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Searching for the key

It’s a country roughly the size of Maryland, and with a population of less than 10 million. But when it comes to cycling, Belgium is one of the most tradition- and talent-rich powerhouses in the world. It can boast more elite men’s world road champions than France or Italy, and the little tri-lingual nation hosts a huge number of major UCI races, including classics such as the Tour of Flanders, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Flèche Wallonne, Ghent-Wevelgem and Het Volk. In addition to the great names of the past — Merckx, Van Looy, Van Steenbergen, De Vlaeminck, Van Impe — Belgium continues to churn

Aspiring Americans turn to Belgium for cycling success

By Bryan Jew, VeloNews Senior Writer

Photo: Bryan Jew

It’s a country roughly the size of Maryland, and with a population of less than 10 million. But when it comes to cycling, Belgium is one of the most tradition- and talent-rich powerhouses in the world. It can boast more elite men’s world road champions than France or Italy, and the little tri-lingual nation hosts a huge number of major UCI races, including classics such as the Tour of Flanders, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Flèche Wallonne, Ghent-Wevelgem and Het Volk.

In addition to the great names of the past — Merckx, Van Looy, Van Steenbergen, De Vlaeminck, Van Impe — Belgium continues to churn out current champions like Johan Museeuw, Peter Van Petegem and Tom Steels.

What is it about this place that makes it such fertile ground for cycling champions? Maybe it’s the fact that in every city and town, everyone grows up riding on wet, slippery cobblestone roads and really learns how to handle a bike. Maybe it’s the incredible amount of racing — in the summer in the Flanders region, a cyclist can pick and choose daily from a number of races, most within riding distance of home. Maybe it’s the harsh weather, the constant gray, windy, rainy days of spring that harden the will for a harsh, hard sport. Or maybe it’s the challenging terrain, the brutal cobblestone farm roads of Flanders or the long climbs of the Ardennes.

Whatever it is, Belgium seems to breed cycling success. And it’s here, where the E40 autoroute ends in the city of Ostend, that a Belgian businessman has become a connection for American cyclists looking to live the dream.

Once a soccer player, Moeman now lives for cycling.

Once a soccer player, Moeman now lives for cycling.

Photo: Bryan Jew

As you wind your way through the open streets, nothing seems particularly out of the ordinary — just your average Belgian single-family dwellings, mostly brick with sharply pointed tiled roofs. That is, until you take the right turn onto Pater Pirelaan, and three houses down on the right, in stark contrast, stands a big, boxy, bright white house. But what really stands out is the red-white-and-blue American flag that waves from a tall flagpole out front. That’s the first indication that there’s something different going on here.

The house belongs to Belgian businessman Bernard Moerman and his wife Ann. It’s also home to a band of young American amateur racers who are getting an up-close-and-personal education in the school of Belgian road racing.

It’s an unlikely setup, but even more bizarre are the circumstances leading up to this American presence in the West Flanders region of Belgium. A former pro soccer player, Moerman had absolutely no involvement in cycling until about 10 years ago. “In Belgium, you’re either a soccer player or a cyclist,” he says, noting that the two worlds seldom collide.

But then, Moerman was contacted by a retired engineer named Paul Naessens, who each year put together a European cycling team to travel to the United States to compete at Superweek. “He called me,” says Moerman, “and said, ‘I don’t know you, but I know you have a big house…. Would you take one of my cyclists for a few weeks?”

The former soccer player agreed and quickly began to appreciate that “other” sport. “I gained a lot of respect for cycling,” he says.

Soon, Moerman was bringing American amateur racers over to Belgium, just a few per year at first. Now, after a decade of hosting riders, he speaks with incredible energy and enthusiasm about his experiences and goals in hosting these aspiring bike racers from across the Atlantic.

“When Americans come over here,” he says, “they are very motivated, almost desperate to race, but they have a very limited idea of what it takes.”

The Belgian wanted to provide an atmosphere where Americans could learn what it does take, and have better living conditions than most young travelers could find for themselves. “I saw several Americans come over, but sometimes they had to stay in places worse than doghouses,” he says.

“Coming here for Americans, it’s different food, different climate, the way people live is different. All these little things suck out a little energy, and the little things become big,” Moerman explains. “We want to create a home-away-from-home feeling. [Ann and I] are not a surrogate Mom and Dad, but more like a brother and sister.”

In mid-April, five Americans were living in the house — Eric Pirtle, Rick Denicky, Kurt Rees, Rob Dapice and Brian Adams — along with two professional racers from

the Belgian Landbouwkrediet Division II

professional team. A few more Americans were due to arrive soon, rounding the number out to eight, the maximum Moerman says he can accommodate.

