Friday, 30 November 2012

Koksijde and the Road to Roubaix

With my first World Cup at Koksijde now done, dusted and sanded off, it's time to start looking a bit further ahead. For a race report from the day, have a look at my post on the Spoke magazine blog. In summary, it was a great course and awesome to be part of. There's so much sand that it's very difficult to ride it all, but that didn't stop me from appreciating the unique nature of the parcours. Well, maybe for the 40 minutes or so that I was in the race.

I was running a lot. Photo: Luc van der Meiren

I have had a massive influx of donations recently on my Gofundme site, thank you to everyone for the support! I'm not sure how much of it was race-related or just general kindness, after I got through 4 laps at Koksijde. Although I didn't reach my goal of finishing, I did make it into the top 50 - placing 47th. For those interested, my idea was for people to pledge something per lap that I can complete at the World Cup races. On Sunday December 2nd I will be racing at Roubaix, France. This is typically a very muddy course, so usually quite a change from sandy Koksijde - but last week's rain blurred the edges a bit, and meant that when there wasn't sand there was mud. I expect there will be a similar number of laps in Roubaix if the weather remains wet, so probably either 8 or 9. I will of course be aiming to finish the race, and once again try to gain a top-50 placing.

For some example viewing of what to expect Roubaix to be like, below is a Youtube video of the 2010 World Cup.

I'm having a weekend off racing next week, and taking the opportunity to visit family in London and Paris. When I get back to Belgium it will be a week and a half until the infamous Christmas 'Cross period - in which there are races more or less every other day for a fortnight. I'm yet to entirely work out which ones I'll do, but will decide before I go away. There are two World Cups - Namur on Dec 23 and Heusden-Zolder on Dec 26 - so I will work around those.

In the meantime keep your eyes peeled for mud-spattered riders in Roubaix, and I'll do my best to remain visible for as long as I can!

Los Pedalos fan club sandwich. Photo: Danny Zelck

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

World Cup Time

As I've mentioned quite a few times over the course of recent months a big part of my trip to race cyclocross here in Belgium was to take part in as many of the World Cups as possible. I used to always get confused by the difference between the World Cup and the World Champs, so just to clarify for newcomers to the sport the World Cup is a series of races throughout the season. There are 8 in total this year, two of which I didn't do in the Czech Republic have already been. The next is Koksijde, Belgium this coming Saturday followed a week later by Roubaix, France on Dec 2nd. There are two more late in December, Namur and Heusden-Zolder both here in Belgium, then I will skip Rome in early January and enter the final one in Hoogerheide, Netherlands on January 20th. The overall winner of the World Cup series gets lots of money and fame but generally the world title is more sought after. The first weekend of February is when the World Championships is on in Louisville, Kentucky, USA. This is a one-off competition to decide who is the world champion, and thus who wears the coveted rainbow stripes on their jersey. I am going to be there to contest the title, representing New Zealand. Faced with the international airfares, comprehensive racing and travel insurance and ongoing costs associated with travel to and from races, not to mention worn out equipment and other material, I need a fair bit of help to do this.

A month or so ago I set up a paypal-based site where people could donate towards helping me realise this dream trip of racing cyclocross in Belgium and going to the World Championships. I have to thank the many people who have already generously supported me so far, from friends and family to complete strangers. I still have a fair bit to raise to continue, so I wish to propose another, more interactive way in which to earn this support.

Being from New Zealand, I grew up with bikes as a small part of my life. While they have always been present and I have always enjoyed a bit of mountain biking and touring with friends, I have only been racing competitively since the age of 23. Here in Belgium, racing often begins at the age of 12 so some of my competitors have 15-20 years' racing experience over me! The cyclocross scene in Belgium is like nowhere else in the world, so while it really is the best place to come to learn from the best and therefore gain rapid experience, it is incredibly difficult and I find myself struggling while others make it look easy. I aim to get as close to finishing each race as possible, but as riders are automatically pulled from the course if they fall behind the leader by more than 80% of the leader's first lap time, this is a most tricky business. If a typical race has 6 minute laps, and thus 10 laps over the course of the hour of racing, I can only lose up to 4 minutes and 30 seconds before it's over. That leaves a maximum loss of 27 seconds per lap in order to stay in it, but sometimes I lose a whole minute in one lap! Considering I'm facing the best in the world, it's a tough ask.

