Letters from Abroad – A Belgian Sense of Direction

Editor’s Note: Peter Horn is an American racing with the Geox-Fuji Test Team, the amateur development team of Geox-TMC. As Geox-Fuji Test Team’s captain, he’s looking to lead the team to victories in Belgium and around Europe, and help break the team’s riders into the Professional ranks.

14 March 2011 – Oostkamp, Belgium

At the end of our reconnaissance ride for Deinze-Ieper this week, we needed some help from the team car to make sure we would approach the finish from the right direction. In the car were our manager Bernard and a Belgian teammate Arne Casier, who happened to have a rest day and came along in the car instead of training with us that day. Arne is from Hooglede – not too far from Ieper – and he’s very familiar with the area. So he quickly described a couple roads we needed to take, and finished by saying that we needed to go towards the train station at then take that road toward the finish.

It made sense, and we found our way easily. But to orient ourselves around the train station? We do one or two recon rides for every major race, and when I take a group out to look at a course, I follow the N375, for example, then turn north at the round-a-about, and then take the first left, to the west, toward Westouter. It’s different doing the course with a Belgian like Arne – with him, you take the road to Dikkebus, then go to Reningelst, Westouter, and when you come back to Ieper, find the train station and go to the finish from there.

Like me, I think most Americans are used to orienting themselves with the cardinal directions and geography. Belgians orient themselves with towns and standard features in them, like churches and train stations. I noticed this difference in directions when I first arrived in Belgium and started training here. I would start training by heading to the town of Waregem, for example. Even though I would take the main road there, and Waregem would be the biggest city on the whole length of the road, I could never find a sign reading “Waregem.” There would be a sign for Wingene, and once you get to Wingene, a sign for Tielt, then a sign for Wakken, etc., until you get with about 5 kilometers of Waregem. Only then will signs point to Waregem.

You quickly learn that only in very rare cases do you get directions to the end destination. Most of the time you have to go town by town. It’s a system made for locals and people who already know the area: you have to know everything along the way in order to get where you want to go. So I had to learn much more about the area around me than just Oostkamp and Waregem.

One of my favorite moments came a couple years ago when I was next to a Belgian teammate during a team ride. We were in the neighborhood of Harelbeke and heading toward Waregem, which near his hometown of Vichte. At the time, I didn’t know where Vichte was, but I knew where the bigger cities were in relation to each other. From Harelbeke: Brugge is to the north, Waregem is to the east, and then Flemish Ardennes are basically to the south. He described his town and the riding nearby, and I thought I had figured it out: “Oh, so you live just outh of Waregem, right?” He answered, “Uhhh…well, from here you first go to Deerlijk, and then keep going on the main road toward Tiegem, but before you’re in Tiegem you’ll get to Vichte.” It took me a few minutes, but then I got a grasp on where he lived. He does live to the south of Waregem by the way.

More recently, during our team meeting for Deinze-Ieper (a.k.a. the Kattekoers, UCI 1.2) we discussed the course in detail. It’s a very hard and complicated race with small roads, hills including the Kemmelberg and many opportunities for crosswinds and echelons. The wind was out of the south-southwest before the start of the race, which meant a headwind for the first 25 kilometers. At that point we hit Kortrijk and turn to the northwest, which meant a possibility for crosswinds. I brought this up in exactly these terms – after Kortrijk we go northeast into the crosswinds. One of my Belgian teammates responded, “Yeah, we hit Kortrijk and go to Heule and then Gullegem.”

At first this makes things more confusing than clear, especially when not everyone on the team knows were Heule and Gullegem are in relation to Kortrijk. But we all got on the same page, and later, I realized how valuable it is to know directions like the Belgians do. I think, from Kortrijk you go northeast. They think, from Kortrijk to Heule and Gullegem. I can predict the wind my directions. They can predict the wind directions, the know the roads and can possibly predict exactly what will happen in the race – if they know that we go to Heule and Gullegem, it means that they know the roads that go to those towns, and what the towns are like when we get there. Are there big roads, narrow roads, farm roads, cobbles, bike paths, round-a-bouts, city cobbles, neighborhoods, city centers, industrial areas? I don’t know, but the Belgians sure do. I just know the direction we go, but they know every bit of the course! A few good Belgians bring much more to the team than their strength.

At the end of the day, the Kattekoers went all right for us. We raced well together and despite a couple crashes and flats, we stuck together and in the front of the peloton for the crucial points in the race. The course, and the wind, splits the race into dozens of pieces; at the finish we ended up with two guys in the first peloton, and the five others in ones and twos in other groups on the road. Our form is getting better every week and some more results will be coming soon.

Finally, the Song of the Week. Let me first explain that even though I understand the French and Flemish channels, most of the time there’s not much good on TV. So one of my guilty pleasures is watching music videos on JIM and TMF. After a while you get to know the catchy songs, and get used to seeing Fergie and Lady Gaga every morning, and sometimes start to actually like the music. So with some embarrassment, my song this week is “Who’s That Chick?” by David Guetta and featuring Rihanna. If you haven’t heard it, I would suggest listening just once. But be careful, because the tune – and Rihanna – will definitely be stuck in your head.

Peter

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