As more than a bit of a cycling neophyte, I figured that Daniel Lee's 2011 book - The Belgian Hammer: Forging Young Americans into Professional Cyclists - simply had to refer to some sort of legendary trainer, a cross between, oh, Bobby Knight and Rasputin screaming in Flemish to "ride, ride, ride." This is not the case. The titular phrase is of Lee's own invention, meant to describe the crucible that is Belgium for young American cyclists looking to make the leap to professional competition.
"The term 'hammer' is, of course, common in cycling - when someone's riding really hard, people say he's putting the hammer down - and Belgium personifies the toughest style of racing," Lee explains. "If you put it in American sports terms, people think about team in Chicago and Pittsburgh playing a smashmouth style of football. It's kind of the same thing: Belgium's known for tough conditions, with its rain and cobblestones, while Italy's known more for its flair and finesse."
For years, ambitious American cyclists headed over to Belgium as a sort of pilgrimage. Lee, who got into bike racing as a teenager in the '80s, inspired by Greg LeMond's Tour de France victory and the exoticism of the sport, made his way over there during the early '90s while in grad school, spending three weeks racing as an amateur. He found the trip impressive (he still has a journal from the experience), but left that world behind for a spell while launching into his career as a journalist, which eventually took him to The Indianapolis Star and San Jose Mercury News, among other publications.
But in recent years, he's returned to the bike in earnest, becoming part of a Fishers-based bike team, The M.O.B. Squad, which has helped launch championship-winning riders, including Guy East and Adam Leibovitz. And having embarked on a slightly different career path - he currently works as communication director for cycling component manufacturer Zipp Speed Weaponry - he began to think more about the process by which guys like East and Leibovitz rise to the top, and how it might just make a good book.
"I read a lot of cycling books, most of them about the Tour de France and riders in their prime, and I hadn't really read a book about what it takes to get there. If this were baseball, it would be about what it takes to get out of the minors."
All this ended up taking Lee back to Belgium, where what was a freelance experience for aspiring American riders back when he went has since become something officially sanctioned, with the US National team operating a training program for younger riders in Flanders.
"They stay over there anywhere from a couple weeks to a whole season, racing for the US Development Team. It gives them a chance to train on the same roads they'll be racing on. One thing that's hard for Americans to grasp is how small the countries are; Belgium, for instance, is about the the same size as Maryland. So these races go over the same roads, and there's kind of an advantage where, if you know these roads really well, you know when you can move up in the field, where the tough and dangerous parts are - even where certain potholes are."
Lee followed several racers through the 2010 season for The Belgian Hammer, heading to both domestic and international races, logging hundreds of hours of interview time. Key figures emerged: Ben King, whom Lee describes as a "quiet, shy kid with inner toughness, proud of having the guts to chase his dream full-on," and who has ended up joining the Tour de France-competing Radio Shack/Nissan team; Marian University's Sinead Miller, who, like other women riders, pursued her dream knowing that, as Lee puts it, "like in other areas of pro sports, women riders don't get as much attention, don't make as much money."
These young American riders had to face challenges above and beyond those born into a European cycling culture, according to Lee, whose Thursday talk at Marian University will focus on the themes of his book, now entering its third printing on Breakaway Books. "There are certain requirements: You have to be able to put out a certain amount of power on the bike to be able to hold those speeds; you have to be comfortable riding in those close packs; you have to have a certain amount of technical and strategic savvy in how you plan out your race. But on top of that for Americans over in Europe, there really does need this incredible cultural flexibility. Obviously, Europe is a comfortable, advanced place, but it's one thing to go there on vacation and another to live over there. Professional cyclists are on the road the majority of months of the year, and they may spend just a month at home. It rains a lot in northern Europe, and the food can be quite different. A lot of these guys have to make the decision to quit college, because they can't pursue both cycling and their education.
"There's just a tremendous amount of sacrifice in those areas. That's what I've tried to capture in the book, some of these decisions and hardships in the sport. Some days you'll be out there on a five-hour race, and it'll be 35-degree rain the whole time and you'll crash three times. You need to be able to pick yourself up, put that day behind you and move forward."
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