I needed to get away from England. The constant political ineptitude, alongside worsening road conditions and fewer races, was becoming tedious. I had to leave. I wanted to go to Europe for a base camp. The type where you can pack up and train for two weeks on some glorious roads. The Belgian Ardennes jumped out at me as the ideal locale. They are a second home–thanks in part to the awesome family I get the privilege of sharing dinner with every evening. A location that has taught me so much about myself and the life I want to lead.
The Belgian Ardennes offer a deep-rooted base where I feel welcome, even after some time away. Evidenced by my recent eleven-month hiatus from the region! How time flies. The region is the ideal place for a big summer training camp. The smooth roads, long(er) hills, valley cut-throughs, and pleasant–although occasionally temperamental–weather, are all inviting features of a patch of lush countryside. I knew this was the place I wanted to spend some time away from home, as part of phase four of my recovery began. The return to–true–racing.
Through hindsight, I often find that I leave a part of my soul behind in The Belgian Ardennes, each time a séjour comes to an end. The intervals between each time I come to the region are regular. This provides me with a focus. I will return and evolve myself so that I am almost unrecognisable from the part of my soul that remains in that converted attic space. Despite the doubts that I leave a broken man, I always return in a better place than I left chez Greg.
It is quite a special feeling. It’s a piece of episodic memory that is implanted in time and space. A memory so powerful it is as vivid as a lucid dream, despite being most definitely awake. A surreal feeling to step back into the room, sometimes–quite disrespectfully–unkept. I rekindle my own self. A part of me I thought was lost. I relocate the part of my soul I left behind, sure to come back and realign it with my new and improved self. It becomes part of me again, I feel complete.
Reminding me of how far I’ve come. The work I’ve done to get to where I am today. It also reminds me that I like the feeling and wish to keep striving forward. Providing with the most powerful form of motivation. Whakapapa. A truly powerful feeling. There are few places on earth that are so steadfast, and important in my–or anyone’s life–that can replicate that feeling.
I had a pretty special experience for my first time visiting The Belgian Ardennes. I was first The race was La Philippe Gilbert Junior race, back then a one-day race. I was guesting for HMT Cycling Team in 2018, as a first-year junior. I struggle to fathom the experiences I felt. Of course, when looking back it’s easy to say, but that day, that trip felt special. I can only describe it as the most unimportant, insignificant thing becoming engrained in the brain. Parts of the journey that I would have never seen, I made a mental note of. Almost as if it were a place I was already familiar with. Like a déjà vu. A place I was visiting for the first time, but had been projected to from my future self. A bizarre thing to recall. The only way I can figuratively put pen to paper. Even writing it makes sound ludicrous.
I was happy that weekend. Buoyed by the fact I had a pretty good race, I spent all day in the breakaway. Some one hundred kilometres, out of a total one-hundred-and-twenty. It meant I could take in the scenery a little bit. Familiarising myself with the climbs I would call training roads four years later. They were bliss kilometres in the break. Smooth roads, and valleys to roll fast between the lengthy and challenging climbs en route. A fantastic introduction to the region, and the famous La Redoute climb. I loved its greenery and atmosphere at first sight. The ambience connected with me.
The Greatest Test
In 2021, I packed up shop, and moved out of my parents home. My mum said it’s now or never. I left two days after that conversation. I was ill equipped for the journey, as we all are when leaving the nest of our childhood home. Everytime, no matter who you are it is scarring. It leaves its mark. I don’t believe anyone will forget the first months, or even years, of living on your own.
There is so much to learn, not least about the person I wanted to be. I must have come across so naive, immature, uncertain and irresponsible. I am grateful Greg and Dorothée allowed me to keep coming back after that first stint of two months in Aywaille. Those two months at the beginning of 2021 were some of the most challenging I’ve ever faced. Not least because of the Covid restrictions limiting the ability to socialise. I also couldn’t speak the language initially.
Recognising this, I committed to a tutor for the entire first year of my stint in Belgium. It paid off. A year later I was fluent in all things cycling. If you talked to me about the race I am able to converse entirely in French. Though I continued to struggle at the dinner table. A year on, again, I am now confident, and happy to converse entirely in French. It is so pleasing to be able to break into a second language on command, without thought. A reaction. I love it. As a past psychologist mentioned, ‘if you can speak two languages, you often find the ability to solve problems and challenges twice as quick.”
Throughout my two lengthy stints in The Belgian Ardennes I was planting the seeds of values I wanted to live by in the years to come. Slowly constructing my daily routine that I would, some two years down the line, implement as habit. Second nature even. I did come to the end of the 2021 season a broken man. But ever since have become steadfast on my values, purpose and direction in life. I am proud of that journey–that clarity.
There is a quote from Matthew McConnaughey’s book Greenlights – “Sometimes you gotta go back to go forward. And I don’t mean goin’ back to reminisce or chase ghosts. I mean go back to see where you came from, where you been, how you got HERE.” – Whakapapa as Dan Carter puts it more concisely. The quote encapsulates my feelings everytime I come back to The Belgian Ardennes. I see the person I have been. I see the person I’ve become. I see each momentous step I’ve taken to get to where I am today. It’s inspiring, encouraging and oh so satisfying.
My Anticipated Return
I was due to return to chez Greg directly after finishing Paris Roubaix u23. Circumstances firmly prevented this happening. I literally hit my head, and woke up with a determination focus and direction that I’d been building up to. I think it’s called maturity? Everything just connected, and fell into place. I knew exactly the path I wanted to take. I became sure of myself.
Because of this clear direction I came back to the Belgian Ardennes in August. Three months after the crash, and eleven months after I departed the region at the end of a lengthy and tiresome 2022 season of solo travel and racing. I was the evolved person I hoped to become. I came back to chez Greg unrecognisable, yet full of energy. Some may say “jesus Tom, where have you left the other half of you?” to which I’d respond, on the farm tracks of Northern France. Les Amis de Roubaix may find me on the Pavé Saint Python.
English traffic and road conditions, I felt were limiting my ability to recuperate some of my lost endurance. I decided to ask Greg if I could stay an extra week more than initially planned. It’s a place I’ve already described as feeling centred, and relaxed. It certainly did wonders for my headspace. Culminating those two and a half weeks of training with a ninth place at my first race back under the Bingoal Wallonie Bruxelles Development environment. These skills I believe at wholly necessary to keep moving forward. Never reminiscing on the old times. But always recognising who I am today, and the progress I’ve made from yesterday, the day before that. The month before that.
Maybe, just maybe, I will be able to call The Belgian Ardennes my home. Such a special region, especially in the summer months. J’adore le région. Merci.
À La Prochaine. If you want to visit The Belgian Ardennes on a sporting trip, ADEPS is the place to go! They even do Ski trips in the winter.