Planning for the Trip
This is an important aspect of your trip, and will happen well before you depart for Belgium/Europe. There are a couple of questions you need to ask yourself first before leaving to help determine the direction you will be going:
— Are you at a level of fitness / experience to handle Belgian racing?
For most cyclists you will need to be at almost the top of your regions area to be competitive in Belgium, but your WILL to do well can be the biggest factor in being a success. I have seen US professional riders come to Belgium and do worse than Cat. 3 riders in the same races. So it’s all about your drive, your passion and a bit of talent. Be sure to have a good base before you show up and if you are coming for 6 months, don’t do too much too quickly, it’s a long season.
— Do you have the budget to handle living away from home for 1, 2, 3, 6 months?
The cost to live in Europe can be a large part of your decision to come and also how long to stay. The way I always looked at coming to Europe was this. First, I wanted to come to Europe and race for the long term in Europe, so that was my initial reason to come. Second, in the US I spent on average 35 dollars or more per race, plus travel and hotel fees to go to races. Sometimes I had a team to cover these costs, other times I didn’t, but it was a large cost.
In Belgium the cost of a race is 8 euros, with 5 of those euros returned when you return your number back. So I was going to pay MUCH less to race in Europe (and free when you are selected for larger races, ie Interclubs). Most of the time races were within riding distance so there wasn’t a gas cost involved. If there was a car used, the race was usually no more than 50km (30 miles) away. There is also racing all week long during the summer months, and at least three races a week guaranteed from the end of February until the start of October. If you still want to keep racing there is always Cyclocross from September till February.
I looked at the cost for me to pay rent and food as not really a factor as I was always going to pay rent and food where ever I lived and the cost of food wasn’t much more than where I lived if you shopped at the right places. Plus, when I was in Europe I wasn’t paying for my car insurance, which saved me a large sum of money. On the other hand I wasn’t able to work, so I there was no income coming in (but I was here to race, not to work).
You can also make some prize money at the races here, but much less than what I was able to win while in the US. The race win here in Belgium usually pays only 70 euros, but you can also “sell” the race to a break away companion for anywhere from 100 to 500 euros depending on what they can offer and various other factors. Primes can be as much as 25 euros a lap over an 18 lap race, so there is some extra cash to be had.
— Can you handle being away from home (friends, family, girlfriends, etc.)?
This is one of those factors that affects everyone quite differently. Some people can handle the separation from what they know much better than others. I will say this question has become a lot easier in recent years with the advances in Internet communications. If you have access to internet, you have e-mail which you can make things much easier. With internet at your house and a laptop there is Skype and Video Conferencing to make it even easier on you (plus cheaper). Give some good thought to how being away from home will affect you and how you can cope during your stay.
What to bring:
When you come to Belgium there is a long list of things you will want to bring, but with airlines being extra vigilant with baggage allowances you will need to be prudent with your selection. Some things to consider bringing:
Notebook Computer: For many cyclists this is their link to home, and a way for them to connect with family, friends and loved ones.
Camera: They are cheap and so very small these days that you can take them with you just about everywhere and record all the fun moments of your trip.
Tools: There is no need to go crazy with the amount of tools you will bring to Belgium as the number of bike shops around doesn’t warrant the need. Most of the time a local bike shop will be able to help you out with little to sometimes no cost for simple use of a tool. A simple hex-allen key set (with flat and Philips head screwdrivers), tire levers and a small mini-pump should be the base of your tools. I would also consider bringing a spoke wrench and small chain breaker as these are super useful and quite small. A good Leather man is very useful tool, especially the knife and pliers. I would only bring one tube with you to start with as you can find tubes in Belgium at every bike shop and at a very good price. I would however consider bringing with you nice set of instant patches. Low weight, takes up no space and can save you from a ride with more than one flat!
Race Wheels: It is always a good idea to have a nice set of wheels that are strong. It is always best to save on the extra weight of two sets of wheels and go with one set of race wheels that will take a beating, but you can still train on. If you have the space (and weight) having two sets of wheels is always a nice option.
Electronics Adapters: It is important to remember to bring several electronics adapters from home, as it is nearly impossible to locate the style you need once in Belgium. We suggest you bring at least 2; one for your laptop/notebook computer, and one for chargers (batteries, gps units, bike computers, mobile phones etc.). BUY BEFORE YOU LEAVE. You’ve been warned.
E-Reader: I personally enjoyed reading in my spare time when I raced. Between the time spent in a car traveling to races or on days when I wanted to get out of the house and relax at a coffee shop I was usually reading a book. The biggest problem was the cost of English books if bought in Belgium (or shipped from England) and the weight penalty I paid for bringing several books from home. Now a days you can bring several thousand books with you in just one small e-reader. We have several suggestions of books that you might enjoy to read in our Packing List page.
