Rocky roads in Belgium
Elite cyclist Kathryn Bertine is writing about her quest to qualify for the 2012 London Games. In Part 3 of her series, Bertine discusses the barriers that come with competing in Belgium and how the kindness of strangers can ease the pain of competing away from home.
Belgium is impossible not to love; a diverse country which gave the world chocolate, waffles, Jean Claude Van Damme and the Smurfs. And of course, a passion for cycling, which is why I'm here.
For pro and elite cyclists, racing in Belgium is much like getting a tetanus shot -- painful, but ultimately for our benefit. Races here boast huge participant fields, tiny streets, questionable pavement and scary corners which demand the competition to be strong, aggressive and hyper-vigilant. I've come to Belgium for two reasons: to make myself a better cyclist and hopefully win some Olympic qualification points. The latter is rather difficult, as often 200 women show up to the start line and qualification points go only to the top eight finishers. My optimistic side argues that someone has to be in the top eight, so there's still a chance.
I arrive in Belgium in early March. In most cases, top level cyclists don't worry too much about the logistics of racing. The travel is covered, hotels or homestays are provided, and their biggest focus is to show up and race. My path's a little different. Because the St. Kitts and Nevis cycling federation isn't backed by a nationally funded budget, getting to my races is mostly out of pocket. But getting into races is even harder, a skill which calls for three main ingredients; honesty, luck and Google Translate.
With the majority of the Spring UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) races held in Belgium and neighboring Holland, my first step was to ask every race director in these two countries if I may come race their events in March and April. I told them my story, that I'm the national time trial and road race champion of St. Kitts and Nevis, looking to gain qualification points for the 2012 Olympics. Actually, I don't tell them anything, my translator does. Sometimes the translator is a friend or a stranger I find on Twitter or Facebook, sometimes it is via Google Translate. I send hundreds of emails out and hope a few race directors respond. If I'm lucky enough to get a response, it is usually this: "You must be on a local team to race our events." My next email asks if they can help me find a local team. And so the back-and-forth emails ensue, in foreign languages, with my Olympic dreams hanging in the delicate balance of strangers.
Another reason to love Belgium -- it has wonderful strangers. A positive response from a Belgian race director gets me in touch with a local team, and before I know it I'm into seven races as part of Team Gaverzicht Matexi of Deerlijk, Belgium. Better still, the race director finds me a place to stay within his extended family.
My host family, Els and Wilfried, live just a mile from the start line of my first race. They have taken me in for six weeks, providing me with food and shelter and most importantly, conversation and companionship. It is one thing to go forth into the world and give it your all. It's another thing to do so when you're far from home, husband, and the comforting familiarity of my three main training staples: English, local roads and peanut butter.
Three days off the plane, I enter my first race in Belgium; the Oomloop van het Hageland, which roughly translates into Tour of Unfamiliar People, Places and Four Crashes in the First Hour. I don't speak Dutch, but I do speak cycling so the translation proves mostly accurate. I also do not speak kilometer, but I am quickly learning. As it turns out constantly asking my Belgian competitors, "How much farther, Papa Smurf?" isn't as much fun for them as it is for me.
Also not fun: chafing. A cardinal rule of cycling is never wear new bike shorts in a race without first washing them and breaking them in. New seams and different stitching patterns can wreak havoc Down Below. Luckily, there is a product for this discomfort. DZ Nuts is a glorious salve one uses to ease the wrath of fabric-bike seat-muscle friction. Unluckily, I have forgotten mine, and my Belgian team hands me a brand new pair of shorts just before the start. Halfway into the four-hour race, I can feel the new seams sawing their merciless welts into my nether region. Jean Claude Van Damn that hurts.
As it turns out, I don't make the top eight in my first race. Instead, I learn about the vicious three-minute rule. On the last lap of our 75-mile race -- when I am just six miles from the finish and feeling pretty happy about avoiding the four crashes, surviving the cobblestone miles and doing it all with razor seams lumberjacking my womanhood -- strong Belgian winds and 39 degree temperatures take a toll on the peloton. Gaps begin to form, the cyclists start to crumble and as I fight to keep contact with the peloton, I lose my battle against the wind. This is called blowing up; when all energy is sapped and a racer has nothing left. OK, I decide. That's OK for today. First race. Still a little jet lagged. Just roll it in and finish. Half the field's blown anyway. You're not alone. That is when I learn Belgium doesn't really have a soft spot for finishing. Once a rider falls back from the peloton by three minutes, they're pulled from the course. This is like going to the New York City Marathon and setting up a thanks-for-coming-but-you-can-go-home-now detour for anyone slower than three hours. Today I am one of 90 (out of 196) competitors chopped from the finish with just six miles to go.
Still, at the finish, locals are saying "Congratulations!" to me. "For what?" I ask, bewildered they are congratulating a cut rider. "For making it as far as you did!" they say. I then learn I was the last rider cut, and had I been about 30 seconds faster, would have been able to finish. I make a mental note to ask DZ Nuts if they have any product which eases brain friction. At the same time, I understand this sport well enough by now to know that no matter how strong, how prepared and how willing an athlete is, sometimes we all blow up. The upside? It's impossible to blow up and not come back stronger the next week. OK, maybe the week after that. Regardless, I have 14 months to go and you can bet your waffles I'm getting better, faster and stronger in Belgium.