Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Memories of Belgium

My Time in Flanders

This weekend is “Opening Weekend” in Belgium, where pro cycling's Classics specialists line up for Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday, followed by Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne on Sunday. And I'm excited. Having read the memoirs of adopted Flandrians Joe Parkin and Aussie Allan Peiper many moons ago, I always wondered what the cycling life in Belgium would be like, not to mention the heritage and culture. Well, life certainly throws one curveballs at times and I finally got to realise this aspiration almost four years ago.

Being taken on as a soigneur/verzorger (carer/slave) on an international cycling team in 2017 allowed me the privilege to immerse myself in the world of Belgian racing. Based in the East Flanders town of Oudenaarde right below the Koppenberg forest, our racing schedule saw us competing at least four times weekly all over Belgium. Kermesses formed the backbone of this program along with a few criteriums and U23 Classics. Racing program aside, it was more living and breathing in the culture and mixing with the locals that really stood out, not to mention their benevolence.

When our staff accomodation was scheduled to be taken by another team, hosts Christian and Hilde graciously found us an alternative in nearby Markedal. No more sharing rooms – we each had our own space in renovated private bar on a semi-palatial estate! Then there was our trusty team car literally conking out in the middle of the N60 after another race. Christian came to tow us and found a garage in Ninove that would take care of the specialist repairs. Time was tight but the car got fixed. Or when I needed some osteopathic help with some our riders. Step in Michiel Van Aelbroeck and Alice Pirard who fit us in at their practice in the cobbled centre of Ghent (a great city by the way).

Time certainly flew by, as it tends to do when you are super busy in pleasant environs and it was time to move on to the next assignment in Italy. I did manage to make it back to Belgian the following year with another team, although this trip was somewhat fleeting and saw a chicken lay an egg whilst taking a sip out of my cup of tea. But that is separate discussion altogether.

Friday, 19 February 2021

Anthon Vermaerke

The South African Belgian

A familiar surname popped up on the Cycling News website the other day in the form yet another graduate from Axel Merckx's much vaunted U23 program. Kevin Vermaerke might hail from LA but his roots have a foreign flavour.

The article in question sees Kevin crediting his father for his getting into cycling, Vermaerke senior nurturing and encouraging his son in his formative years. Kevin also mentions his father's South African roots and subsequent racing as a naturalised Belgian in the early 1990s.

So who is Anthon Vermaerke?

Well, he has quite the cycling palmares. Anthon grew up racing in South Africa, eventually taking out a Belgian license and assimilating to life in the Flanders region. His duels with Gerrit Vanderaerden (brother of Eric) are documented in an excellent profile by Stephanie Cockerton, as are his adaptation to Northern European racing and weather conditions, and eventual selection for the 1991 World Junior Championships. Anthon came away with a silver medal there in the pursuit, before going on to victory in the junior Grand Prix Eddy Merckx time trial event shortly after.

With son Kevin signing for Team DSM, the Vermaerke name remains in the peloton, and is one to watch no doubt some three decades after the emergence of the “South African Belgian”.

Friday, 18 December 2020

A Coaching Story

Snakey, Shipwreck and Bilateral Breathing

A recent conversation got me thinking of the lasting impact that those individuals senior to us can have in our formative years. I'm talking about a positive effect, of course. Bemoaning the "bulking up" of teenage rugby players and the pressure and negative effects thereof, the said individual and myself wondered about the sporting direction and longevity many of these young guys would have post-high school. Would they even remain active? Let's face it, few school leavers carry on playing rugby or even cricket upon graduation. On the flip side, we are now seeing quite a surge in mass participation sports like triathlon, road running and mountain biking among thirtysomethings and upwards, a large part of that being in the ultra-distance realm. And not always in a healthy manner. But that is a separate discussion.

Monday, 9 November 2020

Ben King. Ornithologist

Of Birdwatching and Bike Riding

A few years ago, Ben King was one of the subjects I pitched for a possible magazine story. By then over a decade into a long professional cycling career, the Richmond-born King cemented himself into the consciousness of world cycling fans with his double stage win success in the 2018 Vuelta a Espana. Of the few questions I sent through to him, one of his cryptic answers outlined how he was home-schooled until high school. Cycling was one of the many hobbies and interests that he accumulated during this time, he said, going on to explain how the friendships he made through the sport were among the things that he cherished the most deeply.

