Belgium-based cyclocross racer Corey Coogan Cisek is back with a behind-the-scenes report of the “Kerstperiode,” an intense period of cyclocross racing during the holidays. This is Part One of her chronicles. Come along for the ride!
I am writing to you from my post-Kerstperiode recovery block. My clothes are all clean. (Although the next time the lycra stretches, it will expel puffs of sand!) My room is freshly vacuumed. My cycling shoes? Well, they are still expelling a bit of sand as well.
Training Peaks tells me I did 8 races in 15 days.
That’s a lot of racing, but that’s really not the full story. I think 80% of the stress is the weather. Race days insult the body with constant temperature changes: warmup for pre-ride, pre-ride, warm-up for race, race, cool down. The wet Belgian weather is raw cold even when it’s not raining, and there are few things more “refreshing” than cold sprays of mud over the entire body!
I posted on Twitter, “I feel that Kerstperiode is tough for someone who prefers her life to be neat and tidy.”
I was only sort of joking. Nearly every day you return home with clothes and shoes power-washed but sodden with only about 12 hours to clean, eat and sleep before heading off to the races again. It gets…overwhelming.
Since many of you tuned into the Kerstperiode races, my goal this week is to give you a “behind-the-scenes” view.
Due to COVID considerations, the usual Saturday pre-ride was canceled. Doubtless, they did not want to staff for temperature checks, COVID testing documentation and the like.
Understandably, many of us foreigners were led to believe we could not access the course until “official pre-ride” Sunday morning. We debated riding midweek, but we did not want to risk a long drive to Namur only to get kicked off the course. On Friday, when videos started appearing on social media, we felt a little left out.
Having raced Namur before, my Sunday pre-ride felt sufficient. However, it’s something to think about: Given the fatiguing course, one couldn’t really do more than two laps Sunday pre-race. It’s a pretty big ask to learn one of the most challenging courses in the world in just two laps.
For me, the race was an opportunity lost. I was having a really solid race when I changed bikes, only to have a mechanical just after the pit. After slow, careful descent from the high point to the pit, I pitted only to find my bike was not ready. This sounds like a “mechanic fail,” but it’s not! Fun fact about Namur: In Namur, race staff (not mechanics) wash bikes, causing a logjam. For those of us further back in the race, it’s a huge risk to pit on the half lap.
I won’t quickly forget my great-day derailed. That said, the image of my mechanic, Jo, sprinting across the pit bike in hand will be a lasting memory!
My takeaway from Essen was crashing on the start line.
Historically, I’ve found Euro starts to be aggressive, but clean. Not this year. The women’s starts have been a bit “crash-y.” It’s not the field quality. Since racing has been limited to pros, it’s impossible to pin this on inexperienced newcomers. Likewise, the bulk of the crashes have been at the front. I imagine it’s the competitiveness of the field as well as our freshness (pre-Kerstperiode) that has significantly upped the aggression.
However, in Essen, the crash was in the back. A rider dove into an inadequate space in front of me. Her back wheel took out my front. I steered into her wheel, leaned, and held it upright…until I didn’t.
The bike rendered a single speed, I went into the pits on the first pass.
Ironically, the crash super-charged me. Anger and adrenaline resulted in a huge fight back and I finished on the lead lap.
It took a lot of scrubbing to work the mud out of my wounds.
The Herentals course was the brainchild of Erwin Vervecken. Herentals is Erwin’s hometown, so those woods are essentially “his course.”
Two things you need to know about Erwin: He is a supporter of international cyclocross and his courses are hard!
Erwin has been helpful to me in countless ways over the years. He’s even earned himself a reputation among the foreigners. I’m not sure how many times this season someone has said, “Should we ask Erwin?”
We’ve probably driven Erwin crazy, but he’s been a real help as we sought to understand the endless COVID changes. We don’t always feel welcome over here. It’s important to shout out those who move our sport towards internationalism.
The Herenthals course is my new favorite, superseding Namur. The camera does not do justice to the steepness of the descents or the depth of the soil-hiding killer roots. I’m proud to say I rode the descent…or more like dabbed, rode the top-tube—did whatever it took to get down.
The 2020 race in Zolder was one of my strongest races of Kerstperiode despite being the course type that most challenges me: smoking fast!
I did my first-ever World Cup at Zolder in 2018. At the time, I was filled with anxiety. I was nervous to represent the U.S., scared of the level of competition and terrified of the drops. Revisiting Zolder this year was “coming full circle.”
As I headed off to the start, my mechanic said, “Remember, this was your first World Cup.” All…the…feels.
This hasn’t been a strong season on the results-sheet for me, so it was good to compare Zolder 2020 with Zolder 2018. Since 2018, my fear has been replaced by confidence and the difference in my technical skills is night and day.
“Keeping on, keeping on” in this difficult sport requires owning one’s own personal victories.
Dendermonde cost me some matches.
I can only echo Mark Legg’s frustration regarding the organization of Dendermonde, calling it “the worst World Cup event we’ve attended in thirteen years.”
I’ve gotten used to World Cups being logistically easy. They usually provide parking by UCI Team and country. This means we have an assigned parking spot!
Somehow parking assignments fell to the wayside in Dendermonde. By the time we completed inscription, parking near the course was full. Our mechanics improvised parking, selecting a spot on a side road. They huddled our trainers on the lee side of a barn since it was too windy to set up a tent.
The commute to the start and the pit was over a mile. On most days, this would be a little thing, but in the driving rain and gusting wind…I don’t think I need to explain the “challenge” to one’s core temperature!
My race at Dendermonde? I was cold. That was my overwhelming takeaway. My body was, “all systems…shut…down.”
Likewise, I share Katie Compton’s “stuck in the mud” frustrations.
After going over the handlebars, I tried to free my bike from the mud. Maybe some years from now, I’ll laugh at the 30 seconds I spent pulling on my bike as my feet sunk even further.
If I were at home watching that race, I would have been envious. I typically thrive when the going gets tough. Indeed, on race day, I was excited for the “fight” that would be this race!
But I had no fight.
We romanticize racing in Belgium…suffering in Flanders fields.
I love the idea of mind over matter, but in reality, the mind and body are one. Will is powerful…but a cold muscle contracts poorly! No amount of heroic will was going to overcome my legs refusal that day.
Over the next two days, my legs recovered much more slowly than normal. Cold takes a greater toll than effort.
Note that Dendermonde was a COVID-replacement venue for Wachtebeke. In post-COVID times, the race will return to Domain Puyenbroeck, a park with mud, but no “quicksand” and good parking too!
Stay tuned for Part Two of Corey Coogan Cisek’s Kerstperiode journal.