Stefan Wyman working on Helen's bike. © Jonas Bruffaerts
Cyclocross Masters Indoor Race – Hasselt, February 24, 2010
by Christine Vardaros
With all the official races here in Europe finally behind us, the indoor Cyclocross Masters event last night was the most spectacular way to end the season.
Since it was a stress and pressure-free evening, the racers all had their guards down and were more chatty and warm than usual. Even the spectators were generally in a celebratory mood, or maybe it was because they were thrilled to be dry and warm instead of standing outside in the freezing rain.
The layout of the course was different from anything we’ll ever see in a UCI-legal event. It was set up in a stadium-style arena complete with bleachers that overlooked all the chaos below. The lap offered the usual straightaways, chicanes, and even a washboard section. But what it had that you’d never see at a UCI event was a multitude of oversized logs, ramps for jumping into a sandbox (racers get to choose between the big or small one), and a two-step ramp descent that empties you into an oversized sand pit. The ramps are so steep that from the first ramp all you see is a sand in the distance. The grooved lines that you have to follow into the sand are completely out of sight until you are already on the short steep second ramp about to fly into the sand. It’s a bit unnerving to keep your speed going directly into deep sand but without it, your wheels get buried in it.
When we arrived, the organizers parked us inside the same great big wing as Bart Wellens and Sven Nys, whose “mobilehome” took up a sizable portion of the room. It is a mobile home inside but from the outside it can easily be mistaken for an 18-wheeler with a built-in cab. As for our little van, it was sandwiched between Hanka Kupfernagel, Helen Wyman, Sven Vanthourenhout, and Ben Berden.
When it was warmup time, most of us gals jumped on the course together to play, prodding each other to be the first to try jumping the ramps and logs. If one took the bait, the rest of us stood around to watch the potential carnage like supportive co-workers.
As for the races, we were scheduled for two – just like the guys, thanks to Golazo Sports who recently took over the organization of the event and immediately added both women’s events. The first race was twenty minutes and the second was what they call an afvallingsrace, an elimination race of the “miss and out” style where after every lap, the racers last to cross the finish line are pulled.
Before the first race, all the men and women rode out onto the track lit with concert disco lights, complete with paparazzi flashes going off in our faces. In “Peanut” form, I did a high five with the audience as I looped in and out of the crowd. Actually I only did the hand-slapping on the way in because I quickly got a little nervous since I could barely see where I was going due to the funky lighting. While we stood there waiting for the men to do their celebrity loop, we chatted and joked. For the first time I was able to see a bit of personality in certain gals I hadn’t seen before.
The start was Le Mans style. The hardest part of that kind of start was not the running but the moment when our mechanics took our bikes away. I never realized how naked I would feel while wearing full bike gear and no bike in hand. A few of us even made a step towards our bikes as they rolled away. At that moment I turned to Sanne Cant and the two of us, with our dumbfounded looks, joked about how it felt; like driving in a car without a seatbelt.
The start itself must have been amusing to the crowds. They lined us up according to UCI ranking, not in a straight line but more like a V form where Marianne Vos and Daphny Van den Brand were on the outside corners of the V and I was in the bottom-most point of the V, away from the starting line. But within one second of standing in a V formation, it fell apart and I was literally rolled to the front as the V did a complete inversion while the riders inched, or shall I say sped, towards the line. There was probably a gun that went off but we didn’t stick around to hear it.
My run was okay – all five seconds of it. I could have been one of the first onto the bike if I didn’t trip over the girl in front of me who tripped over her bike when her mechanic got in the way. With a bad start combined with racing against all gals who have beaten me the whole season, my goal became last place. Heck, nobody talks about fifth, sixth or seventh place but they do talk about last! My plan worked. I got the most cheers aside from the top three. My last lap turned into a pseudo victory lap as I thanked everyone for their cheers. When I rolled across the finish line the crowd went wild. I don’t think, however, Jonas was pleased much.
Hanka Kupfernagel's shirts identifying her car in the parking lot. She was parked just behind Christine. © Jonas Bruffaerts
Between the two races, we had about forty minutes to relax. Most of us rode the trainer in a mini huddle. Those few minutes were probably the highlight of my evening. As I unwound, a few friends came by to say hello like Cyclocross Magazine contributing photographers Ludo and Cindy Nagels and her gang. I also chatted with the other racers a bit. The funniest quote I heard was from Hanka Kupfernagel, “I had too much air in my tires and not enough in my lungs!” Since Worlds, she had been spending much of her time moving to a new home, leaving little time for training.
