Friday brought us a little "down-time" after our return to the cobbles the day before. We wanted to get back on our bikes, but this time, for a little easy spin to check out a few of the many Great War memorials that were in our neighborhood. This also gave me a chance to do some wandering of my own with the camera - plenty of time to slow down and capture a variety pack of what I'd been visually enjoying everyday. Westouter neighbors a couple other similar communities like Kemmel, Messen, and Loker - quaint, small villages surrounded by farms and dairy cows with exceptionally large udders.
After a well-deserved sleep in and another deliciously filling breakfast, we suited up and headed out with our cameras. We rode beyond Kemmel to find a Commonwealth Memorial in Messen, where soldiers from Australia, England, and New Zealand were laid to rest. It was quite beautiful - I'm not entirely sure of what exactly took place in the surrounding area, historically, but from the spot chosen to remember those fallen, the view was breath-taking. Thanks to Bill, who recited a short, yet poignant memorial poem written for those lost in battle. I was pleasantly surprised to find the guys were prepared with a few beverages to use in the salute.
We spent a few minutes, getting colder and colder in the wind, walking around getting to know names, ranks, countries, and ages. Hard to imagine a time far back when this beautiful land was overwrought with turmoil and unrest. Thousands upon thousand upon thousands lost their lives in the fields surrounding our rides. Incredible.
After more reflection, we headed towards Kemmel to grab some coffee and soak up the little sun that was breaking through the stubborn, Belgian clouds. There's nothing like sitting out on a sidewalk cafe with some coffee, your bikes, and your comrades. I ended up wandering into the church in the center of town to see if I could get a look inside. I wasn't sure if they'd be locked up or open - found out that there's a countrywide campaign called "Open Doors" that has thousands of churches across the country keeping their doors open to the public - allowing blokes like myself the chance to experience a bit more of the culture. They were located in the center of town and were typically surrounded by a cemetery. It's amazing to me that nearly all of these churches survived the war - the church in Kemmel, St. Laurent, for example, actually lost its clock-face to the Canadian Armed Forces as a war trophy, only to get it back in 2003.
I found a very cool brochure that not only describes the campaign in detail, but also lists every single community that's taking part - I kid you not, thousands of churches across all of Belgium. Pretty cool.
After coffee, the guys headed back to the Gite (cottage), but I wanted to revisit the Kemmelberg to grab a few more shots. I, of course, had to climb it again. The Kemmelberg is used in the Flanders Classic, Gent-Wevelgem, this year won by Tom Boonen. The backside hits 23%, with a French Memorial greeting you at the top. Love it.
I raced back to the Gite and after a delicious lunch of soup and quiche, we headed towards Lille to meet up with the AG2R to meet a couple of the cyclists as well as the Sportif Directeur, Vincent Levanu. We visited with Kristof Goddaert and Steve Houanard, the only 2 on the team that felt confident enough with their English to stand in front of a bunch of English-speaking blokes. We asked them all sorts of questions, like what are you looking forward to in the race, how do you hope you do, what your job for the race, etc. Kristof was anticipating getting in a break - both were, actually. Steve wanted to be sure and finish - he had to give up a wheel to a teammate last year and was forced to abandon. They were very patient and happy to visit with us - quite genuine and rather humble considering their fortunate professions! I did spot both of them on Sunday and as it turns out, Kristof finished 18:54 behind Boonen and Steve ended up DNF. Not sure why or how, but perhaps he did his duty for Jimmy Casper and gave up a wheel? Regardless, they both did and exceptional race and helped Casper take a 19th position, 4:37 behind Boonen. Incredible. Thanks, again, to William and Alex for making that happen - really helped us see the race from a deeper perspective for sure! William and Alex know Vincent from when their employer, B'Twin, sponsored the team years ago under the name Decathlon.
I got a chance to visit with the mechanic cleaning and prepping all the bikes for Sunday - Franc. He had been the mechanic for 3 years. He knew very little English but managed to tell me how the biggest struggle with the job was seeing family, while at the same time, the biggest perk was all the travel. Totally understand.
We piled into the cars and headed into Lille for some sites and a delicious brew amongst the locals. Lille is a beautiful town - I enjoyed it a bit more than Brussels because of the smaller size; however the opera house was huge. There were a great deal of young folks wandering around and loitering about. Narrow, cobbled streets everywhere - buildings that date back - waaaay back to the 15th century easy. A few of them actually have cannonballs still stuck into the exterior walls! Yes, cannonballs! Amazing. There a clear appreciation for history and architecture everywhere - I love it. My kinda country.
Incidentally, the home in the photo with the mosaic message, "Eigen Haard is Goud Waard" means "Your own stove is worth gold." To you and me, it means, "There is no place like home." Very nice. Right now, to me, there's no place like Belgium!
After some brews and a bit of wandering about, we went out to see William and Alex's place of work, B'Twin. B'Twin is a very large bicycle manufacturer and retailer in France - they're much like what Trek is to America. They do a great deal of innovation and design. Alex's latest project, the B'Cooool bike was front and center in the store. Speaking of which, the store was massive - easily the largest bike shop I have ever set foot in! They had room to test ride bikes indoors as well as a full gym! Incredible. Both Alex and William have been at B'Twin for 13 years, which by American standards says alot about both them and the company. Bravo, Alex! Bravo, William!
I'm a big fan of the Blue Balloon.
Thanks for reading! More to come...