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by James Stout
September 9, 2018
Photography by Michael Tvardovskiy
James Stout spent a few years drifting around the kermesse scene in Flanders under the watchful eye of Staf Boone — one of those names that everyone in the know knows, but many readers will never have heard. We asked James to dig into the gritty reality of “living the dream” in Boone’s farmhouse in Flanders.
Bike racing is a sport in which a lot of people work and very few win. Often, the people behind those victories are invisible, hidden behind the fourth wall that separates audience from actors.
Staf Boone is far from invisible. In fact, it’s hard to see around him. Turn up at just about any kermesse in Flanders and you’ll find him chewing a cigarette, swilling a St. Augustin, and pronouncing his favorite verdict on a sub-par performance — “sell your bike” — as a young man’s dreams, and legs, lie shattered on the curb on another drizzly day in August. Boone cares not for their dreams. He isn’t there to make you happy, but if you’re good enough, he’s there to make you better.
In an era of marginal gains, it’s easy to forget that the way to succeed in cycling is still riding hard, racing often, and learning through repeated humiliation and failure. Or at least, it is easy to forget if you don’t live in Belgium. If you live in a certain draughty farmhouse —more of a barn, really — just outside Ghent, Staf Boone reminds you on a daily basis that the reason you aren’t very good is that you don’t ride enough and that nobody cares about how aerodynamic your helmet is when you’re getting dropped.
Boone’s farmhouse is the home of the Kingsnorth International Wheelers, and for many aspiring classics riders, it’s the springboard into the pro ranks — or the trapdoor out of the sport. It is, in Boone’s words, “the biggest place in the world for cycling.”
Like getting your first contract, learning to weave in and out of the race caravan, or having someone else pay for your bikes and race entries, time spent at “the farm” is a rite of passage. None of these things mean you’ve made it, but a lot of people who have made it have done all these things. Sleeping in the hayloft of a barn with five other young men, an aging PlayStation, and what I later learned was the sort of itching that one gets from the gentle embrace of fleas (incidentally, the only gentle embrace most of us were experiencing back then) certainly doesn’t feel like making it.
As it turns out, racing through hail and snow for six hours only to crash into a barrier in the final kilometers doesn’t, either.
Boone, and his ragtag band of bike racers, have been part of the Belgian racing scene for decades. He first lined up for a race himself 60 years ago. It’s hard to imagine the old timer as a skinny 15-year-old, eager to prove himself. These days he seems as ageless and immobile as the cobbles that pave the roads of the small, damp country that he calls home. Kingsnorth International Wheelers, Boone’s team, accepts riders from all over the world, puts them up, and takes them to kermesse races.
Those who are good enough get to race the pro kermesses; those who are exceptional leave the farmhouse with a signed contract. Boone lists Kirk O’Bee, Freddy Rodriguez, Alex Stieda, and Jack Bauer among his alumni, and calls Levi Leipheimer and Alan Peiper his “most famous guests.” Those who are good can spend a season making halfway decent money and an interesting set of friends on the amateur kermesse scene. Those who are above average where they come from, but can’t cut it in on the wet cobbles of Flanders, work out very quickly that they need to find a new dream, and maybe a new hobby.
Boone helps with the transition, barking “sell your bike” from a cloud of smoke as they get pulled from another race and put on a jacket for the long, wet, lonely ride back to the farm.
For those living in the United States or Australia, it’s hard to grasp just how tiny Flanders is. For those who haven’t spent time in Belgium, it’s also impossible to imagine just how much this tiny nation loves cyclesport. In the province of Flanders, “kermesse” means “festival”, and festivals mean bike races. Throughout the summer, towns will celebrate the occasional breaks in the torrential rain with circuit races, day-drinking, and a set of fairground rides that look like they’ve been on the circuit just as long as Boone and his crew.
From Ghent, one can ride to these local races nearly every day between April and October. The town names are familiar to many fans — they’re the ones you hear people pronouncing incorrectly (or perhaps correctly if they just sound like they’re coughing) when they talk about cyclocross, or the Spring Classics. Those daylong classics don’t really cover that much ground, they just curl around Flanders.
Towns are rarely more than a handful of kilometres apart, and hills are few and far between. On the rare sunny days of summer, riding the towpaths past places you’ve seen on TV since you were a junior can be a bucolic experience. But it rains 200 days a year in Belgium, and racing with a field of 190 riders who share no common language down a towpath is anything but idyllic.
