Belgian stereotypes debunked. A visit to Flanders.

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Before I start today's post, I have to acknowledge that yesterday Leonardo Duque was the first Colombian to ever finish Paris Roubaix (as reader of the blog Luis pointed out). Duque came in a respectable 54th on the day of his birthday. He was 12 seconds down from Hincapie, Burghardt, Farrar and Chavanel. Though this may seem like a small matter to celebrate, one has to remember the historical significance of Duque's placing. In 1983, when the Tour de France first allowed a Colombian amateur team into the race, the pavé in early stages completely shattered most of the riders in that team. Many retired. Later, in 1985, the cobbles would once again hurt the chances of a Colombian, that time it was Luis Herrera who lost massive amounts of time to Fignon because of the pavé. As such, when I was a kid listening to the Tour on the radio, nothing would strike fear in me like the word "pavé". When one of those cobble-filled, dreadfully flat stages started, Colombia collectively hung its head low, me included. We knew what the pavé meant for our diminutive riders. Not used to such terrain, they would crash, and hemorrhage time to the Europeans. Before Herrera's time, in 1973, Cochise Rodriguez rode Paris-Roubaix with the Italian Bianchi team, but didn't finish. Similarly, other Colombians (like Victor Hugo Peña with Discovery and Phonak, Nestor Mora, and Julio Cesar Ortegon both with Kelme) have tried their hand at Roubaix, but never finished. Duque is the first. So while this may seem like a small victory to some, it's also one loaded with historical significance. Sure, Van Summeren finished and won Roubaix while riding on a flat tire, but Duque finished while being Colombian...which historically has proven to be even more difficult than having a flat.

With that out of the way, let's talk about my trip to the Tour of Flanders (where Duque finished 19th), shall we? If you want to see similar reports from past races, you can see the one from Paris Roubaix here, the Tour de France here, and the Clasico El Colombiano here.



(Obligatory picture of a flag of Flanders, and a field)



After the tremendously underwhelming response to my last post (who knew you could hear crickets through an internet connection?), where I tried to pretend to be an industry insider, I think perhaps it's best if I get back to what I'm so-so at. Namely, taking crappy pictures during my travels, and writing captions for them. While I'm sure that you have already seen numerous pictures from the spring classics in reputable websites, and you've already read accounts of those races by the "who's-who" in cycling journalism, I think it's time for you to read an account by me...the leader of the "who's that?" in cycling journalism. Here it is:


I'm back home. While the siren song of Belgian racing was calling, and it certainly drew me in, something far more powerful made me come back home. Not just having to write this post for you, but mostly my need to do the grout on the tile backsplash I installed in my sizable mansion (or as my wife calls is, "the house that fourth-rate blogging built"). It's this type of dichotomous reality that best describes me. Internet superstar who travels abroad to see races, but also a simple man with a dire need to do grout, and finish a tile backsplash. Similarly, while I'm a man who casts a large shadow in the world of cycling blogs written by Colombian citizens, I'm also roughly four feet shorter than my wife. But such is life, so let me tell you a little bit about this country named Belgium, instead of dwelling on the fact that I'm short. Belgium is a fantastic place, and this latest trip made me fall madly in love with that country once again. Our first meeting was in 1996 or so, when a super sweet band I was in played there while we were on tour. As before, my time in Belgium was great, and the people were insanely welcoming. But in telling you about it, I want to go deeper. I will tell you about Belgium because first and foremost here at Cycling Inquisition comes the edification of my readers. Part of that is my drive to dispel misconceptions and stereotypes about this and other countries around the world.



For example, while it's true that Belgians love drinking beer, and riding bikes...the two are not combined. Thinking that these two activities can be mixed would be a sad and inaccurate stereotype of Belgian citizens.






After all, we must remember that not everyone is a walking stereotype. That's a lesson I learned last year at Paris-Roubaix, when I assumed that I'd see European cycling fans blasting techno music on their headphones while watching the race.




The reality is that Europe is a refined place with higher standards. Unlike the United States, no one in Belgium would take a car, and paint it like....say....I don't know.... the General Lee, from the Dukes of Hazard. I mean, that would be insane for a European to do. What kind of car would they use? A BMW? Ha, ha...that would be crazy.



Lampre staffer on left, Chuck Zito on the right

See, as a well-traveled citizen of the world, I'm here to dispel the myths that we each have about one another. For example, guys who work for Italian teams don't always look like bodyguard to the demi-stars Chuck Zito (who has the greatest website on earth, by the way). It's also worth pointing out that Italians don't gesture wildly with their hands while they talk, to the point that their hands appear blurry in photographs. Similarly, the Eastern-European women that Italian guys who work for teams hit on don't always have hilariously henna-red hair. It's just not true.








The reality is that Europeans come in all shapes and sizes, and they are as varied as people in another other part of the world. This is certainly true in Belgium. I mean, while they love cycling, it's not like people there would buy a 90 thousand dollar Carrera-S Porsche, put bike rack on it, and then buy customized license plate that says "Bike" on it. That would just be crazy, and again, a terrible stereotype.





While many Americans think that Europeans smoke like chimneys, and ride around on bikes because they aren't manly enough to own a Hummer, that doesn't mean that a whole bunch of them smoke while riding bikes.
*This is one of several riders I saw taking smoke breaks. In the United States, this guy would be run over by the chalkbot™, and he'd be told that he loves cancer more than Floyd Landis





Yes, Belgians eat waffles, but it's not like they're obsessed with them or anything. It's not like graffiti vandals will risk electrocution and arrest by hopping over a fence to go into a train yard in order to paint waffles on a train or anything.





