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A Closer Look: An American In Belgium
Sure, the Tour of Flanders – de Ronde van Vlaanderen – is rugged, beautiful and heroic. But to understand that Monument of cycling — to understand a culture that lures hundreds of thousands of fans to narrow roads and cobbled climbs each April – just look to Belgium’s many amateur “kermesses.” These races are the grassroots soul of Belgian cycling, and, for the hardiest riders, a pathway to the pros.


Contributed by Daniel Lee

So, on a recent reporting trip to Belgium, that’s just what I did by tagging along with Colorado native Peter Horn, a veteran of Belgium’s fierce amateur racing circuit who rides for the Cycling Center/Fuji Test Team out of Oostkamp, in Flanders.


Race headquarters was this cafй in Zwevezele, typical of a kermesse.

For this early season kermesse April 5, the 24-year-old Horn did what just about every cyclist does when arriving for a race: He found race registration. It’s typically in a bar or cafй, and this kermesse was no different. Outside the Cafй den Drieweg in the Flemish village of Zwevezele, a man grilled sausage as locals sat drinking coffees and sizing up riders warming up on the course. Inside this smoky bar tucked into the Flemish countryside, Horn walked up to the table staffed by gray-haired race officials and plunked down his entry fee of 3 euro (about $4).


Highly organized kermesse races have officials in ties but no safety pins for riders.

“Primes?” Horn asked.

“Every second lap,” replied one the officials. Horn was the 106th and final entrant for this 20-lap, roughly 60-mile kermesse. The race was a short drive from the Flemish village Oostkamp, where Horn is in his sixth year of residence at the Cycling Center program for Americans and others looking to live and race in Belgium. Horn, a 2008 graduate of Vassar College in New York, is putting law-school plans on hold has he pursues a pro cycling career in Europe.

Horn grabbed his race number from the stack but no safety pins. In Belgium, you bring your own pins.


American Peter Horn readies for the race.

An afternoon of crazy kermesse racing was about to begin.

The word kermesse, sometimes spelled kermis, means “fair” – derived from the Dutch words for “church” and “mass.” Each spring and summer towns across Belgium put on these races for an afternoon of entertainment. These are multi-lapped events twist through villages and countryside on small circuits, typically 7 or 8 kilometers per lap with races usually lasting around 100 kilometers or more. The circuits often include a stretch of cobblestones and passages over single-lane farm lanes. Kermesses are like hockey fights: herky-jerky affairs where strength, intimidation and skill rule. Belgium’s tight roads and crossroads cause packs to split up early, so riding at the front is vital. Kermesses also are famous for deals cut between the top riders – but to be part of a deal, you have to be at the front.


The field strings out quickly.

The aggression starts before the race. Young Americans tell of pulling up to the start line early, thinking they’ve secured a spot at the front. Then just minutes before the start, Belgians pull up in front of them and back their way into the front of the field, or they move a barrier to cut in front. Others may lean against a nearby building, clipped into their pedals, ready to pounce to the head of the race. Once the race is going, Belgians jump sidewalks and curbs to gain position. And they scream: “Godverdomme!” (a multipurpose Dutch swear word meaning Goddamn) is likely to be one of the first Flemish words an American racer learns.


Peter Horn, second in line, made the break early.

Horn is used to this stuff. He has competed in probably a 100 Belgian races with some top placings. So, in this race, he worked his way into a breakaway of seven within the first few laps.

While the Belgian racers like to yell, the mostly older fans who lined this course take a quiet approach. Elderly men holding beers watched and discussed the race as the strung-out pack whirled by the start-finish area before making a sharp right hand turn from a wide two-lane road onto a narrow farm lane. Horn’s visiting girlfriend, Maya Barolo-Rizi, yells “Go, Peter!” as the breakaway passes. A Belgian fan hears her and asks, “With you?” Maya nods, and the man smiles and nods in return, impressed by the American in the breakaway.

Near the finish line, Belgian bike bookies posted the names of riders with odds on whiteboards near the finish line. Maya had placed a friendly, for fun bet of 15 Euros on Peter before the start of the race – a bet that would have landed her 175 Euros should he win, or about 12 to 1 odds. Once Horn was in the breakaway, though, Horns odds had improved to either 5 to 1 or 4 to 1, depending on the bookie.


Belgian bike bookies.


No. 106 Peter Horn’s odds improve.

Horn was looking strong as a clung to the wheel in front of him in the crosswind. He grabbed a bottle along the backside of the course from Canadian teammate Jannes Wessels, who was caught behind a crash early in the race, his ankle bloodied from stepping through someone’s wheel.


In Flanders, bike racing is serious. And so are the fans.

But Horn’s prospects were fading fast. With about five laps to go, he disappeared from the breakaway. A few laps later he was not in the first three groups. In kermesses, a race official will wave a bulk of the field off the course before the riders finish the full distance. If you’re out of contention, you’re out of the race. By the time Horn finished, in around 19th position out of the 106 starters, traffic was already beginning to fill the course.


Peter Horn rolls in as the course opens to traffic.

Horn told me he was coming off a five-day rest period and was preparing for an upcoming stage race. “I put myself in a good situation for the race but unfortunately couldn’t finish it off,” he said before devouring a goat cheese and jelly sandwich after the race.

Bernard Moerman, director of the Cycling Center, sees great potential in Horn: “No doubt, he’s more than pro worthy already,” he said. “By the end of this year, the guy should knock on the door for the real pro level.” Horn’s past results include third place last summer at USA Cycling Elite Road National Championships last summer in Bend, Ore.


How do you say “Moo” in Flemish?

And just days after fading from the front of the kermesse, he finished seventh in the Tweedaagse van de Gaverstreek, a two-day race for elite riders April 10-11 that climbed Oude Kwaremont – one of the Tour of Flander’s famed cobbled climbs — three times. Johan Museeuw won this race in 1985. Horn was seventh this year.



Daniel Lee is working on a book, tentatively titled “Davy Crockett Goes to Flanders,” about how a new generation of Americans is breaking into European professional cycling. A newspaper journalist from Indiana, Lee raced briefly in Belgium and Germany many years ago. He can be reached at dleehoss@yahoo.com.

 

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