Arkansas native Tanner Ward is spending the year racing in Europe. In Belgium to be exact. We caught up with him to see how things are going. Check it!
OCA: Three weeks in, how’s it going in general?
TW: It has been going good. Coming over here there were a lot of unknowns as far as support and all of the specific details on the team setup and the day to day living. The owners of Puur Frituur, a fritz shop beneath where I am living, have been extremely helpful. The team staff has also been very welcoming and made sure that I have what I need. As far as the weather, it could be better, a lot better, but it is Belgium and I was mentally prepared for cold and rainy weather, just not this long. Before my last Interclub Race in Mol it was snowing at the beginning of the race, 32 degrees, and about 15 mph winds. On the results side of things they have been lacking a little bit but I think that was a little expected with how my coach had me approaching the race season. We knew it would be a long season so we didn’t dive into high intensity training before I got over here. My best result so far has been 10th place in a 1.12A Kermesse at Zele.
OCA: What are the main differences about European racing?
TW: The roads are extremely narrow and usually at some point you are in open fields where crosswinds wreak havoc on the peloton. All of the riders are fully aware of this and always use the wind as an equalizer in the race. If you are caught sleeping and not in the right position then that could be your race when the field splits because it will. Ohh and not to mention the cobbled sections and immense amount of street furniture you have to watch out for.
The style of racing is definitely different. It’s like going to a fitness war to establish the first breakaway of the race. It is not just given away. Usually the whole first hour is extremely painful and once the breakaway sticks everyone gives everything they have to make the breakaway stick. Riders ride so hard they end up riding themselves out of the breakaway. Maybe not the smartest thing but to me you don’t see that as much in the US. The racing in the US seems to have an “on and off switch” and in Belgium it feels like the switch is always “ON”.
The length of the races is part of the reason why I decided to race in Europe for this season. The US race scene has seemed to be pushed more and more to criterium racing. Which criterium racing is great for all parties putting on the event but I don’t think it’s great for racers unless you are a criterium specialist. This type of racing doesn’t do much for someone wanting to make it to the next level racing professional in Europe.
The fans are absolutely incredible. It’s what they live and breathe here. If you have ever been to a horse race and seen the horses in viewing stables before the race then being one of those horses is what it’s like as you are on the start line of a Belgian race. All of the fans are eyeing you up, checking for all of the physical attributes they see in a winner, and then they go place their bets. Even here at Puur Frituur, often Paul and Jeannine (the owners) will introduce me to old friends of theirs, explaining to them that I am here for racing and they immediately become interested.
OCA: Have ridden with any cycling celebrities?
TW: Not any huge names that are recognizable by most US fans. I have raced against Laurens De Vreese (Astana Pro Team) and Frederick Backaert (Wanty Groupe Gobert who raced the Tour de France last year). Wout van Aert lives in the town of Herentals which is just 10km’s away from where I am staying in Lichtaart and maybe one day I will run into him while I am out training.
OCA: Have you ridden up any famous bergs?
TW: I did ride some last year when I was staying in Oudenaarde but to my knowledge there aren’t any famous bergs reasonably close to where I am staying. Last year I rode Koppenberg. All I can say is it is amazing how easy the professionals make it look because it’s not.
OCA: Favorite thing to eat so far?
TW: I have to go with the famous Puur Frituur fritz (aka french fries). They are crispy, hot, and thick fries that hit the spot right after a cold day of training.
OCA: How can folks follow you?
TW: I have created a blog at naturalstatecadence.com where I am posting memorable stories while I’m over here. It’s not all about bike racing but just my time over here in general with some humor thrown in. The site is still a work in progress but mostly complete. I am also on STRAVA and Instagram.