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08 May, 2015

Riding In Europe

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For any young South African cyclist, the “Holy Grail” of racing are the grand tours of Europe. But if you not fortunate enough to have a spot in a grand tour team, another avenue is to self-fund a season with one of the many amateur teams that race virtually every week on the roads of Europe with the possibility of being spotted by someone. Edward Greene is currently in Europe racing for the French team UC Aubenas and wrote this for us.

There is no shame in sweaty padded spandex here. That’s the first thing you need to know about cycling in Europe: it’s cool.

Growing up in South Africa, cycling never made me the envy of anyone and it definitely didn’t get me the girls. It wasn’t rugby, cricket or hockey so it was the “thing” I snuck out of boarding school to do and, despite the fact that I ate during every class, the reason I never fell victim to the first year spread at university.

In Europe, however, cycling has made me one of the cool kids (and, yes, got me a girl too).

Why are things so different in Europe? It’s where cycling culture began and its still very much part of the everyday life. People ride bikes, like bikes and watch bike races.

It’s the birthplace of the most famous tours, the hardest races and the most legendary riders. It’s the hub, the heart and soul, and if you want to make it big, compete in the world’s biggest races against the world’s best riders, it’s where you need to be.

When I left South Africa after graduating from the University of Cape Town, I was used to weekend races where the bunches were usually between 60 to 80 riders (except for the annual Cape Town Cycle Tour, of course).

On the start line, there were maybe five or six guys who had a chance of winning, perhaps with a teammate here or there to help them out.

Now, the start line of my races are jammed with 100 to 200 riders and, the biggest difference of all, most of those riders have lofty ambitions and the legs to match. It’s hard from kilometre zero and, regardless of rain, snow, sun, or apocalyptic cross-winds, the race goes on because each rider knows it’s an opportunity. So that’s the other big difference between cycling in South Africa and cycling in Europe, it’s a career that many are racing for.

People react differently when you tell them you’re a cyclist in Europe. In South Africa, cycling isn’t a career path. It’s either a hobby or something you do before you get a real job. In France, when I say I’m a cyclist, people understand it’s my chosen career. They aren’t wondering what my eventual job plans are for when I really grow up, most of the time they are impressed I have the balls to go for it. Because here in Europe, to be a professional cyclist you definitely need the balls.

With a degree in Politics, Economics and Philosophy, it didn’t take me long to crunch the numbers. I had entered an industry where the demand was low, ultra-low, meaning the competition was tough.

I was a world away from the land where there was one big race in the country every weekend during the summer. Across Europe there are hundreds of races every week from pre-season to post, held on Saturdays, Sundays and weekdays, where hundreds of amateurs line up hoping to snag a win. Hundreds of races, hundreds of racers and that’s the secret.

Competition to get a pro contract starts a long way away from the world of professional cycling in the ignored, un-televised, Hunger-Games-style scene of amateur cycling.

Now let’s get the term “professional” straight. “Professional” implies a very specific category of rider. It’s not necessarily about a pay cheque and it’s definitely not about fancy equipment. It means you belong to a UCI team classified as World Tour, Pro-Continental or Continental.

That’s the definition, strict and clear cut. To put it in perspective, they are the teams that are invited to ride races like Paris-Roubaix, Vuelta a España, the Giro d’Italia, Ronde Van Vlaandeern and the Tour de France. Pay cheque or not, everyone else is an amateur, period.

After crunching the numbers and deciding to follow my heart anyway, I entered the dog-eat-dog world of amateur racing in France where my real life’s education started. I showed up in France with a suitcase and nothing else.

I was given a room for the season (read: a bed and a plug socket), a bike (a Giant equipped with Shimano 105), two sets of kit, and, in exchange, expected to race 50 times during the season to the best of my ability. I also couldn’t speak a word of French. This was my new life.

Race days are mostly Saturdays and Sundays with start times in the afternoon. I pile into a team car that has seen more kilometres than a mini bus taxi and drive three to four hours to a small town somewhere in France with the rest of my teammates. I’m expected to service and wash my own bike and, although it’s never explicitly said, shave my legs too. At the race, I prep my own bike, put on my own precious race wheels, and pass along my nutrition to the race director.

Our race directors are usually former cyclists or racing fans giving up their weekend or taking a day off work to drive and support us at a race. No one moans about getting up early or arriving home at 02:00 from a night criterium on the other side of the country.

They are happy to help a youngster with a dream and, just like me, they are not paid, just passionate. Our “soigneurs”, when we rarely have them, are really just friends, family members or girlfriends who typically make their own way to the race and graciously stand on the side of the road for hours and hours just in case we need a bottle or two after 120 kilometres or more of racing.

Then there is the bunch: a sea of French riders with the odd foreigner mixed in. Translating French at 40 kilometres per hour is nearly impossible. Most of the time I have no clue what’s actually going on, I just focus on staying up right and in the race.

There may be teams but, unlike professional races, there isn’t any team control because, at the amateur level, it’s every rider for themselves. That means every race counts, every result counts and every position counts, so riders aren’t afraid to get physical for even 15th wheel and the sprint for 30th can be just as fast as the sprint for the win.

From the word “go,” the race is on and you keep racing until the finish, even if the breakaway isn’t coming back or the broom wagon’s right behind you.

The races are usually between 120 and 140 kilometres long. The roads are typically narrow and the routes are designed to split the bunch into as many pieces as possible whether it’s with technical suicide corners, sections of cross winds or climbs.

Often out of 150 riders, there are only 50 finishers. Some days it just comes down to who is willing to risk their life on a descent or who can survive four hours of rain in three degrees. Some days, I swear, I’m just too smart to race a bike.

After the race, I’m handed a baguette (as French tradition dictates) and if it’s been a good day, I have a smile on my face the whole way home, dreaming about the next race, knowing I’m on the right track. If it’s been a bad day, I’ve never felt further away from home. I spend the long drive home questioning why on earth I’m in France, slogging away race after race, wondering if I’m making progress. I get home exhausted and crash on my mattress feeling beaten in more ways than one.

The next morning after a bowl of oats and a cup of Five Roses tea that I’ve brought from home, things always start to look better. I’m an eternal optimist: there is another race in a few days and it will go better.

My whole year is made on three or four race days and the rest is just an emotional roller coaster where all I can do is hold on tight and have faith the downs will be broken by simple, honest hard work and sacrifice.

People think that I’ve made it, that I’m living the dream racing my bike full time in Europe. The truth is I’m still building my dream. Racing in Europe isn’t making it, it’s how you make it.