This article was originally published in Issue 111, the Youth edition.
DNF. DNF. First. Those were my first three results in Belgium, a beautiful but unforgiving bastard that strikes fear into every bike racer. My fourth race wasn’t much better than the first two: I crashed, but at least I finished. Every bike racer has at least one, if not a collection, of Belgian scars. Those scars can be physical, mental, metaphorical, or a mixture of the three. The weather, roads and competition are all arduous, and the distance between being in complete control and sitting in a heap of bodies and broken carbon is often a very short one.
My name is Joe Laverick, I am a 21-year-old professional cyclist racing for Hagens Berman Axeon, a team managed by Axel Merckx, a Belgian cycling legend himself. My Belgian story started in the spring of 2018, aged 17. I’d had a relatively successful first year in the junior category, and was looking at competing in more races on the continent. After reaching out to some contacts, I managed to score a ride for Soenens-Booom – the Flanders Youth Cycling Academy. Belgium is the hard school of bike racing; where better place to learn the craft?
There were a few issues. I was still in full-time education, completing my A-Levels, the most important and most difficult exams for a teenager in the UK. I lived in north-east England, a mere eight-hour drive away from my new team and my parents had no experience in cycling whatsoever – I’m the first Laverick to ever be involved in the sport. Not only did I have to balance being in school for eight hours a day and training, I also had to figure out the logistics of travelling to the continent every weekend.
Every other weekend brought a trip over the Channel, and each had its own set of challenges. Firstly, I had to ask school for permission to have time away from lessons. It helped that my headmaster was a cyclist, but I had to promise to complete all of the work that I’d missed and keep my grades high. Then I had to try to convince my parents to drive me to Belgium. If that wasn’t possible, I called around every British team that was racing in Europe that weekend to see if there was a spare seat.
We’d leave on Friday, missing a full day of school to get there, arrive Friday night and race Saturday and Sunday before being back for lessons first thing on Monday morning. On Sunday morning I’m racing around Flanders Fields, and on Monday morning I’m studying war poetry from Flanders Fields.
Belgium has a cycling culture like no other country. As with football in England, or baseball in the States, the local community is steeped in bike racing. If there is a bike race happening, the whole town is shut down and people come to watch.
Professional cyclists are the local celebrities and bike racing dominates the sports channels. A beep from a car is a greeting, rather than a rebuke, and is met by a smile, wave, and a shout of encouragement, rather than a middle finger.
My first two races in Belgium both resulted in letters, rather than numbers, next to my name on the results sheet – DNF. Try explaining that when you get back to school on Monday morning: “Yeah, I travelled for two days and missed a full day of lessons just to DNF after two hours of racing.”
However, as far as my parents were concerned a DNF in a bike race was better than a D and an F in English Literature. The first race, Junior Nokere Koerse, was a wet and windy crash-fest. After getting caught behind a crash on one of the cobbled sectors, I found myself in the wheel of a small but extremely powerful Belgian guy. I thought I was a good, strong bike racer at the time, but struggled to fathom how it was so hard to hold this one rider’s wheel. He dragged our small group back to the peloton, without asking any of us for a turn. I checked his number after the finish to see who he was... Remco Evenepoel, the sheet read. Neither of us finished that race. I double punctured on the cobbles at a crucial point and I’m not sure what happened to him.
The next week, at the Guido Reybrouck Classic, he won on his own by more than three minutes. I was a DNF again, struggling to get going in the sub-zero temperatures. What I learned very quickly while racing in Belgium, and something that seems to be true across all levels of racing from junior to pro, is that the rules of bike racing are very different there. Elsewhere, there is a set of unwritten rules in the peloton, a gentleman’s agreement which can be briefly summarised as, ‘Don’t be a dick.’ You don’t cut each other up, try not to divebomb corners and there is a degree of mutual respect. This is not how it works in Belgium. This country has a rulebook of its own.
There is a saying thrown around certain bike racing circles – ‘chop or be chopped’. This simply means that if you’re not the one riding aggressively, someone else will be. The narrow twisting roads of Belgium mean that every single position counts and a rider has to be willing to do anything to move up. In Belgium, it is better to be good at positioning than it is to be the most powerful rider in the race. You can be the strongest rider in the world, but if you’re out of position when the peloton breaks into one long line in the gutter, no amount of power can get you back to the front.
Bike races are as effective a schooling in these facts as you can get in any classroom. Belgium is unique in many different ways. I once stayed in a hotel that had a helicopter and a tank outside its front door, plus a mannequin in full army uniform in the dining room. Apparently the hotel doubled up as a WW1 museum. It was cool; just a little odd.
Belgium is also the only place where fans turn up to U23 races with a collection of rider cards, dating back to your first year racing, for you to sign. Again, cool; just a little odd. The best thing about Belgium is that you get to the end of the race, and fans are willing to swap your race number or a piece of kit for an extra-large bottle of the local beer – a trade I’m happy to make every time.
The beauty of cycling is that somebody like me, a rider at the start of their career, can line up against some of the biggest names in the sport. In 2021, after coming back from a broken knee and Covid, I lined up at a set of pro races in Flanders, which the big names were using as preparation for the World Championships. Sitting on the start line, the most famous riders were called to the front so the fans could see them: Alaphilippe, Asgreen, Remco, Ewan, Wellens, Gilbert... I did a quick bit of maths and realised that their combined salary was over €10 million per year, enough to fund my whole team multiple times over.
