Kingdom of the Kermesse

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The older we get, the better we were. Nearly every guy I know who races in Australia has done a season or two in the Belgian kermesses. I love the outrageous stories that I hear. They always start off as “Well back in the day when I used to race professionally in Belgium…” Quite often I’m pretty sure these stories originate from an accidental side-trip through Belgium and over the years have morphed their way into being a couple seasons of racing the kermesse scene. But that’s okay – I never let the facts get in the way of a good story either.

A mate of mine named Will Tehan took a break from his office job and has been living the aspiring cyclist’s dream over in Belgium for the past couple of years. If you ever wondered what the scene is all about, read on. Jamie Jowett asks Will a few questions from his experiences in the Kingdom of the Kermesse.

In the Kingdom of the Kermesse

By Jamie Jowett

Will Tehan is a 26 year old Melburnian who headed off to Belgium to race with the Fuji Test Team. We asked him for his “What I did on my holidays” yarns and the occasional Cycling Tip.

So how did you get originally the gig racing in Belgium?

After 7 years at PwC, I needed to try something different, so I got in contact with people I knew who had raced overseas and a couple of teams. After some emailing and a long list of questions to answer, I was offered a spot on the Fuji Test Team (Johan Bruyneel Cycling Academy as it was then known).

You pay the team for accommodation, etc. and their set-up allows you to focus on racing and develop as quickly and completely as possible. It costs a bit more than just going over to billet with a family and race Kermesses every day, but the opportunities with the racing schedule made it worthwhile.

What about the team set-up?

Fuji Test Team is an amateur team and is the development team for the Geox–Fuji ProTour team next year. Many of the strongest and best set-up teams in Belgium are amateur. We have great equipment to use (and to have replaced after crashing…) from our sponsors too – Fuji, SRAM, Bio Racer, Oval Concepts and Bontrager.

When you arrive, you see the team Doctor (ours is head Doctor at team Radioshack) who does blood tests and lactate testing to determine your power levels and fitness. From your results, a training program is written and monitored, and your race schedule is worked out depending on how you are going and how you respond to your training.

No one really has “coaches” in Europe – your doctor writes your program. And no, that is not some joke with respect to doping either, but they understand physiology, do your testing, and set your program based on that. I’m not saying it works better, but it does make sense to me, the added bonus is they can help when you are sick and know what you can or can’t take under UCI/WADA guidelines.

Tell us about these Kermesse races?

A Kermesse is a local Belgian festival race, there’s one almost every day in summer, like a local crit race on Crack.

You roll up to the start, pay 8 Euros (you get 5 back at the end for returning your number) and sign in. The town shuts down, bars are packed with locals drinking and cheering, Euro tunes pumping, and hundreds of Jayco campervans for the teams and riders’ families. The bookies also get set up, local businesses sponsor the race, and you can have 250 riders on the start line, chomping at the bit to smash everyone else to pieces.

At every race are these “Lords of the Kermesse”, with a deep tan, oil-slick legs and hair. They’re older riders who’ve been around the block and know how to hurt the youngsters. They’ve won lots of races across their career, and still win.

Make no mistake, these guys deserve respect – one in particular in a standout for me – he is 50 and still won 10 or so races this season! They make a decent living out of winning, and ‘selling and buying’ these races, so even if they don’t win the big prize, they will make their money through the bookies or team bonuses…

You have to be up front and part of the action for negotiations in races. If you want some great stories, speak to Rob Crowe who has some cracking stories (quite literally one where his frame cracked when in the winning position, and another where a fixed race nearly came unstuck until a certain rider made it clear in no uncertain terms that the deal would remain as agreed otherwise the other guy’s bike was coming home with him once the race was finished!

Anyway, 99% of it is just chewing bar tape hard-core racing on filthy farm roads where you try to get some results to impress the locals and get noticed.

Embrocation – what’s that all about?

Ah yes, the old Belgian Knee Warmers where the legs must not be covered in anything except embrocation… The Kermesse Kings turn up looking like they have emptied a bottle of orange oil on their legs (gotta look tanned for the laydees), but for training full leg warmers are to be worn at all times when the temperature drops below about 25 degrees!

