Frites and fields: Portraits of Belgium from E3

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Somewhere just before the Taaienberg, near where the soigneurs line up to hold bottles by their lids at arm’s length, a leafy hedge separates the bike race and the party, where Europop beats and old men smoke cigarettes and the heat of a small grill warms hands holding cold beer. The buildings are made of brick accented by darker brick and the road is concrete, split down the middle just wide enough for a bicycle tire, creating a valley of doom that’s ended many a classics season before it had a chance to begin.

E3 is a highway, and the name of a bike race. The highway starts in Belgium and careens into France, just like the best two weeks of bike racing all year. At the beginning of those two weeks is a race on a Friday that runs through neighborhoods, past the hedge with the party that smells like sausage and cigarettes, up the Taaienberg, over the Paterberg, into Oude Kwaremont, which is also the name of a beer, and back to Harelbeke and the highway that gives the race its name.

I have long attempted to paint a portrait, so to speak, of Belgium this time of year. The beer and the frites and all the old brick buildings looking out at early season fields with little green hints of spring. The smell of manure and the taste of it. The contrast between these things and the accumulated color and energy of professional bike races. How sleepy Belgium blooms and lights up as races pass through and then closes down again like the bike race was never there. But all I have are words, and sometimes actual portraits are best.

I was poking through Jered and Ashley Gruber’s images from E3 Binckbank/Harelbeke/Prijs Vlaanderen yesterday, looking for some photos for the CyclingTips Instagram. Those two are in the habit of pointing their lenses at things that are not the bike race. Which may seem unusual, but in fact not-bike-race-stuff is what you mostly look at when you’re at a bike race. People. Brick buildings. Fields without much in them. I found this particular gallery, even more than usual, to capture what I know of bike racing in Belgium, and what I have tried many times to paint in words. It’s a job better suited to pictures.


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