Most of us grew up with the idea that cycling is a summer time diversion, something fun to do when the sun shines and the temperature rises into that range where to not be outside seems a sin. In the fall, we put our bikes away and dreamt of the arrival of the next spring.
I moved to Massachusetts from Tennessee in the late 1980s. Had I never relocated to New England, I can say with something approaching certainty that I wouldn’t be able to understand the Belgian cyclist.
I thought I knew a thing or two about cycling before becoming a transplant. I’d ridden in cool temperatures, complete with a jacket and insulated tights. But the nastiest weather I’d ever ridden as a Memphian was equal only to a mild day in October in Western Massachusetts.
If you were anything like me, finding out that serious cyclists trained in cold and often harsh conditions was a shock, kinda like finding out what our parents did to bring us into this world … they what? Adding another layer to that shock was the discovery that there were races in the early spring, often held in weather that made a walk-in refrigerator seem like a spa. Not only were they riding, but these guys had been training all winter so they could be at peak form at a time when some of us were just starting to get back on the bike.
You remember that seen in Jaws where Chief Brodie says, “We need a bigger boat”? Well, I had that same frightened realization when winter set in. I couldn’t fathom riding in freezing temperatures, rides long enough to freeze my bottles. But like Brodie, I was too far from shore to jump off the boat. I needed to strap in and set the line.
Strap in I did. Riders on my school’s cycling team took me out on rides that didn’t qualify as recreation. They were too painful. I saw new riders flat-out give up, never to show up for another ride. Mine was less baptism by fire than christening by conflagration.
In that first month with the UMASS team, I bonked, on average, once a week. A bottle froze at least twice a week. I rarely knew where I was, but they almost never left me for dead. I got lost only once and the great miracle of that experience was that because I didn’t stop pedaling, I rode back into my town, just from a direction I’d never used before. Wow.
Rain fell, my tires slipped on dirt roads and I learned not to bother with spitting out sand. They taught me how to read the road for frost heaves, those cracks in pavement that forced the pavement up and destroyed clincher rims with the ease of a cracker under foot. I rode nothing but tubulars pumped to 100 psi.
My learning curve was so steep that a ride equaled a lesson. Why I kept going back is a mystery to me even now. They sparked in me a tough-guy ambition. I wanted to know what it meant to be a hard man, but I had no idea what that meant. And the drive came from some otherworldly desire to see how the other (half?) one percent lives.
The pages of Winning Magazine showed riders like Sean Kelly and Greg LeMond at those early season races, but those images didn’t betray the temperature, the way cold rain cuts like an ice knife. Gradually, my understanding of the spring classics was recalibrated—one nasty ride at a time.
Thinking back to when I first heard about those great one-day races, the ones now synonymous with “monument” and “spring classic.” There came a “What the hell?” moment when I learned about cobblestones in the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. I mean, who would do that? It seemed crazy, but maybe also kinda cool. When I finally saw photos of the pavé from sections like the Arenberg Forest that the endeavor took on a Reinhold Messner-climbing-Everest-with-no-supplemental-oxygen craziness.
I struggled to fathom what those riders were doing, the speeds they rode and for the lengths of time they pedaled. There were guys on my team who could ride away from me any time they wanted. And those guys weren’t good enough to be even bad pros.
The questions I asked myself and others seemed endless. The funniest one of all was how I continued to wonder how riding another day per week or adding another hour to each ride would make me faster. Everything else in my life had taught me that there was a point of diminishing returns to the “more is better” logic. But cycling seemed to turn that into comedy. You could ride until you were sick of the bicycle and get faster all the while.
How such dedication was destined ruin a good thing and turn pure fun into the chore of chores defied explanation, or understanding. I mean, how bad do you have to want to win to be willing to ride in the cold that much?
Wait, don’t answer.
Somewhere in those ambitions lies the soul of Belgium. In the same way that the bald pate of Mr. Clean came to symbolize my mother’s spotless kitchen floor, the paving stone has come to stand for the heart of the Belgian cyclist.
As that first spring thawed into weather someone might consider nice for a bike ride or even flying a kite, we took in more and longer climbs. I would dream I was in the Tour de France and racing up some Alpine ascent. Climbing was no easier physically than riding on the flat. I didn’t need a heart rate monitor to understand that. But I didn’t suffer in the same way I did on the flat.
Years would go by before I could put those experiences into a context that made sense. What the spring classics taught me was that a flat road can be a time trial without a finish line, whereas a climb is finite. There’s no confusion about either the start or the finish. In riding different climbs, I was testing the difficulty of the terrain. I’d make a mental note of the toughest ones and return to them for more training.
Flat roads, by comparison, are all the same. All that changes is the wind. What I began to appreciate about the Belgians I admired was how there was more to their endurance than their ability to withstand cold and rain. They understood how to deal with a flat road. It was a kind of toughness I still don’t think I ever mastered. The difference between a flat road and a climb isn’t a matter of tilt. The truth is, with a flat road, you don’t test it, it tests you.
Originally published in peloton magazine.