by Corey Coogan Cisek

Compared to my first weeks in Belgium when every single task was overwhelming, and the race-packed Kerstperiode, things have really slowed down around here. With less racing, I’ve been able to get some training time with ample rest and become more at home in Belgium.

On the heels of the the last Kerstperiode race in Baal, my husband and I rushed off to a very short holiday in Oostende (yes, Elle Anderson’s Belgian home).

For those of you who envy my “Belgian vacation,” I have to respond that “vacation” may not be the most fitting term. While, no doubt, I’m living my dream, this place is way too short on sun and surf to be vacationland. It is hard racing, challenging living and mud and cold in spades. Yet, for approximately 24 hours before my husband headed back to the States, we played tourist!

Oostende is a small coastal city with a beach walk, lots of shopping and restaurants; clearly, a vacation destination for Belgians. We enjoyed exploring the town, eating out, and especially the fantastic European breakfast at the hotel. Oh, how I love the fresh breads, pastries, yogurt and espresso of Europe compared to America’s waffle machine/donut offerings!

Dropper It Like It’s Hot

The weekend following Kerstperiode and leading up to Nationals had just one race, a UCI C1 in Leuven. I have only one thing to say about the course: Why don’t I have a dropper seat post?

The Leuven course, which is on an army base, has two disparate halves. Half is basically completely flat with a very long pavement section and amusing features: rollers, several rideable ditches and a mound that required a riding, running, riding shuffle. For the other portion, the course dipped into the woods and onto singletrack up and down a sidehill. The course was technically regulation width, but the rideable/runable portion was only singletrack-wide unless you brought your climbing rope. It was a “we don’t do that in America” course design.

The wooded section had two significant drops that required getting WAY behind the saddle. It was the sort of thing I previously would not have imagined riding on my cyclocross bike. Yet, we were going to race over it, so when in Belgium…

Coogan Cisek hits a rut at Leuven. photo: Peter Geelen

Coogan Cisek hits a rut at Leuven. photo: Peter Geelen

Like others, I spent a lot of pre-ride time on the drops section, teaching myself to ride it. When I finally dialed it, my day was made! Oh, how I remember life in America, where pre-ride is devoted to learning the day’s course conditions, determining lines and selecting tire pressure. Here in Belgium, I teach myself an entirely new skill in the hours leading up to the race.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that I will spend my entire season here learning. My stated goal of learning Belgian ’cross in three months is proving overly optimistic. It appears I will remain in full-on learning mode until my very last day here.

Den Bos and the Fietspad

Since every single race here has drilled into my head the fact that power is not my biggest limiter, I am trying to get as much off-road training as possible. This means going to den bos, the forest. Here they call it “forest training,” and you see examples of it in the movie about Sven Nys’ last year, “Het Laatste Jaar.”

There are things about Vlaanderen racing that are best practiced, in, well, Flanders. In the United States, in high density areas with mountain bike trails that get lots of use, we are not permitted to ride in wet conditions. In Flanders, riding in den bos is much more like mountain biking used to be in the U.S., essentially, a free-for-all with no concern about erosion control. It appears that trails evolve as they are ridden in, disappearing when a tree falls or interest moves the trail in another direction.

A rooty drop in den bos. photo: Corey Coogan Cisek

A rooty drop in den bos. photo: Corey Coogan Cisek

Coming from Minneapolis, it’s a thrill to be able to ride on wet trails without the constant worry about leaving tracks. The soil here is also different. It’s been great to put time into learning the way the mud slips under my tires. In the forest, I practice riding off-cambers, committing to a rut and descending drops (rather, sometimes somersaulting down them).

When not in the forest covering my bike in mud, the majority of my time is spent at the canal. My first trips to Belgium, when I stayed in Oudenaarde (home of Ronde Van Vlaanderen — the Tour of Flanders), I joined the Americans spinning our legs out on the fietspad (bike path) beside De Schelde River. I thought, “What a perfect place for a recovery spin!”

I’ve since learned, it is perfect for a spin, but it is also the perfect place for hard efforts.

