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Belgian toothpaste & other rides

From Issue 85 • Words/Images: Andy Bokanev

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IT STARTS BEFORE I EVEN LEAVE the confines of the airport terminal. Airport bars tend to feel like a lawless rip in the space-time continuum (“Sure, I’ll have a morning beer!”), but this particular bar has something else going on. In addition to the 8 a.m. Heineken, the bar’s only TV was showing a bicycle race. On a Wednesday. In March.

belgian toothpaste
belgian toothpaste

THIS MUST BE THE PLACE.

The place is Belgium. And I am arriving here a couple of days before one of my favorite events on the pro cycling calendar: De Ronde van Vlaanderen, or—and much easier on the tongue (and the autocorrect)—the Tour of Flanders.

By the time I catch the train to take me from the Brussels airport into the heart of Flanders, the town of Bruges to be exact, I have but one mission: to seek out a bottle of Westvleteren 12, an elusive and highly sought-after Trappist ale sold only in small quantities directly from the doors of the monastery where it is brewed. I strike gold at my very first stop. A tiny spot called Café Rose Red just happens to sell bottles of Westvleteren 12. The bartender opens one in front of me without much fanfare and by taking the first sip of that dark sweet liquid I become the envy of beer nerds all of the world. At least in my mind.

Well, I am not here to only drink beer, although that in itself would be a great reason to visit this part of the world. I am here to experience a little bit of what it is like to take on the windswept roads, bike paths, cobbles and short but nasty climbs that have created many a legend in cycling lore.

It doesn’t take long for me to find just how windy it can get in Flanders. I leave the cobbles of Bruges and take one of many paths lining the canals and rivers that crisscross this area. Dark clouds are swirling and winds are howling. “Every cloud here has a little bit of rain in it,” says Wiebe, my guide to the area. But the iffy weather does not prevent us running into other cyclists along the way—everyone from the kid who looks 15 going about Mach 1 in a sponsor-plastered kit to a woman in her 60s pedaling her way home with a basket full of goods.

The weather has yet to make up its mind the next morning when I take to the starting line in the Ronde van Vlaanderen Cyclo, also known as the Citizen’s Race. The Cyclo takes place on the maze of cobbled climbs and farm roads that make up the latter part of Tour of Flanders. You know, the part people actually tune in for. I am by no means alone. There are 17,000 other riders, everyone looking to experience the Wolvenberg, Molenberg, Paddestraat, Huisepontweg, Oude Kwaremont and, of course, the Koppenberg.

Oh, the Koppenberg! By the time I arrive at the bottom of the climb, the sky has started letting out just enough moisture to turn the slick and steep cobbles into a skating rink. This does not prevent anyone from attempting to ride the climb without clipping out. There is lots of groaning and heavy breathing, interrupted only by the sound of somebody falling over after succumbing to gravity. After walking up a wet Koppenberg in bike cleats one tends to gain a newfound respect for traction.

belgian toothpaste
belgian toothpaste
belgian toothpaste

It is okay, though. A Duvel or two back in Oudenaarde will fix that experience.

Race day. The same farm roads that looked barren just the day before are now packed with thousands of people. Up on the Kwaremont it may only be noon, the wind cold and the race still a few hours away, but the fields are filled with spectators in various states of inebriation. Bike racing is a funny sport. You can see so much more when watching a race on television. You can understand the nuances and see facial expressions and get the exact time differences between the leaders and the chase group. But none of that compares to standing ankle deep in mud with growing anticipation for the sound of the distant helicopter blades signaling the arrival of the leaders, while drinking crappy beer and having your view obstructed by dozen of fans waving black-and-yellow Flanders flags.

I stop, or rather the wind forces to me stop, in Diksmuide. The town’s origins go back to the 9th century; however, it was reduced to rubble in World War I and completely rebuilt in the 1920s. The river I have been winding my way next to, the Yser, played a big role in one of the few early Allied victories against the invading Germany after the floodgates were opened and the river was allowed to inundate the area, resulting in the river and its canal becoming a frontline throughout the war.

belgian toothpaste

There is Great War history seemingly around every turn. Memorials, cemeteries, the rebuilt city of Ypres and, of course, the hill of Kemmelberg. It occurs to me that I am visiting this site in the month of the 100th anniversary of the battles that took place around this strategically placed hill. All in all, more than 120,000 lives were lost near and around the Kemmel. It is easy to forget the meaning of this place when all you are confronted with is the somewhat challenging grade of relatively smooth cobblestones.

The sunshine returns and the temperatures start to climb back up the scale. Yet, after a two-hour ride along the canals I am covered in dirt and grit. One of the locals I am riding with looks over and smirks: “That? That’s just Belgian toothpaste.”

It’s time to pack up and head south of the border to northern France, to ride the cobbles and the dusty roads that make up Paris–Roubaix. The first sector along the route is perhaps the most memorable: the Trouée d’Arenberg. Time to forget everything you know about trying to move your bike in a straight line. The cobbles are jagged and slick, the result of their shaded existence. It is a challenge to remain upright, best solved by doing the most counterintuitive thing—going harder and faster. This is a lesson I take to the rest of the cobbled sectors. Each one becomes an interval, my body bouncing up and down as the bike gets pounded by dusty cobbles. My hands turn into a callusy, bloody mess, but I find a rhythm and grow to enjoy each sector and grow somewhat sad the closer I get to Roubaix.

I should point out that none of this experience would be possible without Trek Travel, which invited me to join its spring classics trip and played host to my favorite part of the world—at least, when it comes to cycling…and to my favorite beers.

Which reminds me, there’s one more stop that I have to make before packing up and heading home: the Saint-Sixtus Abbey, home of the aforementioned Westvleteren 12. It’s a gamble to find out whether or not the Trappist monks are offering beer for sale, because the day I wind up there is the day after Easter. But the place is packed with a crowd that runs the gamut from college-aged kids to octogenarians, all enjoying dark beer in the sunshine. The Abbey is indeed offering bottles for sale and I happily reach my allotted purchase limit to take back to the U.S.

Back home, the border agent looks and questions my reasons for traveling to Belgium in March. I guess you could go in the summer. Beer would still be cold and the roads wouldn’t be as wet or muddy. That almost sounds almost…pleasant. But that’s not what the spring classics are all about.

From issue 85, get your copy here.