Here I am in Belgium! My cyclocross pilgrimage. I feel as though I've stepped back in time. On my ride today, I saw no strip malls, no McMansions, no SUVs, no billboards, no McDonald's. Of course, I've only been here one day, so there's still time to have my hopes dashed. But I rode through small towns like villages with people biking or driving small cars to visit the boulangerie, the bakery, the market. Shops owned by local shopkeepers who usually live above or behind their shops. I saw a train gliding into the station swift, fast, and quietly, making MBTA trains into growling behemoths. There are bike paths lining both sides of most every road - in fact, you're not supposed to ride on the road unless you have a group of 7 riders or more. It feels a bit like riding on the sidewalk, but it's safe. On my ride today, I found the drivers to be very courteous and respectful of cyclists. One even backed up while waiting for me to pass so as to make sure his bumper was out of my way in the bike path. I also think I got a few looks from both drivers and other pedestrians in my full Ridley kit and bike today. Apparently, the factory is only about 20 minutes away, and I hear it's certainly the most popular bike around here. I hear that Neils Albert and Sven Nys are also nearby - I would love to run into them!
There is a market right next door, so I went over and walked through to look for food for dinner as well as soap, shampoo, and toothpaste. I was surprised to see all US brands of these items on the shelves. I could get the same items here as in any CVS at home. I even saw many packaged foods made by Kraft - but in different guises. The language here is Flemish. Most speak at least a little English, and maybe understand some French, but definitely don't want to speak that. I feel badly that I didn't try to find the time to learn some simple phrases in Flemish before coming here, but I will try to pick some up quickly. I know the word for "bike shop" anyway, and while trying to tell the shopkeeper at the market (who did not speak English) which vegetables I wanted I learned how to say "sprout," "garlic," "mushrooms," and "onion." I had to have Brussels Sprouts tonight. And the mushrooms were delicious and incredibly fresh. The owners of the market were very friendly. I told the woman who helped me that I was visiting from Boston in the US to race cyclocross. She said I must be strong like Lance Armstrong, thinking he must be one of my heros. I chuckled and and said, "No, like Sven Nys." She laughed, knowing exactly who I was talking about. I think he is a household name here. At the airport, while waiting to go through customs, the woman beside me saw my helmet and asked if I would be racing in the "big race" next week (meaning the Hofstade WC). She said she was going to watch!
I can't wait to explore more and I'm sure the races will be eye-opening to say the least. I'm completely exhausted from the events of the past few days: a weekend in Kansas, the party after Nats, travel back to Boston, repacking for the trip, and heading right off to the airport after a day of work and an overnight flight. I will sleep well tonight and dream of cross in my temporary Belgian home.