To Live and Race in the Undiscovered Country

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in California Bicyclist, November 1992, although they ran it under the incredibly boring title of "Racing in Europe"

Admit it. You've thought about it at least a thousand times. You've tossed and turned in bed at the idea, even caught yourself daydreaming at work about it. Sweaty palms, an accelerated heartrate, and a deep stirring within are the normal result of such thoughts. There's nothing you can do to stop them, so give in. Admit it. You want to be Greg LeMond...

That's right, like all other "real cyclists," you want to make that pilgrimmage to Mecca by packing your bike and cleats and winging it over to Europe. Why not, if Jock Boyer, Greg LeMond, and David Freibourg can do it, then why can't you?

Who's David Freibourg, you ask? Well, contrary to what the American cycling press would have you believe, Boyer, LeMond, and the few remaining token Americans on the neo-slurpee squad are not the only US exports to the European racing scene. Freibourg is just one of the truly innumerable Americans to have given it a go over the water. Freibourg, a student at U.C. Berkeley, has spent the last few seasons racing for the Grenoble Cycling Club in France. And while he may not have signed on with Team Z yet, he has more than managed to hold his own by winning prestigious amateur races in France.

Funny thing is, I've lived in and around Berkeley for seven years and I'd never even heard of the guy. It wasn't until I happened to be interviewing Alfred Niebergall, the director of the Grenoble Cycling Club, that I heard Freibourg's praises sung. Not to mention seeing every imaginable newspaper clipping of him crossing a finish line with his arms raised in victory. It seems that this American rider is the pride and joy of the French club. And lest you think that it's no big deal to be the hero of some "club", well perhaps you might consider that one of his teammates is '92 French Olympic team rider Eric Majnin. Plus picture yourself in one of the two racked-out, custom painted, very Tour looking Citroen station wagons that Monsieur Niebergall had parked on his driveway. These aren't his personal cars, but the club fleet to take the top riders to and from the races and support them in style while they earn their keep. Just try to find a US club with that much class and cash!

But I digress. You're already convinced that you want to race in Europe. You already know that European clubs treat their amateur riders better than most pros are treated here. You're already well aware of the fact that the US press couldn't care less about bike racing. You've given up on getting any respect for your athletic prowess and talent. But there's hope. There's Europe, if you only you knew what to do...

First off, do some networking and checking around. Do any of your training, racing, or club buddies know anyone who has gone for it overseas? Surely with a bit of effort you can make some connections. An introduction to a foreign club, not to mention a place to stay, are major assets before going into this endeavour. Barring that, pick the region where you want to race, most probably in France or Belgium. In France, Monsieur Niebergall suggests that Paris, Dijon, and Lyon are good racing areas for strong foreigners. However the Mediterranean area is evidently not so good as it has too many foreigners, making for weak, unsupportive teams. Next write to the Federation Francaise de Cyclisme or Ligue Velocipedique Belge (in French, and you'd better start taking lessons if you don't speak it now) and ask for the "Calendrier Annuaire" for the "Comité Regional" of the region of your choice. This lists the names and addresses of all the clubs in the region, along with a lot of other useful information.

Next, pick a club and send them a letter of introduction (addressed to "Monsieur le Président" of the club) along with the best resumé you can muster. Let them know how serious you are and that you want to (and can) make a commitment to riding for their club. Hopefully you'll get a response. State-side, you'll also need to do some legwork as well. You'll need a USCF license and also a NORBA license if you want to race off-road (cyclocross requires a road license, by the way). And you need the USCF/NORBA membership department to mail a Foreign Permission Letter to the cycling federation of each country in which you plan or expect to race. Take some copies along yourself, anticipating bureaucratic red tape.

Now, here's the scary part: pack your bike and gear and head for the friendly skies. (If you're smart, you'll make it a round trip ticket.) As for equipment, take a dependable and reasonably traditional bike. Forget the aero bars (at least the non-removable kind) and neon paint jobs and bike duds. You don't want to get laughed off the roads. A hardshell is of course a good idea, although you won't see too many in use, at least while training.