My proposal is that while I am racing in these World Cups, I ask people to pledge a certain amount per lap that I complete, to donate towards my campaign. Some of the courses will have shorter laps and therefore more of them, others longer and fewer. But overall the average seems to be between 8 - 10 laps per race, depending on conditions and terrain. Pledges could take the form of a one-off amount per lap for all five World Cups, or individually by race. There are typically between about 70-90 riders in a race, and my goals are to stay in the race as long as possible (preferably right to the last lap!) and to reach the top-50.

So if you think you are able to donate, please have a think about how you might like to do it. You could choose to let me know what your method will be, to motivate me. Or alternatively not disclose it and make it a surprise. I will post on this blog before each race and describe the course to the best of my ability, what to expect and what I hope to achieve if it differs from my aforementioned goals. I have been overwhelmed with the support I have received so far - whether it be financial, vocal from the sidelines or simply friendly messages with encouraging words, it all helps and keeps me even more motivated to continue to push myself and gain as much experience and improve as much as I possibly can during my time here.

On another note, my team Los Pedalos have made a whole bunch of merchandise which they will be selling at races on my behalf, with proceeds going towards my campaign. They have had cycling caps, beanies, T-shirts and jackets custom made with a special moustachioed theme. They are a lovely bunch of people, and have really taken it upon themselves to help me as much as possible, for which I am extremely grateful. So for the Belgian fans and supporters out there, please look out for the team truck at races. For those of you in New Zealand, I will soon be sending a package to Revolution Bicycles in Wellington for further national distribution. For those around the world, it may be tricky! I'll bring some to the World Champs in February, so if not for a moustache then come along for what I'm sure will be an amazing weekend of races and festivities.

I'll add below some of the videos that have surfaced from the various interviews I've had in the Belgian media since my arrival. For further post-race debriefings and other intriguing observations from my travails please check my blog The Cyclo X Files on the Spoke magazine website. Thanks again for all the support so far, and I look forward to doing you proud!

Iedereen Beroemd - segment from Belgian TV programme Everybody Famous Reportage at Ronse round of the bpost Bank Trofee

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Tribute to Enghien

My first port of call when I had just arrived here in Belgium was the town of Enghien (in English and French, and Edingen as it is known in Flemish). Hosted by the great Koole family, who have always put the family in family friends, it was in all regards with a warm and enticing welcome that I was met. From the family lunches in the sun, with clear skies and 30ºC+ temperatures, to the myriad of small country roads and treelined lanes down which to ride my bike, the first couple of months were most definitely a welcome relief from the drizzle and grizzle of a wintry Wellington.

I'm a big fan of cats, in particular cats in unusual or unexpected surroundings. I couldn't resist taking photographic evidence of some (or all) of these chaps and chappettes, so please have patience while I briefly indulge my passion for the local talent.

Alcoholism, particularly binge drinking, is a real problem with the local cats in this part of town
Stealthy and sneaky, the jungle cat prowls the corn fields.
The cold steely gaze of eyes that have known nothing but years of incarceration

As I started to explore more widely around the area I encountered a vast array of historic places, ancient cobbled roads and a ménagerie of animals that seem to be commonplace here on people's property, but would rarely be seen in such a context in New Zealand. Let me guide you on a typical ride through the countryside of my Belgian initiation, replete with all my favourite local man-made and animal quirks, along with plenty of other curious inexplicables.

I caught this guy staggering around drunkenly, disoriented and clearly lost.

One of my more regular sections of road for training took in a beautiful, quiet tree-lined boulevarde near Bierghes, between Enghien and Rebecq. Judging by the size and architectural nuances of the housing constructions it was obviously where many well-to-do's choose to live. There's nothing like living in the forest, at one with nature. That is, only once you've cleared the section of hundreds of mature 30m high trees, planted grass, and erected some of the most industrial-looking metallic walls known to man.

There's actually a Zebra in there by the door, with a baby. Of course.

