Langst de Vaart: Riding Along the Canal in Belgium

Please enjoy this excerpt from A Dog in a Hat by Joe Parkin.

DOG 72dpi_400x600_stroke A Dog in a HatIf I could relive one period of the past, it would be my first full season as a pro, in 1988. It was by no means the greatest year of my life, or of my career—but it was pivotal, and it was fascinating. I was starting to gain some wisdom as a racer but had absolutely no road-weariness yet. I was still learning what the hell I was doing and consequently made way too many rookie mistakes.

The writing seemed to be stenciled on the wall at the TVm camp at the end of the 1987 season. I had been given a contract that was valid for seventeen and a half months and had used up only about three. But with Jules out and mr. Priem in, I figured I was not going to be a happy soldier if I had to stay. Albert and I talked about it with Jules and made the decision to make a run for it. I exercised my right to get out of a contract, breaking all ties to TVm for the 1988 season. In reality, Cees Priem and the folks at the insurance company (Transvemij, later TVm, is a freight insurance company) were most likely happy with my request.

Jules still thought I showed promise, but my results so far didn’t really speak to it.

If there’s a universal truth in cycling, it’s that team owners and directors are always on the verge of “the biggest deal ever.” I have had the privilege of riding for quite a few directors, and they all dream of that one big sponsor to come along. They dream it so hard that they believe it, and then, with all the zeal of an evangelical minister in the Southern United States, they sell the dream to the rider. In the end the directors are there to sell: They have to sell the rider on the idea of bringing out that one more little effort; they even have to sell the rider on the idea of riding with the team in the first place. In fact, it is their job to get the absolute most out of the rider at all times. When a directeur sportif you have read about in the local papers, seen on TV, and maybe even read about in American cycling magazines tells you he thinks you should come with him to a new team because you have talent, you keep listening. When he follows up with a promise that you’ll be able to ride all of the classics, lots of little stage races, and one of the Grand Tours, you look for a pen.

At that point in my career, I believed I could be the next Lucien van Impe. I had already figured out that my chances of ever wearing yellow in Paris were slim, but I was still holding on to my dream of wearing the polka dots there. I also wanted a chance to do the small stage races in Italy, Spain, and France. Jules was going to team up with Florent van Vaerenberg, bringing his new sponsor to Florent’s team. Both directors had long and colorful histories, and both were willing to give me a shot. In 1987 Florent had directed the Lucas/Atlanta/Garcia squad, based in Belgium. It was a second-rate team, really, with several guys who didn’t belong in the pro ranks and one, Bjarne Riis, who at the time didn’t seem to me to be pro material, but who would win the Tour de France a few years later. I did not feel all that good about my soon-to-be teammates, but Florent had some substantial contacts in Spain and promised me lots of little, hilly stage races. I loved the little stage races. I signed up.

I returned from the States a little fatter than I should have been, but I was nonetheless ready to go. The team, however, was not. There had been sponsor problems, and what had seemed to be a sure thing a few weeks earlier was now sketchy at best. Riis had already escaped to join Toshiba, and the rest of the lineup was looking shaky too. I didn’t know what to do. It was just after the first of the year and by my way of thinking way too late to be dealing with this sort of dilemma.

I called Jim Ochowicz, who was the general manager of the American 7-Eleven team, to tell him what was going on with my deal. In early 1987, when I was still an amateur, och had given me a 7-Eleven team bike. It was the only piece of equipment I ever got as an amateur without actually having to fork out any cash. We had made a verbal deal at the time that I would be available to turn pro with 7-Eleven should they need me.

Times were different back then. Today riders make decent money, and American cyclists who go to Europe look at it as the place to be, the final destination, as opposed to the “crash course in fast” that they considered it then. many of the 7-Eleven team riders were good criterium riders in the United States who could make thousands of dollars every week in those 60- to 90-minute races. Perhaps the American-based sponsor demanded participation in a certain number of events. Perhaps the guys got homesick for races where they could understand the announcer and where they were treated as big stars. or perhaps they just got sick of Belgium and its gray skies. Whatever the reason, the American riders on the 7-Eleven team often headed home after a very short period, leaving holes in the roster that had to be filled. och had hired several English-speaking riders, convincing them to turn pro and race with the team. These guys were already living in Belgium, trying to make it to the pros, so the bonus of equipment and entry in races they only dreamed of was good enough.

