Monday, March 24, 2008
Yeah, Anglers is a pretty cool power climb. River Road in my neighborhood has a couple heartbreakers on it. Illchester... Nice. And the Hell of North Arlington Ride has 4 or 5 nasty little grades on it. But none of them are like the Kemmelberg. Nevermind the racing history, our local legbreakers aren't culturally situated like the great climbs in the Northern Classics and Semi-Classics. To put it in better perspective, here's the view of the Kemelberg from Messines Ridge, overlooking the headstones of a cemetery filled with British commonwealth war dead:
Imagine if the parking lot of the Daytona 500 was adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery and Gettysburg was just on the other side of the far grandstands... I think that's about right. It bears further thought. As a race fan, how do you absorb what the cobbled classics really mean?
Sporting events are always better in context. Tarheel games are better with a bucket of Timeout Chicken, and a walk across campus from He's Not, alongside thousands of fans and young co-eds, past the Old Well and the Bell Tower on your way down to the Dean Dome. Football at Rich Stadium isn't the same if you don't tailgate in frozen parking lot with enormous polish and Italian sausages, peppers, and Canadian beers, and if you aren't wearing the Carharts you wore to work during the week. Arrowhead Stadium just isn't right if your belly isn't full of Arthur Bryant's World Famous, and if you fail to hit Westport afterwards. Chavez Ravine and fish tacos... But what goes with races in Flanders?
So much more, I think.
When I served in Germany I toured a number of Flandrian and Dutch battlefields. One of the most stunning kicks in the gut was wandering across fields where a famous battle had occurred in one World War, only to notice that all the dates had changed and all of a sudden you're standing amid the remains of hundreds of dead from the *other* World War. Now imagine if you lived in the house down the road, and a handful of various national events - a bike race, a marathon, maybe a car race, along with a state fair, your high school, and where your mother's great uncle's farm once stood, were all in the neighborhood. People don't move around a lot in Europe, not the older generation anyhow, and even the younger ones tend to return home. Yep, land thick with history like a deserted lot is thick with weeds. In Flanders, it's not just your house and garden, and your ancestor's place, it's also where two of your own great uncles, and a great grandfather, had perished fighting for the land, along with countless Brits, Canadians, some Americans, French and even the damned Germans. That's heavy stuff.
Good times rolled into bad, cigarette smoke, brandy, good beer, your first date, maybe a family scandal, bankrupt businesses, rose colored glasses, wistfulness and hope for the future, disappointments, all rolled into a single place.
It's home alright, just like our homes, only a home more epic than where you live right now, with more known history. And the friggin' New York Yankees of the national sport, Les Habitants, the Cowboys, the Showtime Lakers of the sport, are getting ready to roll through it and maybe make some history that unborn grandchildren will talk about as if they were there. How do you pick up on that atmosphere, the organic-ness of the Northern Classics, the way the races are married to the neighborhood and history?
I sadly didn't do mass start racing when I was stationed over there. I followed the grand tours in the local paper - the Algemeine Zeitung - but didn't do local races, just some TTs and Tri's. But I lived off-post, among Germans, and lived more like them than an American. I had a pretty good sense of the culture, and did spend three years on the German border with the low countries, on the Western edge of Duesseldorf and traveling into Belgium and the Netherlands pretty much constantly. The Belgians and Dutch were utterly bike mad. It was part of their lives. I didn't get it, I suppose, until I started racing a few years ago and discovered how damn hard it was. Racing is something you are, not really a thing you do - even being a fan is a pain in the ass, track racing excepted. Then I found out more about the Northern Classics, starting reading about what it's like in Flanders in the spring... and I wonder.
What must it be like just to be there, as a local tifoso, on race day?
