Posts Tagged ‘Philippe Gilbert’

Highpoints of the Lowlands

October 1, 2012

Last week Jen and I visited Brussels and Limburg, a region of the Netherlands which is sort of a goiter dangling between Belgium and Germany. After watching the road cycling world championships in Valkenburg, we went back to Brussels and then returned home to London. We did all this in the space of six days. During that short time, we saw some extraordinary things. And now, behold! For here, presented to delight and amuse, are the extraordinary things we witnessed.

A portcullis dangling from some bloke’s arse
This is a detail from the Hieronymous Bosch triptych The Temptation Of Saint Anthony. It’s not the most fantastical or insane product of Bosch’s mind or, indeed, of this particular painting, which we saw in the Musée de Beaux Arts in Brussels. But perhaps it serves as a metaphor for how we should view any Bosch work. He presents us with an arse. Naturally, we ask, what is the meaning of this arse? And yet we are forbidden from ever knowing: our own rationality is the portcullis, blocking us from entering and exploring the insanity of Bosch. Either that, or it’s just a man bending over with the front of a castle stuck between his legs. We, and future historians, can only speculate.

Gigantic murals in unexpected places
I like the Belgians. Swathes of their capital have been utilised as canvases for street art, and yet nobody seems to mind. The most spectacular examples we saw were on an otherwise unremarkable street called Bogaardenstraat, which is about a 15 minute walk from Brussels Midi station. We looked across the road and wham! A building-sized painting of a man brandishing a gun above his head was looming over us. It made about as much sense to us as Hieronymous Bosch’s Portcullis Arse, but not to worry, because on the very same street there’s also a gigantic cartoon of a man waiting for a tram. Belgian street art: catering for all tastes.

The extravagant roof of Liege-Guillemins train station
We travelled by trains for our entire trip because we think they’re brilliant. Trains engender a sense of community among your fellow travellers and you get to have a nice view watching the landscape scroll past you. The burghers of Liege also seem to share our enthusiasm for rail travel, judging by the massive, wavy concrete and glass roof they’ve plonked on their station, which leant a sense of occasion to our journey to Maastricht on a delightfully rickety old train. And Liege-Guillemins is only the tenth busiest station in Belgium! What sits atop the busiest one – a scale model of the pyramids?

The Horse Woman Of Valkenburg
Due to booking incredibly late, the only accommodation we could find for the world championships was in a posh, expensive country house-type of hotel, which meant we got to enjoy a 40-minute walk through the grounds to the finishing circuit. Me and Littlejen always love stretching our legs, and it felt peaceful being in the middle of nowhere – until, rather excitingly, we heard the familiar sound of a bike race’s PA system booming in the distance. Also, we got to see a woman walking a small horse like it was a dog. The next day, we spotted her spread-eagled on the back of a horse. A full-sized horse, obviously. Doing it on the tiddler would be ridiculous – and possibly deadly for the horse.

A representative of the Philippe Gilbert fan club
One of the reasons why I wanted to do this trip is because I enjoy hearing Jen get her adaptable and enthusiastic Afrikaans gob around the Dutch and Flemish languages. Honestly, you should hear her jubilantly shouting “KOP VAN DE WEDSTRIJD!” when the TV cameras show what’s happening at the front of a Belgian Classic – the season hasn’t truly begun until I hear that clarion call ringing out from our sofa. Anyway, during the under-23s world championship race, Jen found herself standing in the queue for the loo on the finishing circuit, where she eavesdropped on a Dutch lady remarking in her native tongue that there were many British fans around and they all seemed to love the sport. And, indeed, there were a lot of Brits around, and a lot of them were thin fellas on bikes – which was a marked contrast to the magnificent figure we stood next to on the hallowed Cauberg the following day. Socks, sandals, fag in hand, a manly spread filling out his blue tracksuit, and a proud label emblazoned upon his cap: “FAN CLUB PHILIPPE GILBERT”. With support like that, is it any wonder the Belgian powerhouse won?

Victory this way

August 8, 2012

There was a time when I would ride my bicycle into town, thinking that the portly physique I had in those days would never be able to convey me any further. Then one day I fell in with the right crowd (long story – I’ll tell you about it another time) and found myself doing 50-mile rides around Surrey. When you combine these two distinct parts of my life, you have, broadly speaking, the collective routes of the Olympic road races and time trials.

I witnessed parts of these races by the roadside. Jen and I walked from our flat to the mini-roundabout on Fulham Palace Road, where we cheered the men’s road race rolling towards Richmond Park like a procession of dignitaries. A few days later I watched the women’s time trial in Hampton Court. But it was seeing the roads I know well on TV that had the most impact on me.

Staple Lane’s steady ascent, the hairpins on Box Hill, the punchy little climb after Box that Gilbert was the first to tackle – they are only tarmac strips bordering fields, but these are the places that broadened my perspective on how far and how hard I am able to ride. They made me. It was like seeing your first kiss, your old friends, jobs you once had – or lost – gathered together behind the Perspex screen, depersonalised by the context of the race, and all the stranger and more moving for it.

On Monday, I did my usual 70-miler through the Surrey hills. I do the same ride regularly because, regardless of whether I’m planning to race or not, losing myself for five hours a week does my mind a bit of good. I have wondered over the years why more people don’t do the same. This time, I saw the messages that fans had painted on the roads before the pros raced by. One, on Box Hill, reads: “This way to… victory”. And I like to think this kind of graffiti is a victory in itself: a permanent reminder of cyclists’ presence on these roads, and invitation for others to join us and be changed.