Vicki Thomas runs the Belgian sand © Balint Hamvas, cyclephotos.co.uk

Vicki Thomas checks in with another journal entry about chasing her ‘cross dream on the courses of Europe. Check out her Nommay World Cup and Belgium update here and her report from the Treviso World Cup here.

I’m sitting here in the spacious dining room of my “home” here in Blauberg, Belgium, thinking about the last few weeks: The ups, the downs, the in-betweens.The fact that it’s hard to remember everything that’s happened since I last wrote must be a sign of generally good times. I’ve gotten lots of racing in, picked up some new technical skills and made new friends. All in all, I can’t really complain; I’m pretty darned lucky to be living this bike racer life.

I do have to admit that there have been some long days. It is a challenge to live alone when you’re used to living with someone. Toss in the extra spice of living alone in a country where you don’t know many people and don’t speak the prime language and, yep, it makes for some quiet nights. But, it’s all worth it to be here racing with the best in the world. The “quiet time” certainly hasn’t been all bad – it’s given me a chance to get caught up on my reading, rediscover the wonderful value of a mid-afternoon nap, and I’ve started drinking coffee!

Yes, I’ve never had coffee before, but it was time to branch out. On one of my recovery rides I discovered a fabulous, cool coffee / book shop with smooth leather chairs, jazz music in the background and second-hand books (English ones!). It’s a perfect place for the book-loving bike racer to unwind in the evening. I had planned on having a tea, but I decided to shake things up. One cappuccino was just the ticket. Mmm, love it. The first bitter taste suddenly becomes rather soothing and helps wash away the lingering feelings from the bruised elbows, shins and that mystery-bruise that appears on the back of my right calf.

Okay, what you really want to know about is the racing, which has been going well. You might be surprised to read that the “racing has been going well” since I haven’t been getting any top-10, let alone top-15 results, but it’s all about perspective. Although it’s nice to consistently place in the top-ten when racing at home, the racing here in Belgium is the real deal. (Don’t get huffy, I’m not slagging North American racing – but there really is a different level here.) There is nothing quite like lining up for a race and looking at the backs of Marianne Vos, Daphy Van Den Brand, Hanka Kuffernagel, Helen Wyman and Katie Compton. Yes, some fast feet up there on the front line. Good! This is exactly why I came here.

Vicki Thomas finds the path of least resistance © Balint Hamvas, cyclephotos.co.uk

Vicki Thomas finds the path of least resistance © Balint Hamvas, cyclephotos.co.uk

I got a true taste of the Belgian classic cyclocross race at Asper-Gavere (see CXM’s race coverage here). I’d never raced on a course like that before, with crazy mud, ridiculously challenging descents and a long hard climb. This race had it all: a true Belgian classic. My goal was to get down the descents in one piece and to learn how to race in such conditions. The crazy descent right after the start really tested my nerves and highlighted my need to practice descending in slippery, fast mud!

The infamous descent on the highlight reels online is as challenging as it looks. I ran it, there was no other choice for me. I think it was probably faster for me to run it. My favorite part of the course was the long muddy climb up to the top of the course. I could find my groove in this section and passed girls who were walking/shuffling along. I did get lapped in this race, which wasn’t fun. The most frustrating aspect was that I would pass girls on the long climb and on the sections where you could open your legs, only to be passed by the same girls on the technical descents.

This experience left me with a heightened desire to improve, to learn how to race in such muddy and technical conditions. We really don’t get the opportunity to do this kind of racing in North America. These races here in Belgium do a very good job of highlighting any technical deficits a rider has; you can’t get by with power alone.

So what to do? Well, find someone who can teach me the skills I need to race at the level I so desperately want to be at. This has happened. I’ve found one masters racer, Bert Vervecken, who is very experienced and willing to help. He and I are going to get together for some cyclocross training sessions on Wednesday afternoon. Excellent, just what I needed.

And as an extra bonus, I was fortunate to meet Rudy De Bie, the Belgian National Team Coach. He has given me lots of advice and tips on how to ride at the various races. He is always at the races and is quick to offer encouragement and to give pointers on sections that gave me trouble after the race. It’s the Belgian way to not mince words. You hear it the way it is. This can be hard at first – especially for a polite Canadian! – but I want to hear the cold, hard truth. Rudy was quick to point out that when I get nervous, I tense up, stop pedaling and look down instead of ahead. He has also pointed out that my start needs to be better. All good things to hear and to have reinforced, little nuggets of information that I store in my head, think about and work on while training and racing.

After Aspere-Gavere, I had a solid week of training with lots of time on the bike, including a couple of double days. There’s nothing like getting out for a rode ride in the morning and then hitting up the woods in the afternoon. It really made me feel like a bike racer! This big block of training was capped with a double-header weekend. On the Saturday I went to Hasselt and raced with the junior boys. When there isn’t a women’s race on the schedule, we can race with the juniors. This is a great way to get in a good, hard race. It’s always a challenge to get in the full 40 minutes and hold off the super-fast juniors. I had a blast at Hasselt, loved this interesting and challenging race course. It has a bit of everything: sand, off-cambers, tight twists and turns, grass, pavement.