Kermesse races are all essentially the same. They start at three in the afternoon, they are 100-120km, they are fast as hell, and they are flat as a pancake. You sign on, the officials remark on your performance last Tuesday, and take your money in return for a number. You apply embrocation in the back room of a bar and drink a crappy coffee. If there are three races in Flanders that day, the field might only be 60 or 80, on a day with only one race, you might see 250 riders.
The race starts hard. Until the break goes, every corner involves a screech of brakes on the way in and a surge of power on the way out. A lap normally takes in any cobbles the organizer can find, a section of seemingly impossibly strong wind, what seems like an unimaginable number of corners, and the main drag. Oh and cow shit — there’s always cow shit.
The finish line is always in front of bars full of people who made the sensible choice to spend their day off drinking beer, not the flat Coke the racers drink. There’s always the same follow car, the same finish gantry, and the same set of bumper cars that scream “tetanus” at everyone except the line of children happily handing over their pocket money for a chance to drive into each other.
The races pay decent money, give back most of your entry fee when you return your number, and bring what the locals deem as prestige to anyone lucky enough to win one. This is especially true if your grandmother’s cousin, or any other member of your extended family, lives in the town in which the race is occurring. Such prestige is worth taking risks for. For the rest of us, the races only cost a handful of euros, offer the chance of making just enough money for a hotdog and a beer, and somehow keep riders coming back despite the toll they take on bikes, bodies, and egos.
Staf Boone and a Kingsnorth rider in front of the cycling-themed nightclub on the premises of his farmhouse.
With the oddly pristine bakeries and decaying industrial landscape of Ghent as a backdrop, Staf Boone and his crew make up the cast of the opening scenes of many a bike racers’ storied career, and the closing credits of many others. I’ll introduce the cast here, in order of appearance.
First, there’s Boone, who meets you off the train at Sint Pieters station in Ghent. He’s driving an old Mercedes and he’s smoking. He tells you to get in, asks if you feel ready to race, and tells you it’ll probably be too hard for you. But he drives you to his home anyway, where his wife feeds you. He takes you to the farm and shows you where to sleep and the important stuff, like where to build and store your bike and which rooms riders can’t go into. He spits out a long series of consonants, which turn out to be the names of the towns where races will be held that week, and leaves you to get the Wi-Fi password and the lowdown on the dodgy plumbing from the others.
Boone was a racer himself back in the day, and a good one by all accounts. He probably approached his 11 years of racing, as he does most everything else, with a sense of Flemmish practicality that borders on the brutal, and a kind of logic that can be baffling and brilliant.
Riding bikes, even riding them really hard in the rain on cobbles, is a lot better than working in a coal mine, so whining isn’t tolerated. I don’t know if Boone is capable of self-doubt, but if he is, he probably crushes it with the same nonchalance that he uses when it’s time to tell a bike racer his dream is over. Boone smokes a lot these days, and I rarely saw him at a race without a strong beer in his hand as he held court outside a café. But when I spoke with him last, he told me he rode the previous day. The rest of our conversation made me think this might be part of a broader trend of pronouncing the truth he wishes to live in, not the one he lives.
Sometimes Boone will be at the same race as Kingsnorth riders, but often there are multiple races on the same day, even midweek, so his presence is not guaranteed. Boone doesn’t do any active directing, not that anybody really could in a kermesse; he’s too busy with a full schedule of handshakes and greeting every single member of the cycling community in Flanders and beyond. Come the end of the race, he’ll be there in a heartbeat when a rider gets on the podium, and he’ll pay them a healthy bonus — 200 Euro when I was racing. If Boone finds himself alongside a rider on that podium often enough, he’ll be the one making calls to Continental and Pro Continental teams on their behalf, and when Boone calls, directors listen.
Others listen to Boone as well. Local police can be spotted drinking beer out back at the surreal, cycling-themed “Staf Boone’s Farm” nightclub on the premises. One former rider recalled being driven by Boone to a race and arriving just as the peloton was rolling out. Boone pulled his car up next to the lead car, told them to stop, and instructed the bunch to wait for his riders to join them.
“To say it was awkward is an understatement, but he had that much power,” the former Kingsnorth rider said. “Not one rider protested.”
Boone is the ringmaster of the circus. His farmhouse was once a school and serves as a melting pot (or petri dish) of hungry young men with shaved legs. Everyone pays rent, but how much depends on how well they race. Cody Stevenson, a former pro with Jittery Joe’s, recalls coming to an arrangement where he wouldn’t pay rent as long as he won one race a month. Most common at the farmhouse are the British, American, Kiwi and Australian kids trying to “make it.” These are the guys with the carbon bikes, power meters, and ambitions.