I told Och that, at least for the moment, I was out of a job. It took him a few days, but he agreed to hire me. There was a catch, though. If I wanted to be a 7-Eleven rider, I had to sign a contract good for only five months and accept a $500-per-month salary.

To say I felt as if I had just been punched in the gut doesn’t quite describe my reaction to his offer. I wasn’t angry, but I didn’t feel like thanking him profusely either. I was relieved to have been offered a shot at the big American team and to have the option of continuing my career, but I couldn’t figure out how the whole thing would work financially. If there had been a guarantee or at least a casual assurance that I’d be racing all the time, the money part would have been bearable. I knew this would not be the case, though, since the big American riders on the squad would be coming and going in and out of the roster. my schedule would be about as sure as a first-year substitute teacher’s.

The short term of the contract was a problem too. I was still a young and relatively inexperienced rider who had not proved himself to the boss. If I limped through the classics or got hurt somehow, the dream would have ended with no chance at redemption in the late-season races. The Transvemij contract I had recently killed had been worth almost three times as much per month and been good for a full twelve months. I was starting to regret my decision to jump ship.

As I turned the problem over in my mind, I concluded that I was going to have to call och back and take the job. I had been vacillating between visions of the worst-case scenario—getting dropped in the classics without even so much as helping one of the team leaders do something important—and the best-case scenario— being a hero of the 7-Eleven team, finishing all of the classics with the top group. At almost the very minute my imagination peaked atop one of the good waves, the phone rang. Florent had gotten a sponsor, Eurotop, and the contract I had traded was now good.

I should have been elated by the news, but I wasn’t. I had been soft-pedaling my training, questioning the point of suffering the end of winter in Belgium. I was pleased that I would now have an answer to the question my body would ask when I had to put the screws to it, but that was where the satisfaction I gained from Florent’s call ended. of course I could have gotten out of it if I’d really wanted to roll the dice with 7-Eleven. But it was the best available deal. I decided to stick it out.

That was when I met Cocquyt.

If the only thing I was able to take away from my Belgian experience was my friendship with Patrick Cocquyt, I would still be lucky. In many ways, I think the reason I relate so well to the Belgians—even picture myself somewhat a Belg—is because of the time I spent with Cocquyt langst de vaart, or along the canal. That was the way it all started.

With the announcement that this shitkicker-cum-worldbeater-cum-not-yet-finalized team was actually a reality, I hooked up with my soon-to-be new teammate Patrick Cocquyt for some training rides. In my mind he was already in the big time, having been a member of the hitachi squad a couple of years before. When he contacted Albert to schedule some training rides with me, I was more than anxious to get things going. This was to be my first full year as a pro, after all, so the bigger the jump I could get, the better.

In 1988, there were no power meters to measure your output in watts, and even the heart rate monitors people were using were misunderstood. Instead we trained with hours and with gearing. my gear of choice was a 42×15 or 16. It was a good gear for the early season, or so I thought. I could do my little rides sitting on the back of my saddle and watch my Avocet computer; 30–32 kph was my number. I had about six different rides, each of which ended on the half hour, with the longest being two and a half hours. I got to race so much that I didn’t feel the need to do long training.

Cocquyt’s program was a little different. he had a thing for the five-hour ride, and his gear of choice was the 52×16. our pace was about the same; we just looked different. Cocquyt’s bike was perfectly Belgian, with shallow, criterium-style handlebars covered in padded white vinyl tape. The bike itself had been washed so many times that there seemed to be wear marks from the various sponges and brushes used to clean it. There was black gunk encrusted in the parts of the bike that sponges and brushes and diesel fuel would not clean. The saddle was perfectly broken in, like a baseball glove you might find at an estate sale, some of the leather being darker and greasier, and of course both sides of it were torn at the back, evidence of at least one crash on either side. It was not uncommon for the Belgians of that era to ride the same saddle for more than one year.

