Today was a pretty jam-packed day - we were to ride the Eddy Merckx Velodrome after breakfast, then race over to just outside of Antwerp to catch the last bit of Scheldeprijs, and finally enjoy a delicious dinner at Casa Grinta, restaurant of a huge cycling fan with one of the largest collection of jerseys and other cycling memorabilia in the world! So, yes, as you can see, big day.
After another hearty breakfast of croissants, eggs, coffee, and granola, we loaded up in the van with our cycling gear and headed to Gent to ride some Merckx track bikes on the new, indoor velodrome. The velodrome is rather new and is titled more of a center than just the velodrome. While we were there, for example, there were a few other activities taking place at the same time - weight-lifting in the weight room and the center has a couple courts. A class of grade school kids showed up for some badminton while we were circling the track, for example.
The bikes were Eddy Merckx track bikes with a bunch of Miché components - solid and pretty fast. The host, Mathieu, who's a road cyclist and works at the velodrome about 4 hours a week, helped us get set up with the frames and pedals. As soon as we grabbed our bikes, we hit the track. For many in our group, it was the first time not only on a track of this caliber, but also on a fixed gear bike to begin with! This was no problem at all as they acclimated quickly and everyone rode a safe and fun ride. Mathieu gave us some instructions on how to conduct ourselves while on the track as well as how to find the fastest lap - things like always look to your right, try to always pass on the right, keep your speed up when going to the outside of the track, and for the fastest laps or to sprint, stay close to the inside edge. We enjoyed about an hour or so of chasing each other around before organizing some pursuits. The track is perfect - wooden boards with the traditional striping and such. The stadium seats were also quite cool looking - the place is quite modern and in excellent condition. After talking with Mathieu a bit about the track, he told me that at times, on busier days, there can be as many as 100 cyclists on the track at once. You can bring your own bike or rent one for the day for only 5 Euro. Admission is only 5 Euro for about 5 hours of cycling. Track cycling is so very valuable to much of your road-riding success. It forces you to work on a smooth and steady form while also increasing your power with the use of the fixed gear bike and the shape of the track itself. Many of the most successive professionals in years past and today all came from some sort of track background. In England, for example, many of the kids start with track racing before moving on to the road bike. I love it - I can usually feel a huge difference on the road bike after spending some time on a fixed gear bike or the track.
We hit the showers and then loitered outside the velodrome for some beers, sandwiches, Coca-colas, and some delicious pudding. Mathieu joined us - he came out to the track especially to help us out. Good guy. We then jumped in the cars and headed to Schoten, near Antwerp, to meet up with Johan Museeuw and watch the rest of the Scheldeprijs, a mid-week spring classic that's been around for over 100 years. Last year, British cyclist and World Champion, Mark Cavendish was the winner; however, because he and his wife were delivering their child that day, he was unavailable. Good reason, for sure. However, Tyler Farrar was there as was Tom Boonen, Mark Renshaw and a number of other big pros. We stuck near the finish line and had some beers and frites. I enjoyed watching the locals, young and old, all very excited and riveted to the big screen to follow the race. The race, like Flanders, did a few laps through town before finishing - so we got a few good looks of the cyclists and the team cars. Boonen did a great deal of riding for his team, but we all knew that the closer the race got to the finish, he would soon disappear as his main objective was Paris-Roubaix later in the week.
The rain is what really made this race pretty intense - apart from the fast pace. As soon as it started to pour, the crashes began to increase more and more. In fact, there even was a nasty fall where a number of cyclists went down right in front of the photographers, seriously injuring a gal from Rouleur Magazine. Crazy. We briefly met up with Museeuw who was doing some sponsorship work for BASE, a mobile company like Verizon in Belgium. They had a trailer there with drinks and handouts. After watching the podium ceremony (in the rain), we warmed up in the BASE trailer and then headed out to meet up with Paul at his restaurant in Terhagen.
I guess I wasn't entire aware of the magnitude of this place - it's a small restaurant in a very small community - very cozy. We had a great meal - followed by wine and cheese, of course. I went out back and took some shots of the back yard where during the summer months, dinner is also served. It a very cozy place - plenty of classic cycling trinkets, unusual photos, and toys - even the tables were laminated with articles, cards, and whathaveyou. When Paul, the owner and chef, arrived following dinner, he led us upstairs to the "museum," a completely different world! This just blew us out of the water! I don't think any of us really understand the breadth and depth of his collection?! Paul has truly dedicated most of his life to this collection. It seems that anything he could get his hands on, he would grab it! He has pushed himself to meet cyclists and paid very good money to get their signatures - including feeding them in his restaurant for free! He kept saying that if Fabian Cancellara hadn't broken his collarbone, he would've been there that day rather than having surgery in Switzerland. Paul frequently mentioned who of the signed jerseys were his friend and such. And mind you, it didn't just end with jerseys, there are bikes, toys, books, cards, bottles, gloves, hats, shoes, etc! He considers the smallest item to have great historical value and puts it on display. And honestly, I can see why many of the things were simply given to him - he seems to be a very kind, certainly passionate man, who loves the sport so very much! Needless to say, we all were blown away - as he showed us and led us into different rooms, it just got better and better and better! And what we saw wasn't all of it - Paul has more stored away for the future. He continues to collect today. In the past, he may have had to pay more, but lately, the cyclists are eager to add their jerseys to his collection - so, he's built up quite a reputation.
That pretty much consumed our conversation all the way home and to the end of the evening - Wednesday, April 4th was quite a day, quite a day indeed. More to come...