The typical Belgian horse. Although it could well be a Trojan horse...

Cycling in Belgium enjoys a status similar to that of car usage on the road. It is an everyday activity for many people, especially elderly ladies who you see loading up their panniers with groceries every time you head to the local supermarket. There are often many options for navigating via cycle paths, small roads between main ones, as well as recreational routes through scenic landscapes. Sometimes I didn't feel like wearing a helmet, and would take the opportunity to feel the wind through my hair unimpeded, savouring the sense of freedom that it inspires.

It's often quite surprising to find out exactly what some of the sponsors of professional teams actually do. Some make jeans, watches, or GPS units, others are car rental companies and many are banks. This one was a revelation, and I found it while ripping out the old 19th century flooring of the house of my friend's relative. This was to be the replacement! 

I always find it interesting to read the graffiti in foreign languages, occasionally being able to make sense of what I see. However it seems tagging in English is the cool way to do it. As always with a second language mistakes are inevitable, and an essential part of the learning process. They also make for good comic moments when on display in public:

better luck next time

Dangerous intersection - not one staked out by pirates with a map showing hidden treasure.
Not being one to ever let the opportunity for a predictable joke pass by unsaid, this was too good to refuse.
You are so silly!

Come on now, don't be silly.

If ever I was riding past the main motorway to Brussels at about 2pm I would witness the passing of the French TGV, the high speed train from Paris. In some ways it was impossible to miss, due to the volume of the noise it creates rushing through the air. But on the other hand, if you didn't look up at the right moment it's actually quite easy to miss because it just passes through so quickly. Add to this the occasional fly-over courtesy of the local Belgian Air Force jet flighters, and humans' ability to make very fast machines that make lots of noise and are very expensive to run was most explicitly displayed. Only for very brief moments however. Then, like the children playing on the church organ after mass getting overly enthusiastic and physical with the instrument, the dusty velvet would once again be draped over the keys, and hushed tones would issue forth about it being time to move on.

My favourite aspect of a regular ride I did had to be a road sign by the motorway offramp near Rebecq. Well, it was actually three road signs. And each actually had about 10-15 smaller signs on it. I marvelled at how much new information I was able to garner at each passing, yet never really having the time to take in anything that I saw in the time I had. I could just imagine people in their cars leaving the motorway, only to find themselves confronted by this scene. The frantic darting of their eyes as they try and take everything in, hurriedly looking for their destination while the pressure of being at an intersection and having cars queued behind them fuels their growing unease. There is so much there that apparently must be pointed out immediately, from a piano shop to a removal company, even an abandonned velodrome. And that's only the first sign. They almost need to have a cafe alongside, so you can take your time to find the place you are looking for, maybe have a coffee while doing so. But then they would most likely be closed when you visited, as it would probably be lunchtime. Or it would be a Sunday, when everything is closed. Or a Monday, which is sort of like another Sunday. If indeed it was a day that they were open, by the time you'd finished reading the sign and worked out which way to go, they probably would have long since closed for the day.

Christmas trees already in September? Looks a bit like a permanent sign...
I had one puncture in all my rides through August and September. Despite potentially having clocked up a few thousand kilometres, among which many were over cobbles, my tyres held up extraordinarily well over some very rough terrain. The one time they couldn't quite handle what was thrown at them, it was fairly evident why. I have had a more impressive object go through my tyre before, but that was passing through an industrial part of town as a cycle courier in Wellington years ago. This nail was a good 4-5cm long, and on a fairly innocuous stretch of cycle path just outside of Enghien.

It reminded me a bit of this guy, from the Kiwi Brevet back in February, at Castle Hill heading towards Arthur's Pass. Both prickly characters, in their own way:

Lastly, where would we be without thousands of small breweries scattered all over the countryside? Not Belgium, that's for sure. I have found a few in my travels, the wares of which I have even managed to taste on a small scale.

Brasserie Lefebvre in Quenast

Brouwerij Roman, near Brakel.

