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Tales from the gutter: The Smithsonian of bike racing

We all know what it is like explaining bicycle racing to non-racers. We've all been there; explaining the intricacies of drafting to our closest family and friends. The earnest attempt to comprehend the words from your mouth is always betrayed by the glazed over look in their eyes. Bicycle racing is an experience. Bicycle racing is cooperative (in the sense that it is a mass start event) so often people imagine it as a fun run: “come on guys, we can make it to the finish together!” Their only other explanation of bicycle riding has come from an office partner who has a nephew raising

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By Jed Schneider

An interactive experience

An interactive experience

Photo: Jed Schneider

We all know what it is like explaining bicycle racing to non-racers. We’ve all been there; explaining the intricacies of drafting to our closest family and friends.

The earnest attempt to comprehend the words from your mouth is always betrayed by the glazed over look in their eyes. Bicycle racing is an experience. Bicycle racing is cooperative (in the sense that it is a mass start event) so often people imagine it as a fun run: “come on guys, we can make it to the finish together!”

Their only other explanation of bicycle riding has come from an office partner who has a nephew raising money for the MS 150. Of course they saw that cancer survivor, what’s his name, on ESPN, racing up the mountains of Fraaance (say while holding your nose) all by himself in a yellow jersey, but can’t figure out how at the end of the race in Paris some guy in a green jersey crossed the finish line first and it looked like he won the race, but that other guy, the cancer guy, he really won right, because then he was on Letterman a few nights later and Letterman said he won, so he must have won, right? But why were they racing for a shirt, anyway?

Thus, to explain that the riders at the front of the race are actually the least likely to win the race (except in the last few meters of the race ….uh, what’s a meter? It is like a yard, but a little longer), that is a big step. True, running and car racing are similar, but the former is slower (less draft) and the later has fewer players per event, so often the analogy is lost when I explain it that way.

Likewise, the exact reason strategy is hard to explain is that the strategy is to deceive the other riders (obviously, if other riders can’t see the strategy, how is your non-cyclist buddy going to see it?), well, another huge jump from acquired sports experience to the sport of bicycle racing. I usually end up talking about John Nash’s game theory, matchbooks with only so many matches left, and poker, and well, always a bit dissatisfied explaining what I do in 25 words or less.

So, yes, bicycle racing is an experience. I don’t know how much the average European knows about the intricacies of racing strategy. But, when your car gets pulled over by a motorcycle cop and a group of 200 racers comes screaming by your car lined out one-by-one so fast all you see is blurred color and hear the breath, and humming of wheels, and smell the repugnant odor of riders “on-form,” at the same time praying that your Mercedes comes out with no dents and a drivers side mirror; well I bet that is an experience.

Experiencing the feeling that surrounds racing, that is what is important to convey anyway: the dynamics, the rush, the finesse, the perfect moment for the winning move.

So, when you plan that trip to Belgium, make sure you take all those non-cyclists and yourself to see the Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen in Oudenaarde (www.crvv.be). The museum takes advantage of many new technologies that really add to the impact of the visit.

The feeling you get from being there is exceptionally moving. I may never get a chance to race Flanders, but going there makes the blood boil with the hope of going someday. When your friends step out of the museum, they will know what bicycle racing can be, and a greater appreciation for Belgium both as a nation and as a hearth of cycling culture. Racers will come out with a much deeper understanding of what this particular race means to the Flemish people, a maddening desire to pound the first set of cobbles sighted in a really big gear, and greater sense of awe for the winners of this event.

Probably the coolest part of the museum is the introductory film. There are three screens set side by side, with footage going on all the screens. Your eyes are going back and forth, from monochrome film to full color, and so much cool racing you can’t take it all in! One of the other neat touches is that you get to pick a “hero” when you buy your ticket (as well as a language). This hero becomes your guide through the museum and you learn certain details about his career (sorry ladies, in this case all the heroes are guys). I picked Rik van Looy, but you can pick from the other superstars of Flanders: Merckx, Museeuw, Godefroot, van Steenbergen, etc. Almost every display has an English translation, which is also a nice touch, so you can learn about the different types of cobbles, and pedal an Eddy Merckx equipped with Campy Chorus up the Old Kwarmont behind Peter van Petegem, all in our native language. However, you will have to translate the information displayed on the wall of champions.

Go See the Tour of Flanders Museum, and take your family

The best geographic coincidence is that Oudenaarde is the gateway to the Flemish Ardennes, so when you are done with the museum, it is only a five kilometer ride to the Koppenberg! But only after grabbing a pinche (beer) upstairs in the bar.


Jed Schneider is racing a second year with ABC-Aitos, an Americansquad based in Hertsberge, Belgium( www.cyclingcenter.com). He is a two time collegiate cyclo-cross national champion, and a four time All-American. Schneider holds a Master’s degree in Geography from the University of Kansas, which usually keeps him from being completely lost while riding the roads of Flanders.