crankpunk has been a fortunate cranker, it has to be said, and never was that more true than in August of 2011 and in February of this year, when i got the opportunity to ride with several of the biggest names in the sport. the first chance came when my then-teammate, Dutch rider Tjarco Cuppens (one of the top amateurs in the Netherlands for many years and a former Masters World Champion, no less) asked me if i wanted to race in some of the post-Tour criteriums last summer.
‘huh? are you serious?’
‘yeah man!’ he said in his infectious Dutch-English, which makes him sound a little like he’s juiced up on good cough syrup. ‘you come, we do a few crits, 200 euro a race. do 5 and you’ve paid for your ticket!’
‘but, the post-Tour crits? with the big guys? i’m 39 years old. i mean…’
‘shut up. i do them every year. just say yes.’
and that was that. i arrived in Amsterdam after a 14-hour flight from Taiwan (how different to be returning to The ‘Dam as a bike racer rather than as a student – let’s just say that i remembered a whole lot more this time round), then hopped on a train to Limburg, Tjarco’s home region, met his lovely family (his wife is a former ‘cross World Champion), had a rough sleep and then was up at some unfeasible hour to drive to Luxembourg, where we were entered in a local crit. there were no ProTour guys there but it was still a strong field. the route was about 2km long at something like 45 laps, with a nasty little growler of a hill thrown in.
i was nervous as hell, no bones about it. these were Euro dudes. i’d raced at a higher level in Asia and against Euros and Americans there several times, but actually being in Europe, racing Belgians, Dutchmen, French guys and Luxembourgers, well it was almost too much to take in. i was smiling my face off on the startline – but that didn’t last. after a gut-busting opening 25 laps or so we missed the break for the top 9 but we did ok, with Tjarco in 10th and me 12th.
and i got 15 euros. i was making money, and i was absolutely thrilled.
next up was a Belgian kermesse, where amongst a few ProTour feeder team and Pro-Conti guys was a returning Thomas Dekker, racing independently. Tjarco knew him, introduced me, we chatted a bit, he seemed nice enough. we stood by the sideline watching the bookmakers taking bets on the race – there on a small blackboard were all the riders’ names, including mine – ‘Lee Rodgers: 30/1’ – a surreal moment.
the race started and i knew from the first corner that this really was a race. a pack of about 70 clanking over cobbles to an 80 degree left turn, we enter at 20km/hr and leave it a handful seconds later at over 65km/hr, the whole peloton lined out and banging it for a 2km stretch.
riding kermesse is truly an art form – in fact it’s unlike any other kind of racing you can do, what with the winds, the corners, the speeds, the roads and the crowds. there are guys over there in Belgium and Holland who build legends just from riding kermesse (which means festival in Dutch, and if ever you saw one you’d know why, as the whole town turns out to dance, drink and cheer). expert bike handlers, you see guys hopping kerbs and riding through ditches i wouldn’t even take a mountain bike over. curses flow and stream, flung out in Dutch, German, Flandrian or English, if need be (trust me, they’re pretty much fluent in Angered-Engerlish) and the threat of bodily harm is ever-present – some of these guys will ride you off the road without a second’s thought. hard, hard men.
amidst all this there is this not-so-young English dude clinging on like a drowning man on a piece of flotsam, every sinew and fibre taut, every ounce of will mustered just to sit in the last 30, and he’s got a stream of consciousness flooding his mind like a flash flood rampaging down a 20-year dry riverbed.
after 100km and still facing another 50 to the finish, i let a gap open on the long stretch, and though i kept it at a foot for a good kilometer i just couldn’t get any closer. i blew like a pornstar trying to break a seedy world record. proper KABOOM. it was messy. i banjoed back in with 5 other guys who all turned off on the road to the changing rooms. not me. i rode straight to the cafe on the top of the hill right by the finish line, pushed through the crowds and into the bar and ordered a Rochefort 10. with the amused applause of the other customers in my ears, i held the glass to the sunlight, bowed my head a little to the race, the culture, to the sun and the moon and everything in between, and drank like it was my last drink ever.
no beer ever tasted so sweet.
in between races we didn’t have much time but i did get the chance to ride with another friend, Stefan Cohnen (now with Landbouwkrediet) and Tjarco over some of the local roads. we headed to the Caubereg one day and rode the finish of the recent Worlds, which, to a fan and cycling history buff like myself, was just breathtaking. i have about 50 fotos of myself crossing the line on the Cauberg with arms raised, which, much to his continuing embarrasment, i forced Tjarco to take.
‘come on, no way – we look like tourists!’
‘shut up and shoot! i am a tourist!’
another race came somewhere or other, a Continental-level race in which we again missed the break but forced the second break. i had a whole lot of fun in that one and was finally finding some decent form. on the same bill that day was a post-Tour crit, and we returned to the changing room to find Frank Schleck seting up his bike with a gaggle of fans around him. Joost Posthuma and Andy Schleck were outside the clubhouse looking a little lost in their street clothes whilst it looked like Laurens ten Dam had actually slept in his kit, and still other ProTour guys were inside sipping coffee. again – surreal.
things though were about to get a whole lot more freaky, when, in just 24 hours time, i’d be lining up in the city of Heerlen in front of 30,000 people alongside Andy, Pierre Roland, Theo Bos and Mark Cavendish.
stay tuned for part 2, coming soon…