Gus...cycling's lost soul.
For many cyclists today– cyclosportifs, road racers, and triathletes, cycling has become so much… I submit too much… about ‘the stuff.' Or as the Brits say, ‘the kit’. You know, Monocoque frames with integral seatposts. Aero carbon wheels. Power meters with GPS. Electronic shifting. Electrolyte replacement recovery concoctions. So much of the talk these days is of ‘the stuff’, and the edge it promises. Manifested by the incessant pursuit of what’s new and shiny - and fed by the planned obsolescence that makes the industry go round. Big eyes and small round ooohing mouths coveting the lightest, fastest, coolest. Expensive toys, for big boys.
This appetite and desire is carefully fed by multiple glossy magazines, and cycling websites that put any piece of technical information or knowledge literally at your fingertips. More info than one can find time to digest. It's addictive fuel for a gear-driven lifestyle, this cocktail of glossy photos and streaming video that combine to activate that primal response deep in the cerebral cortex of the road-smitten aficionado. Ugh. Me want! Where plastic? These days, the promise of better cycling performance is only a ‘click-to-buy,’ and lame excuse to the wife away, isn't it?
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not that much of a hypocrite. I like bike swag as much as the next guy, maybe more. Today’s bike stuff is wonderful, a motivator and a shared passion. It just that it seems to me that for many, the 'stuff' arm on the personal balance has become a little over-weighted. It’s become a primary factor, this notion that better performance is something you can ‘acquire’.
If you're not careful, the stuff can obscure those elements that remain the true soul of cycling. I feel a little lucky those elements were instilled in me as a teenager by a guy who represented a living, quintessential example of cycling's true soul.
The soul of cycling is formed by persistent effort, in solitude. It's forged through consistent self-denial and sacrifice. And like the best cuisine, it's a slow creation process that takes ample time and patience - a concept seemingly lost in today's instant gratification society.
A cycling soul is created by the application of simple principles, and measured by physical self-tests thankfully unchanged by time, fashion, and technology. Forging a cycling soul is about building character, not building up a new bike. It's asporting contest between men, not equipment. And when the conditions are bad, and that voice inside says no more, it's that cycling soul that you draw on to hang on that little bit longer. La Voglia as Bartali called it. That desire to turn the pedals around one more time.
When Greg LeMond’s legendary French coach Cyrille Guimard was interviewed by Bicycling magazine visiting Amerca 30 years ago to sign up the Reno flash, he was asked which bike equipment he advised using. Guimard just laughed and said, 'Use any brand of bike and equipment you want, it really doesn’t make any difference.'
Or to quote Stephen Roche: 'People forget that guys rode over 30 mph before the heart rate monitor.'
So whenever I’m trapped with guys debating the virtues of this or that pedal’s cornering angle or carbon stem weight, as the voices fade to Charlie Brown teacher wahh wahhhhh.... I just go glossy eyed, check out, and nostalgically reminisce. About Gus.
When I started taking cycling way too seriously as a 17 year old back in '77, information about the sport was not easy to obtain. You could go into a bike shop stocked to the gills with lower end Raleigh or cheap French import ten-speeds left over from the bike boom of the early 70’s. If you looked hard and asked you could find the basics - they might have a size run of black Detto Pietro leather shoes with nail-on TA Anquetil cleats, and a leather Lambertini hairnet or two somewhere out in the back. If you were lucky, you’d score a decent pair of black wool Moa-sport or Vittore Gianni shorts, and a nice Weyless wool jersey that fit with pockets front and back. Back in ’77, one could buy a Reynolds 531 steel framed bike with tubular for about $250 with full French gear: Mafac brakes that squealed into turns, Simplex shifters that would slip unless you cranked down hard on the wing nuts, and Stronglight duraluminum cranks that were a bitch to keep clean. I can still see that first race bike. It was a white second hand Mercier, acquired with lawn mowing profits of $125.
Bike? Easy. Advice? 1970’s twenty-something bike-shop-hippies in bell bottoms with afros, bad facial hair and bell bottomed jeans were the first source... You want to race, eh? Hey man, it’s a really hard sport you know. What you should do is…
|Don't use this one.|
Followed by bullshit unsolicited second hand advice.
