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Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Amazing Race

Gent is the land of the bicycle. Everyone but us has one. The University area is especially rife with them -- you take your life into your hands stepping off the curb. The streets all have bike lanes. It isn't unusual to see a phalanx of 50 or 100 students, many half-asleep, the girls pedaling somehow in very short skirts and high heels, heading en masse from our part of town to one of the University's other campuses. How bicyclists manage on the cobblestones is beyond me, but I've never seen one go down.

Today we realized that biking is not just a way to get around but a sport here, even an obsession. For two days we'd been watching strange tents go up on St. Pietersplein, decorated with logos of local and national TV stations and newspapers. Something big was about to happen, we could tell.

Phil was hoping it would be the Gent version of the Palio race in Siena, where horses pound around the square, slipping on cobblestones and bashing their riders' brains out until one city ward or other is proclaimed the winner. But no: it was a bicycle race. An 120 kilometer international bicycle race! Called  the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, it's named after a newspaper that is now out of business.

We were going grocery shopping and stopped by just before the first riders crossed the finish line. The crowd wasn't very big; we chatted with a woman on the French team who wasn't riding because she was sick, and she told us
that this portion of the event was the women's race. Far more fans would turn out for the men's race. We sneered at the rampant sexism together and made a great deal of noise cheering the women as they sped into the square. The winner was Eleanora Van Dyck, a Dutchwoman. Later I learned that a Belgian won the men's race. So probably the cheering was louder.

And no, don't ask. I am not getting a bike.

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