Then there are the young Russian and Eastern European men trying to dodge national service and happy to race on bikes you wouldn’t ride to the shops. You’ll see them year after year on the same tapestry of seemingly incompatible parts, wearing the same flaccid socks and somehow managing to pedal at 50kph despite looking more than a little malnourished. They might look mean, and you might not share any languages with them, but you’ll never make a stronger friendship than the one forged between hungry bike racers working together for petty cash primes and sharing a dinner of rice and ketchup.
I spoke with a lot of Kingsnorth alumni for this article, and all of them fondly recalled “Party Peter,” for years a fixture at the farmhouse and now the happily married father of two young girls. I couldn’t reach him for this piece, but WorldTour riders and tourists alike expressed a fondness for the long-haired Russian with a big heart, kind smile, and a bike that combined Campagnolo shifters, Shimano derailleurs, and a chain that was seemingly forged entirely from rust.
There’s the occasional older rider, trying to find himself or relive his youth amongst the chamois that are perpetually drying on every available surface at the farm. These guys have the nicest bikes and the most modest ambitions, but often they have enough money to actually buy beers, and as such they are invaluable friends. John McGill was a fixture in my time, the sort of guy you’re never surprised to see in a bike race in Belgium, Belize, or Beijing.
A young racer can learn a lot from these guys. Not about how to take a corner or what tire pressure to run, but about how to enjoy bike racing as a way of life. Boone seems to be on the same page; he’s happy to see these old friends for a beer or put them up for a bike race. These are the kind of relationships that come from decades in the sport, and the genuine fondness that so many feel for the gruff old man in the Mercedes is the real foundation of what Boone has built at his farm.
To run the team’s day-to day-operations, Boone relies on a supporting cast of late-middle-aged Belgian men who haven’t bought new clothes since 1975. These guys aren’t wealthy, but they’re generous with their time and they’re willing to pour an inordinate amount into the dreams of the British, Russian, Antipodean, and occasionally American kids who come to Ghent to try their luck.
The first staff member riders meet after their arrival at the farm is Freddy the soigneur. Freddy is kind, even when you suck. Kindness can be a rare commodity in Flanders, and one many riders come to appreciate. Sometimes honesty is kindness, especially when you’re sacrificing a lot and earning a little as a wannabe bike racer. Sometimes, you just want to hear that someone is proud of you for trying your best. Whether you make it to the top step of the podium or the back of the grupetto, Freddy has a bottle, a jacket, and instructions on how to ride home .
Jack Bauer (left) with Freddy the soigneur (center) in 2009.
Freddy mostly concerns himself with Mario Willems, the team’s evergreen leader and one of Belgium’s “kermesse kings.” Unless you’re going to the WorldTour, Willems is better than you. Even if you’re going to the WorldTour, Willems might still be better than you. Willems has won nearly 400 races and, at 44 years old, he’s still showing the young lads a clean pair of heels on a weekly basis. Willems has a wife and kids, so you only see him on race day, and then you only see him until he drops you.
But if you find yourself at the pointy end of the race, there’s a lot you can learn from such an experienced racer. Jack Bauer (Mitchelton-Scott) came through the Kingsnorth ranks, and says he has a “huge respect” for Willems and everything that he taught him. For a man who has won so many races, Willems is remarkably generous with his efforts if he thinks he can help a younger rider to the top step of the rickety wooden podium that travels around Flanders all summer.
Then there’s Derny trainer Eddy, a man so deeply embedded in the cycling scene and so adorably devoted to his miniature Shetland ponies that you can find many a Paris-Roubaix winner immortalized in a photo on his refrigerator as a skinny teenager posing awkwardly with a three-foot-tall horse.
Eddy, and his Derny, have helped more young hopefuls prepare for more races than most of our readers have watched. He’ll ride around in front of you for hours along canal towpaths and roads coated with Flanders’ special cocktail of grit and cow shit, resplendent in his lycra tights and thermal team jacket. He’ll ride you ragged, but he’ll take you home and his wife will feed you until you can’t eat any more. If you need to visit a doctor, lawyer, dentist or car mechanic, Eddy seems to inspire the same fondness and familiarity in all of them. He’s everybody’s favorite uncle, but the back of his Derny is far from a comfortable place.
