1994 Belgian Summer & Le Tour de France

It’s 20 years ago today that I was in Paris for the final stage of Le Tour de France. It is the only Tour stage that I’ve watched in person and it was a fine spectacle that day on the Champs-Élysées. I recall that Frankie Andreu, riding for Motorola, made the break, and I think he finished second to Eddy Seigneur, who made all of France proud on that day. It’s amazing how far professional cycling has come (and fallen) in the past 20 years. I left a bit of my love for the sport in Paris that day and in Belgium that summer.

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The best cycling that summer wasn’t the cycling we watched, but rather the cycling we did. With a small group of friends, including Jon Gallagher, Peter Brennan, Joe Cady, and Rob Dapice, we embarked on an adventure to test our skills against the top Belgian amateurs. I rode in 12 kermesses over six weeks in July and August. We were thoroughly outclassed by the Belgians and other Europeans, but we also didn’t take amphetamines and other drugs like many of them did. It was demoralizing to compete with cheaters, but we gave it our all.

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Our base camp was a rented house in Merchtem, Belgium, about 20 minutes outside of Brussels. Merchtem was famous for being the European home of Sean Kelly, the decorated Irish cyclist. Peter and Joe had connections and arranged the trip. They had been over there before, but it was the first time that Jon and I traveled to “live the dream.” Jon returned several more times in the following years as he honed his skills and speed.

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The Merchtem house was home for several cyclists. That summer, in addition to the American contingent, there were four or five Norwegian cyclists too, including several who rode for the Norwegian national team. One of them, Svein Gaute Hølestøl, was really talented and rode in the Olympics a few times. He was on a different race scheduled than the others, and would often return on Sunday evenings with trophies, flowers, and other prizes.

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Our house was right on a popular Sunday ride route. Thousands of cyclists would go by in a day. Many times, they were in large groups of club riders complete with a sag wagon and mechanic. It was awesome to watch. On several of our training rides, we would come across the legendary Eddy Merckx. He often rode with a friend and we would see him on the roads outside of Brussels where he lived and worked. We would ride by and yell, “Eddy!”

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We all wanted to ride like Svein Gaute did, but he was a class above. I got my first taste of how a “team doctor” could help your fitness. The Norwegians used to fill their water bottles with the contents of IV bags that they sliced open. They had a good pharmacist too.

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That summer was the last time that I raced a bicycle on European soil. Belgium is an amazing little country if you are a cycling fan, and we soaked up all of the cycling we could. That summer, there was a race every day of the week in a tiny country that isn’t much bigger than Connecticut. Each race had its own character.

The 12 I rode (in reverse order) were:

Merchtem Kermesse
Dendermonde-Grembergen Kermesse
Bellingen Kermesse
Londerzeel Kermesse
Borgt-Grimbergen Kermesse
Blaimont Kermesse
St. Ulriks Kapelle Kermesse
St. Niklaas/Sinaii Kermesse
Grimbergen Kermesse
Zottergem Kermesse
Eizenringen Kermesse
Londerzeel Kermesse

In Dutch or Flemish, kermesse means festival and each race was a party.  The start was usually at a bar and the finish was at a different bar. There were lots of food trucks with frites and other tasty foods. Many times, there was a carnival complete with amusement park rides. Weekdays, the races started late in the afternoon, usually around 3:00 P.M. We did some evening races too. Most of the circuits were 5 kilometers to 12 kilometers long and there were many laps.

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A highlight was the race that we were paid “start money” by the promoter. He wanted some Americans to liven up the race. We rode our butts off. I think we spent the money on a trip to the movies and beer, but my memory has faded during the past 20 years and I don’t remember as much about that summers as I would like. It would have been a great summer if Facebook and Twitter were invented!

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This trip was also long before I had a digital camera, so the few film photos I have paint a picture, but by no means tell a story. We rode our bikes more than 500 kilometers a week and at least on one occasion, 700 kilometers in a week. We traveled many of the roads made famous by the spring classics, including the Tour of Flanders, Ghent Wevelgem,  Het Volk. We had occasional access to a car, but we rode everywhere including the grocery store, and of course, the races.

That confined us to Flanders most of the time, though we did do one race in the French-speaking south of Belgium. We “rested” on most Mondays, which was our day to take side trips. We visited Amsterdam, Antwerp, Ghent, Waterloo, Luxembourg, and many other places around Belgium.

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The trip to Paris was a long weekend that we took off from bike racing. We took the train from Brussels on a Saturday afternoon. We wandered around Paris late into the night before sneaking onto the grounds of the Tuileries Palace and sleeping on park benches. There were gendarmes everywhere, standing guard for the big race and the crowds that came with it, but we were able to get a little shuteye. The entire summer was spent on a tight collegiate style budget and we stretched our Belgian Francs a long way!

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We got up early on Sunday and walked all over the city. We went to the top of the Eiffel Tower and had nice, but hazy views of the city. We got over to the race course fairly early in the afternoon in an effort to stake out a spot close to the Arc de Triomphe, where there is a hairpin turn on the course that slows the riders. It’s a popular viewing spot and there was like a 1,000,000 people watching the race that day.

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As the day heated up, Peter, Jon and I took turns saving our spot against the barriers while the others rested in the shade and went for snack and bathroom breaks. Late in the afternoon, the race caravan rolled through, followed by the riders themselves. It was a fun festive atmosphere. We had watched nearly every stage live on Eurosport at the Merchtem house, usually with the viewing session sandwiched by long rides of our own.

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After the race was over, we lingered before catching a series of trains to Euro Disney, which was a very American thing to do. Our move was fortuitous. We split the cost of a hotel room at the park. On Monday, we spent the day at the Magic Kingdom. We chose a restaurant for dinner and splurged. We chose the right restaurant because a large party arrived to sit at the table next to us. It was a special event and it included multiple past Tour winners and famous cyclists including Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche, Bernard Hinault, Laurent Fignon, Charlie Mottet, and others.

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We got to meet several of them, including Kelly, who we shared our Merchtem stories. Hanging in my garage, I have a large poster of Stephen Roche winning the 1987 World Championships. He won the Triple Crown that year by winning the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France, and the World’s. In the corner of the framed print is a Disney postcard that I got that day with his autograph. When he signed the postcard, he chatted with us about our own experiences racing in Europe. He had a yellow jersey slung over his shoulder the entire time. We were excited to have ended a trip with such luck and partied late into the night. On Tuesday, we were back in Belgium and riding hard again.

It’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed, and I was never going to be a professional cyclist, but I look back on the experience and realize that it was a good one. We had fun.

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