His position on the bike was cool too. he sat fairly upright with an arched back. his legs never seemed to straighten, and his knees bowed out. most riders seem to have some ankle movement during the pedal stroke, but Cocquyt’s feet never changed from the same flat plane. his very demeanor on the bicycle was uncanny, as if he were a TV gangster who had been accidentally dressed in Lycra and dropped onto a bike. I have no doubt that had he been born in the United States and given a guitar at the same age he’d been given a racing bicycle in Belgium, Cocquyt would be a zillionaire.

Our first training ride together began as they all would: 8:45, langst de vaart. That meant I would have to leave at about 8:15 and he would have to leave at 8:30. We would be riding from opposite ends of the path, so would eventually meet up with each other. Albert told me that we would be riding about five hours, so I left the house equipped with bottles and food. Typically, in the 1980s, Europeans rode with one bottle and attached two only if they were about to compete in one of the Grand Tours or a classic. American riders always had two water-bottle cages attached, and my bike was no different. Cocquyt’s and my first conversation was about carrying water bottles.

“Are you planning on going far?” he asked in his thick dialect that was a combination of Gentse and other flat Flemish inflections.

“I don’t know,” I responded. “Albert said we would be riding about five hours, so I have bottles.”

“Bottles are only for racing,” he told me. “I don’t think we will ever get too far away from a place where we can get a Coke if we become thirsty.”

I was sold. I bought into the Patrick Cocquyt philosophy instantly. This was a belief shared by most of the Belgian pros of the era and certainly makes sense if you consider the fact that most of them find cycling as an escape from revolving-shift factory work.

When you get hungry, you stop the work at hand, sit down, and enjoy some nourishment.

Cocquyt and I rode the same 125-km route most of the time. At its farthest point, it took us all the way to Ronse, where the 1988 World Championship was to be held. We figured out the best bakery along the way for each type of cake. For a young pro bike racer, there were often fringe benefits at the various delicious bakeries that are found in every town. You will almost always find these bakeries staffed by the wife or daughter of the baker. If it is the wife behind the pastry case, you have two chances: Either she is old and fat, or she is young and pretty. In the latter case, there is a good chance that the young wife has not spoken more than two words to her husband in weeks because they are on different schedules. of course this worked out well for us, as there was a strong possibility that one of us would be invited back for “tea.”

Side by side for five hours a day is a lot of time to spend with another person, but we just kept having more fun as time rolled on. Cocquyt exuded the cockiness of a Triple-A baseball player and the dry, quick wit to back it up. his digs came in slowed-down, midcentury gangster-movie chirps that often made me wonder what James Cagney would have looked like riding a bicycle. No one was immune either: other riders, soigneurs, mechanics, directors, innocent bystanders—everyone was fair game.

He liked to stop with about two hours to go in the ride and have a Coke. They were always pulled off a shelf and thus were never cold. Drinking a Coke that’s at room temperature takes a little getting used to and even then cannot be done quickly. If it was not raining we would lean on the bikes and enjoy the passing traffic. Belgians know about bike racing, and they knew we were pros even if they did not know us by name. most people would nod at us and say hello, sometimes adding good-luck wishes. But as it goes with any major spectator sport, a little bit of knowledge can be a very dangerous thing, and some people thought it more fitting to give us grief. once we were sitting outside madame Ananas’s little grocery store (we called her this because her hairdo made her head look like a giant pineapple). out of nowhere one of the locals berated us for taking a break.

“You’ll never win the Ronde sitting there drinking Coke,” he accused.

I wasn’t sure if he was talking about the Ronde van Vlaanderen or the Ronde van Frankrijk. None of that mattered to Cocquyt, though. Calmly and without even lifting his head, he responded, “maybe not, but Coke makes me aggressive and as soon as I finish I should be good enough to pound your face in.” he paused for a second and looked up at the man, who clearly was having a hard time processing what he’d just heard. “Asshole.” The man turned and walked away.

“You see, Joe? These people would just as soon knock you off your bike with their welfare cards. It’s always the same.”

