinating anecdotes I didn’t recall from Nice.  It mentioned that Hinault wore the Jersey in every
Tour he rode, all eight of them, something no other rider can claim.  Equally amazing is Poulidor having been on the podium eight times with three seconds and five thirds, but not for a single day did he ever wear the Yellow 
Jersey.   And yet he is the most beloved of all French riders, receiving far more accolades along The Tour route than Hinault, even though Hinault should make all of France proud for being one of the all-time greats.

Hinault was among a handful of racers who abandoned The Tour while in Yellow.  The exhibit cited six incidents when no one wore the Jersey during The Race other than on the first stage.  Once was by Zoetemelk when Hinault had to quit the race with knee pain in 1980.  Merckx did the same in 1971 when he inherited the Jersey due to Ocaña’s crash in the Pyrenees.  Kubler was the first to establish this tradition in 1950 when Magni while in Yellow withdrew from The Race.  The other three incidents were all oddities: in 1920 in its second year when the organizers forgot to give the Jersey to Thys, in 1925 when the Italian Bottecchia didn’t want to draw attention from his avid Italian fans on a stage that started in Briançon near the Italian border and in 1949 when a soigneur forgot to have it for Colleus, a tragedy as it was the only stage of The Race that he was in the lead.

It is commonly known that only three times has a rider worn the Jersey from the start to the finish—Bottecchia in 1924, Frantz in 1928 and Maes in 1935–but this exhibit points out that each of them wore the Jersey in a subsequent Tour.  Three is also the number of times a Tour has been won on the last stage—Robic in 1947, Janssen in 1968 and LeMond in 1989.

A small theater showed short vignettes of Tour history.  One was of that dramatic time trial culminating on the Champs Elysses in 1989 with Fignon collapsing in agony, squandering his 50 second lead and losing by eight seconds, while LeMond erupted in glee as the seconds counted down in his favor.  I sat for over an hour watching them all, many I had seen before, but never tire of and some that were new to me, though I well knew of them, such as the peloton spontaneously stopping mid-stage when they spotted DeGaulle in the crowd of his home town, with everyone removing their caps out of respect and DeGaulle shaking hands with many of the riders.  

After a day in Brussels I now know my way around.  When I return next week I’ll know how to find my way to the presentation of the teams in front of the Grand Palace on Thursday night and to where the peloton will be starting and finishing on Saturday.   I’ll also know the way out to a campground eight miles from the city center in Grimbergen, next to Mease, the suburb where the Merckx bicycle factory is located. In the meantime I will venture off into the hilly and forested Ardennes for some more cycling sites as I count down the days to what I have been training for the past month.  I am more than ready.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019


There is no arguing that cycling is religion in Belgium. There are sculptures of bikes and statues of cycling heroes everywhere, many in front of churches. Bike lanes and paths accompany most roads and are in active use and don’t lead one astray as those in Holland and Germany tend to do.This past weekend with sunny weather I thought I had slipped into Holland with all the folk out having a good time on their bikes—parents with children and elderly couples mostly on sit-up-and-beg bikes and the Lycra set as well on souped up deluxe machines. Bikes out in front of homes with a “Te Koop” (for sale) sign were a common site, not of people giving up cycling, but rather having upgraded their bike.   

The National Bicycle Museum in Roeselare certainly affirms the “cycling as religion” coda opening its doors at ten a.m. Sunday mornings and with lofty benedictions accompanying many of its exhibits extolling the bicycle and those who ride them. Cycling champions are more than heroes in Belgium. They are figureheads representing their city or region if not the nation.

The museum is housed in a gallant three-story building that had formerly been a fire station. It’s 
large main hall, that had previously served as the municipal festival hall, has been christened the “World Champions Room” in honor of the four residents of Roeselare who have worn the rainbow stripes of the world championship—Benoni Beheyt, Patrick Sercu, Jean-Pierre Monteré and Freddy Maertens—and has a special presentation every few months.

It’s present exhibit joins The Tour de France in commemorating the 50th anniversary of Eddie Merckx’s first of five Tour wins with fifty vintage Yellow Jerseys and one more in a special case in front of them, Merckx’s Jersey from 1969, as Merckx happened to be wearing the number 51 that year.  In following Tours he was assigned the number 1 as defending champion.