Fast forward a couple of years and the world was (and still is) in the throes of an international pandemic. May 2020 was a pretty grim time as far as coronavirus and associated lockdown was concerned. People confined to their homes was one thing; financial distress and job loss were but another. Ditto that for pro cycling, the sport having effectively ground to a halt, albeit for a spate of virtual racing.

Yet amidst the doom and gloom, and reports on all things virtual, came a shining light, for me anyway. Andrew Hood penned a piece for Velonews featuring Ben and his life in lockdown. But this was not your usual story of the time bemoaning the lack of racing and future employment prospects. While Ben's life away from racing was indeed the focus, Hood's sculpted a fascinating insight into how the NTT Pro Cycling stalwart combined his daily training with his new found love of nature photography.

Commandeering his journalist-wife's digital camera, Ben developed his growing desire to photograph birds upon completing his daily bike ride. As his photographic skill grew, so did his image collection leading him to start a specific Instagram page. A new pastime was born and cultivated during a most uncertain and unprecedented time.

It's no secret that NTT Pro Cycling is unlikely to continue in the new year. Like many of his colleagues, Ben will no doubt be exploring his options for next season in an already saturated job market. And while he might well saddle up in different team colours in 2021, Ben's daily capture of all things ornithology will no doubt remain a consistent constant.

Photo credit: NTT Pro Cycling

Monday, 31 August 2020

Colby Pearce's World View

A Student for Life

'I am reading and studying all the time. The more I can take in, the more I can have powerful and clear intuition on what my client needs. And this continuing education extends to my own activities. For instance, I went for a run today in Vibram Five Finger shoes on a rocky, uneven trail. This is something that would have crippled me just five years ago. So I'm unquestionably a student for life.'

Colby Pearce has worn many hats. Professional cyclist, USA Cycling Track Endurance Coach, US Hour Record Holder, directeur sportif in the formative years of the team now known as EF Education First Pro Cycling. All roles that he has performed with distinction. Fast forward to the present day and Colby continues to juggle, and then some. Coaching and bike fitting are mainstays in his current working life, as is designing track frames, hosting a weekly podcast and consulting to World Tour riders and teams. Yes, Colby Pearce is indeed a busy man. But he's not a hypocrite. You see, despite his life seemingly being all things "bike", Colby is not your typical Type-A jock. Quite the contrary in fact.

Monday, 3 August 2020

Running Sandals

Minimalist Comeback

While walking around barefoot has been part of my life for as long as I can remember, "minimalist" running has been a recurring, if inconsistent theme. Not for injury reasons (daily jogging shouldn't hurt) but more a case of lack of venues. The soccer fields near my home are now fenced off and driving to the beach at low tide is great, but not quite "out of the door". Sure, barefoot strides and sprints in the local greenbelt are great in summer time but I was looking for another way to incorporate minimalist running into my weekly regimen with little fuss.

Enter running sandals. Inspired by the likes of Cucuzzella, Budd, Rana et al., I recently decided to invest in a pair of Yeti running sandals to satiate my inner gazelle. So far. so good, I'm happy to report. Competing (read: participating) in middle distance running on the track early this year inspired me to improve my running form and fitness. And while I'm a long way away from justifying lacing up a pair of spikes, some happy sandal jogging is bound to add some spring into my stride.

Monday, 20 July 2020

La Passeggiata

Walking the Walk

Walking isn't prominent on the agendas of most endurance athletes. But it should be. Not the fast walking variety, otherwise known as a speed-marching or power-walking. Rather, a slow to brisk walk, preferably in flat shoes or barefoot. 

Whenever I think back to my times of intense work combined with travel, chasing sporting goals or overcoming poor health walking is one thing that stands out. The simple act of walking has been, both consciously and sub-consciously, part of my life and sporting regimen for as long as I can remember. Rewind to my student days in the mid-nineties, walking fairly long distances was an integral part of getting to and from class, and, unknowingly, an essential complement to a low running mileage made up almost exclusively of fartlek. Many years later, and recovering from a trauma injury, I walked an hour each way to and from the office as part of my self-driven rehabilitation. Then there were a couple of stints in Europe, working in the intense and unstable environment that is professional cycling. Walking was one of a few simple activities that kept an element of balance and refreshment, two factors that are fairly at odds with that sort of working environment.