Kerstperiode was considerably harder than any stage race I’ve done, including North Star GP and Green Mountain Stage Race. Stage races are easy to quantify in terms of stress: X number of miles, kilojoules burned, TSS points earned. Kerstperiode Belgium is all about the stress that Training Peaks cannot measure. As I sit here with a foggy mind and zero desire to do anything but drink coffee, I can subjectively say, I think I have been hit by a bus.

The stress of Kerstperiode can be measured by number of bruises. I know some of these came from slapping the fencing as I fought to stay upright, but most cannot be accounted for. The extra fatigue also comes from one’s body repeatedly heating and cooling on race days as one prerides, warms up, races and cools down. Then there is the all-out pedaling and running with mud-soaked, cold legs. Finally, there are the between-race day intangibles: constantly washing laundry without the benefit of a dryer and that time I got caught in the rain on what should have been an easy ride.

In addition to the feeling of getting hit by a bus, there's the laundry. Plenty of it. photo: Corey Coogan Cisek

In addition to the feeling of getting hit by a bus, there’s the laundry. Plenty of it. photo: Corey Coogan Cisek

Feeling a Little Loenhout

Although Zolder technically begins Kerstperiode, I did not detect any significant change in the atmosphere until Loenhout. Zolder was very well-attended by spectators, but the vast size of the venue and effective crowd control made the throngs of people less overwhelming. Plus, it’s a World Cup; there should be lots of people!

Loenhout was, in a word: crowded. It’s all about perspective. The first time I attended Loenhout in 2014, I was enchanted by the atmosphere of my first-ever UCI race abroad. The number of people made it special. This year, I woke up on the proverbial wrong side of the bed the morning of Loenhout.

Loenhout was crowded, including this over-sized fan. photo: Corey Coogan Cisek.

Loenhout was crowded, including this over-sized fan. photo: Corey Coogan Cisek.

A couple of days before flying to Belgium, I read an article about adjusting to life in a new country. It explained that at some point everything that originally seemed charming about your new country would become irritating. For me, Loenhout was the day that happened. Every little annoyance got under my skin.

As far as directions, the DVV Website for Loenhout said, essentially, there would be signs from the freeway exit. Without an address for inscription or parking, it was a day of finding my way via intuition and repeatedly asking for directions. The bathrooms were located ten minutes from our tent, making me regret my well-hydrated status.

Mostly though, it was the throngs of people that made everything difficult.

The thing you need to know about Loenhout is that you will get stuck on the wrong side of the fence. Thanks to the massive number of spectators (and their drunkenness), organizers are militant about the crossings. Thus, if you exit your preride on the inside of the parcours, you will have a long wait to get to the outside again. As I stood there waiting in a cluster of racers that included Sanne Cant, I thought, “It takes patience to be a bike racer in Belgium.”

As far as the race, I raced like my mood: aggressive and sloppy. In Belgium, I am learning, mostly via error, to measure my output. Ever watched a World Cup, and noticed everyone sitting up and looking around on the pavement? It’s not just to get a measure of the competition, it’s a tacit acknowledgment that the pavement is not the best place to attack. Just because you are “feeling it,” doesn’t mean it’s time to go, especially if just around the corner there is a 150-meter mud pit that’s going to require every watt you’ve got.

The Diegem Discotheek

Diegem was a chance for me to turn my attitude around and appreciate a classic race. Diegem is different and special in a way that I am not sure that television captures. It is a night race in a small city just outside Brussels. The course encompasses city streets, (some mildly cobbled), greenspace and soccer fields and the start/finish is beside a classic European church. Number pick-up is in a castle, complete with a moat. The quantity of spectators is unimaginable to an American cyclocross fan. The discotheek is packed like a mosh pit, alcohol sales are, um, “brisk” and the significant police presence reminds you that you are at a large event.

Diegem features an old-school setting, a church near the start and some very narrow walkways. photo: Corey Coogan Cisek

Diegem features an old-school setting, a church near the start and some very narrow walkways. photo: Corey Coogan Cisek

Being in the heart of Kerstperiode, Diegem, like Loenhout, had huge women’s fields with more than 60 riders. As you’d expect, the quantity of riders makes for mayhem at the start. At the back of the field, we dismount and carry our bikes, fighting for every inch of passing space.

