A little muddy at Gavere. © Bram van Lent

A little muddy at Gavere. © Bram van Lent

by Christine Vardaros

Of all the cyclocross races in Belgium, Superprestige Gavere  ranks easily in the top five most anticipated events.  Filled with spectacles around every corner, the course keeps both crowds and riders entertained from start to finish.  It has everything from a long grinding climb that leaves the rider seeing stars by the top to a treacherous death descent that has claimed even the most talented of riders. The most famous name to be claimed by this descent was BKCP-Powerplus rider Niels Albert back in 2009. The crash left him with a torn spleen, sidelining him for almost two months. Three weeks after his return to racing, he impressively took home the rainbow strips.  Most folks claim it was his untimely crash that gave him the rest and motivation he needed to win Worlds that season.  Even so, I expect he will still not look back at that day with fondness.

This time around, Gavere’s course design was altered a bit in comparison to the previous editions. They added a mini running U-turn and played with the death drop design which turned out not to affect the casualty count much by the end of the day. With dry skies leading up to the big event, it was expected to be a fast, hard-packed course. But the night before the race, as if on cue, the rain began to fall.  It didn’t stop until the women were well underway.

Although the start time for the elite women was insanely early at 10:45 a.m., before the juniors, U23 and elite men who took the start over four hours later, I looked forward to taking part in this event because Gavere has been the only race of the Superprestige series that held a women’s event before the UCI forced all Category 1 events to do so. I appreciate that.  But it still didn’t change the fact that a  6 a.m. wakeup call was incredibly uncomfortable. I have never been a morning person. I am usually out of bed by 9:30 and fully awake by 11.

After 1 ½ hours in the “Peanut” van, a long drive by Belgian standards, we arrived at Gavere’s military domain.  Not sure where exactly they were putting the women, I popped my head into the welcome booth to confirm.  The woman in the booth kindly asked my name, made a phone call, and came back to me two minutes later with a golden parking pass allowing me entrance to the domain. It was actually gold-colored! It felt like the first time I scored something with dropping my own name! Later I was told that there were a few passes reserved for women – but only the big names.  Yeah, at seventeen letters my name surely is big, I thought.

Post-race at Superprestige Gavere. © Thomas Sneyers

Post-race at Superprestige Gavere. © Thomas Sneyers

Once inside, we were stopped again by the parking patrol where I expected maybe a check of our ID’s or a double look at the golden pass. But instead he asked, “Can I get 100 grams?” For an instant I was puzzled, but then it came clear.  He had seen the HempAge (www.hempage.com )  clothing logo plastered all over our van.  Before I could respond, Jonas quipped, “Sure, but at that weight you can only get a summer t-shirt which won’t do you much good here today.”  I wonder if the guard ever figured it out.

Thanks to the surprise rain, it turned out to be a Limus day. The problem was that all three of my bikes were set up with Grifos on 3T carbon wheels equipped with my only three 12-27 cassettes to get me up that bitch of a climb.  Switching all wheels, cassettes and brake pads kept my husband Jonas busy until the start of the race, leaving me to do all the other stuff that I usually rely on him to handle.  Short on time, my warmup suffered .

Standing at the start line, I had a feeling that the rest of my warmup was yet to come. A few minutes into the race, when I expertly back-pedaled from 10th to 23rd in that one long climb, I knew my fears had been realized.  Luckily, by the second of four rounds I had finished my warmup and was ready to race.  It was as if a switch had been flipped and off I went. I sprinted the running sections,  commandingly slid around the tricky mud sections, nailed the descent with speed and grace and even powered up that drag, engaging my whole body in the process to get my ass up it in record speed.  It was amazing to feel the difference in speed.  And just in case I hadn’t noticed it, my new Tifosi Optics had.  Within a few minutes after I awoke, my glasses were covered in a layer of mud.  I tossed them to Benny Schenck, one of my favorite supporters who woke up early to come support us gals, and he plucked them out of the air with ease. I had to smile at that because you are always taking a chance when you toss your optics mid-race.  By the end, I spotted 11th through 13th place just ahead but came up short and crossed the line in 14th.  Filled with all sorts of emotions that ranged from frustration to relief, I couldn’t help but stupidly smile at the finish for what felt like no real reason.  Maybe it’s just what happens when you race cyclocross.

My next event is this Saturday at the Koksijde World Cup. It is where the Cyclocross World Championships took place last year.  Held on the dunes of the Belgian coastline, the course weaves in and out of extended sand sections.  The ones who come out on top will be either sand experts like BKCP-Powerplus rider Sanne Cant, who placed third at the World Championships last season or pure powerhouse talents like Trek Cyclocross Collective rider Katie Compton.  My goal is a bit less lofty.  I am shooting for a top 25 so I can win prize money  enough to take my mini team of four (me, Jonas, and our friends/helpers Sofie and Jürgen) out to dinner – or drinks only depending on how well I race.

On Sunday, I opted to skip Superprestige Gieten – a four-hour drive for a women’s race at 10:45, and instead go to a local race presentation. I was invited by two of my supporters to attend this event as their guest. It is De Morelgem Vrienden bike club’s celebration of their 35th event and seventh in Memory of Danny Vettenburg.  It is held in honor of their former club president who lost a battle to cancer. The proceeds from this event will go to the Oncology Department in the Gent University Hospital. Later in that afternoon I will witness my first ever track event at the Six Days of Gent. But as my season is far from over, I will surely wear my compression socks there as I jump up and down cheering for my favorite riders.

Riders head through the muck. © Bram van Lent

Riders head through the muck. © Bram van Lent