It’s eight p.m. in East Flanders. Five kilometers to the southwest, the cobbles of the Koppenberg climb that hallowed Belgian hill. I stand in a barn where kammen once combed sheep fleece into wool yarn. Oudenaarde, where I live, is famous for its massive tapestries, many of which still hang in the 500-year-old Stadhuis Town Hall. I’m not here brushing wool though. I’m in the heartland of cycling, in the thick of ‘cross season, gluing tubular tires, on a crisp November night. It’s fodder for the dreamers–the stuff of cycling romance.
By Andrew Juiliano/Photos by Annick Lamb
Romance be damned though. I’m just cold. It’s four degrees (European degrees), and there’s no heater in the barn. My numb fingers are clumsy. I smear glue along the base tape and some drips down the sidewalls. In August, this would have driven me crazy, but that was 16 tubulars ago. So long as the tires stick tight, I’ve neither the time nor patience to care where the extra cement winds up.
A mildly euphoric scent wafts from the tin of glue. I normally wear a respirator, but that’s back in California. It didn’t the make packing list. I shrug and keep brushing goop around the tire. It’s probably not great for my lung capacity at the races. It might cause some problems down the road during my social security years. But, there’s a task at hand, and no one else will do it. C’est la ‘vie of a privateer in Belgium.
The longer I stand over the bench, the more I realize I’m not sitting on the cozy couch, recovering with my feet up like a good little bike racer. This is supposed to be a rest week–my first real break after three months of travel, racing, training, and moving–but it’s really only a pause from the intervals. The first month of European racing left my two bikes screaming for some TLC and three wheels in need of re-gluing. Sure, I could strictly adhere to the rules of recovery–feet up, social media posts, big meals and lots of sleep–but then there’d be no mud tires for this coming Sunday. It’s been raining every other day for the past three weeks. The leg drains will wait until the glue tin is empty.
My quads cry, “Give us a break!” My fingers scream, “We’re freezing to death!” My brain reprimands, “You’re doing it wrong!” But my heart just thumps along. It has nothing to say. It is content. Every tire glued on and every hill sprinted up get me a little closer to the next race. It might not be the ideal approach, but it’s moving me along nonetheless.
For every romantic visage of bike racing in Flanders–crowds lining the Koppenberg, recovery rides to Trappist breweries and ruts running through the dunes in Koksijde– there are numb digits, ass-first slip and slides across cow-shit covered roads and races where I’m oh so close to lead laps.
Cycling might not always be good to me. It might not always be good for me. It might just torture my body and soul a bit too much. But I can’t seem to help myself. I don’t always like it. But I always love it. I love it for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, in the moments of romantic glory and in all the goop I’ve flailed through to arrive here, in this old, wool-combing barn in East Flanders, sniffing rim cement on a frosty November evening.
I smear a final glob of glue around the valve stem and seal up the can. The chemical smell lingers in the air as I shut off the lights and walk back toward the house. That sweet aroma comforts me. It’s a reminder that the next start line is only few days away.