Just two weeks into my Belgium adventure, derde ronde (third lap), I’ve already packed in a ton of living.
My first week in Belgium was a whirlwind, largely because I wasn’t in Belgium for most of it.
Fresh off the plane, literally 48 hours after landing in Brussels, my Cyclocross Custom mechanics drove me to Bern, Switzerland for the World Cup.
After Bern, I returned to Belgium, settled in at the ChainStay cycling house in Oudenaarde, and then raced my “Belgium-season” openers: Ethias Cross Beringen and Superprestige Gavere.
World Cup Bern
Just how long is the drive from Oudenaarde, Belgium to Bern, Switzerland in a truck with 550 liters of water in back?
Turns out, it’s nearly two hours longer than in a car unburdened by such weight.
Between keeping the driving speeds down and stops on the way, it took us over 11 hours to get there. This on top of a recent transatlantic flight was a bit much for me!
Luxembourg is rife with opportunities to make a roadside stop. A novelty in this part of the world: they have Starbucks, Burger King and Dunkin’ Donuts on the highway. While I haven’t been gone long enough to miss Starbucks and I don’t frequent Burger King and Dunkin’, I nevertheless enjoyed watching my Cyclocross Custom friends experiencing American “culture,” Luxembourg-style.
My memories and impressions of Bern are clouded by jetlag. I was wide awake at night, sleepy by day and hungry at impractical times (the middle of the night). I counted on experience, adrenaline and coffee to get me through race day.
The Bern venue is perfect for spectators. Racing takes place on the gently sloped hillsides surrounding Europe’s largest artificial swimming pool, Freibad Weyermannshaus. (Surreally, the site also hosts an outdoor hockey arena.)
I expected to be underwhelmed by the Bern course. Last year, it was dry, fast and not technically challenging. Several awkwardly placed, undressed curbs and a few steep up/downs were the primary features.
However, this year was totally different. Considerable rain within 48 hours of the event made for a greasy, technical course. I spied a worker cleaning mud from the pavement in true Swiss style: using a snow shovel.
During pre-ride, Stef Wyman coached the Experza riders from the side of the course. As a true “student of the sport,” I love the process of dialing in lines. Having Stef’s insight and the opportunity to ride a bit with Anna Kay and Alicia Franck left me grinning ear-to-ear.
Racing World Cups is a particular challenge for me as my grid position is quite far back. It can feel defeating to be in the melee at the back, running huge stretches while the front rides away. Knowing this, I brought my patience. On the first lap, I looked for opportunities to make crafty passes and surged whenever I saw the slightest opening.
I was satisfied to finish 47th, earning invaluable UCI points and some World Cup points as well.
Back to Belgium
Between the Bern World Cup and the first weekend of Belgian racing, I settled into my new digs at the ChainStay House in Oudenaarde.
I also got a massage and did easier workouts in hopes of bringing my legs back to normal. All the travel and the World Cups left them feeling decidedly like bricks.
Two of my workouts were rides along the canal with the Scheldepeleton. The speed and aggression of this group ride vary day-by-day, depending on the weather and who shows up.
On Tuesday, Michael Vanthourenhout was on the ride and the pace was chill, especially when he was at the front. On Thursday, the ride got “hang-on-for-dear-life fast” when four local amateurs went to the front and drove the pace. For me, the Scheldepeleton is somewhere between a road race, motor pacing and a recovery ride moment-by-moment.
In other news, there are still some old-school training methods practiced in Flanders. Several of the Masters regulars on the Scheldepeleton ride train with backpacks loaded with weight. One of them has a tiny, well-worn American flag backpack. It appears to be from the 1980s. I imagine that it once was his child’s school backpack.
Three days before Beringen, a jet-lagged Tyler Cloutier arrived in Oudenaarde and moved into the ChainStay. Together, we are chasing dreams and/or trying to stay on the lead lap.
Ethias Beringen and Superprestige Gavere
Nothing has changed in Belgium. You still have to “go all-in” to race well here.
Ethias Beringen was a dope slap, a harsh return to the challenges of racing ’cross in Europe. Just 24 hours later, after an attitude adjustment, I dug in and rode my way to an improved result at Superprestige Gavere.
As a new race on the calendar, Ethias Cross Beringen was a bit of an unknown. I happened to notice the race announcement in the Belgian press earlier this year. I remember that the article mentioned a hilly venue. However, the article did not leave a lasting impression.
Coming off a World Cup and with Koppenberg looming on the horizon, Beringen was a bit of an afterthought. It was only just before going to bed the night before that I watched pre-rides on Twitter and read an article describing it as the Alpe d’Huez of cyclocross. That’s information that’s hard to sleep on!
Beringen is in the Limburg province, a rather flat part of Belgium. The hill that we raced up (and up, and up) and down was a slag heap from a defunct coal mine. The Ethias Beringen website boasts a 58-meter (190-foot) climb and casually mentions that this is just the first of two climbs. Each lap was two climbs, two gnarly off-camber or singletrack descents and relatively gentle plateau riding in between.
On paper, the course seemed to suit me. My power to weight is excellent right now.