Besides the four locals who had won a world championship, Roeselare is also home to the first Belgian to win The Tour de France—Odiel Defraeye in 1912, the tenth Tour. I asked the two women at the reception desk if he was buried in Roeselare. They didn’t know and spent a fruitless internet search for several minutes, but they did let me know there was a statue of him in the neighborhood where he grew up a mile away. It faced a cathedral mounted on a map of France detailing the route of The Tour he won.

My continued wanderings through Flanders alternating between main thoroughfares and narrow byways that had once been cobbled paths through the fields of grains took me to Moorslede where a race was being held on a several mile circuit around and through the town.  Fans were scattered along the route in lawn chairs.  These races are so prevalent that the US cycling federation maintains a house in 
the city of Izegem not far away housing young up-and-coming American racers.   In fromt of the sports complex in Moorslede was a statue of Cyriel Van Hauwaert, an early day cyclist who won two of the Five Monuments in 1908–Paris-Roubaix and Milan-San Remo—and finished fourth in The Tour in 1910.

The small town of Wontergem honored the 1926 Tour champion, Lucien Buysse, with a statue in front of its church.

Also in the vicinity, Kanegem, had a statue of Briek Schotte in front of its cathedral with the added adornment of his name in red as 2019 is the hundredth anniversary of his birth. He was a two-time world champion, 1948 and 1950, and two-time winner of the Tour of Flanders, 1942 and 1948, which may rank higher in the eyes of the Belgians.  Unlike The Tour de France and Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders was not curtailed during WWII, just WWI.

I ventured into the large city of Gent to pay homage to Tom Simpson, the British cyclist who died on Mont Ventoux in 1967.  He made Gent his home and is remembered with a bust at its legendary velodrome, which hosts the most-renowned of the Six-Day races.  He is honored in Belgium for having won the Tour of Flanders as well as the World Championships.  Unfortunately the velodrome is pretty much closed except for the winter Six-Days, so I had to settle for a sculpture on the exterior of the run-down warehouse of a building of three racers in furious battle.  The park it resides in is also home to an art museum and a vast expanse of green space.

A couple miles away is a new velodrome named for Merckx where Belgian track racers can practice their craft.  The parking lot was lined with vehicles emblazoned with the Belgian racing federation for race use.

From Ghent it was twenty miles due south to Oudenaarde, the starting point of the Tour of Flanders in it main plaza in front of a glassy museum devoted to the race.  It was no catastrophe that I arrived in the early evening as I’d visited this first-rate museum with a host of interactive exhibits a few years ago.  I sat in the plaza studying my GPS device looking for a patch of forest in the vicinity to camp in as is necessary in densely settled Belgium in contrast to France where I know one will turn up in short order no matter where I am.  

Before I settled on one an elderly gent joined me and introduced himself as a fellow touring cyclist. He had three trips to his credit all starting from Oudenaarde—to the Nordkapp of Norway, to Spain and to Greece.  After several minutes of conversation his wife joined us.  She was equally amiable and fluent in English.  This is the most time I’ve spent in Flanders and I’ve been enjoying it more and more.  Unlike France nearly everyone speaks English.  Someone I mentioned it to was not surprised, saying,“The French are French,” and that this Flemish sector feels so distinct from the French half of Belgium that they should be two countries.

As we talked, Francois told me he preferred wildcamping in his travels whenever he could and knew how easy and satisfying it is and wouldn’t discourage me from it, but that if I’d like I could camp in the garden of the house they’d recently sold.  It was a couple miles away at the top of the sister-hill to the Koppenberg, the most notorious cobbled climb of the Tour of Flanders with a grade of 22 per cent that has resulted in some of the most iconic photos of the race with riders falling over and nearly being run over by fellow racers and race motorcycles and automobiles. The home was presently being converted into a 15-bed hostel of a sort for cyclists.  His wife said she was sure it would be all right, but first she would call the new owner. 

