The wisdom of a Belgian neo-pro

In Woody Allen's film Midnight In Paris, the protagonist (played by Owen Wilson) struggles to negotiate the two different worlds that he finds himself living in. He's overcome with nostalgia, and longs for an earlier time and place (1920s Paris), only to find himself there during his night-time walks while he visits modern-day Paris. During those magical time-traveling episodes, he finds himself blending in seamlessly with the likes of Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Ernest Hemingway. Make what you will of Allen's talent as a filmmaker, his disastrous personal life, or the movie itself...but I must admit that I couldn't stop thinking about Midnight In Paris during my very short trip to Belgium over the last few days.

To a cycling fan living in the Americas, Europe (Belgium in particular) signifies an alternate universe. The world of professional cycling that—let's be honest—exists in its full glory only in Europe, gives Americans something to aspire to. Something to dream about. A greener pasture with an intoxicating taste of otherness (something I have written about before). It's one that we peer into from afar, usually through highly flawed internet feeds, just as I listened in on that world through the crackling of radio broadcasts from the Tour de France while growing up in Colombia.

That world seems exotic, wonderful, and fuels all the "pro" and "euro" caricatures that many have crafted in their minds. And while the passion that Belgians have for the sport certainly exists, it simply can't live up to the outsized caricature that many have created. Even with that in mind, it's easy to feel a bit like Owen Wilson's character in Midnight In Paris during one of his nighttime walks. Especially during the weekend of a race like Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

Standing atop the Côte de La Redoute, surrounded by drunken teens who (thanks to Tullio Campagnolo's first invention) were easily stealing wheels from team cars as they passed by (only to be followed by police), I had one of those Midnight In Paris moments. It wasn't profound, but I certainly knew that I was there.

Later that day, as I walked through the hotel lobby, I saw a very young neo-pro who I had interviewed the day before the race. He was having a quiet dinner with his girlfriend, and allowed me join them. The young man, who appeared even younger due to his youthful and friendly voice, was in a cheery mood. He had not only finished Liege-Bastogne-Liege, but had just learned from his director that he'd been selected to race a grand tour during his first year as a professional. The rider and his girlfriend sat with gigantic smiles on their faces. They had both gambled in a huge way during the last two years, moving into a tiny basement apartment in Italy, in hopes that he'd be noticed by a team while racing there. Those two years required every last cent of their personal savings. A professional contract came just in time, as their bank accounts completely dried up.

Listening to their story, I couldn't help but notice several points at which their youth showed. Devotion, crazed logic, and romantic naïveté. The type of thing that you lose over the years, but exactly the bits and pieces that it takes to make it.

But logically, our conversation kept coming back to Liege-Bastogne-Liege. He recounted his day on the bike, and I kiddingly told him about the hardships I'd endured on the course of the race the day before while riding through apocalyptic weather. We were just talking about riding bikes, and a bit about life, while sitting in a hotel with team buses parked outside. He asked me what American and Colombian cyclists are like. He wanted to know how the attitudes compared to those hoping to become professionals in Europe. I did my best to answer.

As we spoke, I thought about the fact that in a time measured by hours, not days, I'd be back home. I'd be riding my rather uninspired bike to work...having insults hurled at me, while my trip to Belgium would begin to seem like a distant memory. My heroic descents through pounding hail in the Ardennes, my less-than-heroic ascents....all a silly but wonderful memory. One that slowly began to morph into a nostalgia-induced hallucination. I told the neo-pro and his girlfriend exactly that as we sat there, and they both smiled.

"How great to have such a good memory to look back on! If you lived here, maybe cycling would not seem so fun or magical. Maybe it's better if you stay there, and simply come here for fun."

He was right. Ah, the wisdom of the neo-pro.

Now that you've allowed me to tell you that long and so-so story, allow me to also share a few more pictures from the trip. They too go on forever and are decidedly so-so. As with my pictures from the Tour of Flanders, I share these with you in hopes you might enjoy some of them, and not to demonstrate any kind of photographic talent.

Lastly, as you can imagine, I have many more pictures and stories to tell about my trip. I'll be sharing much more with you over the coming weeks, but first I have to settle back into reality.

How does a European professional load his bike into the backseat of his eggplant-colored Porsche? Slowly, carefully, and with a lot of towels.

PS #1: 
On the topic of the Belgian stereotype that many like to believe in (that everyone in the country is absolutely mad for the sport), I share Exhibit A with you. This is the lone mention of cycling or bikes in the Het Nieuwsblad newspaper the day before the race. Before any of you point out that Het Nieuwsblad is from Flanders and not Wallonia, let me assure you that papers there didn't even have this much of a bike-related picture on their covers. Do Belgians love cycling? Yes they do, but no Belgian newspaper I could find featured a story about the race the day after on its front page. Not one. Sometimes the fantasy is better than reality.

Does Thomas Voeckler really stick out his tongue all the time? Yes, yes he does. Even when he's having difficulty clearing a curb after signing in (and nearly crashing himself out of the race before it had even started) the tongue was there. Also on display (despite the legwarmers) were his very short shorts, which made me think about this song endlessly throughout the race.