Corey Coogan-Cisek blog - Slow times between fast races bring appreciation for Belgian countryside

Corey Coogan-Cisek is racing her 15th cyclocross season as an elite rider. A native of Minnesota, she spends a sixth winter based in Europe. Headed to Superprestige Jaarmarktcross in Niel, she shares the discoveries she has made, both the pros and cons, of being a Belgium-based North American cyclocrosser.

To succeed in Belgium, you need superior fitness, exceptional handling skills, and stubborn determination, right?!  Absolutely. 

You need all those things. And those things alone will carry you through a short trip here. But living here for a duration? Well, that’s when off-the-bike factors come into play. 

There are periods of time here when it’s just me, the dog, and occasionally my mechanic in the house. That was most of January last year: the silence of rural Flanders.

I used to get more invites. I used to spend a fair bit of time with Belgian friends and their families, but COVID put a big damper on that! However, even during non-COVID times, my friends do have typical Monday-to-Friday jobs. (I own a coaching business, so I am remote and work non-conventional hours.) Sure, if you live in a cycling house, there are busy times (Kerstperiode), but if you are here for the duration…there are going to be SLOW weeks. 

Kerstperiode is my least favourite time - so many people! Did I mention that I am an introvert?

Outside of Kerstperiode, this place isn’t conducive to extraversion. There are hours and days when it’s just me and my own brain.

Welcome to Belgium

I travel here with two bike bags, one bag of wheels, a backpack, and a commuter carry-on. At the Brussels airport, the journey from baggage pickup to the parking lot where my mechanic retrieves me is fraught with obstacles. 

This year, I took “the off-camber” walkway a bit too hot, and all my bags went flying off the cart. Later, some “road furniture” made the walkway too narrow for my bike bag-laden cart. My only option was to portage my bags through one at a time. 

Welcome to Belgium! I was, literally, a hot mess. 

That’s the sort of thing I used to be very sensitive to: drawing attention to myself. 

Yet, here, days are fraught with potential embarrassments. Pay with Visa at the grocery store? Prepare to have three cashiers puzzle over the register instructing them to solicit my signature. No matter how many times I throw out “handtekening” (signative) and pantomime signing, I cannot break through their paralysis. While the line extends behind me…

Yet, this has been good for me! I’ve learned to take myself less seriously. I roll my eyes internally and forgo the sting of embarrassment. 

Welcome the feeling of unwelcome

At races, get used to feeling a bit unwelcome and unaccommodated. 

By now, you have 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 “individueel”. Think of it as a scarlet letter “I”. Practically, it means we get the far corner of the lot, where it's prone to flooding. 

My Cyclocross Custom mechanics have mostly networked their way to reasonable parking accommodations (parking guard gifts?). Yet, we still get a dud occasionally. At Lille last year, our spot was so flooded that we had to warm up in our truck. (Feedback Trainers are great, but they are not pontoons.) Oh, and it took a tractor to extricate the truck at day’s end.

And the athlete bathrooms?  There are none. (Well, there is a UCI-mandated one at the start, but that’s typically a LONG way from “individueel”.)

Why no bathrooms? It’s assumed that we have them in our campers or buses. But I forgot my camper or my bus.

It sounds trivial, but I assure you it’s not! Being well-hydrated, well-fueled and anxious leads to frequent pit stops. Over a season, it can add up, that feeling of being “lesser” citizens of the peloton. When late-season fatigue sets in, all of it can get under your skin.

Love for the Boerderij (Farm)

Many North Americans grovel that there is nothing to “do” here. Really, one needs to be happy living in the countryside or in a small town. 

Growing up in a rather remote part of Northern New England, this place speaks to me. There are a lot of fields and crops and cows. Many roads are covered in a slimy mix of mud and manure. I love it, but maybe you wouldn’t?!

Granted, one could live in Brussels or Antwerpen or Ghent, but that’s an atypical choice. It’s more expensive and harder to access good roads.

Our little town has a bakery, church, butcher, bike shop, a nachtwinkel (small store open extended hours), pharmacy, car dealership, church and a frituur (classic Belgian fries and burger restaurant). Groceries are the next town over. 

I personally prefer a cozy evening with a book, but if you prefer a nightlife…..

Waste not, want not

Rural Belgium is frugal.

Take, for instance, our backyard hose. It’s in one of those handy self-retracting hose holders. However, its wheels broke off long ago, so last season, it would topple over whenever we used it. Also, the hose must have also sprung a leak at some point, as there’s 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.”

Accordingly, the problem has been solved. The holder is bolted to the wall and thus remains upright! Of course, the hose leaks where it joins the spigot, but the bucket underneath solves that problem.

My great-grandmother, who used to espouse, “Waste not, want not,” would love this place.

However, if you do want to get a new hose, don’t plan to shop for 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.”

That’s right. There shall be no grocery shopping or coffee dates on a Monday morning. (Most larger groceries are now open Sunday morning and Monday afternoon.) Restaurants are typically closed all day on Mondays. Many businesses close down for over lunchtime to allow their employees an actual break and perhaps a chance to get home. 

Again, a closed shop is but an inconvenience, and the tradeoff is that family life and leisure have been preserved! No worries, after a few foolhardy trips to a closed store, you will catch on! 

I present all of the above with tongue-in-cheek humour, but Belgian winter does have a reputation for cracking foreigners. 

Some of it is as simple as whether life here suits you. We celebrate “sacrifice in the pursuit of glory,” but, in reality, “happy racers do go faster.”

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