I’m writing this from sunny Florida.
I know what you are thinking. You envision me doing some post-season relaxing on the beach.
Um, not exactly.
I’m actually doing a training block in preparation for the final six races on the Belgian/Dutch calendar, the “post-Worlds block.” But more about Florida later.
First, let’s talk about Kerstperiode: sickness, Christmas in England and dancing on the edge of burnout.
I was the first of our North American contingent to get sick over Kerstperiode. Let’s face it. I was due. I was in my third month abroad.
It’s very easy for North American riders to get sick in Belgium and relatively difficult to get healthy.
In training, we live on a razor’s edge. We try to train enough to maintain our form, but not so much that we hit the weekends exhausted. All this training and racing leaves our immune systems compromised.
I think staying healthy is all the more challenging the earlier you start your “Belgium season.”
Reviewing my Training Peaks performance management chart from last year, Helen pointed to where the slope started to flatline and descend, saying, “And then you got to Belgium…”
It’s hard to do quality training in Belgium. Between the sun coming up shortly before 9:00 a.m. and going down not too long after 4:00 p.m., rainy, cold weather and incredibly demanding racing, it is really difficult. Belgium works best if you can do most of your training build before arriving and then leave on occasion to reload the training in a warmer climate.
Last year, arriving in late November, there was less season remaining and thus less training to do. By the time I got over jetlag, it was nearly Kerstperiode. By the time I recovered from Kerstperiode, it was nearly the French World Cup.
This time, arriving in October, I did a fair bit of training east of the pond. Yet, unlike the Belgian pros, I never went to Spain for a block.
It was a perfect combination for illness. I had a fairly hard training week, an uncommonly difficult weekend of races (the Ronse mud epic and climb-y Overijse) and then I encountered “the germs.” My body doesn’t recognize many Belgian germs.
I’ve been exposed to different pathogens than the Belgians. Over a lifetime, I should have built immunity to quite a few North American viruses. However, I’ve learned that the Belgian cold can take me down hard and fast.
Also, Belgian culture is far less germaphobic than ours. In America, grocery cart sanitizing wipes are the norm. In Belgium, selecting one’s bread bare-handed is the norm.
A fellow North American shared with me her horror watching a Belgian man place two unbagged fresh loaves of bread on the grocery store check-out belt. Then there’s the Belgian restroom hand towels. It’s not uncommon for public restrooms to have a single, well-used, old hand towel. Equally, there’s often just cold water and no soap.
We can judge—or we can conclude that by adulthood, the average Belgian is going to have better immunity than we do. Here’s one case where my “Master’s age” is beneficial. I never had hand sanitizer in my school bag or locker!
All this to say, I got sick before Sint-Niklaas, pulled out of that race and went to England where I aimed to recover before starting my Kerstperiode.
Limited to 90 days in the Schengen Zone, I had planned to leave December 29 for my mom’s house in Florida. However, I really did not want to miss the Kerstperiode fun.
After spreadsheet calculations, budgeting and repeated calls to the airline, I delayed my “first European exit” until January 7. In order to make this happen, I had to take another trip out of the Schengen Zone.
This time, I went to Gravesend, England, a bedroom community for London just an hour from the Chunnel. It’s draw, other than location, was an affordable, solitary AirBnb where I could nurse my introverted soul.
My original plan was to take the train, but a rental car proved surprisingly more affordable. For the record, the Chunnel is spendy, and thus I took a car-ferry to England. This also afforded me the opportunity to learn that I am prone to sea-sickness.
As an English major, I had visions of strolling the streets of London, perhaps taking in Shakespeare production. However, my cold latched on firmly, and instead, I rather enjoyed doing nothing.
My AirBnb was a setup that not everyone would appreciate. It was a “mother-in-law apartment,” profoundly rectangular in shape. It felt much like living in a box car, yet had everything I needed (kitchen and laundry) and wanted (silence).
While I have enjoyed having many North American riders around (psuedo-teammates!), I’m easily tired by a bustling social life. For Christmas, I hung out alone and treated myself to some different British foods. (Pork pies were underwhelming, but mince pies and scones proved enjoyable fuel!)
I’m aware that to some this sounds like the saddest of Christmasses. However, for me, an introvert, all this aloneness provided a necessary mental recharge.
