Christine Vardaros working through the snow in Kalmthout. © Dirk Verhelst

Christine Vardaros working through the snow in Kalmthout. © Dirk Verhelst

By Christine Vardaros

It’s been absolutely unreal to see how much snow has fallen in Belgium the last few days. People always talk about the crap winters here, but in reality it’s rarely ever cold enough to warrant snow. Thanks to about two feet of it, the whole country has been temporarily shut down and is still, many days after the major storms hit, running in slow motion. The roads are still ice, causing 300-mile traffic jams and the stores are shopper-thin. Even so, the races always go on! With the courses lined with thick snow blanketing a solid layer of ice, the racers would have been better off with ice skates as the hundreds of crashes proved!

Last Friday was my first race back after the Koksijde World Cup three weeks ago. I spent two of the last three weeks off the saddle due to a bizarrely oversized saddle sore as big as four large chicken eggs. And I spent the remaining week before my first race back trying to get used to riding again. I didn’t expect much in terms of results but rather hoped to finish in one piece. Apparently that was too much to ask. I was DNF by lap one.

On the first steep, slippery snow descent, I took myself out. It was either that or smack into the backside of a gal who was running it. Even if my shoe cleats hadn’t turned into a block of ice from the runup moments before the descent, steering in that stuff was impossible. American racer Amy Dombroski experienced the same misfortune as she crashed on that descent only a second before I did. Luckily, she was able to quickly recover and finish strong with a tenth place.

I wasn’t so lucky. The crash not only left me with a bruised knee and back but with a broken bike as well. My shifter was smashed, wheel was wobbled, and brake arm bent into the wheel. By the time I got going again, many gals had passed. Determined to make it back to a decent position, I sprinted into the pits to grab a bike. Even this innocuous maneuver proved to be detrimental as the pits weren’t cleared of snow. As I slowly emerged onto the race track, I was passed by another handful of riders which set me far back in the race.

I spent the next minutes desperately trying to pass riders. But with only one good line through the thick snow, it was a waiting game–something I didn’t have time to play. After many attempts to pass in the snow, coupled with the radiating pain from my knee and back, I finally got discouraged and dropped out.

I was feeling pretty dejected after the race. I hadn’t dropped out of an event in a very long time. It wasn’t until the car ride home that I started to feel optimistic again, thanks to Jonas. He turned the radio up high and forced me to join him in singing Barry Manilow tunes at the top of our lungs. It took exactly two and a half songs before my spirits were lifted–Copacabana style.

The corners in Kalmthout were the site of many crashes. © Dirk Verhelst

The corners in Kalmthout were the site of many crashes. © Dirk Verhelst

I was a little bummed that we had to skip the men’s race so I could go home and ice my body parts. But after watching what happened before the men’s race, I didn’t feel so bad. A bomb scare delayed their race by 45 minutes. Rik van Looy’s granddaughter’s dog was playing in the snow and unearthed a grenade. My guess is that it had probably been there since one of the World Wars. They had to call in the police and military to secure the area and remove the explosive.

Meanwhile, the racers were standing at the start line, or rather running up and down the starting strip to keep warm in sub-freezing temperatures. It was a strange sight to see all these cyclists jogging back and forth. Some of them even made fun out of it and “raced” each other on foot, complete with victory salutes–I think it was Radomir Simunek who took the pre-race win.

The next race was Kalmthout World Cup two days later. Usually this course is like a high speed flat mountain bike track, but when covered with solid ice under two feet of snow and raced in a blizzard, it’s hardly recognizable. Even the straightaways became treacherous. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before.

At the start line, all the racers were jumping for joy–or was it shivering for their lives. I was actually nice and toasty with my hand, toe and back warmers. What a difference they make. After the light changed to green, we were off. Down the long pavement, my only thought was to be one of the first to get to the u-turn onto the single file path through the thick snow. Even the periodic splattering of salt water that landed in my mouth didn’t get me off my mark. I hit the path in a decent position but quickly lost it about ten seconds later around the next bend when I was stuck behind a pile-up in the snow.

The new Scheldecross new descending style used when shoe cleats turn to ice. © Marc Van Est

The new Scheldecross descending style, used when shoe cleats turn to ice. © Marc Van Est

Any attempt to take positions back on a course like this was pretty much useless unless you were Sven Nys. For the rest of us, our only two options for passing were on the one paved section or when someone crashed and landed off the one good line. Needless to say, I spent the rest of the race losing places, gaining places, losing places. I slid out a few times and crashed hard twice. One of the crashes was while riding in a straight line and the other was when I tripped before the stairs, the same place that ended Simunek’s race. I can’t blame my unsteady riding on the tires though, thanks to Katie Compton who kindly told me which tires to run. (She again finished strongly on the podium to keep her World Cup leader’s jersey.) I think I was just out of my racing rhythm after such a long break from racing and riding.

After the race, instead of being bummed about my result or my sub-par bike handling, I was stoked to have had such an excellent experience–mainly thanks to all my supporters! I heard my name yelled around the whole entire course which felt magical. There was even one supporter group of mine that had me laughing aloud every lap with their deafening cheers complete with visual accompaniments that included “Mexican waves” and confetti bottles that saw me riding through an explosion of shiny multi-colored confetti. With a bottle popped for every lap, I was covered in it by the end of the race. Somehow a piece even made it to my bed which I discovered the next morning. This obviously had me wondering which body part I neglected to wash in the shower. I will forever be grateful to them for making me feel like a rockstar.

As for the men’s race, we arrived at the course on their second lap, in time to see Sven Nys about thirty seconds back. On a tricky single-file track like that, we all figured there is no way he could make it back to the front. He even talked about it in his pre-race interview saying that the top five guys going into the first turn will surely finish in the top ten. In awe, we all watched him prove his sentiment wrong. As he cleanly passed rider after rider, I thought to myself that I have never seen such gorgeous maneuvering on the bike as I did that day.

We were stationed at the “bowl” where the track wraps back and forth on itself. When it was announced on the loudspeaker that Nys won, the crowd went wild! About a hundred of us strangers simultaneously jumped for joy–his win instantly bonded us all. Nys won not only the race but also the hearts of every single spectator, an inspiration to us all.

After the race, we headed over to Kevin Pauwels’ mobilehome for a birthday party held for one of his supporters, Tai van Est. Since Kevin’s race didn’t go well, the party was canceled. That happens. Instead we handed over our gift of homemade chocolate chip cookies (vegan, of course) and went home to watch the taped race on TV, gluhwein (spiced red wine) in hand like the typical Belgian I am.

My next race is this Saturday at the Zolder World Cup held on a Formula 1 race track. Then it is three days later to Azencross Loenhout, famous for its BMX washboard section. With the temperatures expected to hover above freezing the next several days, I am betting these course will be especially muddy. I wonder what I will look like after the next mid-race confetti party.

Thanks for reading!

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