Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The experience of a Belgian Kermesse

A Belgian Kermesse is more then just a cycle race as it transcends the boundaries of such a definitive description; a unparalleled cycling event that is positively Belgian. Instead the Kermesse is better understood as a complete experience, both paradisiacal and nightmarish, a unique atmosphere which foreign and undoubtably exciting. 

It is the huge fence lined crowd with their fritz, their beer and drunken loud voices. The road furniture, cobbles and seer agressive speed of it all. The chaotic feed zones, the near misses and the 200 bikes and bodies continuously battling to squeeze through the narrow roads. It is the concrete slabed road; its center gash that separates each side and the riders that jump, hop and flick over it in a rushed attempt to avoid crashing. It is this, all of it and more, each individual and unquestionably unique element which make the Kermesse more then 'just' a bike race and below I'll attempt to explain why. 

Prior to heading to Belgium with the Drapac Cycling team, I didn't really have a properly conceived idea or understanding of what the Kermesses were like. Sure, I was not foolish enough to think that they were  road races (pfft they would call them that if they were; ingenious deductive reasoning on my part I know) and I knew that they are far longer in distance then a crit. I also was 'clever' enough to have the general idea of how they were raced on looped courses of between 'something like 7 to 15 kilometeres'. However my understanding halted right there, screeching to a dead stop, ignorance blurring the way forward. So as we drove, weaving our way 'though somewhere in Belgie', I sat quiet not truly knowing what awaited me at my first ever Kermesse.

The only certainties that filled my thoughts
1. The suffering
2. The speed 
3. The carnage 

Fun Fact that is somewhat necessary in further reading of this blog: 
Kermesse (sometimes spelt kermis, and kermess) borrows its name from a flemish festival celebration, this is due to the fact that the race is often on the same day as the town festival, although not always.

The first aspect when arriving at Kermesse and being informed of the Fun Fact just above (by your knowledgable teammate), what comes seemingly clear was that these Kermesses are just that- a festival of sorts. The main center of the town that hosts the race is completely shut down, everything is barricaded up, music is blasted from large speakers and beer stalls are put in place. Everyone in town, and in fact all across Belgium, come out to get involved. They line the fences, they eat, they drink and they cheer. People crowd around the team cars asking for photos, team biddons, signatures and team cards- it is immediately noticeable that these spectators mean business. Somewhat like the fans of football and cricket back home, many of the Belgian fans of cycling get completely immersed in the sport, the Kermesse being their chance to get closer to the riders and teams. They are collectors of biddons and other team issue items and go around snapping up head shot photos of nearly everyone in peloton, even if they are completely unknown. On one particular occasion this guy had a complete folder with each name of every rider in Drapac that included their main palmares and image of them. Below that was a clearly measured out section for us to sign. An exceptionally odd experience coming from country were cyclists, at lest at our level, don't get hardly any attention at all.

Then comes the racing. The start line itself is an intimating experience, because lined up next you, behind you and in front of you is 200 other bike riders. Each one of them looking fit, tanned and hungry to race. It is here that once again my ignorance shows it ugly head. Quite simply put, unless they are fairly big names in the sport, I generally don't know who they are. This has lead to a growing trend were I would finish a race, and comment to one of my fellow Drapac riders that 'this random guy was so strong' which then proceeds to them informing me 'this random guy' was Pro Tour for several years, just won some important UCI race but is now riding with a Pro-Continental team. You quickly learn that  every rider in the field is going to be strong, tough and ready to race.

Kermesses are also deeply vicissitudinous, with the race dynamic changing continuously and anything can and, most likely, will happen. Although this holds true for most bike racing, the Kermesses seem to be much more susceptible to this characteristic. A large contributor is the seer aggressive nature of the racing. If you are not attacking, you will not be 'in' the race. If you are not counter attacking the attacks, you will not be 'in' the race. Then if you are not counter attacking the counter attacks... well you get the idea. And although the one day race is over a distance between 160-190km, every single one of those kilometers is raced and raced hard. But what makes a Kermesse largely incomparable to any racing I've done perviously is the courses on which the races are ridden.

Three defining characterics of many Kermesse courses:
1. Road Furniture
2. Concrete Slab roads 
3. Narrow winding roads leading to wide open roads (perfect for gutter action) 

Some special little surprises if you are lucky at Kermesse:
1. Flat Cobbles
2. Cobbled climbs
3. Cobbled descents 

For those of you who are not familiar with the term 'road furniture' it is, among other things: pillons, speed bumps, poles, road islands, guttered chicanes, fences and essentially all the s@#t on the road that is not ideal for 200 cyclists to fly through at 50km/h. In the Belgium kermesse these are plentiful and when the bunch hits top speeds with riders jumping, braking and flicking all over the place your brain goes almost primitive. Your mind strips away the inessential, you are there, completely in the moment- consumed with not another thought but the immediate. Your only concern is to stay on your bike and move forward. This is when the Kermesses become mentally draining, as you have to be focused for the entire race, always on alert ready for any mishap that may occur. Then you add in the concrete slab roads that fill most of the Belgium. The repetitive bump as you ride is admittedly annoying, but that isn't what makes these roads dangerous. Instead it is the the center of the road, and the large gap that separates each side of the concrete slabs, the gap that seems to be designed to be the width of a bicycle tyre. As the bunch swerves and snakes along the road, the riders hop, skid and sometimes crash over the gap (or death gash if you prefer). It adds a new element that you have to be continuously conscious of, one in which makes crosswinds all the more fun. An element that is dangerous, scary and sometimes race defining.

Photo: Gullegem Pro Kermesse

Wether it be the unique festive atmosphere, the riders you race, the roads you race on or towns you fly past as a blur of wind and pain, the Belgian Kermesse is an experience and not just a bike race. An experience that has its up and downs. An experience that is hard, tough and painful. One that is fun and has history. An experience that, I think, just maybe, I'm beginning to learn to love. 

Until next time.