Vardaros charging at Nacht van Woerden. Victor Zandbergen

Vardaros charging at Nacht van Woerden. © Victor Zandbergen

by Christine Vardaros

I am now two months into cyclocross season here in Belgium and it’s already filled with surprises, adventures, screw-ups and some creative shows of support from fans. My season started off with a few “B” races, which I could do “off-camera” without tens of thousands of spectators peering in on me. Considering I spent a couple of months off the bike in the offseason dealing with a never-ending groin pull, I was pleasantly surprised to have fared well – I even landed on the podium in one of them.

Once the big events got underway, it too started off decently until I unintentionally sabotaged it by switching seatposts. Usually a seatpost change wouldn’t have any effect on performance … unless you measure incorrectly when putting the new ones on. Two millimeters, I could have handled, but I put the setback a full two centimeters too far forward. On top of that, I measured the saddle height incorrectly and put them 3mm too low. When it didn’t feel right, I wrote it off as “bad legs.” To this day, I have no idea where my head was at that moment. I expect that one day I will find my mistake amusing but I’m not quite there yet. Anyway, racing is about the experience, not just the result … I tell myself.

Supporter jackets. Danny Zelck

Vardaros Supporter jackets. © Danny Zelck

And the experience as a cyclocross racer here in Belgium is fantastic! It is especially cool for me to hear so many cheers in the vast crowds specifically yelling my name! This year I even spotted some official “Christine Vardaros Supporter” jackets. Unreal.  I hear hats are in the works! Even though I know it’s a bit cheesy, I totally want one for myself.

The specific cheers I’ve gotten have also gone up a notch this year, if my oh-so-special cheer I got in Koppenbergcross a week ago is any indication. It started off fairly subdued with a “Go Christine”, but as the laps progressed, as probably did the number of beers, the guy’s cheers got more interesting. They included, “I love you!” “Will you marry me?” and “I want to have your babies.” Maybe it was payback for the off-color cheers I’ve been guilty of yelling to others while spectating.

One in particular that I recall was to my good friend Doug Ott in a California Surf City event many years ago. I yelled, “If you win, I’ll do you!” Naturally the two guys riding alongside him let him pass, although he didn’t make it to the top step on the podium – thankfully for me, since I had a boyfriend at the time.

Another first for this season was getting to race two new venues, thanks to the recent UCI ruling that all category 1 events must hold a women’s race. The only catch was that these Superprestige event organizers held our race first thing in the morning before the spectators, photographers and camera crew got out of bed — and well before the supporter buses arrived on site. Hence, there were great battles in the women’s races, but nobody there to bear witness.

Vardaros at Koppenbergcross. Juan Plowy

Vardaros at Koppenbergcross. © Juan Plowy

Of the 11 races I’ve done so far, my favorite was easily Koppenbergcross, not for that colorful cheer, but mainly for its incredibly unique atmosphere. There were 20,000 spectators scattered across the cow field on both sides of the infamous “Tour of Flanders” cobbled Koppenberg climb. Results-wise, it wasn’t my best day out. It took half the race before my body was ready to battle. But on the second half, I felt alive with excitement and hope as I started to pass riders. Alas, it was not meant to be. My chain fell off and was caught – and kept captive – by my chain-catcher, only to be released at a much later time.

After the race, I quickly did the obligatory few minutes cool-down on the trainer, took a quick rag bath and headed back out to watch the boys. Getting to see them pass, though, was not so easy at such packed venue where the course was lined by fans five deep in some places. Instead, my husband Jonas, friend Jo Croonenberghs and I stood in the middle of the field and watched the big screen television while periodically attempting to recognize some helmets as they bobbed up and down through the line of spectators.

Our favorite USA rider in the race, Jonathan Page, had a tough time from the beginning. Within the first two minutes he had a mechanical that took forever to remedy. On a semi-dry course like that, where the speeds are so high, it’s nearly impossible to make up much ground. Even so, he received a deafening amount of cheers from his hometown crowd. No matter his result, he kept his yearly post-Koppenberg-race party intact, so I hear.

While Koppenbergcross may have been my favorite race, the highlight of my season thus far was our trip to the Czech Republic for the first two rounds of World Cups in Plzen and Tabor. Jonas and I stayed a couple of nights in Plzen, followed by a week in Tabor. For that week in Tabor, we got into a really comfy routine. Our days were spent biking around the rolling terrain surrounding Tabor, passing lots of gorgeous picturesque rivers and lakes, ending each ride with a quick visit to the race site to check out the status of the course and say hi to my teammate Mariusz Gil’s support guys, Wilfred and Marcel, who were staying in the mobile home parked on site.

Looking out the Tabor apartment window on the square. Vicki Thomas

Looking out the Tabor apartment window on the square. © Vicki Thomas

In the evenings, we walked around with the camera, snapping shots of old houses, tiny cobblestone streets and the old town square. The town square shots could have been taken, I suppose, from our apartment window since we were located literally on the square. On each walk, we inevitably passed a handful of Belgians donned in their respective team supporter clothing, which was not surprising since the crowds at all major European races outside Belgium consist mainly of Belgians.

As for our apartment, it was a huge studio where even our bikes had room to spread out. It also came equipped with a full kitchen so we could cook all our meals and entertain guests. The latter was something I wasn’t expecting to do but was nonetheless a welcoming surprise. Wilfred and Marcel stopped by one evening, and on another occasion, Belgian racer Nancy Bober, her husband Andy and Canadian racer Vicki Thomas swung by after dinner. We had more guests in that one week than we usually have over six months in our home in Belgium.

Another unexpected social activity that week came in the form of a private wine party. We were invited by our landlady who owns a posh wine bar in town that was built in a very old cave. The wine and the atmosphere were incredible. What amazed me most, though, was that I encountered three women who spoke a bit of English. Aside from our landlady, they were the only ones we encountered during the trip with some knowledge of English.

By the way, for those of you who read my entry on the Plzen World Cup last year, I will have you know that this time around I managed to avoid getting kidnapped by any old lady, dragged to her tiny apartment with five cats and held captive for almost an hour.

Last weekend was my first mini-break of the season, as all the other women went to Lucca, Italy for the European Championships where Daphny van den Brand (AA Drink) defended her title. I used this time to do some overload training in hopes that the next races will go better now that my bike fit is back in place. After the upcoming three races of Superprestige Hamme-Zogge, Superprestige Gavere and the Koksijde World Cup, I take my next break in the season, but this time around I will be relocating myself to Malaga, Spain, to get in some long training rides in the hills – hopefully under sunny skies. I expect I’ll run into some other cyclocross racers there since it seems to be a popular mid-season destination spot.

There are still four months left to the season, so keep tuned to Cyclocross Magazine to read all about my next adventures.