The flat fietspad makes a good place for doing intervals. photo: Corey Coogan Cisek

The flat fietspad makes a good place for doing intervals. photo: Corey Coogan Cisek

I live a quick 20-minute warm-up from a fietspad along the Leie River. While technically cars below a certain size are allowed along on the canal road, it is not a direct route to anything, so cars are few and far between. Flatter than flat and mostly traffic-free, the fietspad is perfect for steady efforts. Many group rides, including some very fast ones, utilize the route and motorpacing is common. As I grind out efforts with just me and my power meter, I fantasize how much better it would be behind a moto!

Weekends on the fietspad are an overwhelming demonstration of Vlaanderen cycling culture. It’s January and yet there is a steady stream of group rides along the canal. On occasion, I see more than 50 riders per group! It’s also irritatingly common to pass a recreational rider during intervals and moments later, look over my shoulder to find him grinning behind me. I signal when my interval ends and I come off the gas, lest he ram my back wheel. With my short hair and hat, I doubt they realize it is een vrouw (a woman) whose wheel they are sitting on!

The Leie River is a frequent training spot. photo: Corey Coogan Cisek

The Leie River is a frequent training spot. photo: Corey Coogan Cisek

Some Pleasant Surprises in Otegem

And then there was Otegem, a UCI C2 filled with surprises! Otegem is the day after Nationals. Sanne Cant arrived fresh off her Belgian Nationals domination. Helen Wyman arrived after her British win, but perhaps less fresh after a night stuck in the tunnel coming back from Great Britain. For my part, I arrived after a day of openers and relaxation that included watching Nationals on television with my feet up!

For the first time, I travelled with my mechanic to the race, rather than separately in my own car. I did not realize how much parking stress I usually feel until I was able to sit back while he spoke with the parking attendants.

If I am learning anything this trip, it is the value of receiving help from locals. You need people who speak Flemish, understand Belgian cyclocross culture, and who can keep a bike running in the world’s most difficult conditions. All around me, I see relationships helping the Americans succeed here. USA Cycling’s program has strong leadership coming from America, but local staff are essential to the operation. Elle Andersen has a team of dedicated supporters who take care of the details on race day so she can focus on racing. Katie Compton also has her “Belgian Family.”

In short, it’s character-building to do it on your own, but if you are seeking results…

I successfully located Otegem sign-in with little effort, and heck, I even gave directions to Helen Wyman!

Sign-in was the normal protocol: give name, show UCI license, check name off the list, but it also included another surprising step. The man handed me a contract, indicating I was to receive 50 Euros in start money. Completely bowled over, I scrambled to sign the thing before someone could notice their grievous error. When signing a contract, I typically at least skim the relevant details, but not this time! It was one page and in Dutch, and maybe I signed away my first born or my vital organs for all I understood. I saw the 50 Euros spelled out in the middle and added my handtekening (signature).

Then another man asked me if it was good, meaning is the amount sufficient? Why yes, sir, that’ll do just fine. Next I met what I gathered to be the president of their organization, received the European triple kiss and a coffee maker. Wide-eyed, I left the room, following several female racers carrying out new Dolce Gusto coffee makers.

I am already smitten with Belgium, but now they have given me coffee and bought my heart. My roommate and I laugh that I must return to Belgium because now I own a 220-volt coffee maker.

The race itself was a letdown in terms of my performance. I crashed in an early corner and then made another big error trying to make up time. It was a day where I mostly got in my own way. I am clearly living in a land where things can be a little overwhelming: different racing and weather, but also contracts, coffee makers and parking assignments. I sometimes feel like a newborn deer, wide-eyed and not altogether steady on my feet. The challenge, really, is to get my feet under me as fast as possible and keep them there.

Coogan Cisek got a start contract and a coffee maker at Otegem. photo: Kristel Van Gilst

Coogan Cisek got a start contract and a coffee maker at Otegem. photo: Kristel Van Gilst

Next weekend is another new and different experience, as Beth Ann Orton crosses the pond and we travel together to the Nommay World Cup. It’s time to try travelling and racing in France.

I expect everything to go smoothly since my French is limited to what I acquired watching Sesame Street so many years ago.