While I admire the ladies off the front, I assure you that the racing is no less intense at the back. It is the same as what they say about crit racing, “if you are not moving up, you are falling back.” One moment I make a smart pass, and in the next instant I am pinned into the fencing as a swarm goes around. While the racing is aggressive, I also find it cleaner than in the States. I chop and am chopped, but it’s always a clean move where the rider slots in just in time.

The field sizes are so large during Kerstperiode because riders from further away visit during the holidays, especially Juniors and U23s. I was intrigued to meet some of the young Canadian and British riders who are here for a month or more. A couple of Canadian Juniors are here until Worlds. While I don’t know the details of how they manage this with school, I can’t help but think, what an opportunity!

For my part, Diegem allowed me to glimpse the difference between me and European riders posting similar results. Among the riders I typically finish by here, it’s clear that I don’t want for power. I can put the power down on the pavement, but a few moments later, I have to dab in the mud and they float gracefully by me. Having raced their whole career on courses like these, they have better line instincts. Their soil is different and I don’t yet know it well, but give me a Minnesota snowstorm and …

Diegem is a very unique race, even among the Kerstperiode contests. © Steven De Poorter

Diegem is a very unique race, even among the Kerstperiode contests. © Steven De Poorter

A Modder in Baal

The final race of my Kerstperiode block was the GP Sven Nys in Baal. Baal is Nys’ hometown and now home to the Sven Nys Cycling Center, which has a building, permanent cyclocross course, trials course and BMX track.

Baal is a tiny village surrounded by farms. The neighborhood surrounding the course is comically too small to handle the buses, RVs and fans that the race brings. With a road shut down to accommodate the start/finish, there is just one road for entry and another for exit. Buses and RVs park on one side of the road, leaving less than half a street to be shared by vehicles, riders and fans going to and from the venue.

For our part, it seemed we had snagged the perfect spot, until it was explained to us that a particularly fast and famous rider planned to park there. We were reassigned to a remote spot, down a country lane behind a farmhouse.

The author accidentally took the parking spot of a well-known fast person. photo: Corey Coogan Cisek

The author accidentally took the parking spot of a well-known fast person. photo: Corey Coogan Cisek

Parking being as it is, some folks end up parking on grassy farm fields. While there seems to be no real traffic management plan, there is evidence of contingency planning. Two shiny new tractors are parked on the entry road for the duration of the event. Their assignment? At the end of the day, they are to pull out any unfortunate vehicles who have sunk to their hubcaps into the mushy grass.

Baal was a mudder. It poured the night before and then rained several times throughout the day. The course was generally soupy, watery mud with some sections of gluey, heavy mud.

The race in Baal was a muddy one. © Luc Wilms

The race in Baal was a muddy one. © Luc Wilms

I have a confession: I still run canti brakes. I’d like to come off as a purist, deliberately choosing to go old school, but the reality is holding off on new bikes and wheelsets allowed me to afford this trip. While Europe was slow to go to disc, I am here to report that their conversion is complete. There are almost no canti brakes in the field, and there certainly aren’t any among those finishing in the top half.

I am going through brake pads like candy because the modder (mud) is really just sandpaper. Four laps of the course in Baal (split over two bikes) was enough to significantly reduce my ability to brake. I would advise anyone doing this trip add an extra budget line for brake pads.

The author's mechanics can't stop when it comes to keeping her bikes in working order. photo: Corey Coogan Cisek

The author’s mechanics can’t stop when it comes to keeping her bikes in working order. photo: Corey Coogan Cisek

I think you’ll find that most Kerstperiode riders are pretty quiet over the next week. Forgive us: we are tired, resting and preparing for Nationals. For my part, I won’t be headed to Reno. Something about the 5000-mile trip is cost prohibitive. [Ed. Note: Coogan Cisek won the Masters 35-39 title in Asheville and finished second in Women’s singlespeed in Hartford.] However, we have a party planned here where we will watch Belgium Nationals op televisie and then US Nationals op computer.

Veel succes (good luck) to all!