Real, credible advice about cycling and cycling racing? Back then, you were on your own boy. And to get the real skinny, back then you had to tap into the old-boy network. Those precious insights handed down, word of mouth, from generation to generation. The Knowledge. Impossible to learn stuff like, why you shouldn’t use silk tires in the rain or for training. Why red Clement rim cement is better than white Tubasti. Why you should slide back on your saddle when climbing while pulling on the tops of the bars using your torso as a lever to squeeze power to the cranks. What to eat during a ride. How to smoothly rotate off the front of a pace line and not vary the tempo. How to corner in the wet (outside pedal down, with all your weight on it – don’t lean too hard, steer the bike). Back then, any quest for ‘the knowledge’ came not from printed or visual media, but from a rare human subject kind enough to impart ‘the knowledge’ upon you.
I absorbed some of the knowledge by riding with the older, more experienced racers in my local cycling club: I learned as much as I could and will always be grateful to great guys like Jeff Joiner, Bill Reagan. But I craved more. That 'euro-pro' edge. So like many before and after me, I went to see Gus.
Gus Van Cauwenberghe was a 60-something Belgian-American, the perpetually smiling, friendly owner of ‘Gus International Bicycle Shop’ in North Hampton NH and founder of the Seacoast Velo Club. Tan and fit with sinewy thin muscles on his 5’ 7” frame, and black curly hair and glasses, Gus was an institution at almost every New England USCF road race in the 70’s and early 80’s, where he’d ride and win against a few others in the 60+ class – a time when a guy still racing at that age were a rarity. Gus was multiple US national master champion – his last stars and stripes jersey won at age 77. He was, as they say nowadays, the real deal.
|Gus Van Cauwenberghe's 30's hero card|
To most of the 70’s racing fraternity, Gus was an elderly bike shop owner who had raced in Europe before he came to America. But for those who cared to learn it - his real story was way more fascinating than that.
Gus was born on Nov 30, 1918 in Geraardsbergen, Belgium - just 19 days after the last artillery shells of the first World War were lobbed onto Flanders fields scarred into a moonscape by 4 years of the bombardment and hellish fighting that butchered an entire generation of European boys. Geraardsbergen is right on the edge of south-eastern Flanders, where the Dutch speaking Flemish begin to mingle with the French speaking Walloons in nearby villages. Unusually for the flatland that is Flanders, Geraardsbergen (or Grammont as the French call it) is built on the eastern edge of the Flemish Ardennes. The town surrounds a major hill that’s world renowned as the decisive, penultimate climb in the Tour of Flanders. De Muur. the ‘wall.’ The Tour of Flanders ‘heartbreak hill’.
Gus was the son of a coal miner, and his family had precious little money. So to supplement the family income, at age 13, Gus took a job delivering pastries to wealthy families on Sundays. He pestered and finally convinced his mother to let him quit school and work at the bakery full time. The 50 francs (~ $1) he earned each month went to the family. He got to keep the tips though, and saved them to buy his first bike. Gus would later say to a newspaper reporter, "I rode that bike all the time. It was the best beginning I could have had." He once told me his daily training rides always included going up the cobblestoned 20% Muur to the chapel at the summit. Over time, this daily labor bore fruit.
He started entering races, winning many races against 60 or so other Belgian schoolboys in the kermesse (village fair) races held about four times a week that are an integral part of Flemish culture – the Belgian version of our Pop Warner Baseball or High School football. Only unlike in those US youth sports, in the Kermesses there was cash. Big cash at the time. With his first win, Van Cauwenberge pocketed twice what he made in a month at the bakery.
Racecraft and tactical gamesmanship came naturally to Gus. He wasn’t the strongest, but he might just have been the craftiest. They nicknamed him "The Fox.’ (De Rare Vos). He’d often play possum, and make his
He won so many races so fast that in 1938, he was asked to sign a professional contract with the French Alcyon-Dunlop team.
|It was Quick Step - circa 1938.|
Now signing for Alcyon in 1938 would be the equivalent of riding for Lance Armstong’s Radio Shack squad today. Alcyon was a major French automobile and bicycle manufacturer whose cycling teams had so dominated the Tour de France during the 1920’s that they were one of the primary reasons that Tour organizer Henri Desgrange decided to shift from trade teams to a ‘national teams’ formula in the 30’s. A move to stop trade team (read- Alcyon) dominance. Good plan, but the only problem was that the Alcyon sponsored riders continued to win anyway. Alcyon keep winning with French team stars like Andre Leducq, Georges Speicher. And they kept winning with top Belgians like Romain and Sylvere Maes who won the Tour de France in 1935, 36 and 39.
To support these superstars, Alcyon was always looking to snag the top Flemish talent. And in 1938, one of the best new talents was Gus Van Cauwenberghe. In Belgium, where virtually every schoolboy races a bike, Gus was the equivalent of being the number one draft choice for the New York Yankees. And his debut on the professional scene was sensational. In the French pro stage race the ‘Tour de L'Ouest', he won Stage 7 to st. Brieuc, and finished 5th overall.