Brouwerij Den Herberg, Buizingen.
I have since moved to the town of Oudenaarde, in the heart of Flanders. Close to much of the cyclocross races, the only hills in Flanders and a long flat stretch of calm canal road, it is ideally situated for the life of a cyclist. Like everywhere in Belgium, there seems to be roadworks taking place on every other street. But it's a nice place and I am happy to be here.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Fast Times At Belgium High

It's been much longer than I intended since my last post, and time has flown by faster than the professionals I have been racing against. The last weekend of September I had my first double header racing amongst them. Saturday was the first of the Soudal Classics in Neerpelt, and a UCI category 2 race. This means the all-important points, which determine the riders' start positions in all races, are up for grabs. For the top 15, that is.

After almost three hours of driving for the first time in Europe, for the first time in the left of a car and for the first time on the right hand side of the road, following for the first time an in-car navigation system as best I could, I made it only slightly panicked and frazzled to the course in the far north-east of Belgium, parking up alongside the team trucks of BKCP-Powerplus - sponsor of current world champion Niels Albert. I just squeezed in between a couple of trees on a patch of grass, happily just out of view of the hoards of passing celebrity cyclocross-spotters. Due to the late start of my race at 5pm, I had plenty of time to look around and check out the course both on foot while other races were on, and then on my bike when there was free time.

It was a very sandy base, with an actual sandpit at one point which we went through twice per lap. I've never ridden much in sand, and it showed. I'd try and get up as much momentum as possible before entering it, then abruptly come to a halt not long after. This is definitely something to work on over the coming months, as one of the World Cup races is at a place called Koksijde, and it is essentially just a race over a whole bunch of sand dunes.

When I was scouting around the course I was recognised by a man with his family. He asked me if I was racing, and when I confirmed that indeed I was, we started to chat about why I'm here and how it's all going. His name was Andy and he gave me his email address, and later sent through a bunch of photos that his wife had taken of me.

Crucially though, we became Facebook friends. I didn't realise it at the time, but this was the initial trickle of a series of events that would turn into a veritable raging torrent and be by far the most surreal and unexpected experience of my life. At the startline I was approached by a journalist who had seen I was from New Zealand, and wanted to write a story about me. I had photos taken of me, and generally felt like a bit of a star, especially rubbing shoulders as I was with the big hitters of the cyclocross scene.
Photo: Het Belang van Limburg
The race I had wasn't one to write home about, I felt out of my depth and struggled with the course's sandy features - let alone everyone else in the race disappearing off ahead very early on. I think I got through only about 3 or 4 laps before being pulled off the course, lungs heaving and my morale sifting lazily through the sandy ground beneath me.

I set about heading back home - my new home in Oudenaarde, which is situated in the province of East-Flanders. It was just before sunset, and the sunstrike was the most intense I've ever experienced. Heading almost directly west was no fun at all, and combined with feeling blown to pieces from the race, discombobulated from the car's controls being backwards and driving on the right, I couldn't really see anything. Cars were overtaking me on a stretch of road with the sun directly at eye level, as I couldn't see what the speed indications on the side of the road were saying. I didn't know whether it was a 50km, 70km or 90km per hour zone, so I chose not to drive over about 55. I quickly got tired of this retina-burning exercise, and pulled over to buy a falafel and have a rest. Employing my slowly-improving Dutch I managed to order what I wanted, but when it came time for the sauces I had a bit of trouble. I understood that "pikant" was spicy, so I got that, but none of the other names registered anything familiar. I asked for the owner's recommendation, and so I had some "cocktail" with it. It was gigantic, delicious, full of a funny tasting mayonnaise and had about 10 medium-sized whole green chilies on the side. I bit into one, and finding it suitably "pikant" set about putting the rest of them onto my possibly-but-probably-never-having-later-on napkin.

It didn't take long for the sun to set, and I got on my way again. I took wrong turns several times on the massive motorway exchanges around Brussels and Antwerp, backtracking frustratingly and confusingly each time, watching the GPS clock as it showed the estimated arrival time getting later and later. I did eventually get home at about 10, so after washing my bike in preparation for the following day's race in Kalmthout, I had a chat with the others staying here at the Chain Stay, finding encouragement where previously I had been feeling pretty down. I went to bed determined to use this day as a lesson in what it's going to be like here. Always physically challenging, and therefore also mentally very difficult, but as I've mentioned previously, this is all part of what you need to be able to handle to do this here, so I just have to work out how to cope.