Similarly, Americans incorrectly believe that all of Belgium is crazy about cycling. Some even believe that if you moved there, even your furniture would be cycling-grade, and made by Eddy Merckx himself. Nothing could be further from the truth.






But stereotypes go both ways. One aspect about American culture that Europeans often bring up, is the Puritanical nature of the American psyche. Be that as it may, how come the moment you start taking pictures of men peeing in public while in Europe, people start looking at you funny, and giving you the Belgian stink-eye? While this lady sees what I'm doing as being weird, back in Colombia we simply called it the Sunday Afternoon Public Urination Photography Session. It's one of our biggest holidays. Man, Europeans are so uptight.






Disagreements about public urination (and the photographing thereof) aside, one thing that Americans tend to think happens in Europe is that people who live there are always eating snails. This is not true, as a matter of fact, it's not like carts and trailers all over Belgium are selling snails by the kilo at bike races. That would be like saying that fat Americans go to baseball games and just sit there eating fried foods and drinking beer. See what I mean?







Another misconception about Belgium is that it's some kind of cycling promised-land, a place where Liz Hatch rides in front of you for hours anytime you go out for a spin.






The reality, I would argue, is much different. While Americans can keep thinking that "Euro Cycling" is all about style, and white shoes and all that crap, the reality is that Europe is ground zero for a gigantic bomb that has littered the entire continent with shrapnel consisting of doo-rags and CamelBaks.






As a matter of fact, events like the Tour of Flanders Sportive, are merely aftershocks of that original explosion which littered all of Europe with aforementioned doo-rags and CamelBaks. To make matters worse, the ride not-so-effortlessly "flows" from small roads, to bike paths, but mostly forces you to ride on sidewalks, sometimes opposite to the flow of local bike and foot traffic. The result is a gathering of idiots, the likes of which has not been seen since that one Woodstock festival. Not that lame one where babies were born, and the brown acid was not to be taken, but the real one...the one where Limp Bizket played and things were set on fire.

So let me ask you: Have you always wanted to ride the Tour of Flanders sportive? If so, follow my advice, and save yourself some money. Do the following: find 23,000 squirrely riders who are absolutely scary to ride next to, give them all doo-rags, put them on a narrow city sidewalk as locals are trying to move in the other direction. You have now, more or less, ridden the Tour Of Flanders sportive. You may not be able to tell your friends that you conquered three or four or ten bergs (unless you stop at a B'nai B'rith singles mixer mid-ride, and work your charm), but you will have saved yourself a good bit of money and aggravation. This is particularly true since going to Flanders doesn't necessarily mean you'll get to conquer any of the climbs anyway (see picture of the not-so-smooth flow of traffic at the base of the Muur above). So in a way, you're better off at the B'nai B'rith singles mixer when it comes to "conquering" 'bergs anyway. Believe me.




Hey laadies! Welcome to my love palace, I mean, team bus


People would like you to believe that Europeans are all great fans of the sport, and that all professionals are worshiped like idols. While this is partially true, consider the following: A second after I took this picture, a group of German fans yelled out very loudly and audibly at Gilbert, as he posed for pictures with two young women. What did they yell out you ask? Their words of choice were "You f_cking lost! Ha, ha, ha", in both English and then French. While you'd like to think that such words couldn't get to one of the hard men of the sport, the fact is that they did. Gilbert's facial expression (which I failed to photograph) changed over to one usually reserved for smelling farts that reek of sour milk, or rotting Indian food that was set on fire, and subsequently peed on.

Lastly, if anyone doubts what I'm saying (about Gilbert getting laughed at and, and hearing it), let the record show that my encounter with Jonathan Vaughters was doubted last year (see here), and then verified by the man himself (see here). I have an impeccable record.






Just as disrespectful as Gilbert getting laughed at for loosing, is the fact that people put up posters all over Belgium calling Pozatto a clown, and mockingly welcoming him to Flanders.
*Yes, I know that "Pippo" has two p's. But damn it, I took this picture, and I was determined to use it.







Calling Pozatto anything other than an exceptional cyclist (for example: a clown, creepy, recipient of awful tattoos, looser, insanely greasy etc) is unacceptable. I mean, the way the press speaks of him would lead you to believe that the man is not bright. The press would have you believe that Pozatto is the kind of guy who would set his luggage combination to be 0-0-0. But that's just not so. I mean, that's the kind of thing that only happens in movies like Spaceballs.






Speaking of luggage, I saw Patrick Lefevere loading his bag into this team car before the start of the race. He complained about it being heavy, since it's contents were Boonen's Propecia stash, as well as printouts of all his excuses for having performed badly the last two seasons.





Stereotypes and misconceived notions about Europe aside, I rather enjoy giving my readers a bit of truth, and a taste of what it's really like to see a race up close. As such, I enjoy showing you things no one in the cycling press will share with you. For example, did you know that while large teams with sizable budgets travel in fancy buses, small Belgian teams travel in mobile homes? Similarly, did you know that while teams with large budgets give their riders prepared meals and bottles in musette bags, smaller teams merely have assistants hand them stray animals, and let riders fend for themselves during the race?





The fact that riders are given stray dogs, and then cook them while riding has prompted activists to protest. Not just on behalf of the animals, but also because the use of open-flame devices while riding is clearly dangerous to professionals. As such, the front of this young man's shirt stated the following list of things which he was protesting:

"Open-flame cooking by smaller teams in the peloton is unsafe. And so is the ban of race radios. And Alessandro Ballan's teeth are scary. And Leif Hoste's face looks like an old catcher's mitt."

The back of the shirt finished his list of complaints, as you see above. Even if you disagree with some of the points made by the young protester, there's certainly one thing we can all agree on: Leif Hoste's face does look like an old and droopy catcher's mitt.



Photo: Pez