The new owner was happy to allow me to be his first guest.  I was only sorry that my stay didn’t include the opportunity to meet him, as he is a prominent figure in Belgian cycling with a wealth of knowledge, and a world-class athlete himself with a Wikipedia page (Christophe Impens) having competed in the 1996 Atlantic Olympics as a runner.  Raphaelle said she would drop her 81-year old husband off at their apartment, then meet me in front of the cathedral in Melden less than a mile from their former home of over forty years and lead me there.  It was a steep climb, but more reasonable than the Koppenberg and paved. 

She had told me it had the best view in the area, and she was right about that.  It looked out over a tranquil stretch of rich farmland. It was eight p.m., but two industrious guys were still at work finishing off a new patio.  The home will offer primo lodging for cyclists who come to ride the roads of Flanders or to watch the race.  I asked one of the workers if the Koppenberg was the best place to watch the race.  He said there wasn’t a bad place to view it, that it is all exciting. As I have been riding the roads of the race, the words of Christian Vande Velde keep coming back to me.  He said that the mere mention of the Tour of Flanders gives him goose bumps as it is such a thrill to ride amongst such maniacal fans over such storied terrain.

As is the case all over Belgium there was a bar catering to cyclists near the Koppenberg bearing its name.  And a few miles away on the Oude Kwaremont, a mere eleven per cent climb,  a bed-and-breakfast catered to cyclist.

Beyond the Oude Kwaremont back on pavement the road was stenciled with the name of the winner of each year’s race and there was a promenade of iconic photos from the race including a beaming Tommy Simpson in his Peugeot cap, when he was a teammate of Merckx.

A roundabout into Brakel before the twelve per cent paved Valkenberg climb was a massive web of old bicycles.  From a distance I had no idea that the contorted mass of metal ahead was another homage to the bicycle and the Tour of Flanders.

Another of the more brutal climbs of Flanders comes in Geraardsbergen up from the Dender River.  All along the climb, which reaches nineteen per cent, plaques recounted its past dating to 1950 when it was first introduced to the race. All through this sizeable town were signs to the “Muur.”

Near the summit a poem in Flemish on a metal plate with the words stenciled out celebrated Merckx.

A little further on the wall of a cafe a poem extolled Briek Schotte. 

A small chapel resides at the summit of the climb, a favorite picture of photographs with the hillside packed with screaming fans.  The photos usually crop out the crucifix.  It was here that Peter Sagan took a fall in 2016. The Tour de France peloton will be here a week from Saturday on Stage One and could well provide the photo from the stage that will be in newspapers all over the world the next day. 

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Into Belgium

Bike sculpture in Koolskamp

Bike sculpture in Ichtegem

Bust of Freddie Maertens in Lombardsijde

Plaque at entry to the Gistel sports complex

Plaque at entry to the Gistel sports complex

I’ve been listening to the audiobook “Dreaming of Jupiter: In Search of the World—Thirty Years On”  by Ted Simon of his motorcycle trip around the world  in 2001, repeating his trip of 27 years before that resulted in the seminal book “Jupiter’s Travels,” as fine a book as I’ve read capturing the essence of  traveling by bike, pedal or otherwise. There’s hardly a page in that book that I didn’t underline some passage that spoke to the heart of the matter.  I’m excited to finally meet him at the end of July at a slow travel festival in Le Caylar north of Montpellier organized by a friend, who invited Simon to give a presentation at my suggestion, as he now lives in a small village nearby.

Simon turned  70 during his second trip and wasn’t as inclined to camp as much as he did on his first trip, and laments that he fears might be trending towards becoming the traveler he despises, but he certainly should have no worries of that,  traveling as independently as he does, traversing desert terrain in Africa and subjecting himself to the rough roads of India and South America and elsewhere.  Rarely does a chapter pass that his motorcycle doesn’t fail him in some manner from parts breaking to falling over in impossible situations requiring the help of others to right.  He constantly has to rely on the goodwill of strangers or contacts back home to get some part replaced or repaired.

I finally had such an experience myself when I discovered my bottom bracket had considerable play and needed to be replaced.  It was sealed, so there was no possibility of tightening it or replacing a cup or bearings.  I presumed it would be just the simple procedure of removing the old one and inserting a new one that any mechanic could perform.

