It is not difficult to go on a good ride, and it is not difficult to take a good photograph (or at least a decent one). It IS difficult however to go on a good ride while taking good photos. Good rides involve momentum, flow, and that feeling of covering copious amounts of countryside. Good photographs involve putting some thought into what it is you are trying to show and doing it with intention… and some luck.

On yesterday’s ride I didn’t do that, I just rode around in a state of awe and waved my camera around while holding the shutter button down. Zero thoughfulness, zero intention. Click, click, click. Hope something turns out.

As they say on the internet: Sorrynotsorry.

Yesterday was a great day. I accomplished two big goals for the trip. The first goal was to  connect up with John Danenberger, a Rodeo team mate currently hailing from Germany. We’d tried to connect the previous day to ride the Sportive but road closures and logistics torpedoed that. A flurry of ultra-delayed texts (thanks T-Mobile) somehow put the pieces in order for us to sync up on Sunday morning though.

It’s funny when you meet someone in real life that you first met on the internet. I think five years ago that was a creepy idea, but now it’s pretty much normal. I know of at least a half dozen friends who’ve met their significant others through online dating services, and three of them are married. It used to seem scandalous to admit that, but now it’s more accepted that the internet is just a great way to connect with like minded people. Rodeo works partly off of that premise. Our community and team are spread all over the world, but somehow we can interact as friends and share adventures through keyboards and glowing screens. I like that. I like it even more when I get to meet and ride with other Rodeoers in person though. So when John arrived at the bike bunk house where I’m staying and we shook hands, it was really cool to close the loop.

No more pixels, let’s ride bikes!

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Our route for the day was pre-programmed onto a Garmin by Jered. A basic life skill in 2015 is being able to follow the arrows on a map on a modern GPS. The first things we did not one click into our ride was miss a turn and get lost. At the time I was worried that we were missing epic roads and beautiful vistas: That our day might be ruined. Now in retrospect I know that Belgium is one long rolling landscape of insanely ideal roads and beautiful vistas. I’m sure there is something ugly somewhere here, but I haven’t found it yet.

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After trying for a few minutes to re-find the route and realizing that we were truly going in circles, we decided to wing it. For the next 50 kilometers we just pointed our bikes at whatever was appealing and went with it. It was a good decision. In many places we probably wouldn’t have gotten away with it but in Belgium there isn’t just a single way to get from point A to point B, there are five, or fifteen. Roads snake and crisscross the landscape like a endless fractal pattern. There are SO many roads and options! Instead of obsessing over whether or not we were hitting the BEST roads, we were content with the fact that all roads let to more roads and those roads lead to even more. We’re road bikers, just give us some good roads and it’s a good day.

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One thing that really sticks out to be about this region is the fact that rural living is treated with just as much pride and dignity as city living is. In the USA, in my experience, people get rural in order to get away and do life on their own terms. In many cases cheap plentiful land means that nobody can tell you what to do with your own land and often you don’t need to take care of it. This leads to yards full of cars, overgrown bushes, and run down shacks. In Europe it seems that cheap plentiful land hasn’t existed for hundreds or thousands of years, so every piece of land is cared for and well tended. I know that these are generalizations, but some of it holds true. I remarked yesterday that Belgium is the most well pruned country I’ve ever seen. SO many trees, vines, and shrubs are neatly trimmed and tucked just-so, and you get the feeling that it’s taken decades of careful attention to get them to grow into their desired shapes. I wish I’d stopped to take a good photo of this. Maybe I will tomorrow.

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Also on the ride yesterday was a British gentleman named Keirs. Keirs and his mates were also in-country for the big race and some riding. We were all crashed at the same lodging, a really cool place called The Chain Stay (if you come here, stay here). When staying in the same house with a bunch of other cyclists, it isn’t difficult to find good people to ride with. It turned out that Keirs, despite only having been a cyclist for a few years, was a really good one. For much of the day it was his nose in the wind and me in the draft. Deep fatigue in my legs from Saturday made me okay with this arrangement. John matched the pace with no trouble and our trio covered some great morning miles.  We rode tarmac, dirt tracks, paths, and cobbles. We were unrushed and unstructured, and when we finished up our morning we were topped off and ready to catch the pros.

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Back at the house we had a quick wardrobe change and headed out into the city, cameras in hand to catch a shuttle to the Kwaremont cobbled climb. Seasoned race chasers can, according to Ashley Gruber see the race pass at least sixteen times, but that takes a fast vehicle and encyclopedic knowledge of local roads. Instead of stressing about chasing a race across a landscape that we didn’t know we decided to park ourselves on a climb where the race passed by three times. First we had to catch a shuttle, which meant a walk downtown, which meant that due to dumb luck the race passed us by as we walked the streets.

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After the race passed we discovered that we’d missed the last Kwaremont shuttle by 45 minutes. We thought for a few seconds about ducking into one of the countless bars and watching the race on TV, but you can’t come all the way to Belgium and then watch Flanders play out on TV. We had to get to the climb so we hustled it back to the house, kitted back up, and rode 10 miles out to the course. Riding twice in a single day is a rare thing, and the reality of how much of a vacation this trip is hit me in the gut. I feel really grateful to be here.

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A few thousand pedal strokes and a hike through a few muddy fields later, we found great seats on the Kwaremont climb. I really enjoyed being surrounded mostly by local people. The contrast between them and fans at Pro Cycling Challenge in USA was dramatic. There was the sense that this race, instead of being a monumental pilgrimage, was simply a thread in the fabric of their normal lives. They were just as much picnicking in a field as they were watching one of the biggest races on the calendar play out. Sure there were some rowdies in the mix, but our spot was pretty tranquil. I enjoyed watching the locals as much as I did the bike racers. People grilled sausages, children collected flags, and old men shouted back and forth across the course to catch up on life. I had the small sensation that I was intruding, but people were very kind and I never got the sense that I wasn’t completely welcome. We were all fans of bike racing. We had that in common.

As the race approached the energy level rose. Helicopters and airplanes buzzed overhead and radios crackled. Police men and course marshals blew whistles and shouted at unruly stragglers crossing the course five minutes too late. Everyone leaned a little closer in, and the first signs of the caravan rushed into view.

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Once the peloton passed regular picnicking resumed. Our group elected an elite hunting team tasked with finding burgers. Keirs and I had been eating bars and carbs all day and no man can live on bars (even Trailnuggets) alone. Burgers were consumed, sitting was sat, pleasantries and sandwich rolls were exchanged with kind strangers.

Then the helicopters reappeared. Then Kristoff and Terpstra appeared.

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Wiggins. Respect.

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The race had passed. Our cups runneth over. It was time to ride home. We descended the fields on foot. Dirt just saturated enough to clog cleats. At the bottom of the hill I stopped outside of a courtyard to listen to the finale. I couldn’t see it, but I could hear the rise and fall of the cheers and the shouts of names. Kristoff took it. Those outside partied on. Those outside walked or rode home, content from a very full day.

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