A Case for Suffering: Finding Flanders
I should have been soaring high above the Atlantic Ocean on my way to Flanders. I should have been putting my feet up in flight, resting in preparation for the 324-kilometer Ronde 100, a re-creation of the original Ronde van Vlaanderen on the occasion of its 100th anniversary, on May 25. I should have been preparing to interview the Flandrien legend Freddy Maertens, and ride beside three-time Tour of Flanders champion Eric Leman. I should have been making a list of all the incredible Belgian beers I wanted to try in the short time I would be on the ground in and around Oudenaarde, the village at the base of the Koppenberg where De Ronde would finish.
I should have been on the cusp of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to partake in cycling history, not to mention Flandrien suffering along the 200-plus mile, berg-littered route, thanks to the generosity of the tourism office of Flanders that had invited me.
Instead, I was wandering through the dingy bowels of Newark Liberty International Airport along with hundreds of other stranded and angered travelers, scavenging for dinner. I went with the power couple: 10 ounces of Fritos and an Odwalla Superfood smoothie, which was all I could find at midnight while shuffling about with my luggage and a cumbersome bike box in tow.
Storms on the East Coast had created a bottleneck of flights, both coming and going, from around the country. We left Denver late, made up time in the air, only to be left circling the skies above rural New Jersey waiting for a window into which we could slide and touch down.
It’s while I was aloft that my flight to Brussels — and my chances of getting to the Ronde 100 in time for the early Saturday start — left the ground. I’ll spare you the details, but hours of discussions, in person and on the phone, with stressed but patient airline personnel had left me hopeless and impatient. It all looked futile. In the end it was. I was gutted, despondent, and hopeless.
Luckily, I had an alternative opportunity to keep my mood from getting sucked into the void of a Newark airport luggage carousel. My parents lived relatively close by in Connecticut; it looked like I would be spending a long weekend at my childhood home.
Groton, Connecticut, is not a cosmopolitan place; as a kid it offered little in the way of dramatic entertainment. But I’m not a chronically and pathologically bored kid anymore. And, more importantly, I had my bike. It wasn’t the first time those two factors coalesced to play a positive role in a visit back home. In fact, it seems like every year, at least once a year, an impromptu “training camp” takes place at the Case household. Most often it happens during the winter holidays when I’m visiting family, and cyclocross nationals are looming mere weeks away. Mom cooks and caters to my every need, as if I’m 12 (I’m not complaining); Dad gets pumped to ride beside me. They’re my biggest fans. Biggest.
This wouldn’t be Belgium, but it wouldn’t be bad. After all, I was in training for Dirty Kanza 200, so why not have one final camp among the steep climbs of southeastern Connecticut?
Day one consisted of a few rage-filled attacks on some of the local inclines. Mostly, I was shaking off the sting of missing history and the remnants of having been awake and driving through the pouring rain until four in the morning the previous day from Newark. But there was also the mission of introducing my father to Strava, something I had only been using since April, but which I thought he would immediately love, if only he could possibly comprehend; it was best explained to him in person, at the computer, repetitiously. At 70, his mind isn’t fluent in the language of electronic gadgetry, social networks, user interface, or web architecture.
It proved a worthwhile introduction to the world of racing ghosts — invisible start and finish lines, and imaginary KOM arches. The next day he woke up wanting more. Even though it was raining, we sought out segments online hoping to string together a number of classic hometown climbs. The area around Groton is riddled with thin, sinuous lanes, many kept company by the centuries-old stonewalls of earliest America. Towns like Stonington, North Stonington, Mystic, and Ledyard are coated in a colonial wax of quaint architecture, stone-strewn pastures, village centers, and homes labeled with the name of the most famous occupant (or original owner) and a date, usually from the 1700s, during which they resided there.
My lovely Mom set out for a ride of her own, before we did. Strava was of no concern to her, but she did have her reasons. It was May after all, Bike Month, and she was 25 days into riding every day of the month, at the age of 71. Lovely, and inspiring.
Dad and I hit Fort Hill, Town Farm Road, Indiantown Road Hill, Gallup Hill, Baldwin Hill and many other back-road bergs, some at speed and others not. Still others were legitimate attempts to assert family honor.
“Give me your bottles,” Dad said.
“What? My bottles? What for?” I asked.
“You’re on Strava with my name. You need to make it count.” Dad wasn’t just worried about me setting a good time, but wanted to make sure all of New England knew that his son was back in town and crushing KOMs in a cold, spitting rain.
I was riding my ’cross bike, a Ridley X-Fire with Shimano Ultegra Di2 and some stout HED Belgium wheels with 28mm tires in preparation for riding across Flanders. It wasn’t light; I couldn’t say no to the offer to lighten the load. If our name was on the line, I ought to do it right.
So Dad put the bottles on his back, we talked lead-out strategy, and into the big rings we clicked; I crushed what I could. My apologies to Mr. Andrew Thorne, whoever you are, as you seemed to own the region, as far as Strava is concerned. But my frustration at not having the chance to ride through the Belgian Ardennes — and over manure-streaked cobbles — led me to take a number of your records. The Case family name is safe for now.
The final day had us cruising rather than crushing; we set Strava aside as if it never existed. Mom headed out again, 26 for 26. Dad and I headed through Connecticut toward Rhode Island, along the Atlantic coast, hitting the opulent waterfront lanes of Noank, Mystic, Stonington, Westerly, Watch Hill — past Taylor Swift’s new $15 million mansion — and then north to the rural interior, through Voluntown and North Stonington. It was an entrancing tour of my childhood home, rich with the smells of salty ocean air, the picturesque beauty of bucolic topography, and the tranquility that comes from gliding within the safety of the green tunnels of lush, foliage-encrusted lanes.
I dragged Dad until he would be dragged no more — four and a half hours and 71 miles. At the age of 70, weeks after getting hit by a car, it was worthy of some sort of Strava claim, and certainly gave the family honor.
It was then that I realized that this part of Connecticut — with its weathered and hearty farms, dairy cows, and lumpy green knolls, its rustic character and rural charm, its lanes that need no lines, yellow or white — was reminiscent of an idyllic Belgium. I had found my Flanders; it wasn’t in Belgium, and that was just fine.
Editor’s note: Velo managing editor Chris Case has spent enough time racing parking lot crits to know there are far more enjoyable ways to spend time racing a bike. In his quest to find pain and pleasure in equal measure, he has sought out the most unique, challenging, and captivating competitions to test his mind, body, and equipment. Follow along with his experiment to race the best and most difficult courses, the iconic and the emerging, the most punishing and most promising, on and off road. Live vicariously through him, poke fun at him, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @leicacase. Questions or concerns for his well-being? Send him a note at email@example.com.