Run, Vardaros, Run! © Jozef Correman

Run, Vardaros, Run! © Jozef Correman

by Christine Vardaros

RUN, Forrest, RUN! I found myself thinking this over and over again last weekend while I trudged through the mud for minutes at a time in the second round of the Soudal Classics (formerly Fidea Classics) in Niel, Belgium.  The last time this Category 2 event held a women’s race was two years ago. Based on what I recalled from that experience, I knew there was a chance there could be a few mud puddles scattered about. Funny how our memories of certain events can skew reality. While my memories of Niel had me swiftly, elegantly flowing over grass and hard-packed dirt, the reality was that the course was just like this year’s version – half pavement/cobbles that weaved through an industrial park and half ankle-deep sticky mud that forced us off the bike.  When I pre-walked the course it all came back to me.

A week before Niel, I competed at BPost Bank Trofee’s Koppenbergcross.  In my mind, I rocketed up the infamous cobbled Koppenberg climb at record speed, but in reality by the top in the first lap I was close to last place.  By the end, I finished a disappointing 19th.  Knowing that something was amiss, I backed way off on my training. I rode no more than twenty minutes indoors per day. Before and after the ride was spent firmly on the couch bundled up in my super comfy HempAge sweats watching movies, napping, eating or reading a book.

When Niel came along a week later, I felt fresh and motivated.  Straight up to the start line though, I was still unsure of what to expect. Maybe my body would be groggy from doing nothing all week. One second after the lights turned green, I got my answer. I shot off the start with ease, finding myself in 6th going into the dirt. I kept the solid effort for the first few minutes until I slid out on a manmade ramp, wrapping me and my bike around a pole. (Later on in the day, this same ramp took out U23 Belgian Champion Witse Bosmans.)  After the field ambitiously galloped over me, I stood up, brushed off the skinsuit along with my bruised ego, put the chain on and got back on the job.

Fighting back from 2nd to last place required some extra strategy so I began critically analyzing each section of the course that I was about to enter.  I got off the bike ten feet before it was necessary in one section so I could avoid adding a few kilos of mud weight to the bike, making it lighter to shoulder.  In another section, I pushed the bike on the sliver of solid ground on the edge of the course so I could run faster with less energy.  And on the pavement I put my head down and gave it all I had. All these strategies, in addition to my extra motivation and energy I had on the day, earned me a 9th place by the finish.

I will never be a running specialist. Hence, the thoughts of Forrest Gump during the race. But what I did take away from this experience is that I need to get back to basics.  Even though I’ve done most of these races before, I still need to take the time and effort to pick apart the courses in search of that elusive line or that perfect strategy.  I also need to be more diligent about reading my body signals.  If I feel like crap, there is a reason.  If I would have listened to my body, I would have taken my rest a few weeks earlier.  While even with a proper rest I still wouldn’t have won those two World Cups, the Koppenbergcross or even that Superprestige event in Ruddervoorde that all fell at that period where I was overtrained, I would have at least enjoyed the experiences that much more and possibly even moved up a few spots.  I will never know.   But what I do know is that it is never too late for lessons learned.

The day after Niel was Superprestige Hamme-Zogge. Last year, I had competed in this event that was held at 10:45am, before the juniors, U23 and elite men.  Basically it was at a time slot where most spectators were busy with eating their breakfast before piling onto the supporter buses which were scheduled to arrive just before noon – in time to watch the juniors.   Before my race, I had sought out Jurgen Mettepenningen, the race organizer and manager of Team Sunweb-Pro Job. In my best Dutch, I asked him if he would consider placing the women elite race just before the men elite.  It would be a kind show of respect as we work just as hard as the elite men with much fewer rewards, I explained to him. He told me he would consider it.

This year around, as I read the race program to see if my plea was heard, I found that the 2pm slot, an hour before the men’s event was indeed filled…but with a mini concert by a Belgian folk singer to be held in the party tent.  Basically, beer sales were more important to the organizers than showing a bit of respect to the women.  For this reason, I stayed home.   It is now the second year that Category 1 races are forced to hold a women’s event. My hope is that by next season the UCI makes a stand, ruling that elite women events are always held just before elite men. If this rule were already enforced I would have thoroughly enjoyed testing out my newly recharged legs in this event.  Lucky for me there are still 3 ½ months left in the cyclocross season here in Belgium.