I imagine you put on the waxed cotton jacket, or maybe a windbreaker if it's nice, Wellingtons or solid shoes depending on how mucky the roadside is. Maybe grab an umbrella, hope it's not too windy. Get a pack of smokes, a flask for some brandy or gin. You'll get frites from a roadside stand in town, they're having a little messe there, maybe there's schaschlik too. You will walk down the road toward town, get some chow, talk with old friends about the favorites in the race and all the personalities in the peloton. If they're going slow, you'll stop in the pub for a while, have a drink and watch the race unfold on TV. You follow the race on the radio. Eventually, you'll get to the the other side of town and to the bottom of the hill, and take up a spot where you'll see them pass, a spot where you've stood in past years, too many to count.
You will remember one of the immortals getting caught at the back of the pack and having to push up the hill. You will remember the young rookie who attacked, but got subsumed before the top. You will remember an epic crash that stopped the whole pack one year, when the race to the bottom was a sprint. And, as you walk the kilometer into town and the half klick over to the hill, you'll think a little bit about all the other things that have happened in your village, neighbors you've known, family stories, talk about the wars the old ones remember, and talk about the wars and politics and farms and scandals long before that. You'll have sore legs before the day is over, and your back isn't what it once was either. But it won't matter, you'll add another dust-thin layer of memories to the almost genetic knowledge you have of this place. It won't occur to you that other people don't understand this and have no way of knowing about it; you probably don't think that way at all. You're just here for a race. You just live here.
No, aside from the straining in your back as you pull on your Wellingtons, the only thing you'll notice as you leg it into town is the sun is out for a change, maybe the rain will hold off (though wouldn't a shower make it interesting?); you notice that the breeze is stiff, and your neighbor Hans is 200 yards in front of you, and that bastard owes you a beer.
Like oblivious fans of the race a third of a world away who don't really think about anything except the race, you think about a lot of things other than the race. But you too, fail to notice that you're striding through culture, history and atmospherics as thick as oil fire smoke.
You're just here for the race and the beer and the frites and to chat with Hans, and maybe his widowed sister - she's not unattractive, for an older girl, you know...
And that's okay. It's fine to just take it as it comes and appreciate the great racing. We don't have to be standing up to our knees in cowshit, in the pouring rain, filled with gin and local knowledge and the whole history of the race we're watching. But if we could be out there, if we could absorb just a bit of that... wouldn't it be a great thing?
I guess I'll settle for Phil Liggett on Versus, some Duvel, and maybe I'll get some shoestring potatoes and mix up three or four fancy mayos... maybe get some mussels too. It's not enough but it'll have to do.
Not this year, but someday soon, I'm going to go there and catch a few of the classics. If you time it right, you can catch a two week period that includes a couple monuments, and a couple mid-week semi-classics.
When I'm there, I'm going to find that old Belgian guy I've been thinking about, pull him to the side and ask him if he knows how good he has it. Maybe he'll just laugh at me, and ask me if I know about what Museeuw did in his great year in 1996, what he did on this very hill, how it was an attack just like he saw Merckx make at the exact same spot. He might reminisce about how he saw Van Loy attack there one year but lose anyhow; and how when he was a boy how he saw the great Schepers lead through there, how he saw Kubler's great power, and how his father reminisced about even earlier racers. He won't know that I'm drinking it in like wine, blown away by the history and letting it wash over me. He'll only know that we're both there to watch the race, that day, and he'll laugh at the big know-nothing American and marvel that I even know about Flanders and bicycle racing at all. Then we'll turn and look up the road waiting for the pack, knee deep in atmosphere and history and probably not appreciating it as much as we might.
Then the pack will fly into sight, clatter past on the cobbles, and we'll cheer; and even though there isn't enough cognition in us to perceive all that we have seen, the ties to past and future, what we see that day that will be enough, and our memories will be added to history contained in that hill.
April 6 - Ronde van Vlaanderen
April 9 - Ghent Wevelgem
April 13 - Paris-Roubaix
April 20 - Amstel Gold Race
April 23 - Fleche Wallone
April 27 - Liege Bastogne Liege