Belgium’s Version of Post-Season Celebrations
by Christine Vardaros
After an intense cyclocross season lasting almost six months, one can only guess how the people of Belgium celebrate its conclusion – with yet another bike race. But this celebratory race is like no other! Instead of all focus placed on battles for UCI points or for ultimate glory, all focus is on entertaining the crowds. It’s a chance for spectators to see their favorite riders in action one last time while the riders can fully enjoy the experience with none of the usual stress attached. As one of the lucky riders on display that evening, I got a front row seat to all the craziness to be had.
In line with the party atmosphere, the whole event was held completely indoors in an arena – no rain, snow or even chilly wind to ruin the day. I must admit, I really welcomed the warm riding conditions where we could don our short sleeve skinsuits. And as an added bonus for the crowds, the organizers built a very technical course that would be sure to claim more than a few riders by the end of the night. As we were in Belgium, homeland to sand-riddled tracks, there was a special emphasis placed on sand.
The first sand section we encountered on the course was an oversized pile that was simply plopped onto the concrete floor with a dump truck. There was clearly no plan in mind other than to let the riders figure it out. And that is exactly what we did, but not without many casualties both before and during the event. I fell victim a few times to the sandpile’s wrath. On one such occasion during the pre-ride, just after I shook the sand out of my helmet, I spotted a spectator chuckling at me. I quickly realized it was none other than five-time World Champion Roland Liboton. I turned to him and said, “Yeah, not too easy – as you should know!” He responded with a wide grin.
The next technical sand section came in the form of an extended strip that ran the full length of the arena and then continued left for a bit more. Usually something like that would not be too tricky but leading up to it was an incredibly steep descent in the form of a two-tiered ramp where you only see the sand for a split second before you are in it. Needless to say, there were many endo’s there. Again, I had my moment but this time it was during the race. It was the last lap and just before entering the sand, I heard my nephew yell to me “goed gereden” (nice riding) so naturally I thought, yeah, he’s right – I’m finishing in seventh place (OK, out of only ten but considering the star-studded field I’ll happily take it). And just in the middle of that thought, I found myself upside down in the sand, head completely buried like an ostrich. Fail! Somehow I managed to untangle myself and get back on the job quickly enough to hold onto my place.
The third and final sand section was a small version of the strip previous. But instead of a downhill ramp to dump you into it there was a jumping ramp. There were also alternative options to get around the jump in the form of tire-width sand lines that you have to hit just right from an angle to make it through.
In addition to the sand, there were four oversized logs to jump, some tight muddy U-turns, and a very steep tall mud pile (probably made with the same effort as the sand pile) that leads into a leg-zapping mud washboard riddled with deep ruts. I saw this section claim a few riders where they followed their rut right off course and into the crowds. Directly after clearing the last of the mud bumps was the cardiac climb in the form of a steep ramp with a carpeted staircase immediately following. By the time we were at the top, even at a relaxed pre-riding pace, our hearts were in our throats. The only reprieve we had on the course was at the top of the stairs where we’d ride flat along the VIP section filled with partygoers sitting down to their white tablecloth dinners. Once our five second break was over, we were headed back down the ramp and into the extended sand strip.
Our evening started off with a pre-ride to check out all the funny bits of the course. Shortly after we were individually introduced to the crowds. Just before I spun down the hallway into the center of the arena, three-time World Champion Erwin Vervecken told me to put on a show for the audience. And that’s what I did. First off, I did my interview in Flemish which is always amusing for Belgians since my accent is still (and always will be) very American. And when they asked me what place I thought I would come in, I said first naturally – even though I was hoping and praying I’d place anywhere but last. Maybe I was the only one who got the joke since I didn’t see many folks laughing.
Our first order of business was a time trial of one lap. I still cannot get over how badly I fudged it. I think I was so focused on not coming in last that I had one of those self-fulfilling prophecies. Dead last. A second after hitting the extended sand section I was off the bike. In a lap of only three minutes or so, three seconds can make the difference between a few spots.
