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Tales from the (European) peloton, April 25, 2004
Big Ring to Belgium
Cycling across borders for Liège-Bastogne-Liège
For a hard core cyclist, there is only one way to travel to the start of a big spring classic - by bicycle of course! After her trip to the Amstel Gold Race last weekend, Ella Lawrence is at it again, this time taking a three day scenic trip from her home in the Netherlands to the depart in Liège.
What, you ask? Heading to Maastricht again this weekend? But why, my dear girl? As if you needed to ask! This weekend is the last of the spring classics and the grandmother of them all: Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
After a winter spent inside, running on a treadmill and doing leg presses in a desperate attempt to keep my fitness at some sort of decent level, I decided the best way to utilise the weather and get excited for the race was to cycle from my home in Leiden in the Netherlands to the start point in Liège. Plus, it was a good excuse to escape from the stagnant intellectualism of the ancient university towns in the West (Leiden, Amsterdam, Delft), and pump some fresh air into my lungs while avoiding studying for my last final ever.
Day 1 - Friday, April 23
I leave Leiden at 7:00am on Friday morning with the Dutch commute fully in swing. I roll down the cobblestone bridge away from my house on the canal with a huge grin plastered across my face, happy to be on my bike for a couple of days in a row and wearing a silly spandex outfit. The spandex, all cast-off team clothes from my racer-guy friends (thanks, Ben! Thanks, other Ben!) sheds its dust as I gather speed, and it feels good to be out while the air is still fresh.
I anticipate curious looks from other cyclists I pass. In California, the sight of a girl alone in old race clothes on a fully loaded touring bike would prompt a barrage of questions but here in Zuid-Holland, where the bicycle commuters outnumber the automobile commuters, I don't even draw so much as a passing glance. I lose my self satisfied feeling of bike holiness as I pass a couple of Dutch mothers on bikes, pedaling along while reading newspapers and jouncing several babies on the front of their bikes. Dutch folks literally grow up on bikes, which makes it no small wonder that the Netherlands produces so many talented pro cyclists.
I pass through pastures crisscrossed with canals, the cows staring at me through the mist rising in front of their placid faces. The morning is as softly beautiful as a watercolour, and I wish I'd gotten an even earlier start so I could enjoy it for longer. I zone out to the company of my portable CD player, which is blaring Mano Negra's first album, and breathe deeply, enjoying taking in an entire lungful's worth of air. Seems like I've spent all winter in smoky living rooms, drinking diet coke and watching Dutch soap operas. (I live with 25 members of the Dutch fraternity Minerva, a group that wants me to carry the message back to America they are the Dutch equivalent of Yale's Skull and Bones.)
I've planned out my route as best I could from a €3 map showing all the bike paths in the Netherlands. First I'll go from Leiden to Zoetermeer, from Zoetermeer to Gouda, from Gouda to Leerdam, from Leerdam to 's-Hertsogenbosch, from there to Vught, from Vught to Eindhoven, and from Eindhoven to Maastricht. I figure if I go twice as slow as a train, or even three times as slow, I'll make it to Maastricht in nine hours with still plenty of daylight to sit at a terrace café.
I decide not to stop and take photographs today because I plan to beat the clock and make it to Maastricht in 8 hours (six hours riding plus two hours of getting lost). The Netherlands is absolutely chock-full of road signs for cyclists, and I anticipate no real problems finding my way, with the help of the bike path map.
Three hours later, I realize that while the map may have all the bike paths on it, it doesn't have the names of the towns the bike paths go through, or how to find them. I have stopped at least every twenty minutes to ask directions, and have doubled back twice after an hour of riding in the wrong direction. By 2pm, I still haven't made it to Eindhoven and I'm starting to think that I might not make it to Maastricht in one day. I slow down a little to enjoy the view, and decide not to take any pictures. Any photo I'd take will look like a cliché. I cruise peacefully along the top of a dyke for several hours, passing farmers stomping around in wooden clogs, thatched roof houses with gardens full of tulips, and happy cows. Imagine every quaint idea you've ever had of how the Netherlands looks, and you've got a good picture of this area of Brabant.
