A couple of bikes in Belgium
Although most of you didn't notice, I was recently absent from the blog while I took a much needed vacation (the rigors of shattering fellow cyclists while on the bike, and seeing women faint from my good looks and adult braces can take a toll even on those of us who are amazingly strong). During that time, I traveled with my wife (but sans our beloved miniature dachshund) to three fabled lands known as Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg. The trip was purposefully planned as a largely cycling-free event on my part, but we did manage to ride heavy city bikes in most of the cities that we visited. Why? Because of that old saying: when in Holland, do as the Dutch do, and ride a bike that weighs as much as six upright pianos, and handles like a baby grand piano that's being pushed uphill. During the trip, I also managed to meet up with a significant cycling figure, but more on that later. And no, I don't just mean that I saw my reflection in a hotel mirror.
Cuddling up to a cold cobblestone
This latest visit to Belgium was, luckily, my second one this year. Once again, Belgium and its people made me further appreciate that part of the world, since I thoroughly enjoyed myself...even if my co-workers thought it was both wasteful and foolish for a non-drinker like me to even visit the land of Freddy Merckx, and Eddy Maartens or whatever they're called.
Freddy and Eddy aside, I wanted to tell you that on several occasions during my stay in Belgium, I found myself giggling, and not just because I was thinking about Jean-Claude Van Damme's dancing abilities. I found myself laughing because of the stereotypical image that many have of Belgium and its people. By this I mean that Americans tend to think that Belgian cities must surely have bike shops in every corner, all of which sell vintage road frames, while everyone in the whole country follows cyclocross, and massive amounts of publications are devoted to the subject. Some might even believe (as Mike from Gage and Desoto rightfully joked) that Belgian children decide to forego standard teddy bears as they go to sleep at night, choosing instead to cuddle up to a cold and muddy cobblestone. Like all stereotypes, the one most American cycling fans have of Belgians is based on a caricature. It's one that some companies actively try to market to potential customers. This is something I've written about before, though I believe the point of this post is different. If it's not, and I'm repeating myself, I'm sure I'll be told about it pretty quickly by a reader or ten.
Belgian teddy bear collection
It's certainly true that Belgians love the sport. The amount of races, and racers that are Belgian is astonishing, and so is the country's historical significance within the sport. During races like the Tour of Flanders, the excitement and passion that the country has for the sport is palpable. But on an average day, you'll see few if any signs of this. Magazine stands carry few if any cycling publications, and the average Belgian appears to be more proud of the fact that Tintin is Belgian than that Freddy Merckx guy. At least that's what I've gathered through my admittedly amateurish use of several anthropological inquiry techniques. The same could be said of Holland, a place where many think that all cyclists are treated like gods at all times, although evidence has shown otherwise. Want proof? Watch this video of Team Sky training near Amsterdam. Note the driver who throws a bottle at Bradley Wiggins, and manages to hit him square in the face (at around 3:18). It's most certainly true that Amsterdam is an unusually bike-friendly place, but my point is that oversimplifying entire nations, cities and their populations can make us miss important details. Details like Bradley Wiggins getting hit in the face with a water bottle.
But I guess we all need something to believe in...some promised land akin to the mythical Belgium or Holland that many believe in. Some place that we can dream about, and talk to our friends about when we feel that cyclists are treated poorly where we live, or when we complain about how the TV coverage of the sport is awful where we live. Yes, many places in Europe are far better at these things than the US...but blowing them out of proportion makes some feel that there's a heaven out there. Something to aspire to and long for.
A relic of European cycling and retail, as found in Ghent. I say "relic", although Z shops still exist.
Football. American football.
Europe's love affair with cycling (the sport), appears to be a passionate but often quiet affair. This is in stark comparison to how obvious the presence of the NFL and (American) football is throughout most US cities all year long. This is probably more a result of the NFL's business savvy than fan's love for the sport, but the difference is startling. Football in the United States seems to be everywhere, the supermarket, the movie theater, and the gas station, it even has two TV channels (and even more if you pay for the special cable packages).
If you live in a city with a football team, you'll also surely know that football is alive and well in the clothing that your office's receptionist wears on Fridays, and the scrubs that your dentist wears during football season. The way that Americans are bombarded with football imagery is simply astonishing by comparison to how little cycling registers in Europe, particularly when the big national race isn't happening in a particular country. This (I would argue) is not exclusively because of Americans and their love of the sport, but also because of some business plan that was presented ten or fifteen years ago at the NFL's offices in New York City. The plan was to invade the American psyche, and rabid football fans complied. I wonder if anything of the sort would ever fly in Europe.
The general lack of overt reminders about Belgium's love for cycling became obvious even when I entered many bike shops throughout this and past trips. Contrary to popular belief, bike shops are not in every corner. Not even remotely close. By comparison, most US cities are bike shop meccas actually. Once inside these shops, even ones with amazing histories in road cycling, I found that most sold little more than mid-level Treks. Mountain bikes usually outnumbered road bikes two to one, and practical city bikes easily outnumbered road bikes three to one. Oh, and they don't really sell cyclocross bikes. In fact, after visiting many, many shops over different cities and towns over my last two visits, I only saw a couple of cyclocross bikes and they had (get ready to cry and wipe your tears on your dirty chamois) triple cranks. This is simply the reality of business around the world, not just Belgium. Clearly, the majority of people use bikes as a way of getting around, and thus don't really need the racing bikes that many assume folks in countries like Belgium would crave. No surprise there. Shops have to sell bikes, and they stock what sells...but the reality struck me as humorous when compared against what many Americans believe goes on in Belgium.
So, contrary to what popular belief is in the United States, not all Belgians ride steel Eddy Merckx frames, and train stations don't have embrocation-dispensing machines next to the pay phones. In fact, speaking with a long-time resident of Belgium during the trip, one who raced alongside Merckx and finished the Tour of Flanders several times throughout the 70s, I brought up the fact that in the United States there are now several brands of cycling-specific embrocations available. His first reaction was to laugh, and then ask if I was joking. He'd heard that a hand full of European brands were now packaging such products for sports in general, but the thought that Americans would buy them, and produce several of their own strictly for cycling struck him as highly humorous. As our conversation on the topic wound down, he paused, looked at me as he smiled, and once again asked "you're serious right?" It was an amazing exchange. One that was repeated a few minutes later when I mentioned waffles being sold at some US races.
(Belgian) truth is never as good as (Belgian) fiction
So while Belgium is most definitely a hotspot for cycling, the cartoonish image that Americans have of it is much, much more intense than the real thing. Much in the same way that Japanese hip-hop fans took that music's fashion and culture, ran it through some kind of particle accelerator, and came up with a far more extreme and almost insane version of the original, the same can be said about the image that many cycling fans in the States have about Belgium. Which makes me wonder if the same thing that happened with Japan's cartoonish take on hip hop, will happen with cycling. In the case of hip-hop fashion, Japanese companies marketed it so well, that the over-the-top version they came up with, was sold back to Americans, including hip-hop artists. What at first seemed silly, far-too-colorful and misguided, quickly became the new standard. The new American normal in hip hop came from a Japanese fairy tale. The student became the master...or whatever that saying is.
So will Belgians eventually buy into some part of America's take on their "cycling culture"? Perhaps. Because even stranger things have happened before. And surely you know that American is considered to be "the coolest nationality", while Belgian is considered the "uncoolest"...at least according to this poll.
After all, the exaggerated, particle-accelerated renditions of a culture can be more fun at times, and are closer to the realities that many crave and imagine. That's certainly true when waffles and embrocation are involved.