This past August we had the pleasure to meet Justin McQuerry, a 17 year old Junior from Lorena, Texas. He spent several weeks here at The ChainStay racing and experiencing the Belgian culture, here is a report from him on his first ever Belgian experience.
This summer, I received the opportunity of a lifetime, a trip for 4 weeks in Belgium racing my bicycle against some of the most competitive racing in the world. Bike racing in Belgium is BIG; at 3 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, you will usually see an entire community out watching a race. A bike race is part of a Belgian’s day. The races are separated by age groups for the younger races, into 15-16, 17-18, and U23 for the most part; this creates fields of competitors that are all about the same age, unlike in the States where it is category based. These Belgians have grown up around bike racing, instead of football and baseball, so the races are extremely aggressive and competitive.
My racing experience did not yield the greatest results, but I traveled to Belgium to learn and I did just that. I was racing age 17 during my stay, so I am able to go back next year and race in the same racing age group. One super cool aspect of Belgian racing is that the races only cost 10 euros to enter, and you get 5 back when you return your number in after the race. The races usually pay 40-50 deep in the field, and if you are in the money you will get your entry fee back at the very least. Most races had pretty big fields, with most of them having over 60 racers and some 100+!! That’s like Nationals back home!
Living in Belgium gave me a totally different perspective of the culture than say a tourist would see; we went to the grocery store (oh fun, groceries!! ) like the locals, ate in the cafes with the locals and did other day to day activities like the Belgians would. This showed me, for one, that everything is within riding distance, and most people actually do ride their bikes to the store or shop. Also, each town we came across held just about every necessity you could possibly need, such as a bakery, general grocery store, butcher, among others; each town is independent on itself rather than relying on larger cities a short distance away. There were quite a few towns in the area I was able to explore, and while the towns were pretty small, you could get from town to town in no more than 20 minutes on a bike.
The riding in Belgium is spectacular, to say the least. The terrain is filled with small rollers all over the place and several extremely steep climbs, most of them cobbled. These cobbled climbs are hidden away in the trees and I usually came across them once I was truly lost. You cannot stand on a cobbled climb. It is simply not possible, the first time I ascended the Koppenberg (which juts up to around 24%) I attempted to stand, but my rear wheel slipped, I slowed to a crawl, and I grinded the rest of the way up with a cadence of around 30. The climbs are still fun, but in a twisted sense of pain and accomplishment sort of way. Riding on the same climbs that pros have ridden in prestigious races for decades (mostly the Tour of Flanders in this area of Belgium) is a feeling I never really experienced until this past summer.
Getting lost in Belgium is easier than one would expect. Not being able to speak Flemish or Dutch doesn’t help, but you would imagine that street signs could lead the way. In most cases, town signs only indicate once a town is within 20km, unless you are looking for a larger town such as Ghent or Brussels. Once you decide to head out, you begin to realize that the roads in Belgium are not very straight. With the exception of canal paths, Belgian roads twist and turn through the landscape, which makes for beautiful rides but extremely confusing directions. I found out, through firsthand experience, that a 30 km ‘as the crow flies’ route turns out to be a 60 km long ride. Thankfully, public transportation in Belgium is very abundant and efficient, so once lost, you can just hop on the train back to your home town.
This trip would not have been possible without the help of Bicycles Outback! The guys there have helped me out with all of my cycling wants and needs no matter how big. Tim Redus of Vertex Cycling and Gregg Germer of the Chainstay made this trip come together and it was truly awesome! These guys have dedicated a lot of time and effort towards this trip, thank you so much! My family has been behind me, supporting my cycling since I started, thanks for your continued support! Thank you all so much for making this one awesome trip!
We were very happy to have Justin stay here with us, but most importantly we are thrilled that he was able to learn a lot about bike racing and enjoy himself while he was here! We hope other young riders planning to come race in Belgium will be able to learn something from Justin’s experience, or at least gain a little insight on what Belgium is all about. We hope to have you back Justin!
For anyone else wishing to share their racing/Belgian experience on our blog, we’d be happy to post it! Just forward your report and photos to us at firstname.lastname@example.org