Corey Coogan-Cisek’s Blog – Slow times between fast races make Belgian countryside appreciated
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Corey Coogan-Cisek is in her 15th season of cyclocross as an elite rider. Originally from Minnesota, she is spending a sixth winter based in Europe. Towards Superprestige Jaarmarktcross in Niel, she shares the discoveries she has made, the pros and cons, of being a North American cyclocrosser based in Belgium.
To succeed in Belgium, you need superior physical fitness, exceptional handling skills and stubborn determination, right? ! Absolutely.
You need all of these things. And these things alone will be carry you through a short trip here. But live here for any length of time? Well, that’s when the off-bike factors come into play.
There are times here when it’s just me, the dog, and sometimes my mechanic at home. It was most of January last year: the silence of rural Flanders.
I used to get more invites. I used to spend quite a bit of time with Belgian friends and their families, but COVID has put a big damper on that! However, even outside of COVID times, my friends have typical Monday-Friday jobs. (I own a coaching business, so I’m remote and working unconventional hours.) Of course, if you live in a cycling house, there are peak times (Kerstperiode), but if you’re here for the duration… there will be SLOW weeks.
Kerstperiode is my least favorite time – so crowded! Did I mention I’m introverted?
Outside of Kerstperiode, this place is not conducive to extroversion. There are hours and days when it’s just me and my own brain.
Welcome to Belgium
I’m traveling here with two bike bags, a roller bag, a backpack and a hand luggage. At Brussels airport, the journey from baggage claim to the car park where my mechanic picks me up is strewn with pitfalls.
This year, I took the “off camber” walkway a little too hot, and all my bags flew off the trolley. Later, some “road furniture” made the walkway too narrow for my cart loaded with bike bags. My only option was to carry my bags one by one.
Welcome to Belgium ! I was, literally, a hot mess.
That’s the kind of thing I was very sensitive to: drawing attention to myself.
Yet here the days are fraught with potential embarrassment. Paying with Visa at the grocery store? Get ready to have three cashiers wondering about the register asking them to solicit my signature. No matter how many times I cast the “handtekening” (signative) and the pantomime, I cannot break their paralysis. As the line lengthens behind me…
However, it made me feel good! I learned to take myself less seriously. I inwardly roll my eyes and give up the sting of embarrassment.
Welcome the feeling of unwelcome
At the races, get used to feeling a little unwelcome and unwelcome.
By now, you’ve probably heard the legendary stories about parking. There are unwritten parking classes. Essentially, you are a Belgian or Dutch professional UCI team or you are likely to be classified as “individual”. Think of it as a scarlet “I” letter. Practically, this means we get the furthest corner of the lot, where it is prone to flooding.
My Cyclocross Custom mechanics have mostly networked their way to reasonable parking arrangements (parking guard freebies?). Yet, we still get a misfire from time to time. In Lille last year, our spot was so flooded that we had to warm up in our truck. (Feedback trainers are great, but they’re not pontoons.) Oh, and it took a tractor to pull the truck out at the end of the day.
What about the athletes’ toilets? There are not any. (Well, there’s one mandated by the UCI at the start, but it’s usually a far cry from “individual”.)
Why no bathrooms? It is assumed that we have some in our motorhomes or our buses. But I forgot my motorhome or my bus.
It sounds trivial, but I assure you it is not! Being well hydrated, well fueled and anxious leads to frequent pit stops. Over a season, it can add up, this feeling of being “lesser” citizens of the peloton. When end-of-season fatigue sets in, all of this can take over.
Love for the Boerderij (Farmhouse)
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Many North Americans complain that there is nothing to “do” here. Really, you have to be happy living in the country or in a small town.
Having grown up in a rather remote part of northern New England, this place speaks to me. There are many fields, crops and cows. Many roads are covered in a viscous mixture of mud and manure. I love it, but maybe not you?!
Admittedly, one could live in Brussels, Antwerp or Ghent, but it is an atypical choice. It is more expensive and more difficult to access good roads.
Our little town has a bakery, a church, a butcher, a bike shop, a nachtwinkel (little shop open for extended hours), a pharmacy, a car dealership, a church and a frituur (classic Belgian fries and burger restaurant ). Grocery stores are the next town.
Personally, I prefer a cozy evening with a book, but if you prefer nightlife…..
Don’t waste, don’t want
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Rural Belgium is frugal.
Take, for example, our garden hose. It’s in one of those handy self-retracting hose racks. However, its wheels broke a long time ago, so last season it was toppling over every time we used it. Additionally, the pipe must also have caused a leak at some point, as there is a wad of duct tape applied to fix it.
My mechanic always says, “There are no problems, only solutions.” or “Er zijn geen problemen, alleen oplossingen”.
As a result, the issue was resolved. The bracket is screwed to the wall and therefore remains straight! Sure, the hose leaks where it joins the faucet, but the bucket underneath solves that problem.
My great-grandmother, who used to marry Don’t Waste, Don’t Want, would love this place.
However, if you want to get yourself a new pipe, don’t plan to buy it on Sunday, Monday, or at lunchtime any day.
As my mechanic says, “If you want a haircut on a Monday, you better do it yourself.”
It’s true. There will be no groceries or coffee appointments on Monday morning. (Most major grocery stores are now open Sunday mornings and Monday afternoons.) Restaurants are generally closed all day on Mondays. Many companies close their doors during the lunch hour to give their employees a real break and maybe a chance to go home.
Again, a closed store is only an inconvenience, and the counterpart is that family life and leisure have been preserved! No worries, after a few careless trips to a closed store, you’ll understand!
I present all of the above with wry humor, but the Belgian winter has a reputation for making foreigners cringe.
Some of them are as simple as knowing if life here is right for you. We celebrate “sacrifice in pursuit of glory”, but, in reality, “happy runners go faster”.
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