After crossing several large rivers, or perhaps the same river three times (I'm not really paying attention), I still haven't found the next little town on my list. The hours pass by. I'm wondering why it's taking me so long, and thinking that I should be able to blame someone for this delay - maybe the people who sold me the map? But unfortunately there's not really anyone else around here to blame. I'm in high spirits, though, because I can think many worse things than being 'lost' in a beautiful country and having the whole weekend to make it to my destination.
6:00pm. Finally made it to Eindhoven. I telephone my friend Marieke's mother, ready to call it a day. I think she hears the desperation in my voice because she tells me to find a nice patch of sunshine to sit in and she'll come and find me. The bright yellow polo pulls up to my sitting spot by a canal as I'm writing in my journal,
"At the end of a ten hour day on the bike, even if it was flat and slow and gorgeous weather, everything seems a little overwhelming and the idea of going 100km to Maastricht tomorrow, let alone three weeks through French mountains by myself, does not seem very appealing. My back hurts, I'm grimy, and I really want my mom. But there are plenty of women who have toured France alone, for much longer than I, and I want to make myself tougher, both physically and mentally. I will regain my excitement after a shower and a rest."
So I draft off the car for the last 5km to their house.
I am offered a Belgian beer the second I set foot in the door. I knew I rode bikes in Europe for a reason! But I opt for a gallon of water and a shower first. I join my hosts downstairs in the garden as the sun goes down and we chat about my map (awful), the ride (wonderful), my pluck (they are impressed, but I still think I'm a wimp), and asparagus (they've gotten hold of the Netherlands' very first asparagus of the year from a famous asparagus farmer and we're going to eat it for dinner).
We have a delicious dinner of new asparagus with hardboiled egg crushed over the top, potato puree (a Dutch staple), and ham (another staple). After eating surprisingly little, I beg off dessert because my stomach has literally swollen to the size of a watermelon. I'm not joking! I'm six feet tall, so most of me is big, but I don't feel that watermelon is the proper size for my stomach, now or anytime. I excuse myself to go look in the mirror and instead of the freshly freckled face that I expect to see after a brisk day of cycling through the countryside, I see a whitish-green ghost with sunken cheeks. Hmm. Maybe I should've drunk more water.
Day 2 - Saturday, April 24
I've decided I've seen enough Dutch countryside for one weekend and I'd like the most direct route to Maastricht, please! My hosts and I download a route from the internet that zigzags through Belgium and the Netherlands. We print out the four detailed maps and blow-by-blow description, so I know there's no WAY I'm getting lost. I anticipate being in Maastricht by noon, and Mrs. Van Deemter kindly accompanies me on her bike for the first 20 minutes.
I am so sore today, especially my rear, thanks to the cheap saddle I got for free from my shop. It was from the 'crappy saddle' bin, and anyone who's gotten a saddle from this bin, in any bike shop, can sympathize with the state of my posterior! But after an hour on the bike, my muscle soreness dissipates and I'm enchanted with the still morning again today. I zigzag through absolutely deserted country roads, going in and out of forests, through sheep fields, and across the Belgian border.
This forested area of North Belgium actually feels a little wild - a lovely change from the orderliness and perfect squares of the Netherlands. I am reminded, though, that nothing here is really wild when I round a corner and come across a Belgian with his car stuck in a deep sand bank. He's fine, laughing and smoking a cigarette, but I stop anyway to ask for directions. It's hard to believe that after 2 hours I am still pointed in the right direction. I am still pointed in the right direction and I realize the reason I like Belgium so much is because nobody looks at me askance when I speak Dutch to them. Maybe they can't tell I'm American because Flemish is an even funnier language than Dutch. I've been asked by many Flemish-speaking Belgians if I'm from Friesland, which I take as a compliment.
The forest ends too soon and by the time I got to Weert my butt is hurting pretty bad. I stop at a bike shop and build up my European Peloton Wardrobe with a pair of Rabobank shorts. Trying to find my way through Weert, however, is not as fun as shopping for spandex. My plastic-encased directions sheet has been in my hand for an hour because there's a turn literally every kilometre, and I lose my way. I decide that getting to Maastricht quickly is more important than a pretty route, so I set off to follow the highway. It has taken me three hours to get to Weert (which by auto is 23km from Eindhoven), and I'm feeling ready to cover some actual distance.