The same week, we lined up at the Brussels Cycling Classic. The race had always been one for the sprinters, but the organiser decided to mix it up this year and throw in two ascents of the iconic Muur van Geraardsbergen. The Muur is known for the classic photo around the bend at the top where the church is, but trust me when I say that the going gets tough long before that point. About a third of the way up, the information came over the radio: “Gilbert has attacked with a Quick-Step rider following.” I was racing on the Muur, with Gilbert attacking off the front. Fifteen-year-old Joe inside of me smiled very briefly. Twenty-year-old Joe, actually having to race, wondered what the hell he was supposed to do with that information. Sooner or later, everyone will have a DNF next to their name. Whether it’s down to a mechanical, a crash, or simply being out of one’s depth, the DNF is an unfortunate inevitability.
The feeling after DNF-ing a race is strange. Firstly you’re dispatched from the peloton, then the cars go around you, and finally the ambulance. It is a painful process, both physically and mentally. In a Belgian classic, there is often a small peloton of eliminated riders, trying to find their way back to the buses like a bunch of lost puppies. You can’t call yourself a professional cyclist until you’ve gotten lost trying to find your way back to the team bus. There isn’t much talking that happens in those little groups, just a lot of quiet contemplation.
Once you find your way back to the bus, or a small camper if you’re on a lower level team, you’ll either retrieve the key from its hiding place, or be met by a soigneur. Sitting down, shell-shocked, it’s time for more reflection and self-flagellation.
There is no worse feeling than already being changed when the rest of the team come back from finishing the race. The return journeys home after a poor race or DNF have been some of the quietest of my life. Whether that was in the early days when my Dad and I would have to make the eight-plus-hour drive back home in the car, as I was frantically typing an essay, or nowadays when it’s just a short flight from Brussels to Girona. (Image by SWPix.com)
Returning to Girona after the Brussels Cycling Classic, I was a miserable mess in Brussels Airport. I was a DNF and Evenepoel ripped the field apart and won, while I got flashbacks to our races in 2018 and contemplated the differing trajectories and evolutions of our careers. As we don’t have a shower in our team camper, I’d only had a shower-in-a-can before heading to the airport so I felt a little disgusting, too. I’d had a shocker of a weekend, my power was down and my positioning had been crap, I wasn’t that far off from being in tears. I called my coach and had a heart-to-heart; he joked that I wasn’t the first, and definitely won’t be the last bike racer to be standing in Brussels Airport wondering what the hell had just happened.
There’s a Leffe bar in Brussels Airport, and the four of us who were flying back to Girona sat there and had a beer each. We’d raced against the big boys and been taught a harsh lesson. Some would say it’s unprofessional to have a beer after having a crap race; for us it was a bonding experience. You never want to leave Belgium with a bad final memory.
But there are good memories, too. I did my first stage race in Belgium in 2018, at 17. I’d managed to find a lift with one of my friends and his dad; they were heading to do another race in Belgium, and I was to be dropped off at my team manager’s house to stay the night before travelling onwards to another race. I’d met the team manager once before on training camp. I wouldn’t say I knew him as such, but I was welcomed into the family with open arms. I was late for dinner, but arrived just in time for waffles. How very Belgian.
The opening stage of the stage race was a prologue, and time-trials were my speciality. Add into the mix that the GB National Team were there too, I knew a good result would put me on the radar for World Championships selection. There was one name on everyone’s lips: Remco Evenepoel. Him again. This was early 2018 and he was relatively new on the cycling scene but making waves. I went off early, and set a good time that put me in the hot seat (although disappointingly wasn’t a hot seat and I just sat in a fold-up camping chair under our team gazebo).
One-by-one, riders came and went, not getting near my time. There were so many riders still to go, we decided to pop into the local bar for a mug of hot chocolate, thoroughly expecting that I’d have been knocked off the perch when we returned. Evenepoel came and went, finishing a whisker behind me, a whole 0.2 seconds.
With 10 guys to go, the team’s confidence in me increased. We all crowded around the mini radio that was linked to the commissaire’s car, each time a new time was said in Flemish, our Belgian soigneur would translate it into English for my benefit. When the final time was read out and I was declared the winner, I was brought into the biggest bear hug of my life. It was the team’s biggest victory to date; it was my biggest victory to date. I pulled on the yellow jersey. I had announced myself in Europe. But Belgium being Belgium, it wasn’t long before I was brought back down to Earth.
The next day, wearing my first-ever leader’s jersey, there was a mix-up that meant that my road helmet was put in the wrong car, and I arrived at the first road stage with my TT helmet. Cue me, the race leader, walking around every team asking if anyone had a spare. One was found; it was a good 15 years old but I didn’t care, I had a leader’s jersey to defend.
Into the race, protecting the yellow jersey, my team rode hard and all was going well. That was until my team-mate took me out in a feed zone and we both ended up in a heap on the floor. My bike was broken and I tumbled down the General Classification, multiple minutes back. Belgium giveth and Belgium taketh away.
I love Belgium, I hate Belgium and I love to hate Belgium. There is no cycling education better than the Belgian school of racing. Some of my harshest lessons have been watching the race ride away from me, or crashing into one of the many pieces of road furniture. But I’ve also had my highest highs in Belgium, and it’s a country full of people that have always welcomed me with open arms.
I’ll always have a soft spot for Belgium, even if my collection of Belgian scars will continue to grow.
*Cover image by Alex Whitehead/SWPix.com