I come to Belgium the way I come to most places: with an open heart and only a faint outline of a plan. I expect nothing from this country because it isn’t cyclocross season. Does Belgium even exist outside of cyclocross season? Of course it does, but I get tunnel vision in the fall. What can possibly happen in the spring?
Words & images: Heidi Swift
The classics, of course. I’m here for work related to the Ronde van Vlaanderen. According to Twitter, half the cycling writers in the entire world are also here, but in the end I run into only a few of them. On a chilly Saturday morning, I ride the 134-km version of the Ronde sportive, pedaling with my friend Rita Jett through the masses of weekend warriors out for a go at the cobbles. On the first longish descent, we learn to feel the roadway in our kidneys and shin bones. I come off the hoods for a moment during an especially jarring section and then catch my bars again quickly before disaster strikes.
Oh! Here is my cyclocross! The trick is to come off the saddle a little bit and hover just above. Then you lay down the power and go as fast as you can possibly muster. Velocity has a smoothing effect that is both magical and terrifying. Padded gloves might be nice too, I suppose, but I don’t have any so I ride with bare palms and red fingernails.
The course is filled with men. Men in worn-out club kits, men in shiny new in-line ensembles from Rapha or Castelli, men in see-through black chamois that have apparently been in their family for three generations. Young men and old men and big men and little, tiny men.
We see only a handful of women pedaling and when we hit the climbs I can hear little girls on the side getting excited and screaming to their mothers, “Vrou! Vrou!” Yes, look, little lady! I can ride these cobbles faster than the men who are going backward around me! Rita is up ahead having her own victories and we always regroup at the top. She climbs like a scared monkey, that one.
It feels cliché to eat waffles in Belgium but we do it anyway because they are free at the rest stops and absolutely filled with sugar. Jett collects extras and stuffs them into her jersey pockets, which are so full that waffles are poking out the top. “Saving treats for later?” It’s a gray-haired man riding behind us.
“How many are in there anyway, Jett?” I ask. “Not sure. Enough to get us to the finish!”
At the end we will empty her pockets in the van and find eight waffles. Eight.
At kilometer 110 our wrists are sore and our legs are tiring a bit so we try to shorten the ride by finishing faster. The final road is long and straight, pointing directly into a headwind. Rita’s pulls are big and meaty and when I look back I notice we have a train of 15 dudes sitting in, drafting off a little whisper of a girl who can’t weigh much more than a buck fifteen. There’s a reason we call her Jett.
When we’re finally done we keep riding a few kilometers to a gas station where we buy sandwiches, hot coffee and pizza while we wait to be picked up. Euro-trash techno is pumping from the speakers above the gas pumps so we dance in our helmets and spandex to keep warm. That many cobbles in one day can make your brain a little funny.
Follow Cobbles with Magic
After completing professional obligations related to the Ronde van Vlaanderen, I ask to be dropped off in Gent.
Two years ago over dinner Tyler Farrar had sold me on it; it was his favorite place in Europe, or so he said. He’d made it home, so I figured there must be something to it. There is.
I take my first walk on the Graslei at 10:30 p.m. on a Sunday. The town is quiet with centuries-old buildings and castles lit from below. Every so often, a cloud of laughter finds its way out of a pub window. Old stone bridges span the water and everything—and I mean absolutely everything—is made of stone. It’s as if someone took the “Cobble-izer” brush in Photoshop and clicked the entire town.
The main square in the city center is flanked by towering churches and warm, hunched-over bars and restaurants. Cyclists fly by in every direction, navigating tram tracks and cobbles without a second thought. It’s an ancient town that absolutely exudes culture from every angle, but it’s also a university town with a young heart that keeps the vibe fresh and forward. The food is mind-blowing and, if you’re into art and history, you can’t go wrong.
Gent is small enough to circumnavigate in just an hour or so, but saturated with enough culture and interest to keep you busy for days. It’s accessible and simultaneously a little bit mysterious. Touristy in the main square on a sunny day, but nowhere near as obnoxious as Bruges.
What really sets Gent apart isn’t the stuff that you can read about in guidebooks and travel blogs, it’s something else: it’s an intangible calm, a subtle sensation of romance, the understated but undeniable friendliness of the locals. If the Belgians have a reputation for being “boring and uptight” (I quote a local), I didn’t notice it. What I found was a place with a well-defined sense of itself, an undeniably young influence surrounded by a historic visual space that borders on mythical. It’s a comfortable marriage of old and new, a place characterized by balance, symmetry, beauty, precision and preservation.
It’s a place that I’ll come back to. A place that, like Farrar, I can imagine myself living.
Pages: 1 2