Thursday, January 14, 2010

Belgium & Its Belgian By-Products

While many Americans hear Belgium and chuckle, the word and country serving as punchline or waffle antecedent, in a few highly specialized sub-sub-subcultures, the word connotes mastery and apex of performance. We odd-balls are transfixed with awe at the spiritual and literal home to our respective obsessions.

I’m referring, of course, to the twin sports of cyclocross and ringsport. Both are hybrids or amalgams of other sports--neither of which would fill a sidebar in Obscure Sports Quarterly on these shores, but both receive intense, widespread attention, support, devotion in the land of the Belgians. One deals with people racing their bikes in mud and snow in crazed-fan-crowded maze-like courses. The other is a police-dog style dog sport that occurs in fields, parks, and stadiums with fans surrounding and abounding. Belgian beer and knee-high mud boots are commonplace on the fans. This will be a brief, utterly unscientific examination of these odd activities that should be required for all...

I’ve spent several years learning and training in competitive dog sports, and have moved from the so-called personal-protection events (which can be back-alley scare-fests or dubiously organized ‘street-scenario’ competitions) through Schutzhund (German military/police K9 test; most well-known and practiced in the USA) to French Ringsport and Mondio Ringsport (which is a combination of the French and Belgian programs; Belgian ring itself is dying out in the home country, replaced by Mondio). While the French have the advantage with French ringsport, and the finessing of the rules has a very French flair, Mondio combines aspects of several programs.

Briefly, there are obedience components: heeling, retrieving, scent discrimination, exercises the dog must complete away from the handler--you can give one command and the dog must know what to do. There are agility components: a four-foot hurdle; a seven-plus foot palisade; a 12+ foot long jump. And there are the apprehension, or biting, exercises--which is what separates these dogs from, say, a long-jumping Labrador. Each of the biting exercises originated as a specific part of a K9's duties: chasing after a fleeing bad guy; going after a bad guy over a distance, and then again when the bad guy is wielding something to protect himself; searching for a hidden bad guy; guarding/escorting the bad guy as he schemes to escape; guarding something 'valuable' while the handler is out of sight. It takes years of training to successfully train a dog to do all of these well. And, the dogs must start AND stop biting on command.

It is colorful, ‘easier’ to enter but quite difficult to master, more spectator friendly than other sports, played well in Belgium by Belgians. Americans lag far behind, in terms of experience, numbers of participants, skill set, training, understanding, and fans.

Gee, sounds very much like cyclocross.
(great reference site;;

My good friends Dan Casper and Linda Sone are ardent competitive-amateur cyclists. I started watching them race, as it was the only way to spend time with them. First, this summer at the NSC Velodrome, then at a few of the road races, and then, all fall, at the MN/Wisc cyclocross races.

Cyclocross also has deep roots in Belgium, with the predominant racers and races spawned by the black/gold/red. It seems to be a hybrid and combination sport: modified road bikes racing off-road. Dismounts, running up hills, over logs and barriers, carrying the bike, racing in mud. Things that road bikes, and road bikers, aren’t good for/at. Belgian Glory.

With both sports there is a particular sensibility that distinguishes its players, and the game itself, from its antecedents or kissing cousins. Cyclocross has cowbells and smart-alecky humor, creative taunts and heckling from the peanut gallery, not to mention beer and dollar handouts along the course.

It’s hard, rowdy, rollicking good times, played to the crowds on purposely difficult course arrangements. Blood, sweat, & beers/gears... Mondio ringsport has goofy themes for each competition (‘Night at the Museum,’ ‘Kitchen Sink,’ ‘Birthday Party,’ ‘Alice in Wonderland’), with the decorations, props, decor, accessories integrated into the theme. Cyclocross has the colorful kits and self-deprecating humor. Mondio decoys have colorful bitesuits (as do all the ringsport decoys) but also face paint, masks, costumes as well.

For many American cyclocross riders and Mondioringers, Belgium looms as a mythical land, where around every corner is a gorgeous field full of top level dogs and decoys, and just beyond the hedges is a winding, tree- and hill-strewn cycling course--both chockfull of fans. Not just for American tyros, either: many countries where these sports are less developed must view the proximity and saturation of Belgium with longing and awe.

Several very good French ringsport decoys (also known as malfaiteurs, hommes de ataque, bad guys) absolutely flub in Mondio, because there’s room, and demand, for creativity, sense of humor, imagination that isn’t required in French (and certainly NOT in the Teutonic, rigid Schutzhund). A Mondio program held on two consecutive days on the same field can be radically different in appearance, order of events, difficulty. Schutzhund and French ring players get thrown by all the distracting decorations on a Mondio field, as well as the ever-changing components to the standard exercises. Their fields are ‘sterile’ and the programs always follow the same pattern. In Mondio, there are props and accessories and strange objects that are essential to the trial--much the same way that runups or barriers aren’t just something to harass road bikers but an essential part of the discipline. I train my dog for Mondioring and he will retrieve anything I tell him; in Schutzhund, it’s always a wooden dumbell, and in French ring it’s a balled up sock (as if that is normal). We have toys and lawn ornaments and dog treats littering the field: on purpose. It’s very fun to design a Mondioring field and trial: fulfilling the required exercises with creativity AND fairness, making mental challenges for the handlers as well as training challenges for the dogs.

