The abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren, racing bikes in Belgium, and PED’s

Last night, I got a chance to try a beer that very few people in the world have had. The Trappist Westvleteren 12 is one of three beers brewed by the monks of the Saint Sixtus Abbey of Westvleteren, Belgium. Trappist beer is revered by beer aficionados around the world, and Westvleteren is often regarded as the best beer of them all.

It isn’t easy to get your hands (or mouth) on a Westvleteren beer. Much has been written about the lack of commercial availability. Even the Wall Street Journal featured the abbey in a 2007 story. The monks eschew marketing and the beer is only sold at the abbey, one case at a time. My good friend, Thom Reid, is a passionate beer enthusiast and a passionate cyclist. He made a trip to Belgium this past July with getting a case the primary objective. I loved the beer, as did Thom and our friend, Arthur Roti. We concluded that it was worth every mile of Thom’s trip. Several entrepreneurs have tried to profit from the exclusivity of the monk’s brew. There are websites where you can order by the bottle. These folks game the system like a scalper does, by buying the beer through the traditional method and then reselling it. I know that is capitalism in good form, but I think it is still lame.

I was excited when Thom invited us over to watch some cycling videos (which I rarely do) and enjoy the fruits of his travel. He has been researching Trappist beers for years. I was happy that he had a great trip to Belgium. 15 years ago, I spent the summer of 1994 in that country. It was a tremendous experience for a college kid at the time. I rode my bicycle 3500 miles that summer and raced 18 times around Belgium in their classic style race, the kermesse. I got a rude awakening about the prevalence of performance enhancing drugs in the sport of cycling. All of the busts in recent years are just media hype. Drugs have tainted the sport for as long as winning has been important.

My view of the sport has never been the same since that summer. One race in particular, was the tipping point for me. Before the race, I was relaxing in the changing room, which was set up in the detached garage of a local Flemish family. I watched a top amateur rider open up a “tackle box” full of pharmaceuticals while his soigneur rubbed his legs down. He popped a few pills and tossed aside a needle kit as he fished in his box. I asked what that was for. He said, “to clear the lungs” in broken English, and referred to some sort of asthma like condition. Sure, I thought. In the race, this guy’s eyes were ready to bug out of his head. He was an animal in the main break of the day, which I made with 15 other riders including this dude. I took all my pulls but suffered some serious abuse as the locals rolled through. There was an Irish guy in the group with me and he encouraged me to hang on, but every time I cycled through the paceline, the Belgians were slapping me on the back, banging elbows, and even smacking me on the helmet. They screamed at me in Flemish as if I knew what they were saying. Was I gapping them? Was I pulling too hard? Was I not riding close enough? I had it after 30 minutes of this. I didn’t want to go down. I dropped back, giving up the best chance I had to place in a kermesse that summer. No regrets. I ride for fitness and fun, not for the bouquet of flowers. That night, we had more than a few beers while discussing the state of the sport. Cycling with these whackos on amphetamines was no fun.

All of those memories came back last night while I sipped my Westvleteren 12. I remember 1994 like it was yesterday.

We enjoyed our beer while watching the 2009 World Cyclocross Championships. The race was held in the Netherlands, but the race was dominated by who else…the Belgians.

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