I was in a city with a Decathlon, which has a large bicycle department.  The mechanic instantly recognized that my fifteen-year old Trek had a semi-obsolete bottom bracket.  He didn’t have one, but said he knew of several bike shops in the vicinity that might.  The nearest was owned by the father of Cedric Vasseur, a recent Tour de France rider.  It would be an honor to have him work on my bike.

The mechanic called to see if he had the part.  After placing the call he shook his head and said his shop was closed this day.  He tried another shop and got the same message, then explained, “I forgot, today is Thursday.  That’s the day when most bike shops in Flanders are closed. If you don’t mind biking twenty miles to Lille I’m pretty sure our super store there will have the part.”

That was fine with me.  Before he placed the call he removed both crank arms from my bike to get a precise measurement on the length of my bottom bracket and also to count the number of splines on it that made this Shimano part unique.  He had to wait a couple minutes for the person he called to check their inventory.  “You’re in luck,” he reported.  “They have it and will be able to do the repair when you arrive. They’ll be waiting for you.”

This was the same good fortune that Ted Simon experienced every time he suffered some calamity.  People invariably are happy to go out of their way to help a traveler in distress.  I was surprised how quickly my bottom bracket had deteriorated, as I do check it from time to time, and there had only been a slight wobble a week ago.  Now that I knew how bad it was, I could feel it as I pedaled along.  I was looking forward to a new one, hoping it would lessen the effort I was expending to propel myself.

I felt lucky it happened in a land of abundant bike parts and not off in Senegal or Madagascar as I’ve been the previous two winters. I’ve broken parts on the bike here and there in far-flung places, but the only time it was a near-travesty was when I broke my rear axle in Iceland.  It was a tandem hub with a rare axle not to be found in Iceland.  Luckily it happened on my last day of my tour in Reykjavik and I was able to limp to the airport without putting much pressure on the broken axle.

The Decathlon in Lille was a giant warehouse exclusively devoted to the bicycle, possibly the largest bike store in the world.  It adjoined the factory that makes many of the Decathlon line of bike parts.  It’s repair room was bigger than most bike stores and staffed by over a dozen mechanics in matching smocks, who all looked as if they had years of experience.  The mechanic who took my bike attached a couple hooks to it and hoisted it a few feet from the floor without removing any of my panniers and dove right in.

After he removed the cranks and took a close look at the bottom bracket he had the bad news that it wasn’t the part he thought it was.  He could still replace the bottom bracket but would have to replace the cranks as well.  That wasn’t as bad news as it could have been, as we could see the teeth on my two smaller chain rings were badly worn and needed replacing anyway.

They had a crank set that would actually be cheaper than replacing the chain rings.  The only drawback was that the smallest chainring would have 28 teeth, compared to the 26 I’d had.  I could live with that.  I left him to perform the operation while I ventured off to a dining area to eat a couple of pâté sandwiches I’d brought.  I was back on my bike in less than an hour.  As after any repair, riding felt more glorious and smoother than ever.

This was to be my first day of rest since I’d left Cannes over three weeks ago.  I was going to spend it at the library in Bailleul.  So I had to delay it until the next day.  While the library was closed for lunch between noon and 2:30, I took my lunch in a nearby park, then dropped in on the town art museum, that only took an hour break for lunch from noon to one.

As one encounters all over France, this museum had been the collection of an individual, Benoît de Puydt, a bachelor who died in 1862.  He donated his three-story house and his vast store of carvings and music boxes and paintings and knickknacks, known as a “cabinet of curiosities,” to the city to make it into an art museum free to all.  It was fascinating even without the enthusiastic, expert commentary of Janina, who had guided me through several such emporiums during our time in France two years ago.  The house was destroyed and much of the art during the First World War.  The house had been restored and his collection greatly added to.

I asked the caretaker if the museum had ever had an exhibition devoted to Bruno Dumont, a filmmaker who grew up in Bailleul and used it as the setting for his first two movies, “Life of Jesus” in 1997 and “Humanité” two years later,  both award-winners at Cannes.  The museum hadn’t,  but she showed me a book on the local artist Pharoon de Winter from the late 1800s, and said that Dumon gave the tortured investigator in “Humanitè” his name.

