by Lee Waldman
It’s Thursday and I continually pinch myself. I’m in Belgium, the heartland of cyclocross. I’m going to race my ’cross bike here!
The travel day was long with too many delays. Flying was relatively smooth, actually, but unfortunately, in Brussels I had to wait, and wait some more, to claim my bike and find my rental car. Traffic from Brussels, through Antwerp, to Mol was much like traffic here: wicked.
But it all was worth it when I finally arrived and found the B & B. If all Belgians are as friendly and if every town is as spotlessly clean and organized; if every highway in Belgium has a bike path running parallel, then it’s truly cycling heaven.
Thursday: A Visit with the Duivel
If greater Belgium is heaven, then the course for Worlds would definitely fit the description of hell.
In five words, sand, sand and more sand.
Some was rideable, most wasn’t, at least for me. Even the sections that I could ride required so much power that running was the best strategy, for me at least. I watched lots of riders today riding sections smoothly that I struggled with. I’m beginning to understand the difference between the Europeans and us Americans.
I’ve watched a lot of European races on YouTube this year and marveled at the skills of the pros. After riding or attempting to ride some of the climbs and the descents today, I’ve gained an even greater level of respect for how difficult it is here and how good they are.
The sand here is unforgiving. Some of the descents are an immediate adrenaline rush. If something looks and feels dangerous, I’m going to follow the maxim “Discretion is the better part of valor” and run. I don’t know what the other old guys will do; I guess I’ll find out tomorrow. Based on the little that I saw today, even the “old guys” have sand skills I don’t.
I’m not sure exactly what I was thinking when I decided to come to Mol. I had this vision of myself on the podium. After today, I’m revising my goals. My expectations are the same as they’ve been since I recovered from my hit-and-run almost four years ago: race hard with a capital ‘R,’ smile and remember that I’ve been given the gift of being able to ride my bike. My life could just as easily have taken a different turn.
Friday: Race Day Morning
It’s Friday morning about 10:30 Mol time. It’s in the 30’s and cloudy and grey. Pretty much standard weather for Mol this time of year. At least that’s what they say.
Coming from Colorado where there is an abundance of sunshine, this is a shock to my system. I slept pretty well last night but kept going over the course in my head. There’s nothing there that I haven’t seen before, except for the cliff leading into a long sand hill. That’s a bit intimidating. Nothing that I couldn’t ride in practice, but I’m not sure I’ll ride it today. After coming back from so many devastating injuries in the last four years, I have to weigh the costs and the benefits. I can gain perhaps two seconds, but could also auger in and break a collarbone. Not a pleasant thought. So, probably a run.
Last night, after being overwhelmed with nervousness, I called home. My wife is wonderful. She helped me remember why I’m here—for the experience. She reminded me of all the roadblocks and roundabouts that I’ve scrambled over or run around to finally get here. She helped me to remember the pledge I made to myself when I finally came back from my hit and run; to enjoy the experience of racing because I could just as easily have had it taken from me. And above all, to smile. I’m still nervous and intimidated a bit by these riders who grew up on cyclocross, but I’m as ready as I’ve ever been. Now, off to the course.
Friday: 30 Minutes of Sandy Suffering
If you don’t like race reports, skip this part. I had my best start of the season. Hit my pedal on the downstroke the first time and was with the top five going into the first corner. But, I could feel the effects of traveling here less than 36 hours before. Where all season long I was able to stand on the pedals and find the power to close a gap, it wasn’t there. When I stood, there was nothing. I could pedal hard but just couldn‘t find that next gear.
Fully 1/3 of each lap was running in the sand. And the sand here is nothing like back home. It’s heavier and denser and it simply sucks the life out of the legs. Imagine that heavy, wet spring snow that packs down into clumps and doesn’t move easily, except now in sand form.
I’ve always wondered why, when I watch European cyclocross, riders push their bikes through the sand. I learned that there’s usually a well-established line where the bike will roll easily with less effort than shouldering it. Once I discovered that trick, it was a bit “easier” to get through the running sections. All of the technical sections that had scared me in warm-up weren’t nearly as intimidating on race day and I was able to ride the cliff that kept me awake. The thing that hindered me was my lack of top end power.
Although the race was only 30 minutes, it was a hard, hard 30 minutes. I rolled across the line having accomplished most of my goals. First, I had an awesome time. Second, I made the top ten. Third, I can honestly say that I couldn’t have gone any harder.
I survived racing in Belgium. I have to say I was nervous, in part about the course, but mostly because I was racing in Europe against riders who grew up in a cycling culture. This race helped me understand why these riders are so strong. They race and train in tough conditions. It’s cold, it’s damp, it’s grey and it’s rainy a lot of the time. To be a bike racer here means that you are comfortable with discomfort.
What will I do differently If, and when, I come back?
I’ll give myself a lot of time to get over the effects of traveling. I’m sure that one of the causes of my lack of power was the eight-hour time difference. I don’t think it’s possible to acclimate quickly to that kind of change. Sleeping patterns are forced out of whack. Without the necessary rest, your body doesn’t work normally.
Then there are the courses. They are simply more challenging. When you look at the riders who are killing it in the U.S. and then look at their results in Europe, I understand their challenges. The same things that bothered me, bother them as well.
The men who were top five in my 65–69 race were faster than me. There was no way I was going to stay close. I could see that immediately.
Then there were sixth through eighth. I was ninth and within two minutes of all of them. Had I done this race before, I would have known how to prepare more effectively. I would run a lot more and run in the sand. I’d give myself a week, at least, to adapt to the changes. I wouldn’t allow myself to be intimidated by the Europeans, knowing that, while they have more experience, I can hold my own.
I hope I can come back someday and I can honestly say that racing here has changed the way I look at cyclocross.
But, enough about Worlds. They’re in the books now. I’m going to go home, race my state championships, race at Nationals in Reno and then start planning for next year.
In the meantime, you should go for a ride.