Vicki Thomas checks in with another installment of her adventures chasing the ‘cross dream on the courses of Europe. Vicki’s previous report from the Treviso World Cup can be seen here.
The old adage is that time flies when you’re having fun. This is definitely ringing true for me. It is hard for me to believe that I’ve been in Belgium for a week now. I feel as though I’ve lived enough for a year in this last week! Perhaps a bit of an overstatement, but this is really how I’m feeling. Basically since hitting the ground last Tuesday, my feet have been moving fast.
I was ready for some easy travel to Brussels, and a simple little drive to home away from home in Blauberg. Hmm, seems like all my travel karma ran out and I ended up having one of those trips where “if it could go wrong – it did go wrong.” Things started to get a bit twisted when my Toronto-Frankfurt flight was forced to make an emergency medical landing in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Never have I experienced this. A poor fellow traveler had to be taken off the plane and was whisked away by a team of paramedics. One hour later, we were back in the air flying. But now I had missed my connection in Frankfurt. This resulted in a three-hour layover in Frankfurt.
I finally arrived in Brussels, but my bikes did not. Sigh. Oh well, probably for the best because now I wouldn’t be tempted to put them together in my tired, jet-lagged state. Hopped in the rental car and started the simple 45 minute drive to Blauberg. All was good until about 3 km from my house. A massive bang – and I have a flat tire. Yeesh. Couldn’t believe it. Luckily I was rescued by a friendly tire man, and Marc put in a call to Joscelin Ryan (owner of the house here in Blauberg). Jos arrived just as the tire was getting sorted – so awesome to see a friend after a rather ridiculous block of travel.
Luckily my bikes arrived later that night. I stayed awake long enough to receive the bikes and drag them into the garage. Time for bed. My first day in Belgium was rather ominous, but things could only get better. And get better they did. The number one mission was to get myself over the jet lag and shake out my legs so I’d be ready for the World Cup in Nommay, France. Luckily, my coach and I had the earlier World Cup experience in Treviso, Italy, so we knew how I responded to travel and jet lag. We basically followed the same recovery process this time – easy ride, chased the next day with a longer ride with a block of tempo and then a nice recovery ride on Friday.
Jos and I took off for Nommay, France, on Saturday. Long drive ahead, but time flies when you’re chatting with an old friend. I first met Jos in the summer of 2007, when I came to Belgium for two months of road racing. We became fast friends and Marc and I have returned every winter since to race cyclocross and live the dream. Jos and her husband Tim Harris offer a great service to cyclists such as myself – a perfectly outfitted house so that all you need to bring is your bike and clothes. They help you get set up with the local training rides and help you get comfortable living in Belgium.
The extra bonus for me is that Jos is a cyclocross fanatic so she is always up for going to the races. This means I have a reliable and well-connected traveling companion who is ready and able to do the dirty work for me at the races, including pit work, taking my warm-up stuff at the start, cheering me on, snapping the odd photo and reminding me to put on warm clothes post race and to eat and drink. Truly couldn’t get through these races without such help.
Back to Nommay….
I was braced for a crazy muddy race course. Like most other racers I had prepared by watching video of last year’s race. Wow, muddy is really an understatement. To my pleasant surprise, the ground was soft and a bit squishy, but it was not the mudfest we had all been expecting. This resulted in very fast lap times. My race started out in typical fashion with a not-very-good start. Luckily, we came to the stairs very quickly and the congestion on the stairs worked in my favor. I was able to get by a few girls and set into a rhythm. I yo-yoed back and forth with fellow CXM contributor Christine Vardaros – she eventually got away from me on a slippery off-camber. From then it was simply head down and pedal like mad, trying to hold off Katie and company. I knew that I was going to get lapped (not a fun feeling), so my mission was to focus on riding each section smooth and smart. This really was all I could do. I tried to hold off Katie as long as I could but the inevitable did happen. I’ll be honest, getting lapped sucks. Getting lapped at a World Cup really, really sucks.
Such is life. I took solace in some small victories from the race, especially knowing that I did better than I would have last year. No point in getting down on myself, rather it fired me up and reminded me that racing really is at another level here. Being a decent ‘cross rider was not going to get me where I wanted. It was funny really, some people had long faces after the race (there were a lot of shocked riders getting lapped), but I was not one of them. Rather I just wanted to get back on my bike and start practicing. Perspective and motivation really are so powerful.
