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Flanders in America

Take a trip to Pennsylvania and what many consider the "Flanders of America".

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There’s only one Flanders. Only one Belgium. But if there’s a passable American facsimile, it may be found in Pennsylvania, perhaps among the farm roads of the Lehigh Valley. The size, talent, and depth of the cycling community in and around the towns of Emmaus, Macungie, and Trexlertown sort of defies logic. Their combined population of only 16,000 brims with cycling bona fides. This isn’t Boulder, Colorado, where some top professional racers and triathletes find training altitudes and long climbs to prepare them to compete internationally. It’s a more complicated combination of factors that puts these small suburbs of Allentown, 50 miles north of Philadelphia, among America’s cycling epicenters.

Image: Gabe Lloyd.

The story began with the opening in 1975 of the Lehigh Valley Velodrome at Trexlertown, funded by Rodale Publishing, then based in Emmaus. The bike racing facility was a pet project of company owner Bob Rodale, an Olympic skeet shooter who roomed with track cyclists at the 1967 Pan-American Games and sparked his interest in the sport. That interest was heightened when he bought California-based Bicycling magazine in 1978, adding it to his collection of publications focused on health and wellness. The velodrome and the magazine lit the spark that turned this corner of eastern Pennsylvania into a cycling hotbed.

The velodrome—today named the Valley Preferred Cycling Center and part of the Bob Rodale Cycling & Fitness Park—became a magnet for track cyclists up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Today, there are countless community members who moved here to be close to the track and made lives for themselves and their families around Emmaus. With its UCI races, Olympic qualifiers, strong youth development program, and Friday night beer gardens, the velodrome has become a cornerstone of the cycling community.

At the same time, Rodale was hiring editors, designers, and staff from across the country. One who arrived in early 1990 was Selene Yeager, who said, “I don’t mean to overstate it, but it was a magical place and time. You had all of these people come to this small town in Pennsylvania and we brought with us our love for bicycles of all kinds; many of us fell in love, had families, and set down roots—and so much of it revolved around mountain bikes, road bikes, group rides, ’cross races, all of it.”

The critical mass of cyclists found a wealth of gems in the region, from the potential for fantastic trails in its wildland conservancy areas to the gorgeous farm roads and gravel byways. They have built a community around these local treasures, adding their own quirks and contributions.

On a Thursday evening this past November, I was waiting in the parking lot of the Emmaus Compost Center to meet a guy named Mark Barton, who kindly loaned me his “B” bike to ride and race over the next few days. The Fifth Street ’Cross series (in its 18th year) embodies the area’s cycling culture. The race was founded by longtime editors at Bicycling, Beth and Bill Strickland, in their backyard on Fifth Street—and it got a little out of hand.

Image: Gabe Lloyd.

Over the years, the event has changed locations and ownership (now operated by Gabe and Kacey Lloyd). And among its shenanigans, I’m told, was a course shortcut that involved shotgunning a beer. As for my race, it turns out we’re going to compete in the dark—which, apparently, is normal for the event. As the sun set, runners took off for a 5K race, and we were allowed to pre-ride the course while giving the runners a wide berth.

The course’s layout was fun, flowy, and technical, with tons of chicanes, a couple of pump tracks, and a few slick corners, including one right before the barriers. When we lined up for the start I was taken aback by the size of the field, maybe as many as 80 racers, on a briskly cold November night. We raced four laps, and then took a short break to huddle around the fire and drink a beer before racing another three laps in the opposite directions—which I sat out.

It was difficult, almost impossible, to pick your lines in the dark. I was fighting just to stay on course in the corners as the headlight I attached to Mark’s bike started blinking “I’m dying” right after the start (I had forgotten to charge it). Each lap, we had to shout our numbers as we passed the folks with clipboards keeping score because they couldn’t see us. As a West Coast weather softy, I was contemplating quitting as I headed into lap three because of the cold. But once I could no longer feel my hands I figured why not just finish. The beer around the fire barrel, chatting with the other racers, certainly was alluring enough to pass on the additional three laps, so I had plenty of company.

