Christine in the Begijnendijk road race. Krist Vanmelle

Christine in the Begijnendijk road race. © Krist Vanmelle

Cyclocross Magazine’s “Euro correspondent” Christine Vardaros reports in from her training camp in Spain.

by Christine Vardaros

I am just recently back from Benidorm, Spain, where I spent eleven days with my Baboco Team for training camp. It was such a fabulous experience that I am still on a high from it while wishing I was still there!

Last year, on my first training camp with the Baboco guys, I was in no shape to ride alongside them for more than the first two stop signs after leaving the hotel. Needless to say, I did most of my training either alone or with my husband Jonas, who was kind enough to suffer up the hills at an ant’s pace, which was all that I could muster. For a full month before that camp, I was off the bike due to a knee injury.

But this time around, with decent fitness thanks to the Tour of Cyprus combined with a week of training in Belgium’s hilly Ardennes region, I was optimistic that I could hang with them at least until the fifth stop sign before saying my goodbyes. And until we hit the first big climb of the camp, I remained unsure, in search of every little sign that gave me hope that either I was stronger than last year or that they were possibly not as snappy. I hoped for the former, but I’d selfishly take the latter if that meant I could play with them every day.

The first sign came early as we waited at the airport for our turn to board the plane. While one of my teammates fidgeted with the top button of his jeans, he turned to me and said, “Either all my pants shrank or I gained weight.” Score! OK, well a score for me, but I suppose he felt otherwise. In my innocent voice, I replied, “ Well, your mom probably turned the temperature dial on high by accident when she did the laundry.”

Just after I replied, I was waved at by a man sitting across from us in the waiting room. As we clearly looked like a cycling team with our matching BABOCO CYCLING TEAM outfits, he wanted to know who we are, what we are doing, where in Belgium we are based and so on. When our former teammate three-time World Champion Erwin Vervecken was traveling with us, I suppose those questions were instead replaced with gawks and adulation aimed at him. But in his absence, this enthusiastic man at the airport was only the first of many inquiries throughout our trip. Good thing I packed lots of trading cards since we encountered many inquisitive Belgians in Benidorm!

Once we were unpacked and fed, we met in front of the hotel for an easy spin to our usual destination spot of Calpé, located about 25km along the Mediterranean sea, where we visited a Belgian café for a coffee and pastry (OK, well pastries only for my teammates since there weren’t any vegan ones on offer). I knew I should be able to handle the pace of this ride since our team manager Steven Baekelandt was accompanying us. Theoretically, I should be able to hang with him – and if not, I knew he would wait for me. By the end of the ride, I felt a bit more confident for the upcoming days.

The next morning was the big test. The ride started off the same way as the day previous – with a spin to Calpé, but then continuing straight through until reaching a left-hand turn that headed up the first mountain of the training camp.

The trip to Calpé was a blur. All I focused on was the wheel in front of me while fearing the inevitable arrival of the first hill. I think my mouth moved a few times in the direction of a teammate alongside me but I couldn’t tell you what I actually said – or what he said, for that matter. When we made that left hander, I noticed it was going uphill a bit longer than the rollers we encountered on our way to Calpé. After climbing a bit, I asked one of the guys when the climb starts. When he informed me we were on the first one, my legs immediately turned to jelly and they all left me for dead. Bugger. But after taking a few moments to get over the shock that this moment had finally arrived, I noticed something strange. My legs came back to life.

I started back on the job, getting myself into a nice enough rhythm that I began to spot some of my teammates up the hill. It felt like a dream when one of them actually came into clear view. I got close enough to theoretically hit him with my saddle bag by the top. Maybe without that two-pound bag strapped to my seatpost or the jersey pockets swelled with every emergency item like a phone, seven energy bars, three gels, extra tools, coins to use a pay phone (as if I would know how to work one of those,) arm warmers, vest, knee warmers, sunscreen, lotion, lip balm, ponytail holder, bug repellent, band-aid, anti-bacterial gel, camera, and lotion, I could have gotten my ass up the climb a bit more effectively.

The rest of the day played out way better than I ever could have hoped. I even had company on the last climb of the day. Berne Vankeirsbilck, the youngest member of the team joining us at camp, kept me company all the way up. Since we both have the gift of gab, I think it took us twice as long to reach the top.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to celebrate my mini success that day as I had an important writing deadline looming. Instead, I returned to my room directly after lunch and typed away, only taking a break for dinner later that evening. This was my routine for the next five days. I did, however, keep my screen door open so I could periodically peer through to the sea to remind myself that I was somewhere special.

