I won’t pretend like my last two races are worth more discussion than this single paragraph has to offer. I did one out west in Hoogelede a few days ago. Took the train most of the way there, road the rest of the way on damp roads. It was a cold, nasty Fall day. Fall is the absolute worst. I hate it when people say that Fall is their favorite season. Really? You enjoy death and gloom? Look at the plants and trees and grass! They’re all turning brown and shriveling up in suspended death. You like the marvelous and uplifting colors of brown and gray? You like the days becoming short and everyone’s mood turning black? You like being cold and miserable and not being able to go outside and sit in the sun? You enjoy going back to school? That’s what the Fall is all about. Kids back in their shackles and everyone cold and depressed again. People who say they like the Fall are either demented or in denial. Fall is the worst season. After Winter.
Anyways, I’ll have to start a new paragraph after that rant so it turns out that these races will get some more talk than planned. Hoogelede was a small, 4.7km course with a tiny hill that we had to do 24 times. The race organizers know how miserable, tired, and unmotivated we all are at this point in the season and know that the more laps we do the more miserable we’ll be. They’re a sick bunch. Twisted. You can do a 115km race with eight or 10 laps no problem, in fact most kermesses seem to top out at 12 laps, that is until you get to the end of September and beginning of October. That’s when all these 20+ laps on short courses start materializing. Having to do that many laps is demoralizing and mentally fatiguing. I think at least 10 guys dropped out in the first 10 minutes of the race. I was in no mood to be racing either, but I’d spent good money on my train ticket. It was wet, had been raining, the race start was delayed by 45 minutes so they could clean off the downhill through town, which had a rainbow of oil spilled all over it. My only guess is that it was friet grease, spilled from a drunk old man tripping over a garbage can of old friets.
This race was on Saturday so I already can’t really remember how it went down. I attacked a few times but not much. I mainly sat in and waited for the last five laps to finally roll around. But a large break of 10 got away mid-race. Mid race? That’s not supposed to happen. Then another group got away without me at just under two laps to go, despite me being attentive and fairly aggressive except for that one moment when the race split up there. I ended up leading out the rest of the bunch for the entire final kilometer and got 31st. I took a shower in the school gym and put my cycling clothes back on, then rode back to the train station. I had a night out on the town in Oudenaarde with Jake for the first time that night. I was supposed to be going out with a girl I met working in a bakery at a race last week but she cancelled last minute because her friend had an accident that evening. Yeah, Belgium is a tad behind the rest of the world. By like 40 years or more. For them, that excuse is still new and believable.
The next race was close enough to ride to. I almost didn’t make it there after getting lost and doing a lap around the city searching for signs of it. I need a Garmin next time I come here. I luckily stumbled upon the race with time to spare and found out that it was another course that we’d have to do 20 laps of. 20 god damn laps. I thought about just riding home. The course was flat with some small roads and one series of turns with broken, patched pavement that was covered in dirt and off-cambered. I banked on it causing some problems.
Half way into the first lap I contemplated pulling out and riding home. It wasn’t that hard yet, I just didn’t want to be racing. My legs were dead and my mind deader. I attacked at the end of lap one and later on lap two. It started raining. Four laps went by and I was still deciding on whether I’d drop out, but now that the rain started coming down hard I figured I couldn’t quit because that would be pretty weak of me. I could have quit earlier, before the race got hard, not now when there was adversity to overcome.
There was a crash on the corners with the dirt that was now mud. We went through that chicane so slowly every time. Like walking speed. Then there was the mad sprint out of it on a straight road with tailwind over speed bumps. I sat in for a while then began moving up and covering moves and gaps when it looked like the race might break up for good. I attacked once or twice but mainly just followed moves. Actually I mainly didn’t do anything. I figured that with the way my legs were if I was going to win today it wouldn’t be because of effort or strength, it would be because everyone else tired themselves out and I managed to just slip into the moves and sit on the wheels without being noticed or having to do any work, then magically arriving at the finish line with a perfect lead out. This didn’t materialize of course. With three laps to go the race blew apart for good. The rain was pouring down now. No knee warmers, no arm warmers, no wind vests or rain jackets. This is Belgium. Not even children with Lukemia race with those wimpy things. If you’re cold, you’re not going hard enough.
I sprinted across the finish line in the saddle, unable to stand up for the last 100 meters and barely able to see through my dirt-covered glasses into the dark evening’s black rain clouds. Our group had shattered into ones and twos and threes. There were two other groups farther up the road battling for the top 18. I took 21st. With my brakes and shifting hardly functioning, sand everywhere in my eyes, mouth, nose, mud covering everything, soaked to the bone, legs two worthless ragged meat pistons incapable of one more hard pump, I knew there was no way better to end my season here in Belgium. I rode home in the rain. I stopped at Colruyt on the way home with my measly race winnings and bought some meat and cheese sauce for my pasta and a bar of chocolate and a bag of potato chips. I got home in the dark. I’m done. So done. I’m ready to go home, rest, and finally get healthy at last. Jake and I had planned on doing a huge bike journey through Europe this last week, then we decided that riding 250km a day was a bad way to end the season so our second plan was to fly to Croatia for 12 euros and sit on a beach in the sun and party. We stupidly decided to continue racing instead. Belgium kermess racing in October is when you plead for the year to be over.
I always get a little sad when I leave a place. I’m not sure when I’ll be back to Belgium or if I’ll ever see half the people I’ve met here again. But it’s a comforting thought knowing that the world will go one without you. People here will still be eating friets, watching bike races, growing potatoes, and drinking tiny coffees with Speculose cookies long after I’m dead and gone. Sometimes you think about how big and old the world is and you feel insignificant and useless. A lone phytoplankton in the middle of the ocean. Nothing you’ve done, are doing, or ever do will matter or be noticed. Maybe that’s a good thing. It’s nice to know that the horses won’t starve here without me feeding them carrots over the winter.