Indeed, I felt relatively strong on the climbs and made plenty of passes on the way up. The catch? I was repeatedly caught and passed on the plateau, as well as sometimes dropped on the sketchy descents.
I missed finishing on the lead lap and walked away totally chagrined.
Welcome back to Belgium, where the courses are brutal, and the natives fight tooth, nail and elbow for every position.
How ironic to have great fitness and then lose both elbow wars and positions on the flowy, easy bits. It was abundantly clear. Despite so much off-season training, I would not be taking Belgium by storm.
The Pressure Stops Here
I have been living under a cloud of self-induced pressure and ultra-seriousness this season.
I made a lot of risky life changes this year. Stepping away from full-time corporate work and a steady paycheck was not a step, but a leap!
Starting Triple C LLC to support my team and coaching business took a bit of personal and financial courage.
I also adjusted to the often self-absorbed solo endeavor of full-time training.
Finally, I signed myself up for 4.5 months away from home, my husband and my dog. It’s one thing to chase and dream and a passion, yet it’s another to step away from family to do it.
Pressure comes with investment. When you go all in, you expect a positive outcome.
I’ve been walking on eggshells this season trying to post results that make the investment “worth it.”
After Beringen, I decided, this has to stop. I have to let myself have fun. I have to absorb every moment that I am living in Flanders. If I don’t, the experience will pass me by. The day-to-day moments, enjoying the process is “worth it.”
I went to Sunday’s Superprestige Gavere race seeking joy and fulfillment. I changed my warmup playlist. I texted my husband prerace, writing “It’s going to be a good day.”
Whereas at Beringen, I stood at the start with my heart in my throat, in Gavere, I thought: “I am so lucky to be here, racing in the same race as Sanne Cant.”
Wouldn’t you know it, I had my best-ever Belgian start?
If you have seen the replay, you’ll understand that “best-ever start” means I did not go backward as if putting my bike in reverse.
However, European starts (at least in the back) are nothing like those in America. The Gavere start “pavement” looked as if bombs had been dropped on it, a mix of holes and patches. Europeans, especially the younger ones, attack the start with complete abandon. My nature is “safety-first” and it’s taken me two years to build the guts to stand and attack the whole start straight.
I finished on the lead lap on Sunday, which was an achievement on a short course.
Spend Those Watts Wisely
I’ve always “talked the talk” that power-to-weight and raw power doesn’t matter so much. Yet, a little American part of me still considers power the Holy Grail.
Gavere taught me that power means nothing if you cannot use it effectively.
Since Gavere is but a 30-minute spin from Oudenaarde, I had the opportunity to train on the course Wednesday before the race. During training, I discovered some “efficiencies,” places where better lines meant less work.
Gavere has a single sketchy descent lined with inflatables. While there’s obviously time to be taken on the descent, the corner at the bottom is surprisingly important. If you go outside around the corner, you carry more speed into the next steep climb. In fact, it’s possible to roll halfway up the hill.
The difference? Roll up, and I can get to the top with only three seconds of high power numbers. Come in slow, and it’s the same high power but for six seconds.
Belgium is all about corners, ruts, sand and patches of mud. Roll the corner and minimize the watts used to re-accelerate. Stick the rut in the sand and save five seconds at a high wattage. Bury oneself so that the mind dulls and legs turn to jello and then plow into some mud, losing all momentum.
Really, power-to-weight is great and dandy, but we have but a finite amount of watts to put out per race.
It’s clear: If I want to achieve anything here, I need to dig in and improve both my handling and my aggression.
Favors and Community
I am still trying to digest the culture around Belgian cyclocross. For me, it’s all about racing among the best in the World. For the average Flanderian, the race itself is less important.
At the Gavere Superprestige, I observed that cyclocross is about community.
It started with some Swiss cigarettes.
On the way to Switzerland for the Bern World Cup, my mechanic Denis stopped at a gas station to get the details on some cigarettes the owner wanted us to purchase. They were strawberry-and-mint flavored and available only in Switzerland.
As we left Bern, we successfully procured more than 200 Swiss Francs worth of cigarettes. (For the record, we declared them at customs and not an eyelash was batted.)
The payout for this “work?” Ten tickets to the Gavere SuperPrestige.
The free tickets were distributed to Cyclocross Custom friends and family. This assured that Tyler and I had a veritable fan club of supporters. The area around our tent and the mechanics’ truck was a carefree one, as friends stopped by to say hi, chat, and enjoy one of the last mild days of fall.
After the race, we were invited to shower at Denis’ parents-in-law’s family home.
While post-race shower invites seem unusual to Americans, they are an integral part of the culture in Flanders. As I understand it, it is something of an honor, and certainly a tradition, to host racers to shower post-race. Note that “shower” is an understatement. We’ve come to learn that coffee and pastries are often included.
After Gavere, I found Denis’ family sitting in their lovely living room watching the race on television, drinking coffee, and eating a delightful Belgian desert.
It was quite relaxing to sit in their living room, taking in the men’s race in front of a warm fire.
I try to remind myself: in the same way that the Flanderians view cyclocross, this experience shouldn’t just be about racing.