by Christine Vardaros
While cyclocross season ended almost a month ago for most of the world, here in Belgium “de cross gaat door” (’cross goes on) – through the end of February that is! Eight events (seven for the women) were still up for grabs for those of us based here in the motherland of ’cross.
The first event of the six left on my personal calendar was BPost Bank Trofee Krawatencross Lille, a sand course riddled with singletrack. I was so stoked to be racing again. The day proved to double as a reunion of sorts for both the racers and spectators as well. After a two week break in European racing, everyone had lots to say. I especially enjoyed hearing all the tales about travels to the USA. They all agreed it was a strange land where they automatically bring you water at the restaurants, where the people are so friendly that you get hugs in place of the more formal handshakes, and where everyone is civil at the bike races — pushing and shoving in the hamburger line was replaced by please’s and thank you’s. Now they understand my quirky personality at the races here that much better.
As for my racing on the day, I was a bit rusty off the grid but I surely kept the spectators entertained in my hasty effort to make up some spots. Their favorite, based on the roars of the crowds, was clearly when I rode my stem like it was an electronic horse when my front wheel bored into the sand. After that, I gave thanks that I am a girl. By the second lap, when I finally got going and began to pass riders: it felt so good to be racing again!
Next up was Hoogstraten, a course that suits me well with its power undulations and technical bits reminiscent of a roller coaster ride. Last year, I discovered I had a flat front tire just after I passed the pits and was forced to ride on that wheel for most of a lap. This year, I planned to take my revenge. All went well for the first thirty seconds until disaster struck again after a short run section. I couldn’t clip into my left pedal the whole race. I assumed it was due to the snowy, icy course conditions that turned our cleats to a sheet of ice, so I spent the whole race smacking my foot – and ankle bone on occasion by mistake – against the pedal to dislodge the culprit. It wasn’t until I was back in the van that I realized ice was only the cause of my intermittent right pedal clip-in problems. The left pedal turned out to be courtesy of a stone lodged in my cleat. After a bit of expert screwdriver work, I finally got it loose – a bit too late for the race, but never too late for my state of mind. In hindsight, I should have taken a quick look at my cleat during the race. Next time I’ll do that for sure!
The following weekend was Internationale Cyclo-cross Heerlen in Holland. What separates this course from the rest is its infamous “Hellegat” (hell-hole), which riders repeatedly dive into via steep, sketchy, muddy descents, and re-emerge through either a never-ending long wooden staircase or a slippery mud-ladened wall. In the pre-ride with Ellen van Loy, I followed behind nonchalantly as we dropped into the Hellegat, figuring that if I can easily ride the crazy descents of Zolder and Namur World Cups, this should be a breeze. Well, I breezed right over my handlebars into the deep mudslide. I briefly laughed at myself until I remembered that now I have to clean all the white-turned-brown patches on my clothes. After five months of having to do that more than thirty times, I was getting wary of the routine. ’Crossers with black clothing have it easy.
As I stood at the start line, I had a feeling it was not going to be my day. I was fighting off a nasty flu that completely flattened my husband Jonas like a pancake. I lost the battle in the race but won it against the flu … and the Hellegat. In hindsight, I should have skipped the race but I hate the idea of a party going on without me.
Going into the last “official” UCI weekend of racing, I was optimistic but realistic. Needless to say, when I found myself riding in fourth position in the first lap of Caubergcross in Valkenberg (Holland) I was shocked. It had been a long time since I saw the front end of the race so clearly, and it felt really good. It did help that the course was technical. As I crossed the finish line, my always supportive helper Peter Meere from Lars van der Haar’s crew told me that this was the first time in a while he saw me actually battle in a race, with that look of determination. He was right. It had been a long time since I felt that way. And it felt great!
The next day, we all congregated at the BPost Bank Trofee Sluitingsprijs Oostmalle for our final official hurrah. There is always an excellent atmosphere at this event. The whole day feels more like a celebration than a top UCI ‘cross race where the riders are trying to put in one more nice showing for their overall classification in the series. Due mainly to operator error, my start was under par. By the second lap, I was back in the zone. I was even able to block out the icy snow pellets pounding our bodies. But what I couldn’t block out was the magical experience of riding in front of 20,000 spectators one last time this season. And to hear so many supportive voices yelling my name gave me a warm feeling I will never forget.
