Overjise © Krist Vanmelle

Christine Vardaros taking a corner fast at Overjise. © Krist Vanmelle

by Christine Vardaros

For the last few  weeks I’ve had a positive outlook on my cyclocross season – and it was about friggin’ time, I must add.  I am now starting to feel like a bike racer again – attacking the courses rather than feeling like a cyclotourist doing leisurely loops around the local park.

The positive feeling hit me about four weeks ago at the Superprestige Hamme-Zogge race where I broke into the top 15 – just. Then I did one better the following weekend in one of my favorite races, Superpestige Gavere, finishing 14th.  The next weekend was Koksijde World Cup, which is coincidentally the same location as the 2012 World Championships later in the season.  I knew it was a good course for me and I even got to prove it to myself by passing about fifteen riders in the last two laps. Pity that due to a couple of crashes, I was caught behind in the first lap, my big jump in placing was only from 44th to 29th position, but I will take it nonetheless as a sign that my form is returning.

The next morning at 4 a.m., my husband Jonas and I were out the door for a much needed 11-day training camp in Benalmadena, Spain – just next to Malaga.  We were treated to full sun and temperatures hovering between 68-75°F every day – all but one.  And that one day I will never forget. We headed out in grey skies wearing only our windvests and arm warmers as additional protection from the elements. Thirty minutes into our four-hour ride, we were nailed with ice cold rain. That one rain cloud coincidentally hovered over us for the next two hours as we trekked up and over a few mountain passes. Before the last descent, we stopped in a café in an attempt to warm up a bit. After we sat down, a group of guys who were happily sipping their midday glasses of wine, took one look at me – the violently shivering wet rat – and their eyes popped out of their heads.  Immediately one of the men walked over to me and handed me his ridiculously expensive business jacket, insisting that I put it on that moment.  Usually I’d never accept such an offer, but on this day he didn’t have to ask me twice.

By the time we were back, the sun had returned to warm the air to its steady 72°F. It was as if our odyssey never occurred, we thought to ourselves, as we continued with our daily post-ride routine of drinking a recovery shake, changing into bathing suits, grabbing a book, towel and water bottle and heading to the pool to lie in the sun.

Aside from that one fateful icy ride in the mountains, our rides were fabulous. It was mostly hard training which was quite torturing but the pain seemed to fade quickly thanks to the warm sunny skies. The views were postcard perfect and to feel sun on my bare quads was priceless.

After having such a positive experience, I wondered why I hadn’t done this mid-season training camp before. It wasn’t as if I didn’t know that many of the cyclocross racers based in Belgium and The Netherlands go to Spain at this time of year for training.  After a few moments of reflection, I realized that it had never occurred to me to voluntarily leave the “motherland of cyclocross” smack dab in the middle of the season. Heck, I sacrificed so much just to have the opportunity to be here in Belgium for so many seasons. Why would I want to go elsewhere? Now I know why. In Spain, I was able to get out of my own head to properly relax and recharge while getting in some longer rides with sustained climbs. Now that I am back in Belgium, looking out the window to see dark stormy skies, I am completely sure I made the right decision.

On our one ‘rest day’ in Southern Spain where I only had to do a 30 minute run and some core exercises, we took a drive to Nerja which is located at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains. What a gorgeous town. Although we still heard a steady stream of British-tourist-speak, it seemed less touristic that our temporary home of Benalmadena.  Our first order of business there was to visit the Nerja Donkey Sanctuary . It’s a place where various sorts of animals, including donkeys, of course, are saved from torture or death. We bought a bucket of food for 2€ ($2.50) and walked around feeding it to all the animals while hearing frighteningly unfortunate stories of each animal’s origins. Some of the animals seemed to have forgotten their horrid pasts, while others definitely shied away from human contact.

Next on our short list was a trip to the beach. We ate pizza on the boardwalk and played in the sea. The whole time I couldn’t stop thinking about how exciting it was to cheat winter back in Belgium and to let thoughts of cycling go, if but only for a day.

After eleven nights in Spain, we were back to Belgium last Thursday. Wasting no time, I was back racing on Saturday and Sunday. Saturday was Fidea Scheldecross – a heavy sand race, while Sunday was a challenging technical race with lots of power climbs and run-ups.  Going into the races, I had no idea what to expect. While my mind may have been rested, my body was exhausted after so many back-to-back long hard training days. To my relief, my sensations were fairly positive – aside from the starts, that is. Both races pretty much played out the same. My start was slow, as if I were dragging myself through a vat of molasses, but once I got going I spent the rest of the race passing riders. My results for the weekend were 12th and 11th, my best finishes yet this season. Naturally, the competitive side of me wonders how much better I could have done if I’d have nailed my starts!

Here in Belgium, we are just entering our busy period – the Christmas block of racing. Between December 17 and January 1st, I have eight races on the calendar which works out to about one race for every two days for two weeks.  Even though I know I will be trashed by January 1st, I look forward to it.  What can I say … we cyclocross racers are crazy!  Bring it on.