Culture

From California kid to kermesse king

Eamon Lucas will never win the Tour de France. But the boisterous Californian has succeeded where other Americans have failed in Belgium's kermesse scene.

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“Frankie, are you going to win?”

The nonchalant tone of the question surprised Eamon Lucas, as if this Belgian fan had asked if he planned to wear shoes that day. The fan wanted to know if he should wager a few Euros on Lucas before the start of this kermesse race. After all, Lucas was the favorite, having claimed nine kermesse victories throughout the 2019 season — an amazing haul for a journeyman American in Belgium’s insular amateur racing scene.

“I don’t know if I’m going to win today,” Lucas replied. He thought about his answer and then clarified.

“OK, I’m going to win,” he said. “I’ll go full gas today.”

The August temperature soared as the 100 or so riders sped around the town of Marke, outside Kortrijk. Four riders sprinted up the road, and Lucas gave chase with a French rider in tow. For the next hour the six riders traded pulls. As the group headed into the finale, Lucas rode at the head of the breakaway. He took an extra-wide line into the final turn and watched his companions surge up the inside, as he quickly swung to the back of the pack.

“It was a long effort, a 700-meter sprint, and I just went so hard, like 65 kilometers an hour, and I didn’t look back,” Lucas says, replaying the scene. “Everybody knows there are only a few other guys who can beat me, so how do I outsmart those guys? That’s how you win at this level.”

This level is the cutthroat world of elite amateur racing in Belgium and The Netherlands, where daily kermesse races dot the competition calendar, and riders with not-so-household names are as locally famous as the stars of the Tour de France. Over the years, American cycling media has fixated on the Belgian amateur scene, from Joe Parkin’s 2008 book, A Dog In A Hat: An American Bike Racer’s Story of Mud, Drugs, Blood, Betrayal, and Beauty in Belgium, to stories on VeloNews.com, to various videos posted on YouTube.

Eamon Lucas’s story stands apart from these other tales. For starters, he has succeeded where his countrymen have failed. Throughout the 2019 season he became the unofficial king of the amateur scene, winning 10 kermesse races over the course of several months, far more than any American rider has ever won in such a stretch of time. The story behind Lucas’s cycling career also places him apart from his cohort.

While he is hardly a household name in the U.S., Eamon Lucas — known in Belgium as “Frankie” — has become a small-time celebrity in the world’s most cycling-mad nation.

Eamon Lucas wearing sunglasses and leaning on a rail overlooking a beach
Eamon Lucas went from the sunny coast of central California to the cutthroat racing scene in Belgium. Photo: Bjorn Snider

Project: Belgian assimilation

It’s easy to spot Lucas within a crowd of bicycle racers, as he stands well above 6 feet tall, and his flat-top fade hairstyle adds extra inches of vertical rise. Before you actually see Lucas, you will first hear his booming voice, likely erupting in a laugh.

“You mention Eamon to anyone and they will mention his laugh,” says American veteran Lawson Craddock. “He’s this massive dude and this big presence in the room. I can remember so many times just dying laughing on the floor because of something he said.”

Craddock and Lucas joined USA Cycling’s junior development program in the spring of 2010. At the time the program was based in the rainy West Flanders town of Izegem, and it was operated by Noël Dejonckheere, a no-nonsense cycling coach who had once won four stages of the Vuelta a España.

Dejonckheere’s house was legendary for its strict rules and hard-nosed attitude toward racing; young Americans either washed out or were hammered into hardened veterans by the hyper-aggressive Belgian development races. Plenty of Americans wilted under the rainy weather and punishing races. Lucas, however, thrived.

“I’ve never seen any American who was so enthusiastic about Flanders,” says Nate Wilson, another development rider in the program. “He wanted so badly to make it his home, in a legitimate way.”

Lucas was hardly the fastest or most naturally gifted junior in the program. In fact, he had only been racing for two seasons before he joined the program. What he lacked in experience, however, Lucas made up for with his desire to assimilate to Belgian life. While other juniors parachuted in for several weeks and then returned to the U.S., Lucas refused to go home, staying for months on end. He learned Flemish and even began dating Dejonckheere’s daughter, Naomi.

“I felt like I was playing catch-up to guys like Craddock and [Ian] Boswell who were all racing by the time they were 15,” Lucas says. “I felt like I needed to race my bike as much as possible. You can race your bike every day over here.”

Lucas joined the USA Cycling development team in larger tours and one-day races, and then banged bars in the Belgian kermesse scene when he was home in Izegem. Like all Americans, Lucas was initially intimidated by the aggressive racing attitudes and breakneck speed of the Belgian events. The races started with an all-out effort that seemed to last forever, and those riders who failed to make the front pack were often doomed. When compared to top-level pro races, the Belgian amateur races had their own set of unwritten rules and culture.

On one occasion Lucas raced his way into the front group, however the effort left him gasping for breath. Since he had teammates in the main field, Lucas assumed he would be allowed to skip a few pulls, since traditional tactics would allow him to sit on. Those tactics didn’t fly in the Belgian kermesse scene, however.

