From Sand Pitfalls to Extreme Mud – A Weekend of Belgian Racing for Vardaros

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Descending the sand chute © Patricia Cristens

Descending the Zonhoven sand chute © Patricia Cristens

Christine Vardaros just wrapped up an impressive back-to-back race stint, with the daunting Zonhoven race on Sunday followed by the legendary Koppenberg Cross the next day. Read all about the rides below.

by Christine Vardaros

Back in January, when I heard that Superprestige Zonhoven and GVA Trofee Koppenbergcross were to fall on the same weekend, I immediately knew it was going to be the hardest back-to-back racing of the season. One race is known for its sand cave, where you dive in and out of it, often with some unfortunate but expected turnouts including endos, slides, and pile-ups. And the other is known for its infamous cobbled climb often featured in the Tour of Flanders road race, which is oddly the easiest part of the cyclocross course; it’s the mud-drenched, steep switchback descent on what is normally a cow field that instills fear in the toughest of riders.

What I didn’t know at the time when I’d heard about this powerhouse weekend was that I’d enter it having just recovered from a week-long stomach virus that was severe enough to send me to the emergency room. Bad timing indeed, or so I thought.

Superprestige Zonhoven

Sandy rutted corners in Zonhoven © Baboco Cycling Team

Sandy rutted corners in Zonhoven © Baboco Cycling Team

Going into the weekend, I was understandably apprehensive. Having not done anything on the bike in the days leading up to the races, my body was both rested and in a state of hibernation. At the start, it took some time before it awoke from its deep sleep. But once turned on, it worked well, taking me from the mid-20s to 14th by the end of the race. Well, maybe I can’t fully credit my fitness to a solid result as the heavy sand sections also played a major role in the outcome. Luckily my sand fudges were kept to a minimum. I must admit, though, that when I first saw the two sand descents, especially the larger of the two, I was pretty freaked out. It made that one in Koksijde World Cup look like a baby’s sandbox. Thankfully I rode down the two chutes every time without incident, but I did have to remind myself the whole time to loosen my grip on the handlebar, unweight the front wheel, keep the speed high, and lay off the brakes – especially the front.

Looking back at the race, based on how I was feeling I should have been the last one rounding the first turn at the start of the race. But I bet I can credit a few unfortunate incidents that occurred before the start that put many of us off our top speed from the gun.

The first culprit was courtesy of the Superprestige organizers who could not bother to give women a decent time slot just before the Elite men who go off at 3:15pm. Instead we must race at 11am, which means out of bed by 5:30 if we’re lucky.

On top of the women’s field’s general exhaustion from lack of sleep, our warmup time was cut short, this time courtesy of the Superprestige race official. While us gals waited at registration for a full hour, he was catching up on his beauty sleep instead of giving us our numbers so that we could continue to the course a couple of kilometers away. Without the numbers, we’re not allowed entry to our parking spot.

Once geared up, we rode another two kilometers to the course (women were given a separate off-site parking) only to find that our warmup was yet further delayed. There was some unexpected promotional mountain bike ride on our course to include about 80 riders, all with matching club jerseys. While I’m thankful to the Zonhoven organizers for including a women’s category, I only wish they’d show a little respect further than our inclusion.

It will be interesting to see the changes that take place to the Superprestige series next year when they are forced to have a women’s race at all their Category 1 events. Pity that the UCI will only “recommend” that they run the women’s race at a proper time slot of just before the Elite men as is done in all other events here in Belgium and the World Cups.

GVA Trofee Koppenbergcross

Riding the famous Koppenberg cobbles © Willem Beerland

Riding the famous Koppenberg cobbles © Willem Beerland

Knowing that I was working with limited energy due to the recovery from that virus combined with a hard race effort, I focused on doing everything right between Zonhoven and Koppenbergcross the following day. Following Zonhoven, I quickly drank a recovery shake, took my post-race Concap pills and was on the trainer for 30 minutes. Immediately afterwards, we headed home where I got a solid leg massage courtesy of Jonas, then laid on the couch watching mindless television shows like CSI and House MD while stuffing my face with high carbohydrate, low protein foods like pasta, rice, bread and potatoes.

