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The Belgian Learning Curve: May the Spirit be Unbroken

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From about 100 meters away, I can see where I’ll crash. It’s a brown patch of cow poo, smeared across the apex of a sharp left-hander. It’s a familiar corner through the farm fields, a mere kilometer from my home in Oudenaarde, Belgium. If hit just right on a dry day–swing wide on the setup, catch the banking of the inside, miss the dirt patch in the middle, then gingerly drift over the crown to the off camber exit–this is a ripping brakeless turn, the kind that puffs up the chest as you speed away.

By Andrew Juiliano/Photo by Annick Lamb

But today, that brown patch of mire glistens with moisture. I’d just PR’d the first of eight VO2 max intervals after a rest week. It was a wonderful start to a training block that would build toward the end of ‘cross season. I was jazzed. My chest already puffed as I dropped off the back Koppenberg. With an extra dab of the brakes–it is wet, after all–I sail into the aforementioned corner.

I realize my mistake while sliding into the ditch. This is no dry, banked canyon descent in sunny Southern California. This is a slimy farm lane in the bergs of East Flanders. Moments later, I stand dazed, skin missing from my left side, thinking, “This is no way to start a four-day training block.”

 I pedal home, and hobble straight into the shower. The holes in my hip and forearm are packed with well-fertilized farmland. It’s the kind of stinky soil that grows beets, celery and other delicious vegetables in Flanders fields. That same dirt will happily cultivate all manner of unwelcome organic matter in my skin. I groan, nay whimper, while scrubbing the wounds with soap and blasting them out with the showerhead. When the pain subsides, I ponder, “Just what the hell am I doing to myself?

It’s a question that arises frequently as a neo-pro in Belgium. It’s a common query in races, where despite going deeper than I’ve ever gone in my entire life, Mathieu Van Der Poel still comes flying up behind me with one lap to go. It comes when I’m standing outside in the rain, washing the mud off my bike just so I can wake up to get it dirty again the next morning. It’s a constant consideration as I head out for training when that rain turns to snow in Belgium even though it’s 80 degrees at home in California.

Why am I subjecting myself to this? I wonder as the showerhead blasts mire out of my hip and shoots pain to the brain. At every turn, Belgium seems to have a vendetta against the psyche of bike racing hopefuls. But, that assault on aspiration is part of the process. It’s nothing personal. It’s just how it is. If this cycling land doesn’t break my spirit, it will eventually break me into a proper bike racer.

I climb out of the shower and dry off. I contemplate just sitting on the couch for the rest of the day. Instead, I walk over to the dresser. I grab a new kit and pull it on. Red oozes through the white fabric on the thigh as I throw my leg over the bike and roll back into the fields. I have three more months left in cyclocross season. Three months to train, strain and struggle through this cycling crucible. Three more months for Flanders to crush my spirit and send me scurrying back to the sunshine of Southern California. But that won’t happen today, Belgium. Not today. I’ve seven more intervals left to do.