The next morning, while I was motivated to ride, my nervousness was still lingering. Could I hang on yet another day? I got my answer quickly, in fact. Our route that day took us directly to the mountains – no warmup ride to be had. Immediately I was suffering, but knowing how good it felt to finish with the group, I killed myself to make it happen. After going a bit too deep a few too many times, I finally had to suck it up and grab the follow car for a few seconds of reprieve. Luckily, that was just enough time to recharge so I could go back to play-battle with the boys. As a former Californian, I lived halfway up a mountain, which also helped because I could always count on my descending skills to catch back on if the gaps weren’t too big by the tops of the climbs. Again, I got to finish with them, which felt very satisfying.

The third day of our first training block was the same route as the first day, so I knew what to expect. This time around, I was no longer afraid but rather, calculating. I knew how much total energy I would need to finish the loop so I could better ration my efforts accordingly. Acing math class in college definitely proved helpful as I climbed myself past one of my teammates on the last climb of the day. I knew I would pay for it, but with a recovery ride the next day combined with my vegan diet I was sure that I would be fresh as a spring breeze when the mountains came again. “So what if I am twice as old as some of them?” I told myself as I munched on my carrots at dinner.

When it came time to face the mountains again, I felt pretty wiped, I must admit. It also could have had something to do with staying up a bit later than expected the last two nights to get that writing project done. But even so, I seemed to have fooled my teammates into thinking I was on my game. At one point, just after a very steep mini climb where I rode past a few of them with what appeared to be relative ease, one of them said, “I think Christine has the best legs today.” I smiled, not sharing that I got up that bit as quick as possible just to get rid of the pain sooner.

A bit later, my legs started to come alive. How relieved was I? Again, my teammates took notice, commenting that I should surely race when I get back to Belgium because I’ll destroy the field. Two minutes later, my hand was firmly attached to the follow car so I could flick my ass back into the peloton. The final straw that day came on an extended climb. While trailing my teammates, I passed a couple of cyclotourists. As often happens, one of them lifted his game to chase down the girl. With a fragile motivational state combined with an even more fragile ego, I did what anyone in my situation would do – I grabbed hold of the car for ten seconds. Problem solved.

Over the last four mountain rides, my sensations and effectiveness slowly improved. I found myself feeling more comfortable even on the tempo pace between the mountain climbs. But just to make sure my suffering continued, my teammates (in particular Ritchie and Gianni Denolf) took turns pacing me up the mountains, riding at a pace just above what I previously thought to be my top speed. I re-learned what the expression “to see stars” meant by the tops of those climbs.

For the last day, Coach Elmo gave me orders to try and bury myself so deep that I cannot climb back out. That is what follow cars are for, no? So that was what I did on the first climb of that day. The guys started it off at what felt like a slower pace than normal, so I turned to them and said, “Geen cadeautjes!” (meaning, no gifts). With that said, Kristof Zegers attacked – and I went with him. Two minutes later, the guys caught us with Kevin Neirynck leading the chase. Immediately, Berne pushed me from behind for a few seconds before his final sendoff shove that caused me to soar. Not wanting to waste a good effort, I kept the pace up. Knowing that these guys are all way stronger than I, (heck, even our junior rider Berne was a podium placer at Koppenbergcross last season), I knew I would have to turn myself inside out to stay away. And that was what I did. They did come very close by the end, but I succeeded. The feeling was surprisingly more rewarding than some of the race wins I’ve scored in the past.

Two minutes after cresting the top, I was dead – hand on the side of the car for five seconds of regrouping but grinning extra wide. Later in the ride, I thanked one of the guys for the “win”. Expecting a response of “You’re welcome,” I was surprised to instead hear that it wasn’t really a gift. They didn’t expect me to stay away. He then went on to say that I can thank my vegan diet for being able to recover so well to ride fast on the last day of camp. I didn’t know whether to be more thrilled of his acknowledgement of my diet or that they didn’t give me a gift. But either way, what topped them both was a reaction I got from a random guy I passed halfway up that climb. As I rode by him, he made a motion as if to get out of his saddle before sitting firmly back down and saying, “motherf#(*er” in some foreign accent.