After the race, with the first bite of a cookie at my annual post-season cookie party held at our “PEANUT” van, I let go of all frustrations I had over the whole season. Funny how a good cookie can hold so much power. For the party, I baked eight types of cookies, totaling close to 800 to divvy up with my friends, family, supporters, and fellow racers. It was our way to thank everyone for the wonderful memories we’ve shared over the last six months. Even though the weather was incredibly cold and snowy the whole day, it thankfully didn’t deter the partygoers from making an appearance at our big bash. It was a wonderful opportunity to spend quality time with those whom I mainly see in passing.
Tasty treats on offer included chocolate chip cookies, cherry shortbread, Mexican hot chocolate cookies, fudge, oatmeal raisin, and my personal favorite of butterscotch cookies made with a family recipe handed to me by my great grandmother over twenty years ago. Partnered with the desserts was a collection of alcohol, some donated by fellow racers. Helen Wyman arrived at the party with cactus jenever in hand while Anton Vos and his dad showed up at our door the night before to kindly hand off some champagne, chocolate treats and also a cactus jenever, courtesy of his sister Marianne. (I have a feeling that one of the race organizations gave cactus jenevers away to the gals who made it on the podium). Since the Vos gang couldn’t be at the party this year around because Marianne cut the ’cross season early and was already in Cyprus preparing for her first MTB event, it was incredibly sweet of them to go out of their way like that. We also found a random vanilla jenever on the table, but have no idea where it came from. Also given to me at the party was a gorgeous tulip bouquet, courtesy of fellow racer Reza Hormes Ravenstijn. I surely felt the love! Our party was such a success that we even had a pineapple in attendance.
Three days and a hundred digested cookies later, I was back at the start line for the last “unofficial” event of the year, Cyclocross Masters. It was an evening race held in the center of Waregem where the riders tackled manmade bridges, washboards, ramps, curbs, and logs while weaving in and out of sand-covered playgrounds. In the daytime, when we pre-rode, the course was easily manageable, but at night it morphed into something else entirely that more resembled a disco party. Spotting the bends in the course in advance or landing that good line in the sand became a real challenge. I found this out in the time trial event where I couldn’t stop laughing at myself for fumbling around in the dark. But it didn’t matter. We were there for the spectacle, to put on a show for the crowds and to enjoy our last pedalstrokes on the ’cross bikes.
In the women’s race, my start was solid – third place out of the blocks. Eventually I faded back but that was to be expected, I figured. My fitness never quite reached where it was many races ago. But what did catch me off guard halfway into the race was to find myself being shoved hard from behind while running in the sand. It felt as if I were being mowed over by a lawn mower machine – the kind you sit in. I peeked behind to see what was happening only to find the same brute from three days ago who had cut me off and smacked me into the fencing once again trying to take me out! I understand that not everyone will be as kind as Helen Wyman, who passed me a few days ago with a “May I” and “Cheers,” but brute’s behavior was pure insanity. The crowd saw it as well and began to “Boo” her. I tried in vain to push back so I didn’t completely fall over from her manhandling of me. I also yelled at her in hopes to get her to stop her madness. Usually in a situation like that I would say “that’s not nice” and do nothing to fight back, so I just couldn’t wait to tell Jonas how I stuck up for myself. He would be proud, especially considering I finished in front of her by the end.
When I returned to the van, before I even got a word in, Jonas told me he had just been accosted by the brute’s husband, claiming that I attacked her. Even though Jonas knew it was nonsense, it still managed to bring my mood down a bit. I was bummed for two full minutes before Ellen van Loy came by to save the day, or at least my mood. She handed me a bouquet of flowers that she had just earned by winning the race.
After a quick change, we had yet another post-season party, albeit a smaller one, in the parking lot. I brought the cookies and Ellen van Loy’s clan brought the booze. Jenever and cookies do go together, we discovered for the second time in a week. Later we hit the VIP café to enjoy one last clink of the glasses. The next morning, Jonas and I had our final post-season celebration in the form of a day at the spa where we could properly thaw out after a long, freezing winter.
With my road season kicking off at the end of March with Tour of Cyprus, I have to be back on the bike after only three days off. But even without a race looming, I’m sure I still wouldn’t be able to stay away from my two-wheeled passion for long.
A big thanks again to all my sponsors such as BABOCO, STEVENS, 3T, Challenge, HempAge, Tifosi, PROBAR, Mt Tam Bikes, and Specialized for excellent support, to Jonas for doing more than humanly possible to keep me on track, to Jonas’ mom for dropping off meals at our house after the races, to my coach Elmo for repeatedly patching me back up enough so I can stand at the start lines, to Peter Meere, Sofie Piens, and Jürgen Landrie for serving as my on-hand support crew, and to everyone who cheered for me or even had a kind thought about me over the last six months. I appreciate it all!