Generation Next. Mothers: Don’t Let Your Sons Grow Up to Be Bike Racers
A review of “The Belgian Hammer” by Dan Lee
Dan Lee opens the book with his first-person account of covering the 2010 Tour of Flanders as a journalist for an Indiana newspaper and then goes back in time to his own first race in Belgium nearly a decade before. Although his career never amounted to much as a high-level racer, it is clear that he found pleasure in the cut and thrust of Belgian racing. His description of the grittiness of the kermis races that are such a unique part of Belgium’s cycling DNA paints a fascinating picture. Held as part of a village fair or as a standalone sporting event, “Kermises are like hockey fights: herky-jerky affairs where skill, strength and intimidation commingle.” In amateur racing in Belgium, everyone competes in a single class. The races are intense and brutal and it is here that many careers of pro cyclists are forged.
Or so hopes USA Cycling. Once pro cyclists were allowed to compete in the Olympics in 1996, USA Cycling, which had focused primarily on the games, realized that supporting amateurs in the United States would put them at a disadvantage against pro riders. There was an early recognition that racing in Europe was tougher, trickier and faster than in the United States and to develop racers in the environment the organization established a permanent presence in the small Belgian town of Izegem. “The Belgian House” was run for a decade by Noel Dejonckheere and his wife Els, from 1999 to 2009, at which point Dejonckheere moved to a staff position at Team BMC.
The house in Izegem.
USA Cycling estimates that it takes six to seven years to develop a rider and it sends around 135 cyclists (male and female) to Europe each year to train. The goal is for each cyclist to race in sixty European races from the age of 15 to when they turn 23. The program costs $500,000 annually and USA Cycling claims that thirty-three riders from its development program have gone onto UCI Pro Tour or Pro Continental teams. This is an average of less than three riders per year, showing just how difficult the effort must be.
The house in Izegem is not a luxury retreat and the physical plant is probably less than what riders were used to at university. But the pressure in the Belgian House is intense as riders who do not show results are not invited back. Those that do not stay on the US National Development team, or those that never made it there in the first place, have other alternatives. One of these is the Cycling Center, near Brugge, where riders receiving coaching and compete in an affiliated team, generally paying for the privilege. And moving down the ladder, we come to the chapter on Gregg Germer, a young Texan (and Pez contributor!) who did not blossom as a racer but who enjoyed the Belgian lifestyle so much he has remained there as a businessman, renting out rooms to cyclists and helping them out with advice and support in races.
These chapters about riding and learning to race in Belgium are the best in the book. There are some fine descriptions of the culture shock young American face and occasionally reader wonders why anyone in their right mind would want to race in the country if it meant living in a fourth floor cold-water walk-up apartment (bathroom on the first floor). We are reminded of how fragile racing makes its participants, with stories of broken jaws, viral infections and depression. But some of the biggest names in US cycling have come through this system, including established riders David Zabriskie and Tyler Farrar, as well as newcomer Taylor Phinney, who recently celebrated his first win as a pro. The author enjoys the time he spends with the young riders in Belgium. One of them, Ben King, subsequently went on to win the US National Champion title and that is covered in a subsequent chapter.
Although the chapter on King’s win is very well-done, the book lost some of its interest to me when it moved back to the racing scene in the United States. The author moves the action to Philadelphia, which has been the home of one of the country’s top one day races since 1985, although its continuing existence has not been easy, reflecting the poor state of domestic racing. Dan Lee joins up with one of the riders he met in Belgium, Dan Holloway, who has not yet found a place on a European team but did well in the United States.
There is another chapter on the Philadelphia race but it covers a female rider. Except for a single line mentioning that USA Cycling has a similar set-up to the Belgian House in Italy for women, there is really no indication women’s racing exists up to this point. I realize that this is probably beyond the scope of the author’s intent but it is striking to me that for women the path to become a pro racer is that much more difficult. Struggling with all the same difficulties of relocation and different racing styles, at the end of the day there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. In Europe, the Promised Land of Cycling, there is almost no media coverage of women’s racing and it would have been interesting to read about the successes of American women who had gone through the USA Cycling system in Europe.
What does it take to make it? This is the question that the author tries to answer as his interviews reveal a very wide range of motivations by the riders. Some of the riders don’t have what is needed and their stories will take them elsewhere. Dan Lee mentions that only 23 Americans have ridden in the Tour de France, which must be discouraging. Although four Pro Tour teams are US-based (Radio Shack, BMC, HTC-Highroad, and Garmin-Slipstream), they do not necessarily focus on having riders of US origin. The US Postal/Discovery team ended its seven year domination of the Tour de France with only two Americans still on its TdF team roster: Lance Armstrong and George Hincapie, who wrote the foreward to this book.
“The Belgian Hammer” is a book written by a cycling fan and Dan Lee’s love of racing and his fondness for those in it is apparent throughout. Not every American rider will withstand the blows that the hammer brings: the bad weather, poor conditions and the very alien nature of the sport for those from a culture that worships entirely different sports. The book offers some real insights and suggests that even if conditions have improved, there is something admirable in those who hoe this particularly hard row.
“The United States in on the leading edge of producing high-tech carbon bikes and using power meters for scientific training. But for all its modern influences, cycling at its highest level is still contested over old European roads. It requires Americans to adjust to a culture, on and off the bike, that’s vastly different from their own. The Tour de France may be the pinnacle of professional cycling, but Belgium is the sport’s greatest and most grueling classroom.”
The Belgian Hammer
Forging Young Americans into Professional Cyclists
by Dan Lee
Breakaway Books, 2011
208 pp., ISBN: 978-1-891369-91-9
Leslie Reissner competed (in the loosest possible sense of the word) against Ben King at the 2005 Wintergreen Ascent Time Trial, finishing the seven mile course a mere 23 minutes behind the then-15 year old. When not trying not to block out this traumatic memory, he may be found in contemplation at www.TinDonkey.com