belgium, cycling, flandern, gruber, jered, kermis, race, Racing -

Chasing dreams, racing in Belgium

Bike racers are all tough, but the suffering that is guaranteed by a wet, cold, and nasty conditions will separate the driven souls. Dressed fully aero and protected from the elements wearing the aerodynamic Gabba Jersey, Body Paint Bibshorts, Nano Flex warmers, Diluvio gloves and shoe-covers, Jered Gruber is finally getting his chance to race in Belgium. This weekend, he headed south into Wallonia for a race in the never-ending hills of the Ardennes.

I’m climbing the Cote de la Vecquee in the Ardennes. It’s a typical part of the 260 kilometer Monument, Liege-Bastogne-Liege. It’s not a major, prominent climb that forms any real selection in La Doyenne, but in today’s race, it’s doing a good job of sorting the good fruit from the bad.

The once frantic group that fought so hard for position in the three uphill kilometers (plus the 50k before that) leading to Stoumont and the hard left hand turn, which signifies the start of the climb, is suddenly quiet. The profanities yelled in French, Flemish, German, and English are no more. There’s just breathing.

It’s 3C°, it’s raining, I can barely see 10 riders in front of me in the fog, but it doesn’t matter, I’m going backward. As a journalist and photographer, in times like these, I can’t help wondering – why am I doing this to myself? I glance down at my computer and see my heart rate creeping over 200bpm.

I’m supposedly doing this for fun, to live out some long held dream of racing in Belgium. In the grand scheme of things, looking in on my little situation, it’s laughable. I’m a hobbyist slobbering all over myself for the satisfaction of doing it. It’s hard to justify, even now two days later, sick and in bed.

For whatever reason it is that I’m here, it’s good enough for me to push myself in ways I didn’t know that I was capable of. I’m sick, and I’m in a race that requires 100%, not 90%, so I suffer, I go deeper, I find a little something in some back corner, and go deeper still. The pain in my body has gotten so bad, it’s almost unintelligible as to where it’s coming from anymore. It takes a conscious effort with me looking at my legs, commanding them to keep turning.

And still I go backward. Through the fog and rain, I climb higher, and I’m moving forward, but I’m going backward with every pedal stroke. It’s misery. Over the top, I realize that I can’t feel my hands anymore. I can’t figure out if it’s because of the effort, or from the freezing rain. Maybe it’s both.

On the descent, my vest zipper snaps against my still unhealed wounds from last weekend’s last lap crash. I feel like it’s some sort of diabolical form of self-flagellation to go with the one I’m undertaking on my bike. My fingers are too numb to zip it back up, my arms and hands too filled with exhaustion to take it off. So it flaps and snaps at my road rash. I wince at first, but it eventually just becomes a part of the pain. I all becomes one pain after a while – my legs, my hands, my arms, my back, the zipper, my mental pain.

I somehow survive the next three or four climbs to make it to the race’s crown jewel local laps. I thought the opening 85km loop was hard, but I’m about to find otherwise. I arrive to the local laps, and I’m pretty close to delirious. I say nearly, because it becomes definitely midway through the local lap’s prominent climb, the two kilometer, Cote de Hays.

They lie. The Cote de Hays is five years long, and when I think it’s over, there’s another decade to go. I grovel. I pray for a flat, because I can’t pull the cord myself. I can’t do it. Over the top of the climb, the crosswind waits, and the silent, gasping, suffering field is in the far left hand gutter. We’re going so hard, barely holding on to the wheel in front of us, that no one has a chance to shift from their little to big rings. The spins are almost comical, but the desperation is anything but. No one wants to take that quarter of a second to shift to their big ring for fear of the slight gap that might open up when they do it.

