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Confessions of a Belgophile

On the spiritual home of a passionate cyclist.

It’s spring, that most special of seasons for cyclists. Every year at this time, I mark the end of winter by folding up my indoor trainer, packing away my windproof tights and putting my earmuffs back on the papier mâché bust of Eddy Merckx that sits atop my mantelpiece.

After months spent in my secret underground training facility (cleverly disguised as a laundry room), or braving the elements, I’m ready to get back outside and to begin putting in long hours on the road without worrying about snow, ice or frozen extremities. I’m inspired by spring because it’s a time of hope. Leaves are appearing on trees, the days are getting longer, and the Spring Classics are underway in Belgium and the Netherlands.

The two Low Countries are of particular interest to cyclists at this time of year. The Spring Classics are among the toughest bike races on the professional calendar. Since I began riding road bikes 10 years ago, I have been nurturing a growing obsession with all things related to this part of the world.

It started with a set of DVDs I ordered back in the winter of 2003. Together they comprised the full set of Spring Classics from the previous year: Paris-Roubaix, Het Volk, Gent-Wevelgem, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, La Flèche Wallonne and the Tour of Flanders. I watched them over and over again on the trainer that winter and was transfixed. The narrow, windswept roads, the cobblestones, both on flat roads and on some truly brutal climbs, and the sheer length of these races captured my imagination.

Then I discovered the beer – strong beer, brewed by Trappist monks. I saw it in the local liquor store, and was drawn to the large, dark bottle with the champagne-style cork immediately. It spoke to me, so I bought it. I can’t tell you what it said, because it was speaking Flemish, but I’m pretty sure it was addressing me because I heard it say “Jaap,” which I assume must be Flemish for “James.”

I discovered that not only is Trappist beer delicious, it is also an excellent recovery drink. I believe its curative properties come from its tendency to induce a deep sleep if consumed with a meal after a long ride. In fact, if you time it properly, it’s possible to eat at 2 p.m., be asleep by 3 p.m., and not stir until the following morning. The onset of sleep is rapid and irreversible, and for this reason I always put on my pyjamas and sleeping cap before opening a bottle.

Once I developed a taste for the beer, I knew that I could no longer admire Belgium from afar. I packed my bike in a box, placed a call to my local travel agent, emptied my piggy bank, and bought a plane ticket to the land of mussels and frites.

I was not disappointed. I knew immediately that Belgium was where I belonged. Had I been able to speak the language and had I had any marketable skills, I never would have come back home. I love Canada, and I would miss my friends and my old life, but Belgium was truly magical.

Here was a country in which the people were all as passionate about cycling as I am. Cycling is to Belgians as hockey is to Canadians. The bars are thick with smoke and full of cycling fans shouting at their favourite athletes as they watch them race. Every Belgian grandmother has a favourite cyclist, or so I’m told. Yes, it’s true that my own grandmother has a favourite cyclist too (that would be me), but that’s not quite the same thing.

Since that trip, I’ve taken other journeys. I’ve ridden up Mont Ventoux, through Switzerland and in the Dolomites. Each of those experiences was spectacular, but none has had the enduring impact of my trip to Belgium.

In fact, I love Belgium so much that I’m considering buying four one-way tickets to Liège, packing up my family, growing a large moustache, and reinventing myself as a Belgian. It sounds crazy, I know, and I haven’t worked out many of the practical details. I think Mrs. Cranky will forgive me once she sees how happy I am in my true spiritual home (although she may not love the moustache). My kids are young enough that they won’t have any problem learning Flemish.

On the off-chance that Mrs. Cranky can’t be convinced, I do have a backup plan: there’s a Chimay ale in the fridge and the latest season of Spring Classics on my laptop. No, it’s not the same as being there, but it’ll have to do for now. I’m sure I can talk her into it next year.