The drive home was smooth again. As on the way down, Jos and I talked for the entire ride. Home at a decent hour, car unpacked, chat with Marc and it was off to bed. I dreamt cyclocross all night. Monday morning I was up early – got out as the sun came up for relaxing recovery ride. Just what I needed. My legs needed to be flushed out after the race and long drive. My brain needed to be cleared out and re-centered for the next race on the schedule. Crammed in a bunch of errands on Monday and closed off the day with a ‘cross training ride at the nearby Averbody Abbey. This location has some pretty good trails, steep climbs, fast descents, roots, and a massive sand pit. Just what I needed to get in some good laps on my “course” and work on some skills. Helps that this training park is a short 15 minute ride from my house. Doesn’t get much better than that.
Tuesday was all about Wednesday. I needed to get my training ride and then get myself organized for the race in Niel, Belgium. You know what I mean when I write get organized – give the bikes a once-over, shine up the paint jobs, check the shifting, check the cables, give the chain one last wipe and lube, get the tires organized, assemble the “bucket” with cleaning and emergency supplies. Off to bed early on Tuesday with feelings of excitement for another opportunity to race with the best and to improve.
Jos and I arrived with lots of time and this allowed us to weasel our way into the elite parking. Here in Belgium, elite parking is reserved for the men. Women have their own lot (typically far away). But thanks to some persistence and a bit of polite Canadian smiling and graciousness, we managed to get a key spot in the elite parking lot. We were parked right next to the Fidea caravans and campers. This was my first race in Belgium – I’d forgotten how much of a spectacle the race is. Everyone comes out to the race, particularly in Niel since it was a national holiday here on November 11. We saw lots of familiar faces and I met a few key people who I know will be instrumental in my development as a ‘cross rider.
Hopped out on the course for some warm-up laps. As in Nommay, I was bracing for a heavy muddy course. This was not to be. The bumpy grass was definitely soggy but it was not the mud battle that it was last year. But what was missed in mud, was made up with crazy, bumpy grass. Cows definitely make their share of holes in the ground! I was pretty comfortable on the course. Some fun little high-speed climbs, fast little descent, a fun, quick ride over a wooden structure, some pavement, more bumpy grass, a crazy ditch crossing, and some cobbles. This course really had it all. Race time came pretty quickly and I was lucky to have a front row call-up. Nice!
The start was rather quick. I popped off the line really well, but once again struggled. Okay, well, I’m used to this. Put the head down and play catch and pass. I was determined not to get lapped in this race, so I just wanted to keep the pressure on and bury myself. Despite the deep leg ache and burning lungs (oh yeah – you know what I’m talking about), I had a blast. There were quite a few people cheering me and giving me encouragement throughout the race. This, along with Marc’s voice in my brain reminding me to pedal and look ahead, helped me keep the pressure on. I went back and forth with two other girls. I’d pass them and gap them on the longer stretches, but then they’d come back to me and pass me. Eventually, my elastic snapped on the run-up on the last lap. I tried to get them back but it was not to be. In the end I finished in 18th, my best result ever in a ‘cross race in Belgium.
Good. But not good enough. I’m so hungry for improvement and success. It is hard sometimes. I have to be content with my race – I rode hard, improved as the race went on and actually got faster with each passing lap. But I can still go deeper into the pain cave. I can still ride more smoothly and choose better lines. I can get better. It is hard for me to express how badly I want to improve. I know I’ve improved a lot this past year, but now I want to achieve so much more. This race highlighted my strengths and weaknesses. Just what I wanted. I had some good chats with a few people after the race and got some good feedback on my race. One thing about Belgian cyclocross fans, they don’t mince words. They tell you straight to your face what you need to improve on. For me the number one thing I heard was “you need to fix your start.” So that’s what I’ll do. In fact, I’m just about to get out there on my trusty Stevens Super-Prestige and work on some start intervals and have fun riding through the sand and trails in Averbode.
Next up for me is a double-header race weekend. I’m racing with the junior boys in Zelzate, Belgium on Saturday and then racing in the Super-Prestige race in Aspare-Gavere on Sunday. Just what I need. Two opportunities to work on my start, learn some more lessons, and have some fun racing my bike. Time is whipping by. Soon enough Marc will be here and then before we know it, we’ll have a house full of people all getting their first taste of Belgian cyclocross racing. Life really doesn’t get much better than this.
Look for regular updates on my European cyclocross season and check out my site: ottawa.cx for regular updates about my training, racing, and living the dream.