The Stones of Belgium – Part 2

The following is the second part of a story I wrote for Embrocation Cycling Journal, the brain-child of Jeremy Dunn. The story appeared in Issue Number 2. (You can buy issues 2 and 3 here. Please support them!) The third and final section will appear next week.

            The Flemish call the stones kassein, and I often wonder if this word came from the French word cassé, or “broken”. Only farmers use these stoned pathways now, and they were designed with little thought to traffic flow and sight lines—certainly with no regard for skinny, smooth-legged cyclists. I know this road ends with a blind corner where it rejoins the national roadway. I also know there is a slight rise about 500 meters before this corner where I can quickly glance over the field to check the road in both directions for upcoming vehicles. I concentrate on that moment; if I miss it I’ll be forced to slow myself to a stop, a risky venture on such an unpredictable surface.
            I crane my neck—no cars today—and set my mind on the new task at hand: rejoining the main road. Sections of cobblestones are not dangerous in and of themselves; there is a technique to riding them that anyone can learn, and even the most svelte riders can adjust their bodies to the jolts and jars. The tricky part is the transition from one surface to another. Knowing this, and nearing the end of the stones, I choose my line back onto the main road, re-center my weight, and point my knee in anticipation of the turn. Coasting into the corner, my chain slaps against my aluminum frame, tapping in rhythm with the pattern of the stones. Suddenly, my rear wheel hits a stray patch of gravel, sending the rear end of the bike skidding out from under me. In one fluid motion I unclip my cleated right foot from the pedal, plant my heel, and right myself and my bike by pushing-off and away from the roadway. I exhale as I regain my composure and my rhythm. My sunglasses slip, but hold.
            Now poured concrete slabs pass under me smoothly save for the untarred seams that send pulses through my frame, reverberating in the roots of my teeth. I take a swig from my bottle, the sugary drink replacing the grit in my mouth with a sweet, sticky film. I drop the chain from my big ring, shift-up a gear or two in the rear, and settle into a steady tempo. Leaving a slightly wooded area I can see the gentle upward slope of the roadway rise above me through the plowed fields. The wind is neither in my face nor at my back. I shift down one gear, lower my torso closer to the top tube of the bike, flatten my back, and bend my elbows. This might be a little more intensive than I had hoped for a pre-race ride, but opening-up a bit might be good for my legs and lungs. The wind is less than I expected, and the rain has held off for the moment. I smell the freshly turned earth around me, lower my head, and continue my ride home.

About Whit

My experiences might easily fit many cycling fans' definitions of “living the dream.” Since getting hooked on the sport watching Lance Armstrong win the 1993 U.S. Pro Championship, I've raced as an amateur on Belgian cobbles, traveled Europe to help build a European pro team, and piloted that team from Malaysia to Mont Ventoux. As a former assistant director sportif with Mercury-Viatel, I've also seen the less dreamy side of the sport – the side rife with broken contracts, infighting, and positive dope tests. These days, I live with my lovely wife in Pennsylvania and share my experiences and views on the sport at Bicycling Magazine, the Embrocation Cycling Journal, and at my own site, Pavé.
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