I almost made it, got caught with one lap to go. So close. It’s funny, at points in the race I was so cooked I just wanted the leaders to come by and put me out of my misery but, towards the end, I just kept on drilling it harder hoping to stay away from the leaders.

I went to this race alone, but was easily able to find some help for the pits and to find someone to take my warm-up clothes at the start. This is one of the great aspects of cyclocross racing here, everyone’s super-willing to help out.

The next day I went to Den Haag, Holland for a women’s race. There is a great series of cyclocross races in Holland. They aren’t UCI races but there’s always a women’s race and you never know who will show up. This was a typical Dutch race with tight, twisty singletrack through the woods. This race featured an uber-steep climb with a rather sudden descent that dumped you on to a field of super-slippery mud. This race did an excellent job of reinforcing that I struggle in the tight, twisty, slippery conditions.

I had a decent start but then tensed up and started to ride tentatively. Luckily, my brain kicked in. I gave myself a stern talking-to and started taking risks and pushing my technical limits. And, guess what? I started catching girls, probably on average two a lap! I finished 12th, my best result ever in Holland, but it left me wanting more. With more learning and with riding like I know I’m supposed to, I can do better. Once again, another excellent race experience.

This brings us to last week, a week I had been anticipating for a long time. In June, I found a small article on the UCI web site about a cyclocross camp in Belgium from November 23rd – 27th. The camp was focused on juniors, U23s and women racers. Perfect. Thanks to Matthew Knight of the Canadian Cycling Association, I was quickly registered.

The camp was based in Koksijde and was focused on helping us prepare for the World Cup there. We were a small group of five riders: three Danish athletes, an Australian athlete and me. This made for some excellent one-on-one time with our coach, Rudy De Bie. Yep, extra bonus was that we got to spend a week learning from one of the legends of the sport.

The other athletes were based in Koksijde, I was staying here in Blauberg, a two hour drive away. Luckily for me, Rudy lives close by, so I was able to get a ride to the camp with him each day: an extra chance for me to ask lots of questions, hear stories about racing and just get to know a super-helpful and supportive guy. So, the camp was awesome. We got lots of time on the Koksijde race course well in advance of the official pre-riding session on Friday. We got an early taste of the infamous sand dunes and the deep sand. I learned so much in that week that I’m still trying to digest it and transfer the knowledge from my head to legs! Rudy gave us some great advice on riding in the sand: don’t grip the bars tightly, don’t oversteer and let the front wheel go where it wants, always pedal in the sand, when running uphill take small steps and put your feet in a hole instead of making a new hole and, most of all, pedal, pedal, pedal! A truly invaluable week of training and learning. It was also super nice to get to meet some other athletes and hang out with new people for the week.

The camp culminated with the Koksijde World Cup on Saturday (CXM’s race coverage here). Wow, what a race. Typically I go into these races with absolutely no expectations. Go out and race, do my thing and take the lessons from it. But, something strange happened to me. I started to put expectations on myself, to put pressure on myself. I’mot sure why, I guess I just really wanted things to come together, to show that I do belong and that I am improving. Well, here is some advice: don’t expect things to come together at one of the hardest and biggest World Cups of the season. Miracles don’t happen overnight. Suffice it to say, I struggled on Saturday. Okay, let’s just be upfront and state it in “Belgian” terms: I had a bad day on the bike. Plain and simple. I fought my bike, I fought my head. Not good. But it has to happen sometime. Now I’m glad I’ve gotten it out of my system. This being said, I still really enjoyed racing at Koksijde – the course is interesting and super-challenging. Hearing the fans cheering me on helped a lot as well. Seems as though I have a little group of fans who are at every race and are always there to yell out my name. Nice.

It goes without saying that the lessons I learned at the UCI cyclocross camp did help a lot during the race. I had Rudy’s voice in my brain reminding me how to ride the sand and how to attack other sections of the course. Thanks to Rudy, the Belgian Cycling Federation and the Canadian Cycling Association for the opportunity to learn so much and participate in the camp.

There is one really big silver lining to the Koksijde World Cup. I got the UCI points I needed to meet the qualification standard for the Canadian team for the World Championships in Tabor, Czech Republic. The minimum is 75 UCI points by December 9th. Well, I’m sitting here on November 30th with 91 points. Pretty darn nice feeling. I’ll find out on Dec. 11th if I’ve been selected for the team, so keep your fingers crossed for me and I’ll be sure to let you know what happens. This has been a long process to get close to achieving my goal of representing Canada at the World Championships, but all the hard work and tough lessons is coming together. Of course this doesn’t mean the hard work ends. Nope, it only gets more intense. I’m going to get my technical skills up to where they need to be and I’m going to be ready to tackle the Tabor race course.

Speaking of which, I best go. It’s Monday, start of another training week. The sky is blue, the sun is shining and my bike is calling my name.

Thanks for reading. Remember to check out my web site to stay up-to-date with my daily racing, training and living life in Belgium.