It was a physical recharge too, but a small one. Maybe I should have left Belgium on my original date?
Get out Before you Crack
Two years ago, Helen gave me some wisdom regarding when to shut the season down. It was something like, “Go home just before you totally crack.”
Got it, coach, done. But that was a close one! I’ve always been keenly aware that Belgium can totally crack you.
I’ve been lucky. The first year, I got a pretty terrible cold and my fitness and speed dropped throughout the season. Year two, a cold, followed by a hard crash on wet pavement was impactful. Yet, Belgium hasn’t broken me … yet.
I know what can happen. Her first year in Belgium, Amy Dombroski got sick and shut her season down around Christmas. Year one, Elle Anderson had her best performances fresh off the plane. After struggling in Belgium last season, Magalette Rochette has elected to do her European season in short blocks. All tough women whom I heartily admire.
During Kerstperide, I walked a bit too close to the Belgium edge. After my England trip, I returned to racing in Loenhout. I was healthy enough to race but my breathing was still a bit compromised. I also felt off for Diegem two days later, yet I rallied and had a strong race. Bredene, the following day, was also a solid result (despite hitting a fence post–hard).
Then came two unusual performances in a row.
In Baal, after a rough first lap, I felt really good for the second half of the race. Yet, my lap times showed I was further back than normal.
Then in Gullegem, I had a great first lap, but then imploded, dropping through the field on the final laps.
The scary thing was that the sensations in my legs didn’t seem to match reality. Baal ended really well and Gullegem started really well. Yet, my results were off. We rely on our bodies to give us cues. The information from my body and mind and the results seemed to be at odds.
I considered pulling the plug on my last day of racing: Brussels. (Heck, I considered rebooking my flight to Minneapolis.)
Ultimately, however, I looked at the data. The data seemed to match my internal cues. It seemed like my body was healthy and over the illness. It was important to me to finish this block, this part of the journey, fighting.
I knew from experience that I could have the best-day-ever following the worse-day-ever. It happens.
Sure enough, Brussels was just what I wanted: a solid race.
“Doing Belgium,” it’s always been my goal to “not crack.” Yet, I was a little bit cracked. I wasn’t physically cracked. I was mentally cracked. (Of course, we all know what’s mental becomes physical.)
It makes sense. I was nearly 90 days in. I’d “lived” in two countries and done short trips to another two. I had not seen my husband in a month and a half. I only see my dog via FaceTime and let’s just say his behavior has become “challenging” with mom gone.
Anybody in their right mind would be feeling a little “cooked.” I was frustrated and bemused that Belgium could still sneak up on me and crack me.
While the aim is to nurture physical and mental freshness, sometimes you miscalculate. For me, pulling myself up by my bootstraps and having a solid performance in Brussels was critical.
It showed me what I can still do when things aren’t going so well.
To Florida and Vitamin D
Having arrived in Europe on mid-October and “dumped” those days in G.B., I have 21 days left in my Schengen Zone 90.
I could have simply stayed through until my time ran out and likely raced the Nommay World Cup. However, taking a break and training back in the States is a bit of gamble—or an educated decision.
Helen and Stef recall the year that Helen broke her collarbone and came back smashing in February. They assert that still having fitness in February is invaluable. Sounds good to me!
At a certain point in the season, Belgium becomes a slippery slide and loss of form. Kerstperiode is exhausting. January has relatively little racing in the lead up to Worlds and the weather is terrible.
But why not go home to Minnesota? Because, well, it’s Minnesota.
I am a huge believer in using cross-training, specifically Nordic skiing, to prepare for cycling. However, that works best for base period.
Racing cyclocross in Europe off skiing and trainer workouts in the basement? That’s kind of a big ask.
It was hard to step away from the season because I love racing. It was also hard to return to the States but not go home. However, I believe this Florida training block has been the absolute right decision.
It’s amazing how long we go during ’cross season without doing much in the way of real training. The “road” that is our fitness starts to develop cracks, but all we have time to do is throw some tar in the holes.
My body feels fabulous with solid training and plenty of sun and rest. Florida feels like a refreshing “gift.”
We will see how it impacts my results. I arrive in Belgium on February 5.