The Art of Cycling.
We didn't really know each other that well. A political scientist and a geographer, just graduated from Brussels’ University. Someone who loved networking and someone who was incredibly creative. We bumped into each other during an indoor soccer tournament. Somehow it clicked right away. Masters of technique, on each side of the white lines. The passion that connected us had a name : cycling.
Real life would be coming soon. Earning money, building a career, a ‘real’ relationship. But first we would climb the Mont-Ventoux as a rite of passage to adult life. Me with the mountain bike, he with the racing bike.
We didn't waste too much time on preparing things. Shortly after the desire to climb the Mont Ventoux had been uttered, we were sitting on a TGV -the French high speed train- that rushed to Avignon, from there an improvised bus ride to Carpentras was awaiting us, ending in a hotel on the main square. Two stars, basic, French, we were good. Along the way we talked about the Tour, won that year by one and only Lance Armstrong. We thought at least he’d won it. In terms of Belgians, we had to make do with riders like Kurt Van de Wouwer and Marc Wauters. We didn't get overexcited about them. The person who did not participate in that peloton was Frank Vandenbroucke. Frank ‘VDB’ was our hero. We believed he would come back one more time. Frank was God. He had made it, he was a true star, he had turned the Belgian clay he was made of into precious porcelain. Someone with the grandeur that matched our ambitions as Brussels residents. Someone who made us dream of greatness, of being more Italian than Italians, more cultivated on the bike than the average student with a university degree in literature. Bilingual too, pure class. How VDB rode Paris-Nice back in 1998, that was what made the sport popular for our generation. Winning races no Belgian had won in years. And how. Cycling, which was always considered a marginal sport for our generation before, boomed. Suddenly you saw shiny hairstyles popping up among cyclists, brands like Mapei, Gerolsteiner and Fassa Bortolo had "Style".
The first day we drove loosely through the French Provence. Little memory remains, although I remember passing a football match on quads in a meadow. Furthermore, lavender scent and sunflower fields. Bad asphalt too. And that I had to let go my fellow rider on the slightest uphill section, using my mountain bike. All of that promised nothing too cheerful for the next day.. but the point of no return had been the entrance gate to the train station in Brussels 2 days earlier. No way I would stop here, whatever would happen tomorrow.
Indeed, 24 hours later I had a hard time on the road to the starting village of Bédoin. Besides a heavy bike, I was also a bit more “Burgundian” in terms of physique than my fellow landsman, mister skin and bones from Brussels. The view of the mythical mountain made for “flannel legs”, as we call them in Belgium. The boy on the road bike hadn't considered mounting a cassette that fit other streets than those of Brussels and surroundings. A 42 in the front, 25 in the back as smallest option. Overestimation or ignorance? Both, probably. We were young and unstoppable, right? Immediately he had to stand on the pedals. In order not to fall over, he dashed off somewhere in the forest at the early stage of the climb. I wouldn't see him again. I was just keeping my head down, staring at my knees, trying to keep a cadence that would grind the finest of coffees. José de Cauwer's commentary on Flemish TV was guiding me through my darkest cycling hours. Keep going on a small gear for as long as possible. Souplesse. I didn't make any meters. And soon there was nothing smaller left to switch to. When VDB sprinted on La Redoute or attacked on Saint Nicolas during 1999's Liège-Bastogne -Liège, he wasn't grinding any coffee on the small ring. So why should I? Why could I not push a bigger gear, and why did it take so much effort to turn around this ridiculous small gear?
Eventually, and amidst the blurriest of thoughts, I saw in a haze under my right arm the shadow of the Tom Simpson monument. Clear blue sky, moon landscape. Tom hadn’t made it unfortunately, but I would. Somehow that didn’t make sense, if you considered our physical abilities on the bicycle.
At the top of the climb, the dude with the road bike had been waiting for an hour already. Thanks god it was a bright sunny day, although the wind was kicking in now. He had had plenty of time to change a flat tire with the help of a friendly group of Belgian cyclists. A Dutchman had helped him at the famous Châlet Renard with a pump, but two or three kilometers before the top the tube was finally flat. No one to see anymore, the last mean joke of the Ventoux, trying to pay back our youthful naivety in cash. Chris Froome avant la lettre, he walked at a brisk pace - in cycling shoes that crackled like the hooves of a horse - to the top. If you don't bring along a spare tire or tools to fix punctures, you walk. Easy as that.
The top.. it came after 20 endless kilometres. I bought candy for twenty euros from a stall at the top. One euro per kilometre. That entrepreneur up there knew the value of his goods. But I was desperately in need for sugars. Fast sugars for a slow brain. In the descent I lost another twenty minutes.
The next day we rode to an acquaintance of an acquaintance who organized a dress up party in a villa, somewhere on the way in the Provence. We went by bicycle, and therefore dressed up as cyclists. Back then you would still stand out in cycling gear. That villa, with swimming pool, was by our standards, unprecedented luxury. Decadent God in France. VDB could easily saber a bottle of Champagne (or 2) here. On sloping and deserted roads, we passed by the beautiful rock formation of the “Dentelles de Montmirail”, the Provence as the Provence is in the books.
There was a lot of drinking beer and pastis, a lot of weed too. But a cyclist on weed, that remains a strange combination. You can still win on pastis, but you can't go faster on grass. Cyclocrossers could not win classics at the time. I started talking to a girl who looked like Alizée from the hit song, “moi Lolita”. Couldn't impress her though with the tales of our heroic climb. With fatigue in my legs, I past out already before sunset. No “Champs Alizée” for me that night.
The next day we traveled on to the city of light Lyon. We spent the night in a hostel in the higher part of the metropolis. With another acquaintance of our acquaintance we watched the Champions League match between Olympique Lyon and Anderlecht. Our boys from Brussels lost 1-0. Not deserved at all, we think to recall. The goal was scored by Juninho, the legendary Brazilian free kick specialist. Other players included Michael Essien and goalgetter Giovanni Elber. And also a Belgian defender, Erik Deflandre. We were a bit ashamed of that. That a landsman who had been playing for the rivals of Bruges was well-accepted by Lyon. We still lacked some maturity to put everything into perspective, of course. We would rather look forward to that young boy at Anderlecht, Vincent Kompany, he was our new star to be on the pitch.
What year was it then? 2003. The year where the world was at our feet. Mont-Ventoux was the last barrier. One last lesson in modesty. A final test to see whether we were really ready for what’s next. Bruno left for Ireland a few months later. I, Andreas, later started working for an international organization. We lost contact. The Ventoux had given us the confidence to take real life in our hands. Now, almost 20 years later, we meet again. Our binder: the bicycle. And admittedly, social media. We didn't have and need it back in 2003, but it has entered our lives now in 2020.
Cycling has everything that comes along with life. Joy, incidents, beautiful victories, envy, sadness, jealousy, money, unforeseeable events, euphoria and cheating. Riding against the wind. Sizzling ears in a descent. Death and growing up. Networking and creativity. From steel then to carbon now. Is there anything more beautiful than the race? Cycling is art. Art is life. Cycling is life. And if we have a puncture along the road, we'll walk up that goddamn mountain! We stay young and unstoppable, right? As long as there is a bike nearby, any road that life takes is the right one.