After licking my wounds, I quickly gathered my stack of trading cards and headed over to the autograph-signing table. It was a very long one to accommodate 30 riders (10 women and 20 men.) I sat between Niels Wubben of Rabobank (mountain biker turned cyclocrosser), and Telenet-Fidea’s Rob Peeters, who finished second at the World Championships. I was so incredibly prepared that I had two magic markers, two pens, a water bottle and an oversized stack of photo cards. I even pre-signed some of the cards in anticipation of the crowds which were lined ten-deep in front of the table.
When Rob took a seat next to me, I immediately felt I was maybe a bit too overprepared. He had nothing but the clothes on his back. So naturally I jumped in to help. I handed him a marker and a stack of my cards which he signed in block letters “ROB” for his fans and handed them out. In between our periodic conversations with the spectators, Rob and I got to catch up a bit. He is really loving his new role of dad, by the way. It was nice to see one of the “hard men” of cyclocross light up when he talked about his son.
Just when I thought the signing chaos could not get any worse, I looked to the other side of the long table and spotted a wave of furious activity rolling through the crowd. The mayhem was courtesy of Sanne Cant, Marianne Vos, Sven Nys, Zdenek Stybar, and Niels Albert making their way behind our chairs to their seats. As they slowly moved along behind us, they were rapidly signing trading cards and handing them out. I never saw anything like it. Of course, I had to be part of the mayhem so when Vos passed, I asked if I could have a card too. In keeping with her gracious personality, she responded, “Only if I can have one of yours too.” Deal! I threw in a “ROB” variant too.
While most of us continued with the signing, the podium placers from World Championships raced each other – girls versus boys. It was a two-lap race with the girls getting about a 40 second head start on the boys. By the end, the finishing order was Albert, Kevin Pauwels, Vos. Vos finished one second behind the two boys with Daphny van den Brand flying through a second after that.
After the signing, I had maybe five minutes to get my helmet on and get to the start line. The card signing was our official warmup at an event like this. All time before and after the races is meant for socializing. It is a really pleasant way to prepare for a race, but it surely leads to an incredibly intense first-lap burn of both the legs and lungs, I found out the hard way! Our actual race may only have been 20 minutes long but when I saw the lap card read “6” as I crossed the line for the first time, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
As I finally crossed the line for the last time and waved goodbye to the crowds, my first thought was that I can finally relax. The season is now officially over. The second thought that forcefully shoved the first one out of my mind was that I still have cookies left from the Oostmalle cookie party! I rode the thirty feet back to the Peanut van, whipped open the door, grabbed a cookie tin and went crazy. No more recovery shakes – it was finally cookie time!
After a nice shower in neighbor Ellen van Loy’s mobilehome, I set out all my leftover cookies to share with everyone. For the next hour or two, we had lots of lovely visitors, many of whom I’ve seen often over the last months at the races. One of those visitors was Daphny van den Brand who came over to say her final goodbyes. It is always sad to see the good ones go. She had personality, class, determination to improve the cyclocross situation for women, and scary fast legs. She’ll be missed by us all.
Another powerhouse woman who swung by to say her goodbyes was Marianne Vos. She too is one who has had a positive impact on the cyclocross situation for women. Saying goodbye to folks like that, as well as all the wonderful friends and supporters we have in the cross world, definitely makes it a bitter-sweet feeling to end a cyclocross season. After spending more time with these people than with anyone else for many months, we really become a family of sorts.
But moving forward … after taking a full week off the bike, I am back at it again to prepare for my “off-season” racing. The first event on my calendar is Tour of Cyprus – a road stage race. It is held March 23-25, hopefully under sunny skies since it has been painful to read about all the other cyclocrossers’ trips to sunny lands the last week. Next up is some mountain bike racing. I am currently waiting on my new BABOCO team mountain bike – STEVENS Sonora SL – a 29’er. They say a 29’er feels like riding a cyclocross bike. Let’s hope so because it has not even been two weeks since I last rode my cyclocross bike and I miss it already!
A big thanks to everyone for a very memorable season! Thanks to my sponsors of BABOCO, Stevens, Challenge, 3T, Specialized, and ProBar for all your help! Thanks to Jonas’ mom for helping out as well when times got a bit busy for us. Thanks to Coach Elmo for believing in me year after year. And to all my family/friends/supporters/readers, your continued support meant the world to me. And Jonas, you are the best teammate I could ever wish for!