I know Belgians who are not so tough. There. I said it. I will add that wearing the lion of Flanders on your chest/hat/socks will not make you tougher either. It has no mystical powers. At some point, Belgian-ness (and what about Wallonia?) became shorthand for toughness, for hardness, and while shorthand is good at conveying general meaning, there is so much more to hardness than simply riding around on crappy roads in cold rain. There is also more to being Belgian.
I am not tough. Let’s just get that right out of the way, even though I’ve pretended to be tough here on RKP and on group rides around town. My over-blown ego inspired me to crow about how cold it was or how much snow was falling or how far I went, but I’m not tough. I get cold, and I quit, and I fail to do rides I devise for myself because they’re too hard. I am tougher than some, but a long way off of some (many) of the people I know.
As the weather shifts toward raw and cold here in my New England home, I am, once again, faced with the limits of my own will. I peek through the blinds at the gray morning, feel the draft at the edges of the window, shiver in the core of myself, but still resolve to ride. Except when I don’t.
The people I know who are actually tough don’t talk about their toughness. They do long, long rides, by themselves, and you don’t find out about it except sometimes by accident. They ride in horrible conditions, but don’t blog/tweet/Strava the results, like so many virtual trophies. They ride the way they ride because they love to ride, and not to impress other people or rack up stats. Their egos don’t need to put their every effort on exhibit.
It’s natural to fetishize toughness when you’re a cyclist. Cycling is a hard sport. The hardness of the ride is an obvious way to measure it. The world is big, and we are small, and we rage against it and scream our lungs out trying to move the needle on existence.
Honestly, I am not even the toughest person in my own home.
All of this quickly devolves into cheap shorthand and ego-stroking bravado. The truth is, hardness is an elusive quality. Hard is the thing you haven’t done yet. Hard is the thing you don’t believe you can do. Dream about it, stalk it and hunt it down. Look for it in the dark. Seek it at the edge of your endurance.
You will find hardness occasionally, but you will not be able to mount it on the wall like a twelve point buck. Hardness has no fixed symbol, no permanent status. Hardness is not uniquely Belgian, nor the province of the fast and furious. Some of the hardest people I know are old and slow, strong and quiet.
The days are still shortening here in New England. The jet stream is yet to push the arctic air that makes up our winter far enough south to really test our mettle. But it is coming. It’s hard to know what kind of winter we’ll have, how much snow, how many truly frigid days.
I will try to be tough. I will go out and look for it, except on the days when I don’t because I just don’t have it in me.
Photo © Matt O’Keefe
The Spring Classics season is over. Shit. And true to form it offered up some legend-burnishing performances (Boonen’s Flanders/Roubaix double) and some jaw-slackening surprises (Gasparotto at Amstel Gold).
The big winner, Tommeke Boonen, just put the cherry(s) on top of what has already been a peach of a season for Omega Pharma-QuickStep (OPQS). They’ve gotten wins on the road from Francesco Chicchi, Levi Leipheimer, Gerald Ciolek, Peter Velits, Michal Kwiatkowski, Julien Vermote, Niki Terpstra and Sylvain Chavanel as well; 2011 Time Trial World Champion Tony Martin hasn’t even pitched in yet, quite possibly because he had an altogether too close encounter with a car while training earlier this month.
Other big winners must include Green Edge, who put Simon Gerrans on the top step of the podium at Milan-San Remo, and Astana who took the final prize of the spring at Liege-Bastogne-Liege with Maxim Iglinskiy.
BMC showed well with Alessandro Ballan on podiums at both Flanders and Roubaix, but for a team of this caliber (and payroll) a pair of third places and a lot of anonymous rides from last year’s rider-of-the-season, Philipe Gilbert, has to be seen as an abject failure.
RadioShack-Nissan-Trek-Jingleheimer-Schmidt will also feel about as happy as kid who’s dropped his ice cream after watching Fabian Cancellara face plant in the feed zone at Flanders, shattering his collarbone and a potential rematch with Boonen over the the cobbles of le Nord. In the Ardennes, where the Schleck brothers made most favorites lists, the team fired nothing but blanks.
More could have been expected from Team Sky and perhaps Katusha also, but the Spring seldom runs to script.
This week’s Group Ride looks back wistfully at the just-done spate of races and asks: Who were your winners and losers? What did you love? And what did you hate?
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Bernard Hinault hated Paris-Roubaix. He called it “nonsense.” He raced it until he won, and then he quit showing up each year. Fabian Cancellara and Thor Hushovd and Tom Boonen all get paid to race it. They say they love it, but if they weren’t being paid, do you think they’d subject themselves to that torture. Of course, if you want to ride the route, you can sign up for the Paris-Roubaix Cyclo, which takes place every other year, and shell out your hard earned cash for a perineum pulverizing promenade over the pavé.
Such is our love for cyclo-suffering that we will actually pay for the privilege of experiencing the same pain as our heroes.
You can ride the Êtape du Tour, l’Eroica or the Flanders sportive. Each ride gives you a chance to challenge yourself over difficult terrain in a legendary locale. People are already doing these by the thousand, sometimes on vintage bicycles. Our sport is anything if not perpetually nostalgic, right?
Or, you can ride Paris-Brest-Paris, Boston-Montreal-Boston or even the Race Across America (RAAM). Go big and then go home. Why not?
Just the other day I met some gentlemen who are racing RAAM this year, and what struck me about them, beyond the passion for cycling they exuded, was just how like ordinary cyclists they looked. Any of them could be on your next group ride, and you’d never know what they were capable of. But they’re daring to do something extraordinary.
This week’s Group Ride asks: If you could ride one of the big events in cycling, not as a pro, but as an amateur, which would it be? This is not fantasy time. This is time to think about a challenge you might actually take on and ride. Tell us what you’d do, why you’d do it, and when you think it’ll happen.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Stop! Do you hear that? That tense silence between the Flanders and Ardennes Classics? It’s like that frozen moment where everyone on the group ride looks up, sees the town line sign, and does the difficult math that will determine whether or not they’ll even bother to sprint for it.
Right now, even as the week winds down, the pro riders are assessing their physical condition, their dodgy knees and raspy chests, trying to decide whether they even dare to start Amstel Gold. Because now the season is under way. They’ve been up mountains and over cobbles. They’ve crashed. They’ve put themselves through wringers and limped across finishes into the merciful hands of soigneurs and masseurs.
We should all be so lucky.
In honor of this tense juncture, we would like to talk about YOUR hardest ride. What was it? Where did you go, and why was it so hard? Was it the distance? A crash? An injury? A mechanical? Did you bleed? How long did it take to recover? Give us detail. Exaggerate. Paint it in vivid, thick strokes like Van Gogh or Van Halen.
While we’re at it, name the winner of Amstel Gold. The first post with the right rider gets a free RKP sticker pack. I’ll give you a hint, it won’t be Cancellara. You’re welcome.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International