With that I began to wonder what it was really like to be a Belgian bike racer. I would feel it more as the years went on, as I learned to think and speak the language and breathe the culture. The Belgian people are very much fair-weather fans, and that attitude is compounded by the fact that their biggest national hero was the greatest cyclist of all time, Eddy merckx. For every generation to follow him, merckx will forever be the measure of a cyclist, albeit one that is out of reach. No young Belgian boy can climb onto a tricycle without being cast in merckx’s shadow. It’s a huge shadow, and one that has surely affected the careers of some notable bike riders.

Late winter was rolling into early spring, and despite Cocquyt’s company, I was getting bored with training. Belgium was good for me because I was never a good trainer. I liked to race—the more races the better. Early season is not good for this because there are too few kermis races. our little team had neither the budget nor the clout to get into the season-preparatory stage races in the south of France, Italy, and Spain, so we would be going into the classics season cold. Lucky for me, I had no idea how much pain and suffering this was soon going to cause.

By the time early April and the classics rolled around, I was starting to get worried. I had no results and a steady stream of did not finish (DNF) ratings to show for my season. I had managed to finish het Volk, but that was about it. If I had been on one of the big teams, I would have lost my spot in the selection for sure and would have been relegated to endless training days. But this was a small team, and I was a young rider who still had a lot to learn, so I got to keep my spot. When I received my schedule for the month, it looked like a dream come true:

Three Days of De Panne

Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders)

Gent-Wevelgem

Paris-Roubaix

Amstel Gold Race

Flèche Wallonne

Liège-Bastogne-Liège

I flatted on the first section of cobblestones in the Tour of Flanders. I got a wheel change and was just rolling again when three of my teammates passed me. No one waited. I chased for about 30 km as hard as I could and finally caught the main group when it got stopped by a train. When the tempo lifted again for the hills of the Flemish Ardennes, I found myself in the back of the group. I would never see the front.

After my bleak performances so far, I was looking at Gent-Wevelgem with the same apprehension with which I would have viewed a trip to the dentist. The saving grace was that this was another classic with all its pomp and circumstance, and I loved all of that. I loved rolling up to the sign-in stage and seeing all the reporters and fans and the staging of the pre-race caravan. I didn’t even think I would finish the thing, given all of the side-wind stretches. As an amateur, riding through those gusts that pushed you toward the gutter had not been my forte. Actually, it wasn’t riding in the side-wind itself but the fact that amateurs could never seem to form more than one echelon.

Gent-Wevelgem takes the riders out of Gent toward the town of oostende, on the coast, before taking a left turn inland. Every bit of road before oostende has you staring smack into the wind, which means there isn’t much racing going on. After the left turn there’s about 60 km of four-lane side-wind and lots of nervous bike racers to contend with.

After we made the turn and the echelons started to form, I found myself toward the tail end of the front echelon on the wheel of Eric Vanderaerden. I was surprised to see how much he was suffering. Vanderaerden was a rider I had read about long before I had even thought about coming to Belgium. In previous years his name had often been spoken in the same breath as that of Eddy Merckx, but lately he’d been having a hard time living up to his past results.

The tail end of an echelon is a purgatory where your fate is most often changed only by the will of the riders driving the echelon you’re in or the ones behind you. We rode flat out. I glanced down at my gears every once in a while to see if there might be a taller one to work with, but of course there never was. Despite that, I was all right and knew I would be able to at least follow Vanderaerden. Keeping toward the front of the race made it possible for me to get over the series of hills—the Rodeberg, the Zwarteberg, and both sides of the Kemmelberg—in reasonable shape. It became clear to me that I might actually be able to race for the finish (as opposed to just trying to find it), despite the fact that I was having a hard time staying at the front. once the rolling roads that signal the approach to Wevelgem flattened and the big group started to wind up for the sprint, I was able to stand on the pedals just enough to finish alongside some of my heroes. It did not matter to me that my placing was in the fifties or that a group was off the front. I was there for the finish of a classic and started looking forward to Paris-Roubaix.