So now that you're in Europe, hook up with your new club, host family, or whatever connections you had prearranged. The more the merrier, that's for sure. It's easy to get lonely, not to mention lost and taken advantage of, if you don't know anybody or anything. Make the rounds of the local bike scene; go to the shops, frame builders, and others in the area and get to know people. Also check in with the local office of the Federation or Ligue and inquire whether you'll need a local license. Evidently it varies by region whether a local license, in addition to your US license and permission letter, are needed in order to race. French licenses vary in price from 240 francs to 480 francs, depending on the category (the current exchange rate is about 5 francs to the dollar).

As for categories, the French system has five cat's and is more like NORBA than USCF, which is to say that it is self-ceding initially, then requires high finishes to move up the ranks. You might be a lonely four back here, but you can opt right into the one or two cat in France if you feel daring. However, consider that regularly placing high in a three race will be far more rewarding and encouraging than being consistently dropped off the back of the one race. There's no glory in being dropped, even by the world's best cycling talent. You can always work up to a higher cat. Freibourg sure did. Note that your category will be the same on or off-road, once again unlike here in the States. Also, in some regions you may, as a foreigner, be automatically placed in a one or two race, whether you like it or not.

Now, off to the races... Once again, things are a bit different. Bring your license(s) and permission letter. The race organizers may hold them until you return your race number after the event. Also, in some parts of Europe, especially Belgium, you can race five or more times a week, often with an entry fee of only a buck or so. With cash prizes and lots of cash primes, you might even take home a few bucks, not to mention a lot of glory. You can even probably ride to and from most of the races. According to Craig Schommer (formerly of Subaru-Montgomery), if you drive to the event it's not uncommon to change clothes at the house of practically anyone who lives along the race route. After the race you might even get a shower. A bonus to racing nearly every day is that "if you screw up and drop out, you can just race again the next day, which is what all the Belgians do," says Schommer. In fact, "once a break gets away in the first third of the race, everyone else quits and saves it for the next day," he added. Other tips include bringing a tube and a pump for the race. If you're not with a club, or are far to the back of the pack, a flat tyre may find you stranded 100k from the finish line. "Don't expect any neutral support or assistance from another team," says Schommer. On that note, the USCF's John Tarbert warns that "as a foreigner, you'll be the target in any race." Whether that's because they're worried that you may be something to worry about, or because they don't like any intrusions into their turf is a hotly debated subject. However don't let this put you off, as a talented foreigner is considered a jewel in the crown of any good French or Belgian team. If you race hard and work well with your team, you may pick up some basic support cash, not to mention equipment, entry money, and luxurious rides to and from the events.

All of which leads us to the next major hurdle: the cash flow problem. Here's where your pre-flight networking can really pay off. A host family is worth their weight in gold and sew-ups. Housing is not cheap in Europe, and neither are eating, rental cars, gas, or most anything else. Plus your hosts can help you out with their own connections, get you into races, and give you all kinds of assistance and advice. And this may be the only way you can afford a "European campaign," since you'll never get a work permit for any type of legitimate job. (Unless you marry a native and show an intent to stay and support the social welfare state economy, but that's probably not worth it financially in the long run. Then again, my brother did it and he's not complaining.) The moral of the story: you'd better start saving now, since you definitely won't be serving espresso to cover your living expenses in Europe. And while you may win some cash primes or prizes and even maybe collect limited support from your club, you'd better go prepared to foot the bill on your own. Since you asked, race winners take home from 1800 to 5000 francs in major interregional or international events. Local races pay far, far less.

So racing in Europe won't make you rich, or even close. Chances are, you'll come home poorer, at least in a fiscal sense. But isn't that a small price to pay for a chance to live out your wildest fantasies? Besides, you may just be the next Boyer, LeMond, or Freibourg... As the saying goes, you never know unless you try. Bonne chance!

Important addresses:

  • Fédération Francaise de Cyclisme
    5, rue de Rome
    Batiment Jean Monnet
    93651 Rosny-Sous-Bois Cedex
  • Ligue Velocipedique Belge
    49 Avenue du Globe
    1190 Bruxelles

Chris Kostman was unable to race in his most recent trip to Europe because he forgot his Foreign Permission Letter and to renew his license before he left.