Closer to home, he took third place in the Gent-Wevelgem spring classic. Called the "Sprinter's Classic" today due to its flat finish, Gent-Wevelgem is known for the negotiating the Kemmelberg - a hill paved with cobbles. Back before World War II –Ghent Wevelgem was not the sprinters classic it’s become today, but a super-hard classic that covered dozens and dozens of miles of broken cobbles… many around the Kemmelberg still broken by the battle of Ypres that made that hill a tomb for millions during the 1914-18 'war to end all wars'. To cap off his neo-pro year, Gus was 3rd in the Omloop Van Belge (Tour of Belgium). Not bad for a debut.
In 1939, seeking new opportunity, he switched to the another French team – ‘Armour’- along with Luxembourg’s Clemens brothers. The year was a sophomore slump – a year without major successes. Gus finished 38th in Belgium’s most presigious race – the Ronde Van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) 18 min. behind the winner, Karel Kaers.
Tour of Flanders, 1938
(Photo: Archive Stuyfssportsverhalen)
During the Nazi occupation, cycling racing did continue in Flanders. The Germans went a little easier on the Dutch-speaking Flemish Belgians than they did on those they occupied in many other countries, and they wanted to keep the appearance of normalcy as much as possible. Many of Gus’ fellow pro riders continued to race for their daily bread, often as individuals, and winning in-kind merchandise. Gus tried to make a go of it till 1942, but eventually, he gave it up. Always practically minded, the money just wasn’t there. So the training stopped and the race for survival began.
When the war was over, Flanders tried to recover from the umpteenth time of being Europe’s battlefield. But for Gus, the thought of what might have been haunted him. He later said that when racing resumed in Flanders, he couldn’t bear to look at a bike.
So he left. He and his wife emigrated to the US in 1954. He worked for years in supermarkets, and eventually settled in the little New Hampshire seacoast town of North Hampton.
But once it gets in the blood, once it forms your soul, the bike is hard to purge. Sometime in the early 70’s he showed up outside my friend Jeff Joiner’s Marblehead, Mass. bicycle shop. Jeff was one of the original Raleigh boys – and the top racer on Massachusetts north shore in the mid 70s.
|Gus' disciple Jeff Joiner winning|
Newton stage in Tour of Middlesex, 1975
Jeff looked out the front window saw an older guy showing off doing a track stand on a one-speed utility bike with no hands, entertaining some local kids. Intrigued, he said hi to Gus and they started talking cycling. Gus enthusiastically told Jeff about his European professional career. Jeff first thought Gus might be one of those crackpots who for some reason always seem to be attracted to bicycle shops. But curiosity piqued, he did alittle research, verifed the old man’s claims, and immediately became one of Gus’ first disciples, riding several times up week up to North Hampton to be trained the Gus way.
So on one cold crisp late autumn day in 1977, I set out on my own pilgrimage to see Gus. The quest for 'the knowledge.' This was after a summer of getting my butt handed to me in my first year of junior races. Dropped on big climbs. Dropped in high speed criteriums. Caught in Time Trials. Riding hard, but still getting hammered. I couldn’t understand it. I’d won my first few novice races, so why weren’t my fast, one hour training rides doing it? No good. Maybe Gus can help me?
I remember that morning I took extra care to look the part of the serious aspirant. The Mercier was washed and wiped, shining brightly white. I pulled on my only training uniform – the classic sartorial garb of a 1970’s Flahute-wannabe. A long sleeved heavy royal blue wool team sweater - with my Mass Bay Road Club sponsor “PERNOD” embroidered in yellow on the chest and back, pulled over a second wool jersey, all over a ribbed italian wool t-shirt. Black wool cycling shorts. Tan corduroy knickers held up by clip-on suspenders, over long wool patterned cross country ski-socks,. Heavy knit full fingered winter gloves with leather palms. A black Belgian-style winter wool cycling cap with brim and earflaps, put on with the bill facing backwards. To guard against frozen toes, a pair of heavy ragwool socks with a hole cut out of the bottom for the cleat to protrude through, pulled over a pair of black Colnago leather cycling shoes.
Two T.A. bottles for a long ride stuck into steel bottle cages. One filled with water, one with hot tea and honey. The one with tea was in a felt insulting cover to help keep it warm. Back jersey pockets filled with a banana, some rice cakes, dried apricots and fig newtons. A spare tubular tire was folded under the saddle in an old sock, tied on with a toe-strap. Frame pump in place, I clipped into gleaming steel toe clips, yanked the Binda straps tight, and left home, pedaling north up Rt. 1A. It was crisp and misty, and I settled into a nice tempo, spanking those steel cottered cranks around in a 50x19 gear. It was cold, about low 40 degreeish. You could see your breath. The near-winter light was low, the trees almost all bare. And everything was shades of grey. Wind at the back, I made good time on the flat road up to Newburyport, over the old steel bridge, and along the coast to North Hampton.