If it took a leap of faith for Moerman

to take in that first cyclist 10 years ago,

then it was just as big a leap for these Americans to end up sitting around his dining room table today.

Most of them had learned about Moerman’s program, now known as the Cycling Center, through a widely circulated e-mail message, often spread through U.S. club teams and mailing lists. That dubious message touted the experience of living and racing in Belgium.

“I got the e-mail from someone, and I was quite skeptical at first,” admits Rees, expressing the sentiments of just about anybody who’s seen the Internet pitch.

“When I first got the e-mail from Bernard,” says New Englander Dapice, “I didn’t think I’d come here. When I did, my brother thought I was joining a cult.”

After getting past the initial skepticism, everyone dug just a little bit deeper. They contacted riders who had been through the program and found that indeed, it was legitimate.

After sending for an application, they were faced with a long personal questionnaire, which delved deeply into family and social relationships, an important consideration when selecting eight individuals to live and suffer together for eight or nine months.

“I was inspired by the program ‘The Real World,’” says Moerman, who has just returned from a business trip to New York, and isn’t shy about his love of U.S. culture.

“We love America, both Ann and me. We love it, and we love guys like them,” he says, looking over his adopted brood.

However, he knows that the transition

for the Americans is anything but easy. “It’s f—ing hard to come over here and get slaughtered,” Moerman says. So before they’re accepted, he asks them some tough questions. “Are you ready to get beaten like a dog? There are no fairy tales in cycling.”

There are no fairy tales, but the program has given some lucky U.S. cyclists a chance to try and live out a dream. After paying an initial fee of around $4000-$5000 to cover rent and team cars, the riders have limited expenses in Belgium, mainly just food and gas, and they’re lives revolve around one thing.

“You do nothing but ride your bike,” says Rees. “You get here, and it’s kind of scary.”

It’s definitely a huge commitment, but all of the riders are looking for the experience and exposure that can come with racing in Belgium.

“Even if you race great in the U.S. — and I have tons of respect for the guys on Saturn, Navigators — it hit me last year that if I rode for a team like that, I’d be doing the same races year after year,” said Dapice.

During their time in Belgium, the racing opportunities are huge. “We do some races in Holland, and have some opportunity to race in France, but you really don’t need to leave Belgium. You can race every day here. In the middle of the summer, there are three races in Flanders every day, and they’re all close enough to ride to,” explains Rees.

While American amateurs have ventured over to Belgium in the past for this experience, one of the big advantages of the team is that it is registered as a U.S. team. That means that the squad isn’t limited by the rule in many races that Belgian club teams can carry only one foreign rider. So while the riders suffer just as much, at least they do so together.

“If you suffer, okay,” says Moerman, “but when you suffer in a place where you can’t talk to the people you relate to, that’s hard, that’s very hard.”

Officially, the team is now known as ABC-Tonissteiner, reflecting a growing sponsorship base that includes a partnership with the Landbouwkrediet pro team. That relationship helps the ABC team get coaching, VO2max testing and blood testing. Moerman also regularly houses one or two members of Landbouwkrediet.

“I thought that was an added value of the house, because then, the amateurs here can see how a pro lives. He’s not a king. And he’s not a god. And he suffers. And he doesn’t make that much money. I mean, it’s down to earth then,” says Moerman.

The American riders really don’t have to look far to see what the pro life is about. One of their own, Jeff Louder, made the jump last year. Louder got his start in Belgium living in Moerman’s house, then spent a year on a Belgian amateur team in 1999. Last year, he signed on with Tonissteiner-Colnago (now Landbouwkrediet), and he still lives close by the Cycling Center. But despite successes like that, Moerman is realistic about the goals for his house.

“If I can bring them to a better level, okay,” he says. “So the pressure is not to see flowers — although I really would like to see flowers — but if I can bring the guys to a better level, or maybe for some guys it’s a point that ‘uh-uh, it’s not for me.’ That’s hard, but a good point, and then it has an added value, too: Okay, I did something, but this is it.

“And if I can bring the guys to a better level and go back with as few ‘ifs’ as possible, like ‘if I should have done this,’ then, you know, that’s the whole setup, that’s why we do it.”

Yes, it’s a unique setup, and who knows, maybe some more American flowers can bloom in Belgium

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series on Americans racing in Belgium. In the last issue of VeloNews, senior writer Bryan Jew reported on American under-23 racers living in Europe with the support of USA Cycling. For part II of the series on Americans in Belgium, Jew visited the town of Ostend, where a group of amateurs have set up shop..

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