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Posted on 10/23/2009 9:30:00 AM


It’s not the Champs Elysee on the last Sunday in June. It’s not the last ‘k’ of the Poggio on the run in to San Remo, or even the coffee pot at Mellow Johnnies on a Friday night. The centre of world cycling is not the velodrome at the UCI HQ in Switzerland, the Eddy Merckx trophy wall, Coppi’s headstone or even my friend’s toilet with every pee splash cycling magazine published in the last 24 months.
The world centre of cycling is Belgium. All of it. From the coal heaps of Liege to the sand pits in the classrooms of the Flanderian school children. Belgium is cycle sport’s heart. Sure, France has biking as the national sport and the Italian’s break out their 10speeds and ride for an espresso every May, the same way I only play tennis when the centre court at Wimbledon is taking a hammering. But it is not ‘blood’ cycling. For the Belgium people it is life. They eat it up, from road to Roubaix, 9 to 90: biking is life. Live or live happier- live with Lycra, sweat and passion.
Cycling, the way most nations do it, is not a spectator sport. In Ireland everyone that turns up to a road race is riding, related or looking bored in a 40-year-old ambulance, hoping for a touch of wheels to use their night school skills. Cycling isn’t in the blood of the Irish (Guinness) nor the English (Soccer), the Italians (mirror) or the general American public (Mc Donald’s). You reading this, you are in the minority. Chain oil and chamois cream will be found in your DNA but not your brothers’. Ask your neighbour who Tom Boonan is, the guess reply is ‘Senator’ rather than superstar. Ask an old man in a bar in Brussels, who hasn’t been on a bike in 50 years; and he will slowly produce an eared picture from his wallet of Tom winning Roubaix. It’s in the blood.
The weekend criterium results are on the front page rather than the back. Kids get a bike from Santa like everywhere else in the broadband world, but in Antwerp it has SRAM red.
On Sunday past, Neils Albert, in front of a scarfed, Shimano loving crowd, won the world cyclo cross championships. He had led from start to finish and made the icy, rough ground look like track boards. The 50,000 of his countrymen, who crossed over into Holland to watch him, roared and slapped the advertising hoardings with euphoria at his every rev. Flags from the supporters clubs were stiff in the freezing wind. The black, red and yellow national colours were on faces, coats and the very air, as he passed on each of the masterful laps. Beer vanished and frits disappeared; fuelling the charge and excitement. This was cycling’s superbowl, world cup and Olympics. The refrigerated air and the snow could do nothing to put out the fire raging in the veins of the Belgium people.
As the last accredited photographer to arrive at the finish, I was on the edge of the fifty strong scrum, vying for the best shot of the young Belgium crossing the line. Elbows were tensed and tempers sharpened. The zoom lenses pointed parallel on the finishing straight. There is one chance to capture the money shot of the day. Camera settings are re-checked and focus switched to manual and test fired at the line judge. Nerves are sharpened as the crowds cheer, giving notice of the rider before he is seen. Neils rounds the last bend… wait for it…wait…. then Albert crossed the line and I missed it. Completely. Every other bibbed photographer got the shot and were looking at the back of their camera to see what would be on the cover of tomorrow’s dailies or next month’s cycling glossies. I had nothing.
My position was on the edge of the press line that bordered the family enclosure. Ten meters from the line as Neils raised his hands aloft, my finger poised over the shutter button: a woman let out a scream beside me. It was expelled with such emotion; I turned expecting to see a body. I took my eye off the race and the job. The noise came with the passion that only the proudest mother- of the biggest name- in the most passionate cycling country- could muster. ‘Mummy’ Albert fell silent with clasped hands. And I looked up to see her fast son directed towards dope control- it was too late. Missed it, yet the smile on my face gave nothing away.
Neils who was in hospital six weeks ago getting his spleen removed, was now on the top of the world. This mother who had visited a dangerously ill son in intensive care, now looked at her boy- the champion del mondo. Cyclists in Belgium are worshipped, not an annoyance on the road - we are heroes. Travelling there is like going home.
The centre of world cycling is, without doubt Belgium. The centre of cycling in Belgium last Sunday was in the proud tears of mummy Albert. She was lost and invisible in the mass of photographers; with their lens pointing the wrong way, for the best shot of the day.


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