Six Years in a Rain Cape
I want to share this from former pro cyclist Joe Parkin’s great blog, ‘Six Years in a Rain Cape’. The blog, and Joe’s book, ‘A Dog in a Cap’, detail all the gritty behind the scenes stuff that goes on day to day in Belgium, the Mecca of the road racing world. Belgium will have on average of 3 professional road races a week, with the sport occupying a similar role in the public consciousness and psyche as hockey does in Canada, or football in the US. It’s a big deal. There are, of course, numerous different tiers of racing in Belgium. But they are all hard. And the guys that race them, that succeed, have to be just as hard. The weather is brutal. The roads are brutal. The competition is fierce, and the races come one after another all spring long. An unrelenting schedule of training, racing, recovery, training, racing, recovery. I definitely recommend Joe’s book, and peak in on his blog whenever you can. He was over there in the cycling holy land battling crosswinds, cobblestones, rain, nearly abject poverty, and amphetamine-stoked rouleurs utterly convicted to the sport. His stories are funny, gripping, harrowing, and are of the real sport of cycling, far away from the revealing light of a TV crew or photographer’s flash. Here’s a sample of what you’ll find.
Kermis racing is Belgian bike racing’s meat and potatoes. I discuss the topic plenty in my book and plan to give you more info from time to time here on the blog. While we’ll get into other details later, you should understand some of the insanity that is bred by this type of racing – European pro racing in general.
For most riders, getting ready for a race is an incredibly ritualistic ordeal that would make Howard Hughes feel right at home.
Do you think you might have what it takes to be a kermis racer? Let’s see if you have the necessary changing room PrOCD.
1 – Enter the changing room and choose your chair. In most pro kermis races you’ll be hosted by one of the many cafés that line the race course, in which case you’ll change in a banquet room or courtyard behind the café. There are typically chairs arranged in a large circle.
2 – Place your gear bag next to the right side of the chair, ensuring that it extends past the front and back of the chair by equal amounts. Unzip all of the main zippers and any small compartments that you may need access to.
3 – Sit down. At this point it is perfectly acceptable to make eye contact with and converse with other riders in the room. However, if asked how you’re feeling, the answer should always be something fairly negative. “Tired,” or “Not so good,” are perfect answers.
4 – Wait. Starting to get dressed more than 30 minutes before a pro kermis is nearly a felony.
5 – Check your watch. At 45 minutes before the start, it is okay to start pinning on your number. Reach into your gear bag and pull out the Sucrets or Altoids tin. This will contain large safety pins. The pins should be all the same size and in similar condition. If they have collected any scuffs or rust they should be discarded. If you don’t notice this until opening the tin on race day, you’re jinxed. You can pretend not to see anything, but it may be too late.
You’ll now pin on the vinyl number, muttering “rugnummers links” (or rechts) under your breath as you parrot back the instructions you received at the sign-in, and prepare the first pin and position the number on the appropriate side for the day.
Each pin needs to point in the same direction, no matter where it is located on the number itself.
6 – Stand up and drape the jersey over the back of your chair, so that the number faces outward and behind you.
7 – Sit down and check your watch once again.
8 – Remove the small towel that you will use on the floor and place it neatly at your feet.
9 – Check your watch again.
10 – With 30 minutes to go you may remove your street shoes and socks, placing each sock in its respective shoe. The shoes should then be placed underneath your chair.
11 – Remove your race shoes from the bag. You will have packed them with the bundled pair of socks in the left shoe and they should stay this way as you remove them from the bag. Place the shoes together, heels pointing back, approximately 10 inches from the left front leg of your chair and at a 45º angle, but not touching the foot towel.
12 – Remove your base layer from the bag and place it on top of your race shoes, being careful to keep it from touching the ground.
13 – Take off your pants, fold them in half and then in half again. Sit back down and then roll up the folded pants. Put them in your gear bag.
14 – Remove your bib shorts from the bag and turn them inside out.
If you’re using any kind of chamois creme, this is when you would apply it to the chamois, not your body.
15 – Lay the shorts on top of your bag, trying not to get any chamois goo on it or the shorts themselves.
16 – Take off your outer shirts, fold them then roll them up and put them in your bag.
17 – Quickly pull on your base layer.
18 – Tuck the front of your base layer into your underwear and cover your private parts.
19 – Remain sitting and take off your underwear. Do your best to keep the base layer in place. There are lots of women, kids, café owners, café workers and other folks who wander through these changing areas. Sure, they’ve seen it before but even though we’re semi-sociopaths, we don’t want to embarrass or offend anyone.
20 – Grab your shorts and pull them on until the leg gripper is in just about the right place on your thighs. You’ll put the same side leg in first every time. (Yes, they are still inside out)
21 – With your feet clear of the bib straps, stand up, spread your feet slightly and pull the bibs on the rest of the way, rolling them from inside out as you go.
While this technique may seem absurd, there is actually a reason for it. Kermis races can be entered individually but in many of them you’ll be with your team. When this is the case there might be 20 riders to just 1 soigneur, so he might have to smear some sort of nuclear embrocation into your legs before you have a chance to get your bibs on. Rolling them on ensures that you will not get any of the caustic ointment onto the chamois as you pull them on. I don’t think we need to discuss why this would be a bad thing.
22 – Adjust your shorts so that everything is in the proper place.
I’ve seen the placement of the leg gripper/bottom leg opening of a pair of bibs take 10 minutes.
23 – Sit down and check your watch again. You will not get dressed further until 20 minutes before the start.
24 – This is the best time to eat all of the food you’ve brought with you for the race. This is a kermis race and will not last longer than 4 hours so you eat everything you have before the start. My tart of choice was frangipane – 2 to 3 of the suckers before every race.
25 – With 20 minutes to go, put on your socks and shoes, being careful to remember which side goes on first. This is the only time that it’s acceptable for the shoes to come into contact with your foot towel.
26 – Next, pull your helmet from the bag, check to see that your Saint Christopher is still attached and place it in front of your feet on the floor.
We wore leather “hairnets” and nearly every rider, catholic or not, had a Saint Christopher medal sewed to the front of his helmet.
27 – If you wear gloves, this is the time to pull them from your bag and put them on top of your helmet.
28 – Grab the jersey from the back of your chair, put it on and zip it all the way up.
29 – Put on your gloves, if you wear them.
30 – Grab your helmet and stand up. Make your way to the bathroom one final time and then walk outside to find your bike.
Though kermis races are blazing fast, no warming up is ever done before the gun goes off. It is just get on the bike and go.