As Lucas pedaled behind a rider, the rider squeezed his brakes until Lucas was 20 meters behind the breakaway, and then accelerated back to the group, leaving him in no-man’s land.

“I told them I wouldn’t sprint, and it didn’t matter, they had to make sure I wouldn’t,” Lucas says. “It’s that mentality of you’re either going to kill or be killed.”

Lucas’s cohort of American development riders shrank as they progressed from juniors into the Under-23 ranks, and then on to the pros. Craddock and Nathan Brown joined WorldTour squads, while others left the sport entirely to attend college or get jobs. Lucas lacked the flashy results to attract the eyes of WorldTour team directors and turned his attention to the U.S. domestic pro scene. In 2015 he signed with the IRT Racing pro team out of Southern California, and then pursued the U.S. crit scene in subsequent seasons with Astellas and the Crit Life pro teams, winning major criteriums in the Midwest.

In 2017 he joined the Specialized-Rocket Espresso squad for the fixed-gear series Red Hook Criterium in the U.S. and Europe. Toward the end of 2017 he returned to Belgium and signed up for a few Belgian kermesse races. He was stronger and more experienced than he had been in 2015, and the familiar ebb and flow of the races quickly returned, and he won three kermesse races. He loved being back in Europe and made a plan: For 2018 he’d move to Europe full time and try to make it as a pro.

“I moved there with 300 bucks and a suitcase to my name,” Lucas says. “It was like, ‘This is my last push. Make it or break it.’”

A race official waves a checkered flag as Eamon Lucas crosses the finish line with his bike held high overhead
Lucas takes home his fourth kermesse win in the town of Oudenberg.

An unglamorous push

A typical Belgian “kermis” consists of multiple laps around a short 10-kilometer or so circuit that starts and finishes in the heart of a town. In the hours before the race starts, locals arrive along the start to wager on the outcome, and to sip beer and munch frites. The races themselves are chaotic and very fast.

“They would start really fast with lots of attacking, and if the race was 120 kilometers long you’d often get the breakaway sorted after 30k,” says Parkin, whose book A Dog In A Hat chronicled his time in the Belgian scene.

Parkin committed himself to the kermesse scene for several years in the 1980s and 1990s and watched as other Americans dropped in to the scene and quickly departed. The racing dynamics were unlike anything they saw back home or even in European road events. Sometimes riders tried to buy the allegiance of others, or they offered rivals bribes to drop out.

“Most [Americans] would look at those things and think ‘this isn’t the reason I came over here,’ and leave,” Parkin said. “There’s a pattern to them, and if you can learn the pattern it makes it a whole lot easier. It just comes down to committing to them.”

Parkin committed to the scene out of desperation — he was told that the Belgian amateur scene was a last-ditch pathway to the pros. Eamon Lucas’s commitment to Belgian racing springs from an entirely different place. Lucas grew up in Pacific Grove, California, just south of Monterey. When he was 10 years old his parents divorced, and he moved to nearby Santa Cruz to live with his mother. His connection to his mother can be seen on his birth certificate, where her maiden “Franck” is printed in the box for his last name.

Lucas’s living situation quickly deteriorated after his mother pursued drugs and a party lifestyle. They moved houses often, and he was frequently in and out of various schools for several years.

“I don’t know too many guys in the WorldTour who had to go to the food bank at age 13 with their mom and her weird-ass boyfriend who was on drugs,” Lucas says. “The amount of drug use and violence I saw, it’s pretty miraculous I didn’t get into drugs too.”

The period lasted for five years until courts granted custody of him to his father. By then Lucas lived on a diet of candy and fast food and was overweight and lacking in self-confidence. Lucas’s father had been a BMX rider, and he steered his son toward cycling as a way to get outside and gain maturity. Lucas initially balked at the Lycra shorts and long rides, but by age 15 he had become hooked.

“It was a lot of work and I started to see improvement every week,” Lucas says. “I was hooked.”

In 2009 he attended a regional development camp operated by USA Cycling, and his power values caught the eyes of coaches. Lucas’s future was set — he was sent to Belgium for 2010 to race with the junior national team. The emotional strain of his childhood remained in California, and a new chapter of his life was about to open in Belgium. While other teens viewed the damp and unglamorous life in Izegem with disdain, Lucas saw it as a new beginning.

“My dad told me, ‘stay in Europe. Soak it in. Do it until you can’t do it anymore. There’s no reason to be here,’” Lucas says. “It made sense. I’m racing my bike, living abroad, riding all over Europe having fun. I didn’t want to be anywhere else.”

A decade after that decision, Eamon Lucas is still chasing his professional contract abroad. He says he has forgiven his mother. Since his passport and racing license read “Eamon Lucas Franck,” he is known as “Frankie” within the Belgian scene. He has tried out for WorldTour squads and come close to being named to a pro roster. Whether his dream of a pro contract materializes is something he does not yet know.

What Lucas does know is that the kermesse season starts soon enough, and he will be there, towering above the other riders, ready to find a way to win.