I follow the A2 highway out of Weert for 10km when the bike lane suddenly disappears into nowhere and I'm left with heavy industry and cars zooming by at high speeds, a big change after the peaceful forest. I decide to turn and find a parallel route, having definitely given up on my annoying hold-your-hand directions-sheet, when a saddle sore bursts, literally making me cry in pain. I head straight back to Weert with the intention of finding a train for the rest of the way. However, I find the original route before I find the train station and decide that butt pain or no butt pain, I've set out to RIDE across the Netherlands, not to take the train halfway when it starts to hurt. After a few bandages and a fresh coat of chamois cream, my outlook is decidedly better and I set out again, resolute.
I lose my way in Dutch Suburban Hell. New, square, architectural nightmares on the banks of too-still man made lakes where the sun shines a little too brightly and the children stare a little too vacantly. On the shores of these lakes are deserted circus tents and snack bars, portable Fun Huts that seem ages older than the neighbourhood (which I later finds out houses a nuclear power plant). I feel as though I'm inside the first chapter of a Steven King novel and am looking around like a caged animal when I spot a group of friendly Dutchmen out on a club ride. They point me in the proper direction - naturally, the opposite direction from the way I'd been riding - and I set off.
Finally, I come across the last bike route to Maastricht on my map, a gravelly fire road along the river Maas. As I'm thinking, "I hope my tires can take this, I hope my tires can take this," both tires flat.
I patch the holes and ask two farmer boys out walking their dogs for directions. By now I'm a little fed up with the curlicues and zigzags that the charming paths have been leading me for the last two days. The boys tell me I'm quite close to Maastricht, switching effortlessly back and forth between Dutch and German.
I follow their (much more direct) route, and decide that cycle touring in the Netherlands is great if you've got a hundred years to get from point A to point B. I, however, am ready to get to Maastricht. The friend I was visiting, a fellow collegiate racer and Santa Cruz bike shop employee, has promised me piping-hot vegan lasagna upon my arrival, and after four months of meat and potatoes, I'm looking forward to tofu and nutrition chat. I am very much a California girl at heart.
My way is literally uphill from here on, and I stop to take a few pictures because I'm so thrilled to have found a little elevation. I sprint up them in my big ring just to make my muscles sing. Maastricht by 7, and had a nice dinner, bed early because we're getting up to make it to the start of the race tomorrow.
Day 3 - Sunday, April 25
Slept like an angel (almost) on couch cushions on the floor. I guess I was tired. More vegan lasagna for breakfast (mmmmmm) and we make Liège in about an hour's time despite my pal's double flat. I guess it's double-flat weekend. By the time we've actually gotten to Liège I'm feeling pretty creeped out because the only scenery we've seen is ugly heavy industry, plus a hooker servicing a john in a car under one of the many bridges spanning the river Maas.
I can tell we'd made it to Belgium because as soon as we cross the border the nicely paved bike lanes disappear, only to be replaced with French shouting auto drivers suffering from Tourette's-like road rage. Welcome to Ans, a dingy suburb just north of Liège.
We manage to make it to the start before the racers go off. The start isn't too exciting, probably because the announcer's voice is droning on too quickly for me to understand anything (my French is far from perfect) and I am still shaken by the whole hooker-under-a-bridge thing. The streets of Liège are tiny and there are no barricades - just grumpy French speaking policemen - so the crowd is jammed every which way.
I manage to find a spot right next to the street before the racers went by, and shout a cheer for fellow Americans Tyler Hamilton and Levi Leipheimer as they go by, just inches in front of me. After deciding there is no way we are going to spend the next six hours in Liège, where everything was closed, or Ans, where the race actually finishes, we head back to Maastricht to watch the race on TV. We face off against a serious headwind the entire way back, sucking an old Belgian's wheel when it gets really strong.
My quads are sore for the first time since cyclo-cross season! This means the mini bike tour was an absolute success, even if the race was a little disappointing. Especially the end, which was a near repeat of last week's finish - Rebellin sucking Boogerd's wheel and pulling around him in the last 100m to take the win. Will go to roadie shop tomorrow for better saddle and ugly Euro-trash shorts.
Images by Ella Lawrence