LOVE IN BELGIUM

Words/Images: Jered Gruber

One time, a long time ago, Ashley and I rode the Ronde van Vlaanderen sportive the day before the race. It was a great day — for me, at least. Ashley was just beginning to learn of her distaste for cobbles, a distaste that has only ripened and grown with time. Somehow, I lost her on the Koppenberg. I had stopped to take a picture of her, but in the pandemonium that only that climb seems to create with bodies on bikes, standing, falling over, walking — every imaginable state for a human being’s body — I lost her.

I didn’t worry at first. I looked around, walked around, jogged around — clip, clap, clopping in my shoes — and as my pace increased, my panic grew. After 15 minutes, I lost it. I didn’t realize that I had had it before, but I knew very well the moment I lost it.

I couldn’t find her anywhere.

Take a step back in this situation, and it’s really not a big deal. Throw yourself into that moment though and, suddenly, anything is possible — anything. My mind flashed to a hundred different horrible conclusions, and when I finally did find Ashley, I lost it again — but in the what’s-lost-is-now-found way.

I cried.

I knew I loved Ashley before that. It wasn’t a question. But in that moment, I realized that I didn’t want to live a life that didn’t include her. No matter what I might say or do to indicate otherwise in moments of ugly blackness or just day-to-day normalcy, she was my person. She was my everything — and there was no way words or hugs or a lifetime could ever express that. But that one moment — that feeling of utter loss — gave me the tiniest inkling of how deep that well ran.

* * *

At 7:58 a.m. on March 22, 2016, two explosions rocked Zaventem Airport in Brussels. I wasn’t awake at the time. I woke up to the news from Ashley, next to me, reading with a long face in bed.

I didn’t react. I went on with my day and didn’t think of it too much.

Then, a little while later, I met Brad Huff of Rally Cycling. He had slept in the Zaventem departure hall that night and left a couple hours before the bombs went off. I liked Brad from the moment I met him, and I like him a lot more now. I wish I had given him a hug that morning — I’m glad we didn’t lose Brad.

I rode my bike later that day, and I thought more and more about it. I chased a race the next day, and in the back of our friend Yoeri’s car, I cried quietly, because…because I’m not sure why.

I just knew that I was happy to be in that car with Yoeri, smashing down some single-lane road on the way to spot 12 of 20. I wanted to hug Yoeri, leaned way back in his seat, navigating and driving at the same time and not willing to accept one bit of help from anyone.

I realized in that moment how deep the well was. In a world where we don’t really have a home, Belgium is one of them. I love this place. I love these people.

Each year, we leave our American home in Athens, Georgia, and head for our European meanderings. It’s a hard trip for us. We leave the sun and warmth of the South, for the continually changing weather of Belgium. People give Belgium so much grief for its weather. I’ve heard people give so much grief to Belgium in general — an Italian friend recently described it as a hole in the map of Europe.

I didn’t respond.

What he didn’t know…what he’ll probably never know…is it’s anything otherwise.

Belgium will never bedazzle you with endless sun. Belgium doesn’t woo you with gentle breezes. But it’s her ever-changing face that I love. I love waking up to a bright sunny morning, then watching the clouds come in, drop their rain and then leave again in the evening. We wait for the evening and then head out for a short ride along the little roads as the sun sets across rolling green fields with trees prickling the horizon….

* * *

I love the ChainStay. I love the ever-changing population of this cycling guesthouse that has seen so many pass through its doors. This year, the Tibco-SVB women’s team stayed there the whole spring, and I’m so happy they did, because they’re but the latest example of why we love this place — because of the people that come here, either to test their mettle as bike racers or as people who want to see what it looks like.

I love the recovery day to Ellezelles.

We all get ready — all of us — for a ride to our favorite bakery in the area. As everyone tightens the buckles on their shoes and pulls on their shoe covers and gloves, the rain starts. It’s a little over freezing point, and the rain is super cold. Everyone looks around. No one backs down. We’re going.

It’s only 20K away, but the trip is an adventure: along the winding bike path that sidesteps town to the single-track pavement that cuts through the field around the Achterberg, onto one of my favorite roads, the Ellestraat, to the Berg ten Houte, and then down Mont d’Ellezelles for a waffle or a boule. We come here at least once a week throughout the spring, and the lady behind the counter always laughs. I don’t know her name and, in this moment, I’m sad that I don’t.

I remember the first time that Bram brought me to that bakery.

I have a picture of the opening hours on my phone, so I never forget. I forget a lot of things.

