Saturday, 12 January 2013

A Day in the Life of a Minor Celebrity

I had a day off on December 27th and spent it in Gent with Esther and some other guests of the Chain Stay - Luke, Aaron and Mark - wandering the streets looking for trouble, coffee, lingerie, art supplies and a movie theatre. After roaming for a few hours picking up various people's desires we got tickets to see The Hobbit, and while waiting for it to start we headed into the bar next door.

It's been a slow and unscientific progression of tasting the beers on offer in this country, for me at least, due to the combination of the sheer number and strength of the beers, and my relatively weak fortitude. An 11% one I tried recently had me struggling to stand steady, looking for a seat and almost nodding off after just one sip. Despite the factors working in favour of a higher consumption - the price of beer and wine here is unfathomably cheap in comparison to New Zealand, especially for the quality - I have tended not to indulge apart from on the odd occasion.

After we'd finished our drinks and were putting on our jackets about to go, I saw the bartender glance at me. He gave me a look of recognition and mouthed hello, or possibly hallo, then walked over to ask me if I was going to be racing that coming weekend, and wished me luck. Suitably surprised and entertained by being recognised in a city I've only visited once before, we then went into the cinema to watch a drawn out and unconvincing replica of LOTR. The main highlight for me was that it had two sets of subtitles the whole way through - French and Dutch. Although it took up about a third of the screen, it was a great chance to practice my Dutch reading undisturbed for a few hours.

We then traipsed out into the night, seeking a source of sustenance. Finding mainly only high-brow establishments we made our way down a few streets until we came across a pub jam packed with people, most of whom were sitting down with meals. We waited at the bar until a table became available, watching as the barman almost singlehandedly ran the place. There were two other waiting staff doing tables, but this guy was doing all the drinks and coffee for both the restaurant and bar, answering the phone, taking orders for food and cleaning glasses. He also did a good job of defending me when an impatient dude, presumably of the opinion that I was hogging it, tried to grab the menu out of my hands. He took it in turn out of his hands, put it back in mine, and told the guy to go back to his seat. I saw a couple of small bowls of peanuts come back from a cleared table, which he put aside - presumably, I thought, for him to eat later or to throw out when he got the chance. He washed a few more glasses, then with wet hands stacked the bowls of nuts on top of one another. I really started to wonder what was going to happen to them now, but had a sneaking suspicion of what he might be up to. Esther and I then watched as he poured drinks for the impatient guy, following his movements with smug amusement as he proceeded to wack down the half eaten, slightly damp peanuts in front of him. The guy gobbled them down like they were delicious. It was poetic justice before our very eyes.

Once we had been seated and were about to start eating, the waiter asked me if I was famous in New Zealand as well. When I said no, he explained that there was a woman from NZ at a table on the far side of the restaurant and he wanted to know if she would know who he was talking about if he mentioned my name. I replied that she would probably not have a clue, and we laughed at the bizarre nature of being famous in a foreign country for something that most people have never heard of back home.

The Canadians, Aaron and Mark found it particularly amusing to be in my company and witness it. It's been quite useful sometimes, in particular for getting good parking spots at races. Generally the big professional teams arrive on site very early, sometimes even the night before. They take up a lot of space with their trucks and mobile homes, which tends to force the smaller contingents such as ours out along the access road, or at least to a second and more distant parking space. At the race in Leuven in December Aaron was driving us in, and when we were stopped by a parking volunteer it looked like we would be turned around and told to try elsewhere, as the car park was "full" (most of the time full means half-full, especially if you are neither part of a big team or an elite men competitor). Just as it seemed he was about to utter the bad news, I leaned forward and looked across from the passenger seat. The guy's eyes opened wide, he exclaimed brightly and pointed us in the direction of an area taped off for the Sunweb-Revor team, saying we could just park in their space.

I have got a little more used to people wanting to take photos of me at races, even though it often seems just to be a shot of me positioned awkwardly on my bike that they are looking for. Families with small children (typically covered in Sven Nys or Niels Albert merchandised clothing) come up and pose excitedly beside me, and wandering adults too linger near the van when I'm warming up looking for a cheeky snap. Most of the time people ask, but sometimes they just stand off and take a photo without saying anything which is a bit weird. I don't know if it's a language thing, but even so gesticulations and sign language tend to work pretty well if spoken communication is out of the question. I've met some great characters, and enjoyed as much as I can being recognised most of the places I go, so even if it all ends with the racing in a few weeks then I will look back happily upon the strangest time of my life as I slink back into the crowd.

Photo: Julie Vanbelle

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Post-Christmas Daze: Part One

Every year around Christmas the cyclocross season in Belgium reaches its peak, climaxing with a combination of World Cup and Category 1 races from the major series, and other category 2 races that aren't part of any series but want to squeeze in nonetheless and be a part of the action. Despite having ridden mountain bikes for a few years now, I've never had more than about 3 consecutive weekends of racing, even at the peak of the season. Certainly I've never had midweek races in addition to this, so my schedule of races looked to me like a lot. However it was only a selection of what was available to do and the top professionals race almost every other day during this fortnight.

I've written about the first half of it in my blog on the Spoke magazine website so I will leave the description of it there, but here I will include some more photos that didn't make it into that blog. I am very thankful to the many generous Belgian photographers who come along to all the races, take great photos and then share them with us riders. It's made my posts much more interesting to look at, and will be a great source of memories once the season has ended.

Leuven Dec 16th:
Schooled by Canadian Aaron Schooler! Photo: Jozef Cooreman

You can't beat a fist punch. Photo: Rita Thienpondt
Sint-Niklaas, Dec 19th:
Photo: Geert Van den Bossche

Lewis Rattray sneaking away. Photo: Rita Thienpondt

Single file early on. Photo: Jozef Cooreman
Namur World Cup Dec 23rd:
Photo: Jozef Cooreman

There were greasy corners a-plenty. Photo: Dirk Bruylant

My Canadian bro's Aaron and Mark. Photo: Ludo Nagels

I got some good airtime on TV when I blocked the world's view of Pauwels leading!

Biggest World Cup field so far, over 60 starters. Photo: John de Jong
Heusden-Zolder World Cup Dec 26th:
Rubbish begins to cover course. Photo: Tom Prenen

One lap down, feeling good. Photo: Jozef Cooreman
Two laps down, bad crash, not feeling good. Photo: Jozef Cooreman

Photo: Tom Prenen
 I'll put out a second part in a few days once I've come up with the words, and made my way through a ton of leftover Christmas chocolate.