A few moments later, former Belgian Champion Joyce Vanderbeken rolled over to inform us that her dad said she needs to lose weight. So naturally I grabbed her ass to see if it was true. She hit the roof while the others almost fell over in laughter. I told her it was ok with Jonas, but that didn’t seem to help her peel herself off the roof. A few minutes later she was back again. I think it was to find out my conclusion from the ass grab. For the record, all I felt was muscle.
In between her visits to the gals I heard a “thump, thump, thump” from behind. Immediately I turned around to find Sanne Van Paassen trying to bunny hop her bike with trainer attached forward so she could be seated just ahead of Helen Wyman. It was strange but very amusing to watch. I wondered if she would have gotten her bike ahead of Helen, if Helen would have responded with a few return thumps of her own.
The start of the second race was normal style. Again, the gals decided when the race was to start and off they went, no gun sounded. This time around I was determined to not be last. With a hard “warmup” less than an hour ago, I was raring to go. And off we went, down the starting straight, around the arena, through the chicanes, over the logs, into the sand, over the washboard, up the ramps, across the VIP section along the top, and down the ramps into the sandpit. And that is where I left my determination…and bike – on top of another rider. Just as I dropped into the last of the ramps, I spotted Helen Wyman catapulting herself to the ground, sprawling her and her bike just past the ramp across the sand. With too much speed and nowhere else to go, I perfectly t-boned her, flew over my bike and landed on my feet squarely on her rear carbon tubular wheel. After making our apologies, we took off on foot through the super long sand pit, remounted and tried in vain to make it back to the main peloton which was nowhere in sight. With only one three-minute lap to go before the first cut of racers is made, there wasn’t much time left to make any real progress. We only managed to pass one person, with Helen in front of me, thereby relegating me to the last two to cross the finish line. My first thought across the line was that at least I am not last. A split second later, I heard the race announcer say, “And here is Christine Vardaros, first rider to be pulled.” I may not have been the last rider on the course but I was the first to be pulled, in essence last. I reminded myself that it is an honor to even be invited to such a prestigious event but it didn’t help for the first five minutes after my race was over. But once I got a glass of wine in me, the situation I once viewed as grave became nothing but a faded memory. On an empty stomach, that glass of wine kept me babbling nonstop to a million strangers for the next few hours.
One such stranger was Isabelle Nijs, wife of Sven Nys, whom I met in the VIP section. (Notice that the last names are different but sound the same. Isabelle kept her maiden name which is by coincidence pronounced the same as Sven. In other words, it is never Sven Nijs, only Sven Nys.) I have spoken with her over the phone a few times for interviews of Sven but never in person. She was just like Sven, incredibly easy going, humble and down to earth. My favorite quote of hers during the evening was, “They always say it takes a strong woman behind the man. But honestly if he decided to be a dancer, I’d be watching him in his dance performances tomorrow. Once he is done bike racing, I will probably never watch another race again.” That was so honest and raw. She followed it up beautifully with, “But since he is a bike racer, it’s always fun to wash the jersey of the best in the world.”
Most of the evening, Jonas and I hung out with Ivan and Ilse, new personal sponsors for next season. Yippee! More about that later. After closing the VIP party, we all headed over to a Champagne and Wine Bar a few kilometers where a little group was gathering, like Sven Nys, Erwin Vervecken, Zdenek Stybar and some others, along with their wives. It was a low key night, but as for the actual bar it was something different for Belgium. It reminded me of some of the velvet-covered bars I used to frequent in NYC when I was young, very trendy. After a few rounds, we finally arrived home somewhere after 4am. Staying out late twice in one week is a recent record for me, one that hasn’t been broken in many years, and one I don’t plan on repeating any time soon.
All that remains now is the Erwin Bolt Uit race this Saturday. Some friends are trying to coerce me into full-out racing the thing, elbow to elbow with Vervecken, Nys, Albert, Stybar and the rest, but I was hoping not to even wear a skinsuit. So instead I put the onus on Jonas to decide. If he wears a skinsuit, then I will too. After the “race” there is yet another after-party! I say now that I have no designs on sticking around for it, but knowing my inclination for socializing I better rest up.
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Thanks for reading!