The park across the street from the museum had several benches named for people in the arts from the past two centuries that had a connection to Bailleul.  I was hoping one might bear the name of Dumont.  Others I asked about Dumont all said his movies didn’t give a very flattering portrayal of Bailleul, so the city hadn’t acknowledged him in any way despite his high-regard among cineastes. I was hoping the tourist office might have a map of sites that had been used in his movie as Cherbourg does for the umbrella movie.  There was a walking tour of the city center and its historic sites, but nothing relating to Dumont.    There weren’t even any teens on motorbikes buzzing around as in “Life of Jesus.” The city’s small cinema, which was playing a Claude LeLouch film I had just seen at Cannes, made no reference to him either, nor did it always play his films, the last of which debuted at Cannes, his second on Joan of Arc.

After my much-needed day of rest and recovery I plunged into Belgium to begin a circuit of its many cycling shrines.  The first was along its northern coastline in the seaside town of Lombardsijde, for a bust of Freddie Maertens, a contemporary of Eddie Merckx,  who was twice World Champion in 1976 and 1981.  He wasn’t a climber so never contended for the Yellow Jersey in The Tour de France, but he did win eight stages in the 1976 Tour.

Luckily I’d stopped at a tourist office along the beach before Lombardsijde and learned the location of the bust as it was tucked in a small wedge of green space sheltered by the shade of a tree along the main highway through this nondescript town.  I cycled right past it.  

I had better luck finding the cycling shrines in the towns of Ichtegem and Koolskamp, sculptures of bikes in positions of prominence in their centers.  But what I had most been looking forward to, the legendary Tourmalet bar in Gistel full of cycling memorabilia that is regularly mentioned in stories on bike racing in Belgium, had been torn down just a few months ago.  Its original owner had been the brother of Sylvere Maes, the 1936 and 1939 winner of The Tour de France.  Maes is still remembered in his home town with its sports complex names for him and a nearby street.  The complex also bears the name of Johan Museeuw, another local resident who was a three-time winner of both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.

I have barely scratched the surface of cycling sites in Belgium.  I will be plenty busy in the less than two weeks before the start of The Tour seeking them out.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Cemeteries and Pavé

The Notre Dame de Lorette cemetery, the largest French military cemetery

Plaque to Francois Faber, 1909 Tour winner in the above cathedral

Another plaque to Faber in Mont-Saint-Éloi near where he died

A pyramid of bikes down the street from the Faber plaque

A stretch of cobbles near Briastre where Michael Goulearts died in the 2018 Paris-Roubaix

Some of the 17 water bottles left at the Goulearts’ memorial

The start of the stretch of pavé named for Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, two-time winner of Paris-Roubaix 

The official start of the stretch

A monument in Hem where Hennie Kuiper suffered a flat on his way to winning  the 1983 Paris-Roubaix

Grave of Belgian Frank Vandenbroucke in Ploegsteert 

The northeast of France abounds with military cemeteries from the two world wars.  Every few miles is another of one nationality or another.  They range in size from fewer than a hundred identical white tombstones in neat and orderly rows surrounded by perfectly manicured grass to thousands of the white markers.

I was drawn to the most massive of them all, Notre Dame de Lorette, containing the remains of over 40,000 French combatants by a plaque to the winner of the 1909 Tour de France, Francis Faber.  It resides on a high ridge twenty miles north of Arras.  A memorial in the middle of the 64-acre grounds piercing the sky  can be seen from miles around.  It is flanked by an equally grand and majestic cathedral whose interior walls are covered with names of the dead.

I made a complete circuit of the cathedral wedging my way around the pews before I spotted the plaque to Faber near the ceiling on the right side of the cathedral.  If I had made my circuit counter-clockwise I would have seen it immediately and been deprived of all the extra time in this quiet sanctuary. There had been ten winners of The Tour in its eleven editions before WWI.  Faber is one of three of them to have died in the war.

Faber is also honored with another plaque a few miles away in the village of Mont-Saint-Éloi near where he died.  It is mounted on a wall along the main street through the village a block from the city hall.  A rusty pyramid of bikes such as one sees along The Tour de France route stands another block away in front of the towering facade of a cathedral that was bombed by the Germans, as it served as a lookout all round the vast valley.