Vitamins: There are several vitamins that you can find much cheaper than in Belgium, but I would first check your list of needs against a site like MyProtien.com to compare the cost. If you are coming over for a short trip, the cost might be worth it, but for anyone coming for a long term it might be worth it to pre-order the needed vitamins, sports drinks, or recovery powder (very big weight penalty) and have them sent to your stay in Belgium.
GPS for your bike: With the reasonable cost of GPS bike computers these days and their convince I would consider them almost essential for anyone who travels outside of their normal training area. The value lies in 1) not getting lost 2) recording of data, especially when combined with a power meter and 3) ride planning, being the most useful. Combined with some pre-planning (which you can do because as a cyclist in Belgium you have almost nothing but time) you will find yourself able to plan AMAZING rides which are perfectly suited to that day’s training. Ride hills when you want to or avoid cobbles and ride the flat roads with the least amount of traffic. It also makes getting to a race stress free and allows you to focus on the race and not sweaty maps!
What NOT to bring
Here are some things you should not bring with you when traveling to Belgium.
Anything Carbon Fiber: Carbon fiber is great. It’s light weight, strong, but has a tendency to break here in Belgium because of the stresses of the roads and racing. Your best bet is to go with cheaper and stronger metal parts. It’s nice to look like the pro’s, but they don’t pay for their parts and when the do fail, the mechanic throws on a spare. It’s all a cost to benefit, if that part fails or breaks from a crash, what will it cost to replace it? or conversely, how many extra weeks of racing can you do in Belgium if you went with a reasonably priced part?
Spare parts: The reason is that you can either mail-order or locate parts locally (like tires, handlebar tape, etc.) that are the same or even lower cost to where you live. Bring only what you need and know you will need to replace.
Large personal care / toiletry items: Unless you have a huge preference to some particular brand, don’t bring large bottles of toiletries or other items. As with spare parts you can find them as cheap here in Belgium, and you will save yourself the extra room in your baggage allowance.
Belgium is a first world country, so most anything you have where you live can be found here. For general, generic things, it is always best to bring as little as needed and then buy them as you need them here. This will keep you from also putting out money up front for something that might not be used (or fully used).
Packing for the trip
One thing to consider before purchasing your airline ticket is how much baggage allowance you are permitted. Some airlines allow as little as one checked 20kg (44lbs) bag, and others up to two 45kg (99lbs) checked bags along with a standard carry on. Also be aware, and prepared, to pay the airlines bike handling fee. Check the fine print of the airlines website for details regarding your bike. Sometimes that cheap airline ticket becomes a lot more expensive when you have to pay 150 USD each way for your bike.
As far as your bike goes, a hard shell case is best for insuring it will arrive undamaged, but this can add a lot of weight toward your baggage allowance. Your best options are either a specially built and padded canvas style bike case, or your standard cardboard bike box. The key to insuring that your bike will arrive at your destination without problems is to pack your bike bag well.
When I travel for extended-stays this is the method I use:
I have “4” bags with me.
- One laptop bag as my personal carry on item
- One larger hiking backpack
- One rolling check-in bag (sized to the largest limit allowed by the airline)
- One soft canvas bike bag with specific padding added.
In my laptop bag I have naturally my laptop, but then also books, paperwork (tickets, important information, etc). My large hiking backpack contains heavier clothing, my cycling shoes and pedals, and some snacks for the flight. In the large checked bag I actually don’t carry much clothing, but instead put my handlebars, cranks, tools, saddle, stem and other hard items. I do this because it will lighten the bike bag and then frees up space to use your clothing as “padding” for the bike and wheels. Be sure to wrap the greasy parts of the bike to keep them from staining the clothes. Using this technique I have been able to have almost no damage (less a few small scratches) to my bike in well over 20 international flights.
The following is a list of clothing you might want to consider bringing with you:
- Three Pairs of Jeans or Trousers
- Three T-shirts
- Two Long Sleeve Shirts
- Two Pairs of Shorts
- One Light Jacket
- One Heavy Jacket
- Two pairs of shoes
- 7 pairs of underwear
- 7 pairs of socks
- One Mutt (ski cap)
- 4 pairs of shorts
- 3 short sleeve jerseys
- 2 long sleeve jerseys
- Cycling Vest
- Winter Jacket
- Arm Warmers
- Leg Warmers
- 7 pairs of cycling socks
- Cycling Gloves (both summer and winter)
- Rain Jacket
- Winter Booties (shoe covers)
- Summer Shoe Covers
- Cycling Shoes
- Sun Glasses
- Undershirts (summer and winter)
Paperwork and Visa’s
Since the rules are always changing and it’s hard to determine what applies to each person let me just suggest you contact your local Belgian Embassy. Many countries are exempt from applying for a visa as a tourist (a three month valid stay). Many people have stayed over the three months without problem, but you can’t be guaranteed there won’t be one. There also may be a requirement to show you have X amount of money in your bank account before you leave, medical insurance requirements and also a valid return ticket.