Interview: Spring Classics, RUI, and Mind Numbing Cold with Peter Easton

Holding FlagHaving VisitFlander.US and Velo Classic Tours sponsor Staten CX has been an incredible treat. Based in New York City, Velo Classic Tours is the only U.S. tour operator that offers trips to the Spring Classics in Belgium, and have been traveling to Belgium since 2002. Translated, VCT is the only U.S. tour operator bold enough to cater to crazy cyclists who appreciate cold, mud, gravel, and good beer. And where will those cats be on November 30th 2008? Genius!

In addition to supplying a tent for VisitFlanders.US, VCT has offered up a $300 transferable discount to their tours as a race prize. So some lucky person will not only reign supreme in their category, but they’ll also be on a jet plane next spring to the Tour of Flanders while recovering from another successful ‘cross season. We’re doing some intense calculations to figure out exactly which category will see this prize. I can be bribed (with food).

Peter Easton is a walking encyclopedia of world cycling. I rigged up a microphone, put my phone on speaker, and called Peter to chat about the Spring Classics, RUI (riding under the influence), and bone chilling cold.

Please excuse any grammar / spelling errors. I’m still thawing from my own ride this morning.

How do the Spring Classic tours differ, let’s say, from your Tour de France tours?

The Tour will come up with their course each year. We sit around and wait for that course announcement, but out of the 20 stages we’re interested in the mountain top finishes and maybe the penultimate time trail, or this year Mont Ventoux. I’m sure that some people don’t even realize what part of France the other stages might be in.

But I’ve gotten to know the Tour of Flanders course over the past 8 years. I can ride it and everybody knows the major climbs on the course, and sections of cobbles. We all know the Mur de Grammont. We all know the Koppenberg. And for Paris Roubaix we know the Arenberg Forest and the final sections leading to the Velodrome. That’s what really signifies the greatness of a race. And I think it’s what we can relate to as cyclists. You get great riders that do great rides over great courses. But the course will be the same. The challengers that come on the course each year will be different. That’s what is so exciting.

With the Tour, it’s interesting because again you go to the finish of a stage and there are sort of two finnishes. You have the guy who comes in and wins and you have the yellow jersey. And that’s it for the day. But watching the Finish of the Tour of Flanders and being in the crowd!

Take 2007. The implication of Leif Hoste winning that race was enormous. Everyone was poised to celebrate a Flemish rider winning their race. When he lost by a centimeter to Ballan, suddenly there was dead silence in town. They all turned around and walked away. And you could see Leif Hoste on the screen with his head in his hands crying because he realized that was probably as close as he’ll ever get to winning the Tour of Flanders without winning. You win that race and you’re second to king Albert and you’ll never have to buy another beer for the rest of your life.

What’s the coldest you’ve ever been on one of your tours?

Believe it or not, the coldest that I’ve ever been was just recently when we were in Tuscany in October. It wasn’t Belgium. It was Italy. It was right before we were doing the Eroica Gran Fondo, another great race in terms of something the hopefully develops into a classic type race with gravel roads. It was 3 degrees Celsius. It was just above freezing when we started the ride. That was far too cold for me.

That’s something that people misjudge when the come to Belgium. I don’t think it is ever as cold as they think it’s going to be, but it can be really miserable if you’re not prepared for it. You can see that with some of the racers too. You can see it when guys are unprepared. Over the course of a race like Flanders the weather can go from sunny and cold in the morning, to warm and cloudy, to cold and rainy and windy, to snow, and back to sunny. By the end of the day it is 60 degrees and sunny. Again it is a race that covers all types of terrain and has all types of weather.

GravelSo these ‘cross racers are your kind of people then?

Yeah. I think there is a certain mentality that I think cyclocross racers have that fits the mentality of those who appreciate the Spring Classics. You’ve got to be somebody who likes bad weather, likes a challenge, and likes a tough course with mud, gravel, and singletrack! when I look at what we end up riding at the Classics it is a very similar mindset. It’s not for your typical or average cyclist.

What types of people show up for your spring tours? They must be pretty hardy?

We get all kinds. We’ve had people who want to come and use it as early season training for races in May or June. We get people who have been following the classics every since they started riding a bike, or they’re a fan of professional racing, and they’re really interested in the history of it. They want to ride the cobbles. There are others who say “this is something different and I’m going to try it”. And we have a few guys whose primary focus is cyclocross and they use this as their vacation because it’s not their racing season.

