Monday, March 23, 2009

The Stones of Belgium - Part 1

The following is the first part of a story I wrote for Embrocation Cycling Journal, the brain-child of Jeremy Dunn. The story appeared in Issue Number 2. (You can buy issues 2 and 3 here. Please support them!) As the Northern Monuments begin in earnest this week, I thought it would be nice to share the story again for those who might not have read it. Come back for regular installments.

Like most of its citizens, I hate Belgium. And that’s why I know I’m starting to belong here, for Belgium is the only country I am aware of where national pride is expressed as a form of self-deprecation. In Northern Europe, all paths at least lead through Belgium. As an American, I can’t wait for the moment when I can raise my eyebrows, turn-up my nose, and ask a newly arrived foreigner: “Why would you come to Belgium?” For true Belgians, you see, there is no valid reason why anyone would choose to relocate to their little country trapped in the French-Dutch armpit of northern Europe. But of course, like the others, I am here for reasons of my own, none of which can be overpowered by the Belgian national pathos. And besides, I have a race tomorrow.

On my bike things are clearer for me. The clouds stretch across the sky like a gray leather hide forming a tent over the maze of cobblestones and concrete slab roads on which I train. Sheets of rain cascade down in the distance, and sunlight peers through an adjacent patch in the clouds hinting at a rainbow for a small village on the horizon. In Belgium, the sun lies in wait like plaster behind layers of drab wallpaper. My emotions mirror this weather frequently, and some days I need hard rides and jarring roads to bring peace of mind.

I picked a route that takes me past my favorite tree. There it stands, as always, a beacon in a field of beets, flanked only by the small brick shrine built by a pious farmer years before, guarding his crops. Passing it, I turn in the direction if Tienen and my favorite cobbled roads.

Easing myself onto the stones, I slip my chain into the big ring, center my weight, loosen my joints, and float across the ridge of rocks. My legs pound a rhythm to keep me on top of my gear. My hands begin to hurt and my fingers go numb. The stones beneath me are slick with tractor oil, manure, and rain left from a passing cloud, but I pick a line that guarantees the support of my snake-thin tires. Luckily, this road is flat, and I won’t need to change gears. One missed shift could interrupt the delicate balance between rider, bike, and terrain, sending me directly to the sharp, granite stones.

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