Navrus can always be found at the farmhouse. The Lithuanian ex-pro for Postobon who lived in Colombia has been fixing things that young men break for a decade. There’s always something that needs his attention. For a hard-working guy like Navrus, cycling is his family, and Boone makes sure Navrus never goes without, now that he can’t race for his suppers anymore. Many an afternoon has been spent cleaning bikes and talking to Navrus about courses, training, travel and, of course, the illusory prospect of romance for young men who live in a hostel designed for livestock and can’t afford to buy a beer for themselves, let alone for a date.
Eddy, the Derny trainer.
Despite his penchant for smoking, shouting, and rumors of selling races, it’s impossible to deny that Staf Boone has given many young riders a springboard to success. Underneath the hard-bitten exterior and behind his extreme economy with praise is a guy who gave me, and many other young racers, a fair chance to be our best. Not all riders test well in labs or on tracks; some of them need the filth and fury of a midweek kermesse on a rainy day in August to shine. Those riders will find a supportive environment, and a mattress older than they are, at the farmhouse.
Along with the cloud of acrid smoke that accompanies Boone everywhere is an equally acrid cloud of hyperbole and rumor, some of it positive and of his own creation, some of it negative and rarely raised in his presence. I talked to a lot of people for this article, and all of them had opinions. A popular rumor was that he had been banned from pigeon racing for doping, but I couldn’t get a reply from the Belgian National Association of Pigeon Fanciers, despite multiple emails. Some people have suggested that his riders fix races, or dope; allegations of turbo-charged “Booner biddons” swirled. Certainly there have been a few who have had less success after leaving the farm, but that is not evidence of anything in itself.
Boone’s team is registered in the United Kingdom, despite being very strongly rooted in Ghent. I asked Peter North, his British fixer and registered club contact at British Cycling, about this and he suggested this arrangement allowed British riders to gain continental experience and was an initiative of the British Cycling federation.
Boone offered a different explanation in his characteristically sparing prose: “In Belgium at the time they wanted more international teams to be home-based in Belgium. The Belgian officials made this clear to me. So we requested to register the team in the UK and they accepted.”
I asked Boone about doping, motor doping, and race fixing — really the full gamut of ways to cheat in a bike race. He’s connected by rumor to all of these, but been proven guilty of none. He gave me a typical Boone reply: “Riders who dope are considered to be stupid. As far as race fixing, I am not one to buy races. I cannot speak for the others. There is only one way to succeed — hard training!”
You always know exactly where you stand with Boone, which is normally below someone who you idolized and who may have slept in the very same rusty bedframe you’re currently occupying. He’s taken Indian riders to Flanders kermesse races, and kids from manual labor to the WorldTour. Sure, he’s watched more than a few cycling careers come to an abrupt halt, but he’s given chances to a lot of people who wouldn’t have got them anywhere other than a draughty farmhouse by the canal.
Boone cites Thomas De Gendt as his current favourite rider. “He loves the riders who ride with their heart on their sleeve,” said Chris Macic, who rode for Boone before signing a contract with Marco Polo Cycling Donckers Koffie (a program that is both not a parody and technically an Ethiopian team). It doesn’t seem to matter if those riders are Russian, British, Aussie or Kiwi, they all speak a kind of broken English, and Boone doesn’t really care as long as their legs do most of the talking.
Boone’s most recent successful graduate, and the reason that the living room of the farm is full of cheap plastic trophies, is Kiwi Jack Bauer. Bauer feels that he owes a lot more than a collection of plastic statuettes to Boone.
“I doubt I would have got there without Staf. I was living in Wellington and working full time but I didn’t know how on earth to make the next step to racing on the other side of the world,” Bauer told me. He found his way to the farm after asking other Kiwis how to get his foot in the door racing abroad. “I asked a lot of people and got the sense that the bigger guys had all been to Belgium and gone through Boone — his name kept popping up.”
Bauer arrived in Ghent as just another kid with a bike box at the Sint-Pieters train station. “I went out the front of the station and up rolls this big silver Merc, and this window rolled down, and smoke came rolling out. He barked my name as he does. He didn’t move, just puffed away and he took me to his house for lunch. His wife offered me a little lunch and I felt like I had made a friend.”
It was that friend who took him to his first kermesse race and told him it would probably be too fast for him. Bauer made the break, and sprinted for fourth. It wasn’t all smiles from there, but the chances that Boone provided let Bauer prove his worth and sign a Continental contract the next year, with Endura Racing. “He would have really gruff times around me, but I gave the same back and he started to respect me,” Bauer said. “I saw opportunities, and he helped.”