Very much like the flexibility and creativity involved in setting cyclocross courses. Road purists don’t like the mud, the running, the off camber; mountain bikers don’t like the flat portions. It would seem to favor mountain crossovers. Many road races shy from cyclocross for the very things that attract other races: strange angles, random dismounts, carrying the bike, portaging the bike over barriers or up hills. Cowbells. Laughter. Beer.

American Mondio Ringsport is played by a very small percentage of all the dozens who train and compete in K9 dogsports. The sport has been growing, but we are so spread out that the numbers are diluted, which makes training, and competing, difficult. Three clubs in Texas have about twenty active members, but they are spread across Texas. California has players spread along I-5, but it’s a really big state. A smattering in the Northeast, and half-a-dozen of us in the Minnesota/Wisconsin border region (again, a five-hour drive to get together to train together). My Belgian friends say the internecine politics and backbiting is the same (dog people are famously deficient in human skills) but they only have to drive an hour to train with any number of people in other clubs.

We are making progress, but we lag so far behind, and lack so much in numbers and opportunities that we’ll be the red-headed stepchild for a while.

The very best American cyclists train and compete in Europe: it’s bigger, faster, more serious. A proving ground. Those doggers who can afford it and are dedicated enough go to Europe; they go to France to train French ringsport, and they go to Belgium to train Mondioring. In a weekend, they can visit over a dozen clubs with dozens of top-level dogs: more than they’d encounter in five years here. The race season across Belgium is chock-full of events. We try, but we’re so far behind. For a nation of our size and resources, if we invested a smidgen of time, money, energy, we could speed up the process, but we’d lag behind in terms of the spirit and essence. It's like biking, with running hills thrown in, and mud. And cowbells.

The most successful dogs for ringsport are the Belgian Malinois, which is the main type of Belgian shepherd. The others are the Turvuren and Laekenois. Or the Groendal. Imagine my surprise and thrill when following European cyclocross online and seeing so many of the same towns hosting races. Does every Belgian family have a wonderful Belgian shepherd sleeping by the fire and three little hearty cyclocross junior racers around the table, eating waffles? It must be, right?

The Malinois has replaced the German shepherd (which is largely a ‘German’ shepherd by way of the old Czech Republic) as the choice dog for military applications. Mals haven’t been ruined by the power of the show breeders, so their temperaments and performance haven’t been sacrificed to an arbitrarily assigned conformation, or look. The roached back of the German shepherd, like the hyperbolic big heads of bulldogs or smushed noses of pugs, have been assiduously bred for looks’ sake only: there is nothing functional about these shapes; in fact, they are detrimental to the dog’s well-being. The Malinois was the Belgian farmer’s dog for years. There was no money or interest in making them fancy or designer. They could be anywhere from 25 to 100 pounds. ‘As long as it works like a Malinois, it’s a Malinois,’ was the reasoning. They are like a cross between a fox, a squirrel, a bag of crack, and a badger. Very twitchy and fast-response; very, very reactive; very biddable; crazy drive and endurance.

When speaking with Europeans, and Belgians in particular, in either of these disciplines, their perspective on the U.S. competitors is consistent. Mildly patronizing and dismissive of us for being too new and inexperienced, yet they also admit we are making strides. The Belgian decoys and judges I’ve worked with at U.S. mondio trials have been complimentary of our progress. Individual dogs and handlers have begun to make respectable showings on the European stage. This is very similar to our progress in Cyclocross. They generally dismiss us as a group for being less-skilled, less-focused, lacking in some essential work ethic, yet acknowledge that individual racers are making headway toward the podium.

In Belgium, the dog clubs meet four or five days/nights a week. Their clubhouses are elaborate, with kitchens and well-stocked bars. It’s a cultural & family thing, albeit atavistically traditionalist: the men train dogs and talk dogs while the women tend bar, kids, and male egos. More women are handling and judging these days, but old attitudes are ingrained. They have oodles of dogs to train new decoys on; they have oodles of handlers who have trained multiple dogs to championship level. Many have grown up at the training club. It is generations deep. Likewise, cyclocross has been established and ingrained in Belgium for several generations of cyclists. It IS part of their culture and heritage. No wonder we are small fish swimming blindly in a big pond.

Now, if we could only create a state of cyclocross for the U.S., with the mud and fervor of Portland (and the drum corps), the ice & snow of Iowa/Minnesota/Wisconsin, the sea and sand of Gloucester, the forests of California... Similarly, if we could cram all the Mondio-ringers into a small dog state, with less extreme heat than Arizona/Vegas/Texas and none of the glacial nonsense of Wisconsin and Minnesota--and then get all the crazy dog people to get along... Oh, yes, that...

1 comment:

  1. Great article El Norte! I like how you alternated paragraphs of bikes and dogs, it kept me fresh. I think a third tie in would be the Belgian national sport- Pigeon Racing. Short distance is the specialty, favoring speed over distance. The Pigeon clubs used to employ kids as runners; described to me as a mad dash through hedgerow and cobbled alley to bring the clocked times from loft to club.

    It's the magic in the mundane, the ugly yellow dog, the heroic cyclist, the lowly pigeon. Lets hope our bikes and dogs don't go the way of the Homing Pigeon, replaced by telecommunication, and the Belgian Heavy Horse that was exported to near extinction to build our cities only to be replaced by enough gas guzzling bulldozers to make GW Hayduke scream. Will complex machine replace will power? Will the avatar and video game replace experiential sports? Can the alchemist live side by side with the technologist in a 500 year old stone house?

    Any way dude, Keep on Flyin the Flannel or Linen or Jute or spandex....