Working class heroes
Cycling in the Belgian modePhoto by: Alis Arellano
Johan and Jan have been on the tour from the beginning at Tuktoyaktuk. They intrigued me. .I knew they were Flemish Belgians, a nation noted for its cycling tradition and for some of the great names in the sport. How did they fit into that tradition? Both were strong, determined cyclists who never yielded to the road. Yet they are a study in contrasts.
Johan has a propensity for discreet silence. Jan is often elaborating tales which are more like voiced conversations he is having with himself. Johan is older, 61. He is sturdy with the rugged good looks, broad shoulders and six-pack abs of someone dedicated to his workouts. Jan is only slightly younger, 58, with a round face that tends to the cherubic. He has a perpetual air of puzzled wistfulness. Johan is a solid, straight-ahead guy; Jan is quirky with a wry, zany humour. They could be a comedy team: Johan’s Zeppo Marx to Jan’s Chico.
Early on in our trek Johan joined forces with Hans and Kim. They were nicknamed “the Holy Trinity”, always on the road together. They’re the fast ones arriving at camp sites well ahead of the rest of us. Jan likes to ride solo. He can be fast but he prefers to take his time and explore.
For all their differences, Johan and Jan share a fierce determination to never give up. They ride each and every day regardless of any ills, discomforts or other obstacles thrown in their path.
I finally got a chance to sit down with each of them and find out more about their lives.
Johan was born in a small town near Ghent. His father was a weaver and his mother started cleaning schools but later opened a café where Johan hung out.
“From seven years old all I knew was coffee and beer,” he says with a laugh.
Cycling was in the family blood. His grandfather was a professional cyclist who was the runner-up in the inaugural race of the now classic La Flèche Wallonne (De Waalse Pijl), He went on to race internationally for a number of teams through the thirties. The war put an end to his career.
I did a little digging into Belgian bicycle culture. I found out how deeply rooted it was in families like Johan’s. An article by Stijn Knuts and Pascal Delheye (Sport, Work and the Professional Cyclist in Belgium, 1907-1940) noted that “bicycle racing was the country’s most popular and professionally organized sport before the war. Becoming a bicycle racer was an aspiration of many in the lower classes, the sport’s core public and practitioners.”
Johan’s cousin, Walter, was also a professional cyclist who inspired him to try his hand at racing. From the age of 13 until the end of his teens Johan participated in dozens of races, winning more than 40. Modest by nature Johan omitted to mention that among his teen competitors whom he bested was Greg Lemond who went on to become a two-time winner of the Road Race World Championship and three-time Tour de France winner.
I asked him if he had ever been coached.
“I had no program, no training. A lot of people gave me advice but they were contradictory. I read bicycling magazines and watched it on tv.”
At the end of his teens Johan did his mandatory military service. When he was demobbed he was no longer the racer he had been.
“I was not the same after,” Johan said. “Guys who never came close to me were passing me. They were developing their performance. Mine had stalled.”
Did he ever think of turning pro like his grandfather and cousin?
“No, I didn’t have the ability to be a professional.”
“Was that a mental or a physical thing?”
“It was physical.”
Johan felt he had peaked as a racer. He gave up cycling for a while. He married at 21 and started working at the post office where he is now a senior manager. The need to push himself physically remained with him. He went on survival courses. He began running, participated in triathlons and a full Ironman.
“I loved extreme things,” he said.
Later, almost by chance, he returned to cycling. One of his bosses asked Johan to join a group for a cycling trip to France.
“I was 37 and it was my first trip out of Belgium. I had never seen a mountain before either. We did the hills of the Tour de France. I didn’t know what to expect.”
He added, “I’m not a real climber. I can get up but I’m not a natural born climber.”
I wondered about that remembering how he whizzes by me on our endless days of climbing. He has power and speed—this on a heavy mountain bike. He’s like a Percheron, a workhorse that is agile, elegant, and strong.
The trip to France lit a fuse in him for travel, adventure and cycling. In 2010 he joined a group cycling to Moscow where he met Jan. They bonded over the experience of endurance cycling: 3,200 km in 20 days of continuous riding. They joined forces again a couple of years later on a trek to Baku. They rode every day for five weeks covering 150 to 160 km a day. Three years later the two of them were cycling the Andes, 11,000 km, from Quito in Ecuador to Ushuaia on the southern tip of South America. Johan wanted to push the envelope: a longer, more challenging route. He was ready to sign up for the 6-month trek across Asia from Beijing to Istanbul. Covid put paid to that plan. North America from the Arctic to Panama was the alternative.