I woke up the following day feeling much better, and excited once again about racing in this huge events. I wasn't alone at this race, as Luke Gray - fellow resident of the house and former British U23 cyclocross champion - was also competing, albeit in the separate U23 category a couple of hours earlier in the day.

It was a nice winding flat course through a grassy forest, with an overpass construction and only a small couple of patches of sand. There were several sections of steps, some quite close together, but overall it looked like a fast and not too demanding loop. The organisers had started to notice the presence of a New Zealander in their midst, and made a special mention of this as I was called up - last, of course - to the start line.

I had a good start, keeping up with the back of the race train for about half of the first lap. I then had a slip up on a corner, and they disappeared off ahead. I rode as hard as I could, desperately trying to get back into the race, but it didn't happen. So after about 3 laps of racing by myself, I knuckled down in preparation for what would probably be my final lap. But the next time around I was shown the sign saying 5 laps remaining, so I figured I had just slipped through and might as well ride this one like it was my last. So I did, and again, as I rounded the corner into the finish straight I saw that I now had 4 laps remaining. I had just ridden as hard as possible to stay in this for another lap, and now I still had other laps to ride!

Photo: Ludo Nagels
So I forced myself to push at my limit for another lap, and again I approached the finish straight assuming I would be taken off. It was at about this time that someone texted the commentator (who knows how they got his number!) and asked if the New Zealander was still in the race. He replied that yes indeed, the Nieuw Zeelander is still in the race. Shortly after they cut to this shot of the aforementioned antipodean:


The next time I came around I was sure it would be the end for me, but no, it was instead still 3 laps to go. I couldn't believe it, was it really possible that I might finish a race? The crowd of spectators had gone from general support with a healthy dose of jeering directed towards me, into all-out shouting and rapturous encouragement of blasphemial proportions. They really wanted me to finish this race, as did I. I had made a few mistakes in the first lap, but since then had been getting smoother and smoother as I went, taking corners a bit faster and generally feeling in control. So after all this time of expecting to have my race end as I reached the section of sealed road, when it finally happened with 2 laps to go I found myself almost in disbelief that I wasn't still in the race.

Photo: Andy Foncke
I had lasted much longer than I ever expected, about 48 minutes in total. The average speed for the leaders was a very high 27/28km per hour, and through the majority of the race everyone else had more or less stayed together as one very long line of riders. Despite being totally satisfied with how things went, overwhelmed even, I couldn't help but feel a tinge of what if I'd just had a better first lap.... But there'll be plenty of races in which to make up for it over the coming months. One of my main goals - in fact probably my main one - is to finish at least one of these A races on the lead lap. Although it may not seem like that big a deal to lots of people, the level of competitivity of these races is just incredible in comparison to anything else I've ever done, so it's a pretty lofty goal. But seeing I've come all this way, why not?

During the week after these races, I had my interview with the journalist, and found it printed in not only the local Kalmthout newspaper Het Belang van Limburg, but also in the larger Gazet van Antwerpen. It also then spread onto the web through and and suddenly my phone started ringing every day with various kinds of reporters looking to write a story about the rare moustachioed far-flung Kiwi.

The stuff cyclocross dreams are made of - the elusive Dugast whale foreskin 320 threads per inch casing. 
Equally too I began to receive offers from generous locals offering all kinds of services from bike cleaning, to applying warm towels to the back of my neck, to the use of a van and even a teenager who is trying to find me some sponsorship for shoes and sunglasses. So it has been an overwhelming few weeks. The publicity eventually attracted the attentions of Los Pedalos Cycling Team, who are being extremely helpful and supplying me with two Focus Mares cyclocross bikes, a stack of tubular wheels and tyres, and lots of their kit. Also they have begun to wear moustaches at the races, and further fuelled the growing hairy support club that has inched its way into the fray. I am extremely grateful for all this help, and it has been very humbling. Having a second bike means I will now be able to continue to race when I crash my bike or it just gets full of mud, as it is likely to do given the conditions that I will be racing in more and more from now. I have set up a Fundme site for donations, for financial help to go towards my campaign over here in Belgium, in which I plan to take on the nearby World Cups, and to take me through to and literally over to the World Championships in America in February. It is a long and increasingly cold season, but the reception I've had here has been warm and embracing.