The next morning upon our arrival at Koppenbergcross, I immediately realized that continuing the mindful preservation of my energy was going to be a real challenge. Contrary to events in the USA, where I was completely left alone before my race to focus fully on the job at hand, in Belgium it’s a whole different situation. When 18,000 spectators show up, there are bound to be a few hundred who know you well enough to wave hello, come say a few words, take photos with you, or ask for your trading card. While it is the most incredible feeling to be recognized and appreciated, I have a habit of letting my enthusiasm get the best of me, to the point where Jonas has recently threatened to hide my trainer behind the van so nobody sees me. Considering I did such a great job in overnight recovery, I allowed myself a little socializing that morning – while Jonas gave me the periodic evil eye to keep it under control.

Again my start was not ideal, but slightly better than the day previous. For a moment while I was getting passed by rider after rider in the beginning, I really thought of pulling out, figuring my body just couldn’t handle what was easily the heaviest race of the season. But thanks to the deafening cheers, many of which were kindly screaming my name, I continued on with a renewed hope that something would give. I hit the top of the long cobbled Koppenberg climb back in 25th position, but shortly afterwards I started passing riders. I climbed as high as 10th before finally finishing in 12th , right after last year’s winner, Pavla Havlikova. It may not have been a win (which went to the immensely talented Helen Wyman of Kona Bikes), or even a top 10, but it felt like a victory nonetheless considering my crap week coupled with my low expectations coming into it.

Running in front of Pavla Havlikova © Mieke de Cnodder

Running in front of Pavla Havlikova © Mieke de Cnodder

Similar to Zonhoven, I can’t really fully credit my fitness for my result. This time around it was the mud, or rather mud tactics and mechanical support, that had just as much to do with the outcome of the race. While most of the top gals have two pit bikes – one for the top pit and one for the bottom – I had to work with only one. With that in mind, I opted to run the most heavily-mudded sections to save the bike. In fact, I ran so much of it I expected to hear the chants, “Run Forrest Run!” coming from the crowds.

It seemed to pay off, especially when I found myself running in the heavy mud past some pedaling riders. In addition, Jonas did the most amazing job in the pit of detailing my bike so it lasted a full round – a feat in itself. I cannot tell you how exciting it feels to once again ride – or rather run, at times – alongside gals whom have kicked my ass all season, and last season as well.

Just after crossing the finish line, I was approached by a few photographers and Cyclocross Magazine contributor Dan Seaton for an interview. In the middle of my posing and babbling, I spot a purple UCI-chaperone-vested woman making her way towards me. But I didn’t let that spoil my moment, even knowing that it takes me up to three hours to pee in Doping Control. And a full three hours it took. Luckily my chaperone didn’t mind the wait when we heard that her hero, Sven Nys, was on his way in. Yep, he was in, pee’d in his traditional two seconds, and was back out again while I was still drinking my way to the toilet. A recovery shake, four waters, a lime tea, a glass of champagne, two sodas and a Primus beer later, my time had finally arrived.

I stepped out of Doping Contol into the dark rain with very little sign of life left other than the small gathering left from Jonathan Page’s bash and my Baboco Team mobilehome where head man Steven Baeckelandt and his young daughter Allyson awaited my return.

On our way back to the van, a group of guys stopped me to say that I raced great today. “What were you, fifth, sixth?” one of them asked. I responded, “No, 12th”. All five looked at me as if that was what they just said. In that moment I realized that for many of those spectators, all you have to do is show up for the race to earn their respect.

My next race is not until November 11th. Even so, I already have my new and improved pre-race strategy in place that includes lots of bed and couch time. Our episodes of CSI and House MD may be two years behind those shown in USA, but at least they are new to me, so I’m not completely bored with all my newfound “leisure time.”

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