I’m cursing silently, wondering where the downhill is. There has to be a downhill, we’ve been climbing forever, and the finish is somewhere below us. The local lap is only eight kilometers long, and yet, somehow, we still continue to climb, in the gutter. I feel like I’m being punished like the legends of Greek lore, Sisyphus or Tantalus. My eternal punishment for something I’m not privy to is a never-ending climb with a two and a half second descent.  And then I hear it – the classic Flemish curse, Godverdomme – goddammit – from a rider two up in line from me. It makes me laugh. I hear three other hard working chuckles as well. We were all thinking it in our own languages – will this ever end, can it get any worse? We thought it, he said it, and for one second, I am happy.

I realize that I was happy all along. I haven’t quite figured out what it is about it, but I love this. I love suffering beyond all comprehension, and then somehow managing to coax a little bit more out of my body.  I train and I train and I train, and yet, I realize in this moment of laughter, that I’m mediocre at my all-time best. Sure, I’m sick, and this is a particularly bad day, but I look around, and I understand. I’m a hobbyist. I’m here for one reason: I love to race my bike.

I swear up and down to anyone that will listen that it’s training, not racing that I love. Training is easy to love though. It’s easy to love riding your bike. Racing is another love entirely. It beats you, pummels you, lashes you, demands everything, and sometimes, every once in awhile as a non-superhuman, you get a ray of sunshine. I’m happy to give everything, and when I’m done, I’m happy to say: I’m not racing again…not until next Saturday.

I don’t have a chance to think about my love for racing a bike in this moment though – it’s only – where’s the top of this climb? Is this an hors categorie mountain in the Dolomiti? We finally crest and descend. The interminably long climb is followed by a two and a half second long descent, and immediately, I’m staring at the turn heading back into the fog and too many more minutes of humility. I thought we’d be pulled from the race as we crossed the finish line. We had to be well out of contention. Turns out, our group is only thirty seconds back of the lead group, which means, we’re still very much in the race. I didn’t understand this at the time. I only understood that I was being directed to another lap of hell.

The two and a half second long descent was enough for me to reacquire vision that was of a more normal variety, as in, I wasn’t seeing double anymore. I take note of that one bit of positive news. Then it’s back to the climb, through the forest, under the highway, back into the forest, Ashley cheers me, it brightens my spirits for a moment, and I offer a wan smile as last wheel in the group. Her cheers buoy me for another minute or so.

The last part of the climb is the worst. It pitches hard, and I beg for more out of my legs. I push, pull, shift to an easier gear, a harder one, hands on tops, hands on the hoods, drops, short breaths, long breaths, positive thoughts, negative ones. I’m desperate. It’s happening – there’s a space growing between my front wheel and the rear wheel in front of me. It’s growing like a little sapling in spring. I’m doing everything I can to slow it down, but still it grows.

The realization finally hits – I have nothing left. No amount of positive self talk is going to talk me across the growing gap in front of me. No amount of sports psychology is going to give me the extra 50 watts I need right now. No amount of clever shut up legs or HTFU is going to bring that wheel closer.  It’s just me, unbelievable pain, my weakness, and the fact that there’s nothing I can do.

I’m fully cognizant in this moment. I understand that I’m done. I understand that I have nothing left. I swing over and stop pedaling. The commissaire’s car comes up behind me and wants to know my number. My vest is in the way, but I can’t move well enough to show him. He asks me to tell it to him, but I figure he won’t understand my frozen mouth, so I try to signal it: 1-1-3. Except my fingers aren’t cooperating either, so I flash a four instead of a three. I finally say 113 and turn around.

I don’t know if I should be ashamed or proud. I didn’t finish, but I had nothing left to offer.  I ask myself again – why am I doing this? I have no real goals. I just want to do it. I want to see what it’s like. I want to give everything, see my bloodshot eyes after a race, pray for the pace to let up 100 times per hour. I want to be a part of the epicenter of the world’s bike racing. It happens in Belgium. This is the beating heart of amateur bike racing, and I’m happy to be here.

It will be better next week. I know it will.

Text: Jered Gruber
Photo: Ashley Norris
Instagram: @jeredgruber