As mentioned in the video, I got to the race way too early - hours and hours too early. I spent the first hour in the cafe on the corner. Later I found out that places like this are called brown cafes, because everything inside is brown. Filled with the stale stench of cigarettes and old beer and a smattering of unfriendly intoxicated local drunks. I asked for a menu of what food was available and was given the single choice of a croque-monsieur. Being hungry and with no other apparent choices I accepted the offer. With-in fifteen minutes I was eating a rather home made tasting toasted ham and cheese sandwich and gagging on the the thick smoke of off-brand European cigarettes. Didn't these guys know I was a bike racer?
Here's a pic of the cafe from during the race - it was much less lively when I was eating there.
With only an hour killed and many more to go I decided to take a little drive into the center of Ieper. There the city center had a more tourist friefriendly selection of cafes - I should have just gone there in the first place and had a better lunch, but somehow I was afraid that if I left I'd miss the sign-in. In Ieper I supplemented my meager lunch with a crepe and a cafe au lait and burned the rest of the time staring at the beautiful town square.
With most of the extra hours burned off it was time to head back into Sant Jan where it was beginning to look more like a bike race. Race officials were getting things ready - people began milling about, and the cafe Hof Van Commerce was transformed into race check-in, albeit still reeking of old beer and cigarette smoke. Inside I presented my international UCI race license and permission to race letter to a row of cigarette smoking and curmudgeonly Belgian race officials sitting at a table in the back of the cafe. The most ancient looking one demanded that I produce my badge - thinking that he meant my UCI license I told him that that was all I had. This seemed to really annoy the old coot and after a bit of back and forth in Flemmish with the other guys he begrudgingly pulled out a stack of "Identificatiebadge Buitenlandse Renner" cards or "Foriegn ID racing licenses," and for a mere 5 Euros I had one of my very own. Then for an additional 8 Euros I got my canvas race number and a plastic frame number. The slightly less ancient guy at the table told me that I'd get 5 Euros back when I returned the numbers at the end of the race. From doing research ahead of time I knew that I'd have to return the number at the end of the race, and that they never have safety pins so I brought my own. The frame number however was a surprise. When I asked if they had zip-ties to affix the number to my frame they all looked at each other for a moment and then back at me as if I had just asked them for one hundred dollar bills. Belgians have a unique national facial expression that's used as a catch-all for many different social situations. Their lips purse out in a kiss-like way and they raise their eyebrows as if to say, "what the hell am I supposed to do about that?"
Outside the cafe with race numbers in hand and the streets filling up with racers spectators cops and officials, I heard an American accented voice ask if I was American. There I met a young guy wearing a USA Cycling polo shirt. From Macon Georgia his name was Christian Parrett and he races on the US U23 development team and he'd been racing in Belgium since may of this year. He's the one features at the end of the race in the video above. He asked if I needed any help as it was clear that this was my first time racing in Belgium. Offering up some safety pins he gave me me a few tips about how things were going to go down. He said it was going to be fast and to try to stay near the front from the start. Having good position at the start line was important. I asked him if he brought a trainer to get warmed up and he told me that they don't really do that here - they just start the races. He tried to just ride around a bit.
With just an hour to go before the start of the race we parted ways to suit up and get ready. I starred down at that canvas number 8 in the trunk of the car taking note of the hundreds of pin holes from previous races and racers and thought about all the guys who'd worn that number before me. How many had crashed, how many had won and the 106 other riders I was going to line up against this day.
Up Next... Blood in my Spit Part II.