What was the racing like?

Hard, fast and dangerous, just how I like it! Cobblestone roads, and for a flat country, it’s got really nasty sharp climbs.

You kind of just expect the worst in all races. Any second the peloton can be 7 wide at 55km’s/hr down a straight road, guys jumping into any sort of gap, overtaking along the gutters and grass edges. It’s just a mad charge to the front, then the road turns hard right and shrinks to a cobbled road only 2 riders wide.

It’s the same into the hills such as the Oude Kwaremont – the race is not actually up the climb, it is TO the climb. It’s a full-on bunch sprint as you bust your arse to be in the front before the turn onto the last km of farm road before the climb, and the guys at the front just sit up and block the road – it might only fit about 5 bikes across, so once they have their position no one can get in front anyway!

Every Directeur is telling their riders to get up front, so it’s chaos and you put out 500W just to hold your position. With slippery cobblestones and rain it gets ugly pretty quickly, crashes and guys going over the top of each other. That’s why you see guys running up the climbs with their bikes.

You really need to pick your line and where to ride. Usually it’s the side of the road on dirt, not cobbles, but that line’s pretty small and when you’ve got 100 or so guys all battling for that spot it can be tough.

That’s what you learn – no matter how good your legs are, it’s all about position and confidence to ride the front. Races just explode, you need to be right on it and even then there’s not much you can do.

It’s awesome actually. Belgian races suit you, if you want them to. Go into it with a positive mindset and you will come out alive. I love them and everything that goes with it!

Your first race?

Turning up to race in Europe was intimidating enough; maybe one of the Belgian kermesses would have been good to start with? But it was a UCI 1.2, Paris–Troyes…?! Off to Paris for my first race, I was already packing it in before I had started…

When you add in a full promotional caravan, team buses, and Tour de France stage winners just to really top it off, you know that you are going to get your arse handed to you that day.

To cut it short, that’s exactly what happened. The race was about 175km and from the word go, it was on! It started in a valley, with the course winding up and out, averaged 46km/h for the first hour, and didn’t slow down. 46km/h average through these little French villages, turning constantly meant we were doing at least 55km/h at any point, not braking for corners, and accelerating out. I think I lasted around 90km’s before getting popped from the peloton and rolled to the finish with a group of fellow sufferers.

Eye-opening, yes. Heartbreaking, maybe. An absolute suffer-fest if I have ever been in one, but no way was I going to go down like that again!

Can you describe your toughest race there?

There were lots of races in the Ardennes which destroyed me due to the up and down all day courses, however, the one race I will remember forever was Zellik-Galmaarden, which Boonen once won. Race organisers love to use the famous cobbled climbs of Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), and every race includes at least one, but this race just took the piss… It climbed the famous Muur and Onkerzeleberg twice, the Bosberg 5 times, and the Congoberg 6 times!

By the end of the 180km’s I was absolutely spent, but going over those climbs each time was amazing. The crowd’s not quite 10 or 20 deep the whole way up the Muur and Bosberg, but there are enough there yelling, screaming and drinking that you believe you are actually racing the Tour of Flanders!

How about the guns on your team and others you raced against?

We had a few really strong guys – the U/23 Finnish National Champion and another Finn who apparently has “Pro-Tour level” test results, plus a couple of Americans, and I spent most of my season riding for them.

The talent you race against each week is incredible. I guess it will be nice to look back in a few years and see a lot of the guys I raced against tearing up the roads – guys like Taylor Phinney, Tejay Van Garderen, Yannick Eijssen, Jack Bauer, etc.

So what’s the future hold for you?

I’ve just finished the Tour of the Murray, and I’m gearing up for the Warrny. After that I am heading to the Tour of Southland in NZ with a team that includes Floyd Landis (?!). That is going to be an eye-opening experience, and I am really looking forward to getting there.

After that I will hang the bike up for a few weeks off and decide what the future holds.

Thanks for your time Will, and good luck with your racing.

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