Unlike the usual French cemeteries, the military cemeteries don’t have a water spigot.  I had to resort to a school late one afternoon in the small town of Briastre despite the abundance of cemeteries when I was getting low on water and the time was growing near to be looking for a place to camp.  The door to the school was open and a couple of women were standing beside it.  One gladly took my bottles inside and filled them and returned with an extra bottle from the refrigerator with extra cold water.

I had passed by the school fifteen minutes before when school was letting out at the surprising late hour of 4:30.  Not only do the French keep their students at school late in the day, but also late into summer.  Their summer vacation at this school doesn't commence until July 5.  A congregation of young mothers stood in the shade of a row of trees waiting for their children to come out. Among them was one grandfather standing off to the side.

He was just who I was looking for—someone who would surely know the location of the memorial to the Belgian cyclist Michael Goulearts, who died in the 2018 Paris-Roubaix on a nearby pavé section, suffering cardiac arrest at the young age of 23.   I had already ridden two sections of the pavé into the town and then out without finding it.  He knew precisely where it was, near the summit of a rise on a fork in the road past the town stadium.  I had taken the wrong fork on my first attempt. Surprisingly there were no signs to the pavé, despite its legendary status.  That was the case too in several other towns I had passed through in search of its pavé.  I had to ask around or hope to come upon it.

I didn’t appreciate having to subject my bike to any more of the pavé than necessary.  I hoped this rough treatment wouldn’t lead to broken spokes.  I had been lucky so far with no flats or broken spokes in some 2,500 miles, just worn brake pads and one frayed derailleur cable.  There wasn’t anyone else out testing themselves on the pavé.  I had the Goulearts memorial all to myself.  Just like the Simpson memorial on Ventoux there was an offering of water bottles and cycling caps.  Many of the 17 water bottles were full.

Further north on the outskirts of Lille I came upon a section of pavé dedicated to the 1992 and 1993  Paris-Roubaix winner the French rider Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle  And a few miles beyond in Hem the final sector of pavé before Roubaix has been named for the 1983 Dutch winner Hennie Kuiper.  It included a monument near where he had a flat while in the lead, which he was able to maintain after a quick wheel-change.  The well-worn paving stones all radiated decades of loud cheers of the crowds and the fury of the riders giving all-out efforts as if their lives depended on it as they bounded over their hellacious route.

I’d been to the finish in the velodrome in Roubaix in the past, so continued directly north to another cycling shrine a few miles into Belgium in the small town of Ploegsteert, the grave of Frank Vandenbroucke, one of the foremost of the great Belgian hopes to be the next Eddie Merckx who died young in 2009 at the age of 34 after a tragic life of great promise undermined by bouts with performance-enhancing and recreational drugs.  He died of a pulmonary embolism in Senegal.  He had turned pro when he was 18.  He won Paris-Nice when he was 23, then Liege-Bastogne-Liege the following year, crushing the field with Merckxian panache that thrilled all of Belgium.   

But he couldn’t handle all the acclaim and money that came his way.  He entitled his autobiography written two years before his death, “I’m not God.”Despite all the woes that followed in the decade before his death, he remains a hero in his home town.  There are signs to his grave in the cemetery by the town cathedral.   His tombstone identified him as simply Frank. It was overwhelmed with flowers and plaques and water bottles.  It is the only cycling grave I’ve visited that incorporated a wheel into it.
The next day when I was at a bike shop back in France, the mechanic proudly told me, “Frank Vandenbroucke is from around here.”  He gave me a pat on the back when I told him I had visited his grave the evening before.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Valenciennes, France

The theater in the main plaza of Binche, Belgium, start of Stage Three of this year’s Tour adorned with photos of a young Eddie Merckx.

At the opposite end of the plaza.

The street where  the peloton will commence the stage.

A few blocks from the stage start.

The starting point of the stage.

Planters in front of the town theater.

The first roundabout in Belgium, six miles from the stage start.

Another airborne cyclist further down the route in France.

A gathering point in the town plaza in Valenciennes for World Cup fans.

On my daily wander through the supermarket gathering my provisions for the day I am occasionally drawn to the snacks aisle for a package of peanut puffs.  It is rarely premeditated.  I have passed it off an impulse-buy until I heard the sports physiologist Dr. Allen Lim, who is an authority on cycling, give a fascinating dissertation on sweating on the Cycling Tips podcast a couple of days ago.  He said that when one is dehydrated and low on sodium one is drawn to salt.  The body knows, he said.  

