Bike Racing is, in many ways a spectacle as much as a sport and there is as much ritual as research in the way we go about it. Nowhere is this more true than in the cluster of little nations where monks rely on the grace of god to turn Barley into beer and the population relies on extremely hot oil to turn potatoes into a vessel for mayonnaise. Having been part of the ritual, on the inside as well as the outside for a good percentage of my sentient life it’s easy to subsume the arcane liturgy into my conception of normality. To assume that everyone KNOWS that you can’t warm up before a kermis even if you would do so vigorously for the same effort in a different place. That below 10 degrees you have to wear legwarmers and that one cannot drink a coffee with milk before a race (but a pastry with butter is fine).
This week I was reinitiated into the ritual of bike racing in the cold. Having spent years chasing the summer around the world I’ve been a stranger to the neckerchief and race number combination for longer than any self-respecting pasty Brit should. I’ve trained a lot in the cold, but it’s different. Racing demands a fluidity and ease of motion that doesn’t allow for bulky jackets and clumsy shoe covers. When you’re hammering into and out of cobbled corners all day there is no place for a beanie instead of a helmet, or a sock around a water bottle full of tea. It’s not that any of these things are necessarily detrimental to performance but they simply wouldn’t be right at a race. They wouldn’t look right, they don’t convey the sense of urgency, style and speed that racing demands. Put simply you’d feel like a bit of a dick, and if you didn’t then everyone else would make sure you soon did!
The ritual of cold weather racing is complicated and lengthly. It starts before you even leave the house. It’s vital to wear a scarf and a hat to give the impression one is in such fine fettle that one is on the bleeding edge of catching the flu at any time. Next, at the sign on, hands must be rubbed, lungs loudly emptied and eye contact made with the other racers. The cold must be remarked upon but then dismissed. It’s an odd paso doble in which we all play both roles, I tell a friend it’s cold, he says it is but that last week was worse, he turns to a teammate and laments the weather.
The next step is to wheel an oversized bag into a schoolroom, barn, garage, stable, sports center or ocassionaly an actual changing room. The door swings open and you’re hit by a burst of nervous chatter and a lung burning cloud of embrocation. Turn a corner and men with tanned legs and brilliant white chests rub orange tinted cream on their knees like braves putting on face paint before they go to war. Opening your huge bag you pick listlessly at your clothes and look around to see what everyone else is wearing. The flemmish delight in wearing less than is sensible, I know this and yet I can’t bring myself to wear legwarmers when everyone else is in shorts. With a resigned shrug I break out the extra hot embrocation, the plastic glove I stole from a petrol station and make ready to cover my legs in orange goop like a good flandrien. I place a towel on the floor (nobody knows why) and lay out my shoes, helmet and sunglasses. I put in the yellow lenses to make the world a happier place and I pull on my shorts after applying a liberal coat of chamois cream, but before the embro (think about it, you’ll work out why) I roll the shorts up and cover my legs in orange goop, it burns where I cut myself shaving but it smells like bike racing. I put on a base layer, then another. Everyone else is doing a jersey, base layer and armwarmers. I want to wear a jacket, at least a vest but I don’t want to have to strip it off and throw it, I only have one of each. If they’re all dressing like this they must know it’s going to warm up. So I put on two jersies, so nobody can tell how cold I feel. I pin my lucky charm onto the first and using my carefully guarded pin stash I crumple my number and pin it to the second, carefully lining up the top of the pocket with the pins.
Then, like everyone else I proceed to don three more layers than I intend to race in for the warm up. I go outside and languidly place my frame card on the number holder behind the rear brake. Lining it up just so, not using the hole that you’re supposed to because everyone knows that you’re not really supposed to use that one, you’re supposed to use the hole someone punched in the number the first time it was used. It places the number vertically, which must be more aero or lucky or something. I wince as I take off my long fingered glove, doing up the butterfly nut with only my thin silk undergloves protecting me from the aggressively intrusive cold air.
It’s time to procrastinate about warming up. I find teammates and the food stash, I carefully select the chocolate and mocha gels. And stash one peanut butter gel, supplies are low and nobody likes the guy who steals all the best chocolates from the tin. I take a bottle of mix and one of water, I place my helmet on top of the car and we roll around the course. The locals fly past, winning the war up for 30 seconds before returning to the car to check how their diamond earrings look. Luckily their mum is always on hand to tell them they look great, at least i assume that's what's happening because nobody else thinks that.
A brief stop at the café to ask the time and a third pee in some poor old lady’s bushes and it’s off to the start. Here we peel off legwarmers and spend minutes undoing any benefit the warm up had done. At the last minute we throw jackets to a helper, or failing that to a friendly looking old lady. If it’s the latter I make sure to show her that it has my wallet in, she’s less likely to steal it once she sees that I only have 25 euros and no cards anyway! Everyone looks at me and expects me to take off my neckwarmer, I try to ignore the stares and get on with breaking the rules.
And then nobody cares because we’re flying into the first corner and despite knowing the first 5k of the course from my practice lap I’m somehow on the bike path trying not to hit a lamppost. My throat is on fire from the cold air and my cheeks hurt. And two hours later I’m still that way, my face feels like cold silly putty and it takes a while to remember how to make it smile when I fumble my last waffle into my mouth, which seems to generate enormous amounts of phlegm below ten degrees. And it hasn’t got warmer and I’m cursing these bastards in their stupid jersies. I’d have been further up and in the break if I’d been warmer earlier on, or so I tell myself.
And then it’s over and I sit down in the shower. I wash the residue of Flanders’ fields and motorbike exhaust off my legs and they burn from the embrocation (why is it never that warm IN the race?). I inject myself with insulin and I don’t care what anyone thinks and I drink hot chocolate while everyone judges me and forces down a cold coke. I cover myself in every item of clothing which isn’t covered in mud and sweat and slowly, against my better instincts I put on my backpack and my wooly hat (riding to and from a race is strictly a sans casquette activity), I hand over my frame number and take my 5 euros, stuff it into the back pack and pedal to a train station with wet hair and cold hands. And if it’s been a really tough race, I buy some stoofvlees and frites. When I feel like I’m breaking, I might add a westmalle from the nacht winkel.
And by the time I’m eating my frites I remember how fun it was when we hopped up the curb at 40mph, and how good it felt to close a gap that the guy in front couldn’t and I’m warm and I forget how cold it was. And with something approaching a flourish, I grab the newspaper and the train timetable and I work out where I’m going to get cold my embrocation and shivering fix tomorrow.