Paris-Roubaix was the first bike race I had ever seen on TV. As I’d watched the mud-soaked riders trying to kill each other while at the same time trying to stay upright on their bikes, I had thought it looked like the hardest race in the world. When I had raced Paris-Roubaix as an amateur, I had entered the Roubaix Velodrome in the second group, sprinting for 7th through 15th places. After 225 km, two flat tires, two crashes, and a broken wheel, I crossed into the velodrome at the front of my group. The problem was that I had never been on a track before and didn’t know how to handle the banking. Going into the first turn, I drifted high and was able to regain my composure only after everyone had passed me. I got one place back. on my ride the next day, I went 10 km out of the way just to avoid a 200-meter stretch of small cobblestones.

As we sat in the hotel restaurant the night before my first Paris-Roubaix with the professionals, Roger de Vlaeminck struck up a conversation with Florent. De Vlaeminck was sort of the Steve mcQueen of Belgian bike racers. Although most of his generation had gotten bloated and out of shape, De Vlaeminck had stayed fit and still carried himself with the assurance of the star he was. he was then and always will be “mr. Paris-Roubaix,” having won the race four times. I had some personal interest in Roger because my position on the bike was often compared to his.

Shortly into their conversation, he looked over at me and asked Florent, “And what with the American here?”

“Zijn eerste keer,” Florent said, sniggering. His first time.

“Hij zal t’ morgen wel weten.” Tomorrow he’ll know. De Vlaeminck smiled at me in such a way that I felt a need to check my pocket to make sure my wallet wasn’t missing.

There are a few things in the world that cannot be adequately described with words or pictures. The hell that is Paris-Roubaix is one of them. Standing next to a top fuel dragster or funny car as it launches down the quarter-mile is another. I have done both, so whenever someone I know has the opportunity to see Paris-Roubaix or a professional drag race, I try my best to explain what they will see. No matter how much I gyrate and gesture, no matter how I string together words to describe what they will experience, I always get the same story upon their return: “You wouldn’t believe it!” They then proceed to explain it to me, just as inadequately.

The 1988 Paris-Roubaix was the infamous long-breakaway year that saw two lesser-known pros, Dirk Demol and Thomas Wegmüller, sprinting for the win. I was in a small breakaway that got absorbed right at the moment that the winning breakaway left the peloton. It was so early in the race that the team leaders weren’t concerned with the group that was going up the road. That was their mistake.

At 10 km out, Werner Wieme, the 28-year-old neopro I was riding in with, and I were told that Demol had just won. It was rough to think that going into the Arenberg forest I had still been with the main group and could have been racing for at least some TV time. Instead, a rookie mistake in leaving the long section of cobblestones there had relegated me to a group that was looking forward to quitting at the second feed zone. The breakaway in front was trying to stay away. The group I had been in at the start of the Wallers section of cobblestones was now racing to catch the leaders, and I, due to my own stupidity, was rolling along with a group of guys who were so happy to be rid of the torture ahead that they were telling jokes. When we rolled up to the last feed zone I expected to climb into the car with the rest of them.

“Come, Joo,” Wieme said, and I felt a hand on my back. “You come with me to the finish? It is maybe my only time.”I had raced with him a few times with the amateurs.

“Ja, oK,” I replied and started pedaling again.

He went on to explain that after all of the years he had spent racing with the amateurs, waiting for his chance in the big classics, he would do his best to at least finish those that he started.

With that, he reached into his pocket, grabbed a sawed-off 3-cc syringe, and jabbed the needle through his shorts into his leg.

As an amateur the year before, I had been actually racing at this point, counting down each section of cobblestones and doing my best to win. Now I was just rolling along, not in contention for anything at all. If anything, the marked sections of cobblestones were even more unbearable in this capacity because we were subjected to the jeers of a crowd that had been there for hours. The European fans didn’t care that we both wanted to check something off our goals list. To them we were the clown show that existed only to be heckled. It was the only race I ever finished partially covered in beer.

But we did finish. We pedaled all the way to the finish line in front of La Redoute’s headquarters in Roubaix. my partner even put his hand on my back before the line, to thank me and let me know that he wanted to be the last rider across the line today. For my efforts, I was officially the youngest rider to finish the race (21) and was awarded a 1,000-French-francs prime (about $165 at the time). I am still waiting to receive that check.

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