We ride home via the road I wrote about a couple of issues ago: the Bosrede. I don’t know if that road will ever get old to me, but I really hope not. Every single time I’ve climbed that road, I’ve stopped to take a picture.

As we get closer to town, the clouds return, the rain falls, drops, dumps…and then the hail shoots downward for added effect. For a couple of minutes, we are caught in the tempest. The hail stings my open face, but in that moment, it’s fun. We push through the storm, all the while looking at the bright sun that’s only moments away.

Two minutes later, the hail stops, the clouds move on, the sun breaks through. It glints off the puddles and hail like light on treasure.

* * *

That makes me think of our friends from Ghent, from all over, the people we follow on Instagram for most of the year. We follow their adventures from afar, but for a short period each spring we can see them and share a ride and chats — and enter into those pictures from time to time.

I hate missing the Saturday-morning Scheldepeloton ride, because it’s a chance to see them roll by like they do most every week. I feel like there’s a seat at the table, always waiting for me, and when I slot into the group on those mornings, it feels like my seat was warm from the last time.

That’s when I know I’m in the right place, when I slide back in almost a year later and it feels like I’ve only been gone a few minutes.

* * *

One night this spring — we don’t have any time at the moment, and this late ride will ensure that I won’t close my eyes before 3 in the morning, but it has to happen — I need to get away from my computer, get outside, to the real world that’s just beyond my window, away from my tiny bubble of quickly aging images flowing slowly across my computer screen.

It’s worth it to see the world outside, to feel the evening chill gnaw contentedly at my fingertips, feel the widening pool of fatigue in my legs, enjoy the deep rasping breaths of a hard ride.

When we finish with the hard part, we roll home easily. I feel present in the moment. I’m not thinking about anything else — not the work that needs to be done, not the next races, not that little piece of bar tape that needs taping, not the smudge on my sunglasses — just this right now. Ash and I talk excitedly about bricks and roofs and roads and hills and turns and all that we don’t want to forget. We talk about what’s in front of us, next to us, but nothing out of view. We talk about nothing at all.

In that moment, I don’t want to take a picture. I pause between excited words and make a note to remember this moment. There was nothing to take a picture of, there was no way to shoot the invisible lines of a simple evening.

* * *

As cycling photographers, it’s hard for us to talk Belgium without talking Flanders, without talking Ronde van Vlaanderen. There are so many races each year in Flanders, but nothing can stand up next to the Ronde.

That Sunday in April is always a good one. We arrive early in Bruges, park at the train station and take a quiet walk through town. It’s around 8 in the morning — people are sparse, and there aren’t any tourists out yet. It’s like walking through a dream.

And then we’re at the Grote Markt, where the race will start. There are people everywhere, loud noises. We’ve emerged out of the forest of a sleeping wonderland and into what feels and looks like a concert.

Amid the crazy, there are the smiles, the smiles from the fans, from the riders, from the course marshals, from the police. It’s the start of the Ronde. People are happy. This isn’t an angry or unhappy day — it’s a national holiday.

* * *

Around the middle of the day, Ashley meets a fan in our much-loved Muziekbos, at the top of the Kanarieberg. He starts the normal conversation — where are you from, who do you shoot for. He then follows with: “I live just down the street. I’ve lived here my whole life. I love it here. We have an extra room at our house…you and your husband should come stay with us!”

That’s not the first or 50th time that has happened. The curiosity and friendliness of the Belgian cycling fan is unparalleled; and I’d say the typical Belgian cycling fan is your typical normal Belgian, because that’s the way it is in Belgium. And that’s yet another reason why Belgium warms the weary traveler’s heart. Few places do such a good job of making a foreigner feel welcome — even at home.

At the end of the day, the race is done, Sagan got his first monument, his first Ronde. The stress of the last few weeks, the stress of the planning, the stress of trying to make something special in a race that deserves our best — it melts away. On the scooter, I ride home, warm afternoon sun across my smiling face, and I’m happy. I look across the roads and fields as I pass by — memories sprinkled along each of them — days with friends, pictures taken, plans hatched, jokes told, sprints sprinted, pastries devoured. Every spot seems to have something to make me smile about, and I’m sad that the Ronde is over. I’m sad to move on to the next race, because nothing measures up to this one day. I don’t want to leave this behind.

* * *

Earlier in the day, we walk by a police officer speaking with a baffled tourist who has no idea what’s going on. The policeman smiles at him and says: “Today is the Ronde van Vlaanderen, the biggest, most important cycling race of the year.”

We laugh for a second — what a fantastic, crazy thing to say.

But then the laugh fades…. I think he’s right.

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