To celebrate the end of training camp, we all went out for an evening of diversion. I paired jeans with my best wicking shirt and a pair of compression socks and headed out the door. We started off at a cafe where the guys got themselves proper drinks while I opted for a girly Bacardi Breezer – the pink one. Just as I was about to take my first sip, one of the guys whispered if he could switch drinks with me. His was too stiff. He ordered a vodka-Redbull. With very little alcohol tolerance – even on my offseason now – I knew I’d be wearing those wings within the first five sips.

Our next and final stop was a dance club where those wings took me all over the dance floor. I felt like a bouncing rubber ball – arms and legs flailing in every direction. Apparently that’s sexy in Benidorm as I found myself surrounded by a large collection of guys wanting to dance with me. But upon further inspection of the dance floor, I found it had nothing to do with my dancing prowess but more a reflection of the male-female ratio disparity in the joint. On our walk back to the hotel a full thirty minutes after we arrived, I recalled my one solitary conversation I had with a stranger. He asked, “Where are you staying?” and I said, “Belgium.” I also recalled a half-conversation with my very first dance partner of the evening. He took a step back from me and said, “Wow, you’re fit!” Then he turned around and walked away. Upon reflection, I quickly realized I am not made for this kind of frolicking – even on off-season.

While that evening may have been our only official “partytime” – all two hours of it, it felt to me that the training camp was one continuous laugh. Of course there were the practical jokes that occur on every team training camp. My favorite was when Berne was handed a surprise in the form of a raw egg at dinnertime. Since he always starts the peeling process off with smacking the hard boiled egg against his skull, it was something special to watch the raw egg splatter and dribble down the side of his head. A neighboring British table was privy to the joke so they too went up in a roar, causing the whole hotel restaurant to take a gander at the happenings.

The other mealtime gag was courtesy of a random Belgian who decided that he was to make friends with the Belgian cyclists at the hotel by criticizing one of their riders, complaining that she (yes, me) takes too long at the coffee machine every morning to get her double espresso. Well … once I heard that, the next morning while he was lined up behind me in queue for coffee, I motioned to my teammates to give me their coffee orders. After three coffees, two espressos, and two hot chocolates, random Belgian smacked his cup on the table and stomped away.

My favorite quote of the trip came easily from Berne. A lady sitting at one of the neighboring Belgian tables at dinner said to our table, “Ben je nog steeds aan het fietsen?” (meaning, “Are you still riding?”)

Berne flatly responded, “Nu niet meer. We zijn aan het eten.” (Meaning, “Not anymore now. We’re eating.”) Then Berne went back to his plate of food, leaving the woman to ponder over her poorly worded question.

And my vote for the worst gag of the camp was again courtesy of Berne – as well as Kevin. I got a knock on my door late in the evening from these two, telling me that they put toothpaste on our team manager Steven’s doorknob. Just out of curiosity, I asked them what room they thought he was in. They told me the number of the door just above me to which I responded, “Unless he is shacking up with a Spanish couple where the woman sports stilettos based on the sounds, you got the wrong room.” The look on the face of those two as they bolted out of my room was priceless.

While I am thankful for the elevated fitness that this camp gave me, I am equally appreciative of the experience that I had. Although there were a couple of guys that I definitely missed at the camp such as our junior rider Michał Paluta and, of course, Mariusz Gil (who needed to focus on his efforts to qualify for MTB Olympics), I walked away with a great feeling about my team – really top notch guys.

This trip also gave me the much needed chance to relax and recharge and most importantly get out of my own head for a bit so that when I go back to reality I can think more clearly. I guess that’s what “vacation” is for. Maybe one of these years I will try it without a bike. I doubt it though.

Since returning to Belgium, I’ve done one road race so far. As this is the time of off-season when all the cyclocrossers return to racing after having completed their training camps, I stood at the line alongside many other compatriots including Sanne Cant, Ellen van Loy, Joyce Vanderbeken and Anja Nobus. We raced for almost two and a half hours at an average speed just under 39kph and crossed the line in a bunch sprint. I was 29th out of 70 starters, 60 finishers.

What mattered more than the number was the feeling I had. It was a comfortable experience which gave me confidence that my fitness is headed in the right direction for cyclocross. But more importantly for the short term, I am hoping I did enough to hang in with the peloton for the next two races this weekend – Parkhotel Valkenburg Hills Classic and 7-dorpenomloop Aalburg. They are both UCI road races where I will have to line up with the world’s best including current World Cyclocross Champion Marianne Vos. No matter the result, I will continue to put my head down to focus on cross – everything for the mud, wind, rain and, of course, sand when you’re in Belgium.