WALTER BECKERS - ENDURANCE CYCLIST
“Suffering when riding in the mountains is about fighting your inner demons, it requires 80% mental power and 20% physical fitness...when I am on the cusp of physical and mental exhaustion I always think about my wife and kids...”
After his brother died in a tragic car accident, Walter Beckers took up cycling in search of a physical and mental release. He has never looked back and is constantly challenging himself on legendary mountain cycling routes. Based in Belgium, a stone’s throw from the Dutch border, Walter spends his free time relentlessly training in the Ardennes and on the roads of the classics, Liège Bastogne Liège and the Amstel Gold Race. Walter is now an accomplished amateur endurance cyclist who has cycled many of the world’s most grueling climbs. I spoke to Walter about his passion for cycling in the mountains, the suffering involved in climbing in the high mountains, and some of the extreme endurance challenges he has undertaken.
Does your passion for cycling stem from your upbringing in the Ardennes?
I was born in Charleroi, which is situated in the French speaking part of Belgium and have always lived in the South East of the country, close to the Dutch border; the Ardennes have never been far away and the Amstel Gold Race and Liège Bastogne Liège routes are my training roads.
I have no idea where my passion for cycling comes from, to be honest. I rode an old women’s steel bike to secondary school every day and only started riding a road bike at the age of 24. After my brother died in an car accident I was looking for something to empty my body both physically and mentally. Since then I have never been far from my bike.
Why is Belgium so passionate about cycling?
People worship heroes and cycling is a sport where heroic battles have been fought between great champions. The fact that most Belgians have a) a cousin who’s pro b) a granddad who rode with Eddy Merckx c) an old school steel frame somewhere in the garage d) a picture of them with the winner of a local kermesse race, is probably the reason why we’re so passionate about cycling.
I noticed that your Cicerone challenge was a tribute to Phil Deeker. Phil has previously talked about the “art of suffering”, do you think through the physical exertion of extreme endurance cycling you can reach some sort of enlightenment?
I have never reached spiritual enlightenment from cycling but there have been people I have met through cycling who enlighten me through their charisma, modest way of living, and thinking on and off the bike. Just being able to ride my bike makes me realise how lucky I am to feel, breath and smell the journey.
What is it about Phil’s challenge to ride 1,000 cols in 100 days that you find inspiring?
The numbers are impressive: 100 cols in 10 days X 10. Everyday is approximately a 200k ride with 4000-5000 meters of elevation. We’ve all been riding in the mountains before, haven’t we? Well, Phil doesn’t only ride every single stage but also handles logistics and hotel bookings etc., the riding is the easy part. He also leaves behind his loved ones for almost 6 months to pursue these challenges and that in itself is an even a bigger struggle than the riding.
When you have been suffering, cycling up mountains, and you are on the cusp of exhaustion, how do you find the physical & mental strength to keep going?
When I am on the cusp of physical and mental exhaustion I always think about my wife and kids and how selfish I am to leave them behind just because of my love for the mountains. The sacrifices they offer and the grief they’re going through because of my absence pushes me to keep on going.
Is it fair to say you welcome and, in some ways, enjoy the suffering that comes with serious mountain climbing/racing?
I think that there’s a big difference between suffering when racing and suffering when riding in the mountains. Suffering when racing is about pain to hold the wheel in front of you, the fear of getting dropped. Suffering when riding in the mountains is about fighting your inner demons, it requires 80% mental power and 20% physical fitness. The mountains always will celebrate victories against human beings, no matter what.
You have a stressful, hectic day job. Is part of the appeal of cycling for you the escapism?
Not really. It took me some years but I think I’ve found a good balance between work, life and hobby. Throughout the years working on a Cardiac Intensive Care Unit I’ve learned how to handle the stress and the adrenaline in emergency situations. But I have to admit, stepping outside the hospital after a long shift and getting on the bike really helps clear your mind.
Aside from the Cicerone, what other extreme endurance cycling challenges have you completed and what have you got planned for the future?
I have rode most of the well-known sportives in Europe such as La Marmotte, Otztaler Radmarathon, Maratona dles Dolomitis, Les Trois Ballons, Tour Transalp,…
Then in 2014 I rode 102.000 vertical metres in 23 days for charity. My daughter was born prematurely and spent nearly 2 months in the hospital. I wanted to do something to express and show my gratitude towards the people who helped us during that turbulent emotional rollercoaster. I raised about 10.000 Euros for an organisation for parents of premature children.
At the end of August, I’ll join Phil Deeker on his charity ride of a 1000 cols to celebrate his 60th birthday. I’ll also be a co guide on the last 3 Cent Cols Challenges: Eastern and Western Pyrenees and Cantabrico. I’m constantly looking for the next challenge.
Are there any climbs that have been particularly special for you?
Every climb in the mountains is special to me. The thing about riding in the mountains is that there are always stories to tell. Remember that time when we had torrential rain, wooden legs, strong winds, ice cold mornings, mechanicals, numb fingers, amazing sunsets, talked to strangers, met great people, stopped at that grocery to buy lots of food?
I noticed that you are a vegetarian, does that have anything to do with your cycling?
I’ve been vegetarian since I was 14 years old. I strongly believe in and encourage a healthy and well-balanced, meat free diet. The human body is one of the most amazing inventions of all time. I enjoy the challenge of trying to find harmony between the body, soul and mind. Mens sana in corporo sano: I take care of my body with the greatest caution. I attach great importance to creativity in preparing mostly organic fresh food and spend a lot of time in the kitchen; I really like to cook and share food with family and friends.
For more information on Walter's Cicerone cycling challenge, visit http://pages.rapha.cc/feature/cicerone