Tessenderlo, Belgium: Heart of Flanders, heart of cycling. Trivial notes: The town was the site of Tom Steels’ 2004 Belgian National Championship and, in 2005, Ludo Dierckxsens’ final race as a pro. Personal notes: It’s home of the first bread vending machine I’ve ever seen and in its January misery (-3˚ Celsius; wet grey skies; a jacket-nullifying wind), it begged one question above all else: How do people here get fit for March racing? Unlike, say, Pittsburgh or Cleveland, the expectation in Flanders is that you’ll be flying-fit in March. Summertime racing is near-irrelevant. Getting hard when it’s hardest: That’s the essential expectation that will always separate Flanders from the rest of the world.
With my head down, walking the nighttime streets of Tessenderlo, the answer to my question was grim and it was obvious: In this place unlike any other on Earth, bicycle racing is a treasured, holy thing. The boys who suffer and starve to put themselves in reach of the podium — they are royalty of a kingdom existent only here. By what means were they getting fit for the impending races? Perhaps they were like the squat old ladies we saw commuting home in the icy twilight just a few hours before — bundled 4′ thick with coats and scarves because riding through the winter shit in January is just what you do in Flanders. Or, perhaps, the apartments I was walking beneath were home to madly iron, madly dreaming souls passing hour #3 in today’s trainer session.
Tessenderlo has one other hardwired connection to the soul of competitive cycling: It is the home of Ridley Bicycles. To visit their HQ and then spend time in the surrounding villages is to appreciate the meaning of their famous tagline We Are Belgium. There are glamorous bike companies out there: Cervelo’s positioning as a subsidiary of NASA; the Rapha models’ curated pout; the home-wrecking aphrodesia wrought by anything Pinarello.
To visit Ridley is to see the opposite.
Part of it is the nature of the region: Immensely industrialized. What mountains and the sea are to Italy, smokestacks and mine heaps are to Belgium. The surrounding roads are riven by the black-belching freight trucks of northern Europe. For the first time in 27 years, memories arose of All The Right Moves.
Yet that spirit — the We Are Belgium — it’s more than mere surroundings. Ridley is a company whose roots are utterly blue collar, and whose growth in prominence has been anything but easy. We root for them not just for the fact they’re at ground zero of the world’s best bike races, but because their corporate journey has been tempered by tough times. In that toughness they’ve found strength and, ultimately, global success.
Ridley built an expansive new HQ only a year ago — a long way from the company’s origins as a one-man paint booth. The beauty of the facility gives physical reality to the truth that Ridley has become Belgium’s most widely respected bike manufacturer. True to the company roots, much of the HQ is devoted to the painting, the decal application, and the clear-coating of their high-end frameset range. And in a sign of the loyalty the founder and CEO, Jochim Aerts, has for the customers he earned in his early days, a corner of the company is stacked with respray-in-progress car wheels — a formerly important part of his paint business.
Ridley arguably has the most comprehensive line of high-end bikes in the marketplace. The Helium is a superlight mountain goat. The Damocles is dialed for a day on the pavé. The Noah is your super-sexy summertime solo breakaway bike. The Dean is the same thing, TT-style. And the X-Fire has won the last 300 world cyclocross championships. It’s a diversity that spawns bike lust possibly trumped by only one other thing — a visit to Ridley HQ aka immersion in Flemish race culture. Some photos from our recent afternoon there —