He recommends sports drinks to keep one in balance.  Gatorade was the first in 1965.  Now there is a vast array to choose from.  He asserts that drinking water isn’t enough when one is dehydrated, that it can actually be harmful as it will further exacerbate the imbalance between sodium and water in one’s system.  There are salty compounds one can add to one’s water for a quick fix that are so salty they’d be repugnant if one weren’t dehydrated.  One’s taste buds don’t cringe at excessive salt when the body is craving it.  The instructions on one additive state to keep drinking it until it tastes salty, as it won’t seem salty when one’s body is short of salt. 

Lim gave as an example a friend’s restaurant in Boulder.  In the summer diners often complained that its food was too salty.  The head chef discovered that his chefs working in the heat were semi-dehydrated and when they tasted sauces they were preparing they seemed to need more salt according to their usual taste test. When the head chef mandated his chefs keep hydrated with sports drinks, keeping their salt levels in balance, diners stopped complaining of too much salt.

Lim’s commentary will have me keep a stock of salty snacks in reserve, at least until I come upon the next Decathlon sporting goods store where I can get a container of a powdered sports drink for the hot days ahead.  Sweating hasn’t been an issue of late, as it’s been cool and overcast as I reach Northeast France and close in on Belgium. I was happy for some sun yesterday so I could give my sleeping bag and sleeping pad a blast of sunshine to remove their dampness and also to eliminate a possible infestation of bugs.  

I awoke with a rash of bites such as I have never experienced before on the soft untanned skin of my inner thighs and abdomen and the underside of my arms.  I have no idea what feasted on me during the night.  I’ve had a few of the usual mosquito bites and ticks attaching themselves to me, which are just a minor nuisance, but these weren’t from them.  I’ve learned to be careful to brush off any of my gear I may have placed on the ground before putting them into the tent, less bugs, particularly spiders, have attached themselves.  But something in the forest I camped in penetrated my defenses and has had me itching all day.

At least I could thrill to the preparations that Binche, just seven miles into Belgium, has made for its hosting of The Tour’s third stage departure three weeks from today.  I followed the route the peloton will take due south from Binche to Reims and on to Épernay though small towns.  The terrain through fields of wheat was mostly flat, broken by a few sizeable hills.  

Shortly after crossing the unmarked border into Belgium a roundabout in front of a McDonald’s gave the first evidence I was in Belgium with its flag planted in its center and surrounded by cutouts of The Tour Jerseys.  The main street through Binche where the peloton commence its day was lined with banners of Eddie Merckx.  An oversized version of the same photo of the young Merckx adorned the theater in the city’s main plaza.  In front were planters of flowers with yellow wheels and yellow frames.  An aloft giant bicycle had been erected at the opposite end of the plaza.  It was a stunning site.   A lengthy mural of cyclists had been mounted several blocks down the route from a post that marked the official starting point.  They all added to the building excitement of Binche’s historic day of hosting The Tour for the first time.

Rather than penetrating deeper into Belgium to Brussels thirty-four miles away, the site of the first two stages, one a team time-trial, I returned to France for a couple of day’s before my full immersion into Belgium wandering all over visiting its many cycling shrines.   I wanted to drop in on Valenciennes, the smallest of the nine cities in France hosting the Women’s World Cup. The others are Paris, Lyon, Le Havre, Montpellier, Reims, Nice, Grenoble and Rennes. It was the only one that hadn’t been a Ville Étape during my fifteen years of following The Tour de France. The second of the six games to be played there had been played the day before.  

I was hoping there might be a giant screen in the town plaza showing the USA-Chile game being played in Paris. The square did have an enclosure for fans to gather, but there was no screen showing games being played elsewhere.  France is one of the favorites to win, along with the US.  Hopefully the fervor will gather as the tournament gathers momentum and I’ll have an opportunity to watch France in the championship game as I did last year in a huge stadium after Stage Nine of The Tour when the men’s team won the championship. Far better to have sports to preoccupy one’s attention than current events.