At the shop it was a quiet fall day, the off season. Gus smiled, recognized me from the races, and spent a good hour or more talking with me. He looked at my bike and asked why I didn’t carry two spare tires. (Always, two spares and a good pump, always - even in races!) He had me sit on the bike and cast his expert eye. My saddle was too high, and too far forward he thought, pulling out a spanner for the adjustment.
He laughed at my concerns about my lack of results with a dismissivewave of the hand: 'It takes at least 3 years to make a top bike rider. You’ve only got one down. I know what I’m talking about. Don’t worry, stay at it…take it one step at a time'
The hours flew by, interrupted by the occasional customer. But after taking care of business, Gus would enthusiastically come back and impart more knowledge. Time to go? He wrote a training schedule on a page for me to try. I thanked him profusely.
The ride home was fueled by newfound motivation. In keeping with the flemish atmosphere of the day, the weather turned and it started to rain with about 20 miles to go. It was cold now, and late afternoon. I pressed silently into the wind and the rain, eyes fixed on the wet road, spirit in the clouds. The bare lowlands, farmlands and marshes of Newbury, Rowley and Ipswich were transformed into my own personal Flanders. The 'plat pays' of which Jacques Brel once sang does have new-world parallels. I daydreamed, mentally planned a coming winter and spring of training, and visualized a new year filled with victories.
Over the next few years, I'd periodically ride up to see Gus, to take in some more of the knowledge. With his tutelage, and that of other mentors like Jeff Joiner and Bill Reagan, my second year as a Junior showed improvement. Several top 5 places, minutes came off my club time trial time. Even a few wins in club and open road races. Nothing like Gus, but better than a lot of others.
In my third year racing, Gus' Seacoast Velo club organized an April training series in Stratham NH and Eliot Maine. Four 40 mile road races for Seniors. Preparation before the big May races. I was chomping at the bit after a winter of Gus-style long rides.
My first senior race was one race of elimination, in a cold rain. I attacked incessantly, forming the winning break. It was down to three of us with one 7 mile lap to go. My rear tire hissed soft, just a mile after the start finish line. No spare. No pump. No following car. Merde.
I limped back to the start, Gus was there. "Ohhh.. 'Eddy Maertens', what happened, eh?" With a slap on the back, he commended my ride, and form, but also wagged a finger to chide me, still smiling, for not having the proscibed pump and spare. (Bah, American kids....) He also remembered to say "see, didn't I tell you Eddy, it takes three years, eh? Three years..."
Later that year, I remember another back pat after finishing 2nd in the New England road race championships at Lake Sunapee. I think Gus won his category that day, but I'm not quite sure. No matter. It was a glorious August day, I can still see the smiling face of that sinewy man who'd seen so much, and seemed so content with his life, and his sport. Cycling was a small world back then. The sun was out, everyone was happy. It was one of those great days, in a great sport. A nice memory.
I think the last time I saw Gus was in 1980 or so at the Witches Cup...the next year, he retired to Florida, but continued to race and win championships until he was 77.
He was a man with the bike so embedded in his soul, he raced until his body wouldn't let him anymore. Not for money. Or for fame. He rode because of who he was, the quintessential Flandrien.
In 1998, after racing in the national championships in Tallahassee, his vision became impaired. Doctors diagnosed macular degeneration. He told a reporter later, "Once, I told a friend that I would race until I was 100, but that wasn't meant to be." That local newspaper reported that he still avidly followed Lance in the Tour de France. Gus passed away on September 21, 2006. You can find his palmares here.
I feel very lucky to have known Gus a little bit, and to tell his story.
Gus' example has grown in meaning for me as I've entered masters-age. Racing later in life for the love of the sport: That's the soul of cycling. If a guy who'd once been a star, had a promising career taken away by war and adverse circumstance, still returned to the bike - what excuse do we have?
I ask: Who's the real champion: the modern pro EPO doper-cheater... or Gus VanCauwenberghe?
Gus' Bike shop is still in operation, and has a website. To remember Gus, the current owners ran a retro type event this year on the L'Eroica format. Appropriate. Go ride it next year. Bring an old bike. Wear wool.
The soul of cycling? Gus VanCauwenberghe. No doubt.