“That break, and the time we spend together at the end of the race, is the most important part of Fifth Street,” Gabe, the race organizer, told me. “That’s when the community comes together. We have racers of all ability levels out there; some of our local elite racers show up every week. There are young kids riding with their parents at the back, but we all finish on the lap of the leader so that we have that time together.”

Gabe moved to Emmaus from New York City, where he was “all in” as a Cat. 1 racer hoping to make it as a professional. He first came to the area to race at the velodrome and has since found a welcoming community. And as relaxed and sort of weird as Fifth Street is, Gabe is deadly serious about the role it plays. “We lose a lot of promising athletes early in their development by focusing only on what happens in the race,” he said. “I was a top 10 rider in UCI races on my best day. If you only value what happens in the race and these young kids don’t win, it’s not as fun, and so we’re focused on fun. Fast folks can go all out and developing riders don’t feel judged while they’re learning.” Fifth place riders get the awards at Fifth Street Cross.

Image: Gabe Lloyd.

Afterward, many of the racers gathered at nearby Funk Brewing, but Mark said the pro move before heading to Funk was to grab a pizza at Yergey Brewing —Emmaus and its surrounding communities are experiencing massive growth in quality craft brewing. While we waited for our pizzas, Mark told me he worked at Rodale and started a ride/race/charity event now run by Dave Pryor—a former magazine design guy, Selene’s husband, and all-around good guy who made all of the connections for me (thanks, Dave). The event is called Monkey Knifefight and it features some of the best gravel riding in the Lehigh Valley. Mark said that he sold the race to Dave for a beer, which somehow feels just about right.

The following morning, I met with Jeff Tkach in the parking lot of the Rodale Institute, an organic research farm located among the hills outside of Trexlertown. We pedaled off on a lunch route that he and Dave Pryor often ride—both now work at the institute. It was a bluebird day in early November, but the weather was a couple of degrees below perfect for an autumn ride. We followed farm roads and turned onto gravel and packed-dirt lanes that dipped into hollows and followed streams. These were old roadways, established by farmers generations ago. There were some very punchy climbs, and because I was still on Mark’s ’cross bike I had to stand and hammer up them so my knees didn’t explode, while Jeff rode them like a regular person. I was reminded of how similar these roads look to those in the real Flanders; a little wider of course, but farm country is universal. Flat in some places, hilly in others, along with barns cows, and the whole nine yards.

Gabe Lloyd.

I was reminded of conversations I had with Dave and Gabe about riding here. Over beers, Dave told me that he rode for nearly a year before he’d repeat the same roads on any loop he’d put together. Gabe shared, “It’s easy to be a bike racer here; you ride right out the door. There are ridges that offer climbing [Lehigh Valley is bounded by two ridges of the Appalachians, Blue Mountain to the north, and South Mountain to the, uh, south.] and plenty of flats. The riding is accessible, but there’s enough variety and depth of offerings that you can push yourself and create a serious training program.”

What they didn’t say but Jeff and I discussed on our ride was how “every day” beautiful it is. Not exotic, but bucolic and charming as hell when seen from a bicycle. It’s challenging but not overwhelming, though my cyclocross gearing offered an additional layer of challenge. Many of the trees had held on to their fall colors into November, and the hills and glens we passed through, along with the sparse traffic, made this a perfect place to ride. And the prolific cycling community means that the neighbors are used to looking out for bikes.

It was clear that Jeff didn’t really plan our route; he just picked roads as we went. On heading back to the institute for lunch, Jeff spotted some horses that seemed to have gotten loose in a field. We turned onto a dirt track through a cornfield and I worried for a moment if Jeff was going to wrangle the horses himself. Instead, we continued on to a farmhouse where Jeff let a father and son know what was happening. Such Mennonite farmers have been here for generations and, I must be honest, their English accented by the Pennsylvania Dutch they speak [a mistranslation of Deutsch, or German. is a sort of amalgam of a central Rhineland dialect that came over here in the 17th century] made me feel like I was in Europe for a minute. Hell, maybe even Flanders.

If you’re pining for a taste of Flanders stateside, go to: discoverlehighvalley.com

Images by Gabe Lloyd.