Jack Bauer (in the black helmet) at the start of a Belgian kermesse in 2009.
It wasn’t always a comfortable experience for Bauer, but it was a good one. “I was there on no money. If we wanted to eat, we had to win. Boone paid a bonus each time and it generally doubled whatever the winnings were. I was used to paying an arm and a leg to race, and this was the first time that wining equated to cash. I was hooked.”
Bauer recalls that “it was pretty rough going, incredibly cold, a lot of wind, a lot of rain, a lot of days spent huddling around a TV with Russians, Brits and Aussies.” But this school of hard knocks also allows real talent to show itself in Flanders’ fields. Between the race winnings and Boone’s bonus payments, Bauer made a living, and he raced for six months in Ghent. In an environment without radios, directors, or follow cars, it was Willems who taught Bauer to win.
“We’d often be at the thick end of the race together and he would do what he could to help and give me guidance,” Bauer said. “He was very open to sharing.”
These victories soon got him access to the teams he’d been reading about in magazines when he lived in Wellington the year before. It was Boone who made calls to teams and helped Bauer land his first contract. Even now, after stints with Garmin, Quick-Step, and Mitchelton-Scott, when he’s back in cycling’s industrial heartland, Bauer makes sure to say hello to the motley crew that helped him get out of his full-time job in Wellington and into a full time WorldTour job and a home in Spain.
Not everyone comes to the farm with such lofty intentions. For some it’s just a chance to race hard, spend next to nothing, and escape the responsibilities and rhythm of adult life.
Lance Cameron recalls his first races in Belgium in 2002. He found a blog with some pre-GoPro helmet cam footage of kermesse races, and after finding out that the entry fee was $5 — and that you got $4 back when you returned the number — he decided to dive in.
After emailing the blog author, Cameron was given Boone’s phone number, and a look of derision when he asked for an email. Boone doesn’t email; I conducted his interview through a bizarre relay of fixers and translators. Cameron picked up the phone and, in a series of monosyllabic responses, got himself to the same train station. The conversation went something like this:
Lance: Uh hi, my name is Lance, is this Staf Boone?
Lance: I’d like to come race in Belgium.
Boone: Are you fast?
Lance: Yes, I think so.
Boone: When you arrive at Sint-Pieters station, you call me, I come pick you up and take you to team house. OK?
Lance: Ok, but what about….
Boone: Call me, I pick you up. [click]
The 90’s Mercedes pulled up to Sint-Peters station a month later. Cameron recalls the sort of bike racks he’s only seen on TV, some “cool looking” sponsor stickers, and Boone belching smoke and stories from the drivers’ seat.
“It was from this very train station, 20 years ago, I pick up Bob Roll. You know Bob Roll? I pick up Bob, from long flight, we go straight to bike race. Bob wins the race, right after long flight. You understand?”
Cameron was, by his own admission, “a weekend warrior” and quickly set about failing to live up to Bobke’s precedent by watching rather than racing that afternoon. Despite his lack of WorldTour dreams, Cameron has been going back to the farm for nearly 15 years and looks forward to spending his summers rubbing shoulders, and sharing rice and ketchup dinners, with the kids who might be winning Paris-Roubaix in three years and the cast and crew that’ll give them a launch pad to get there.
Certainly, the trip is shorter and less enjoyable for some. I remember more than a few kids, fresh from an ego-boosting early season in California or Melbourne, who found themselves rebooking a flight home and found their teammates eagerly picking over their abandoned possessions as soon as they left. It’s not normal to want to spend your summers facing solid weeks of rain, days of racing so hard that they leave you bedridden, and a bed so uncomfortable that you get up and go riding anyway.
Bike racing in Belgium is tough, and Staf Boone is no exception to that maxim. But there’s something to be said for honesty, and Boone is an equal-opportunity grumpy old man. It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, Russian or Indian, experienced or novice, if you work hard and do well, he’ll support you. If you give up, or don’t try, you’ll probably be showing yourself out of that barn door pretty quickly.
But maybe you’ll be back the next year, because just like racing in Belgium, or at all for that matter, there’s something irrationally appealing about that draughty farm house in Ghent.
James Stout is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in Modern History at UC San Diego. He is currently working on a book about anti-fascism in the 1936 Popular Olympics. Most of the time, he can be found riding around San Diego or working with his non-profit colleagues in Southern Arizona.