I ask him if age, turning sixty, affected his abilities.
“No,” he said. “The opposite. I don’t feel that I can’t do certain things as before. I think I might be getting stronger.”
Jan is from the port city of Ostend. His father was a fisherman, a career Jan aspired to. His mother had other ideas for both him and his father. The latter joined his mother-in-law’s grocery business. Jan joined the Sea Scouts and later took up competitive sailing. Even as we were talking there was a slight quaver in his voice as he recalled family strolls on Sunday along the seaboard with his father pointing to a distant mast saying, “Ah, that’s Ortend 120 coming in.” The sea retains its hold on him.
“When I have a storm in my head I have to go to the sea.”
Cycling came later in an off-hand way. Jan was working as a site engineer building bridges and tunnels. He was on a complex railway job with three colleagues who were cyclists. They found an abandoned bicycle in a container. Jan set off on a 25 km ride from Rotterdam to Delft.
“At the end of it I was on my hands and knees. I would have paid a taxi driver any money to take me back home.”
That was where it began. He had been infected by a virus that seemed to change the chemistry of his brain. He had become an addict.
“If there was a chain and pedals I was happy.”
By the end of that summer he could easily ride 100 km.
He progressively increased the distances he was riding. The more he rode the better he felt. He heard about the Paris-Brest-Paris event 1,200 km in under 90 hours. He signed up in 2007.
He completed it and swore never again. “My Achilles was f**d up; my knees were f**d up. For a couple of weeks I was out of order.” He signed up for each subsequent start. His best time was 73 hours. Extreme cycling events attracted him like a moth to a flame. There was London-Edinburgh-London on a time limit. Tour de Mont Blanc, 240 km and 8,000 m of elevation in one day. Baku. South America. At the end he is still faced with the question: can he do it again?
“Why do you keep doing these extreme long-distance events?” I asked.
Jan can only say, “It’s a challenge to find the limits of your body.”
A few days later he came back to me. He wanted to tell me about his motivation.
“You are with friends and you are doing something you like. That makes you want to do it.”
I push him. “Why to such extremes? You can have a pleasant morning or afternoon ride with friends, stop for a coffee or a lunch. Where is the motivation to push yourself to the end?”
“A friend told me, ‘never give up because you’ll regret it afterward.’” He took a moment. “It’s a strange thing in my head. It’s what you have to do.”
He illustrates it with a story.
“Even in the first Paris-Brest-Paris I was having problems with my Achilles. I didn’t go to the medical station because I was afraid they would pull me out. I needed to finish. It wasn’t reasonable thinking. I just had to reach the finish.”
Of all of us on the tour Jan is the only one who has insisted on doing the route even when circumstances make changes necessary. Hurricane Roslyn forced us onto a bus for a day. Jan insisted on going back to the start of that section and riding all the days even though it meant doing it without support and missing a crucial rest day.
Jan does not fit the mold of a grim, determined steroid die-hard. He’s goofy and funny. One day in Canada we passed a museum with dinosaurs. He found a battered, stuffed toy dinosaur discarded on the road. He retrieved it, brushed it off as best he could, installed it on his rear rack and christened it Colleen after our tour’s cook cum fairy tale godmother with a touch of Seinfeld’s “soup nazi”. At the end of a hard riding day Jan would come in and tell us, with the utmost seriousness, how his Colleen had been difficult, wouldn’t help at all with the pedaling.
Jan always has an endless flow of anecdotes of things that have an air of plausibility until you actually listen to what he’s saying. His humour is in that great lineage of the absurdists, Tristan Tzara, Alfred Jarry, Spike Milligan and their ilk.
Just now I crossed paths with him. He had on one of his quintessential puzzled expressions, as if he were trying to make sense of a complex algebraic expression. I asked him what was wrong.
He looked at me as if I were crazy.
“I have to put things in order in my head. It’s not a rest day, it’s a stress day.” Off he wandered.