During your tours you probably have to stay calm and collected. Have you ever just completely bonked on a ride?

Yeah. Yup. I’ve had two bad days that come to mind. One was on Mont Ventoux which was awful. It was a stressful day getting things squared away in the morning and getting out on the bike. That is what is difficult. I’m working up until I get on the bike. And then I’m riding. I just wasn’t prepared to do a 24km climb. So that was a long day.

The other was a couple years ago when we were doing the Tour of Flanders Sportif. We had 5km to go. It had been cold all day. I guess my body only had 135km in it instead of 140km. I crawled the last 5km literally. It was windy and it was so cold. And I was completely empty. And that’s tough and makes it hard to still find the pleasure behind what we’re doing. You just want to get home and be done. You want something to eat and get warm. You hope it’s lesson learned… until the next time.

How do you keep your riders from doing too much drunk riding?

img_0010_smallerWe save all of our alcohol consumption for after the rides, or while we’re watching the races. Except for myself since I’m driving the van. We tend to leave that for the happy hour before dinner and then a little bit after dinner. And we drink during dinner. I wasn’t a big beer guy. I’m more of a wine guy. And a couple years ago in Belgium, somebody on the trip was a pretty big beer drinker, and he said “try this and tell me if you like it”. It was a Chimay, and it was like an epiphany. Since then, it has always been interesting to try something new in each town. Find the Trappist ales! One or two of those and that is about enough.

You do some culture right?

Yes. It is important to take advantage of the towns and cities on every trip. We always try to incorporate something authentic and specific to where we are. We’ll know if there is a specific piece of art worth seeing, or a building, or a museum. Something specific to the culture we need to sample and investigate. We’ll give people the opportunity to decide for themselves if they like it or not. Hopefully it opens their eyes to a different culture and lifestyle. At the end of the trip they can say “wow, that was more than what I thought I was going to get for my vacation”. That’s what we strive to do.

So you meet people from all over the country. Are there any regional characteristics? Are the New Yorkers all sped up? The Californians chilled out?

The Californians are typically in better shape year round. New Yorkers appreciate my driving skills when it comes to getting from point A to point B. Some of the people from other parts of the country don’t understand.

Do you have any favorite rides riding out from Manhattan?

We like to go up to Bear Mountain State Park, and we like to ride up around — I haven’t raced it in years — the Bear Mountain race course. We end up doing 55 miles. By the end of it you’ve done 5500ft of climbing which is nice. And there almost no cars on the road. Living up in Westchester in Rye you can get out of here pretty easily to get in some good riding.

You’re spoiled! You’ve ridden the best places on Earth!

You’re right. There is no mistaking that. It’s a great way to get around by bike when we’re riding through Belgium in April, Tuscany with the Giro in May, the Alps in June, the Basque Country, the Dolomites, and in he fall we’re doing Lombardy, and them back to Tuscany. Yeah …

… a lot of frequent flier miles

exactly, and I have to stay motivated to stay in shape when I get back here.

So we need to get you riding ‘cross basically! You need to be out there on Sunday!

As long as no one is putting a clock to me, or making be competitive.

Well, it is pretty much you against yourself in these races

It has been mostly road riding for me for the past five or six years. I used to do some mountain biking. I had a bad crash. As I was laying on the ground I said “if I can get up from this crash without any broken bones I’m going to sell my mountain bike”. When I opened my eyes and realized that my shoulders were still in place I promptly sold my mountain bike. I keep looking at what would motivate me to go riding on a day like today and throughout the winter. Who knows. Maybe this will be my initiation.

RidingWhat are your top ten touring moments? When have you felt like you were communing with God?

I would say Tour of Flanders Sportif.

We ride the Paris-Roubaix course. We basically ride to the Arenberg Forest and then cover the course to the Velodrome. And there have been points on that course — it is hard to explain — you lose yourself with where you are and what you’re doing, and what you need to do to finish. How much you want to get to the Velodrome?

The Sella Ring is probably the most beautiful ride I’ve ever done.

There are a couple roads in Lombardy along Lake Como that are always favorites.

And Tuscany always seems to be what you’d categorize as cycling nirvana.

Thanks Peter


1 Comment

  1. Pete and his tours are the best! We’re doing Staten CX and then Roubaix in 2009…. what a strange yet somehow predictable confluence of events!

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