People are constantly cheering me on at races, giving me thumbs up and words of encouragement and congratulations after races, and they even get excited about taking a photo of me! I am just as excited about all of this, and am looking forward to a great continuation of what has been so far the most unusual yet also encouraging and genuinely exciting time of my life.

Photo: Danny Zelck

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Steenbergcross: A Taste of Pro

On Sunday last weekend at Erpe-Mere I had my first professional cyclocross race. That is to say, my first race against professionals. I was under no illusions of where I stood in relation to them, but I had it further reinforced just how fast being professional really is.

I'd stayed with Darryn and his family at their place in Gent the night before, and he generously offered his services as my race mechanic and officer of transport and logistics. He's done a lot of 'cross races in the past year or two, including some of the World Cups so he knows what it involves. I am still used to leaving home and riding down the road an hour before the start of the race, putting on a number and going for it. As I am finding out, things happen quite differently over in these parts, especially at the big events.

By the time we got to the race, everyone else was there and set up with their faces plastered to the sides of their personal motorhomes, team trucks and marquees. The sponsorship of riders goes from the professionals right down through elite without contract and to juniors. Of course, only the pro's get a salary but the fringe benefits for the others of bikes and equipment, mechanics, team vehicles and race entry combine to cover virtually all the costs of a young cyclist's life.

After sorting out my entry and getting my race numbers (two small ones for my upper arms, one for my back) I rode a few laps of the course. Although everybody was already there, they must have been tucked away in their palatial vehicles warming up on trainers because I hardly saw anyone out on the course. I did see that there was quite a crowd building up, keen to be part of the first A grade cyclocross race of the season. With around 5,000 spectators it's certainly not as big as some of the races later in the year will be, but as a first look at the top Belgian riders and my first experience of a race with fans (not just family members and friends!) I thought it seemed like a pretty big crowd.

I have written about the race on my new section of the Spoke Magazine blog which I will be contributing to on a weekly basis now. In an effort to avoid treading on my own toes and repeating myself however, I'll be looking for different aspects to comment on here.

One person who I recognised when I got there was this man, consulting with his mechanics just before the start of the race (probably having .125 of a PSI added into his rear tyre).

The consumate professional: Niels Albert
As is standard for these races, all the riders gather in a starting pen just off the main start/finish straight. From here riders are called up to the starting line in the order they are ranked based on the international UCI points that they have. For these early races it is based on last season's points, and although I earned 60 points from my 2nd place at the NZCX National Champs back in July in Napier, it was considered out of season for the northern hemisphere racing calendar, and won't apply until this coming January. So it was unsurprising that I found myself called up dead last, taking my spot about 4 rows behind the above World Champion.

The course for this race was quite different to the others I've done so far. The Dutch word for cyclocross is veldrijden, literally field riding. That is basically what the B-grade courses have been so far - flat grassy dusty sandy off-road criteriums, straight from the gun, full spead ahead. I had been told that the A-grade courses are nicer, more interesting and typically more challenging. Erpe-Mere definitely fitted this description, with the usual flat early section punctuated by corners and a couple of barriers leading into the forest, and with it a big mix of terrain. It has been very dry the whole time I've been here, with only a few days of rain in nearly two months. However there was a small section of sticky, slightly boggy mud that somehow managed to survive through the drought of summer intact. I don't know how it did this, but it made for a good spot for spectating: deep ruts that are fine if you can follow, but as soon as your balance leads you off to either side it can end in spectacular fashion. As was the case for several riders in front of me on the first lap, and again later on.

We then headed up and down several very short and very steep slopes, with tight corners between them. It was really important to carry as much speed as possible down the ramps in order to make it back up the next one, but it was a hairy business what with the combined elements of the angle of the corners, them being off-camber in parts, and very dry and dusty. I was glad to have practised the course a few times over as part of my warm up for the race, so I was able to anticipate the necessary manoeuvres. This being said, when someone crashes in front of you at the apex of a corner, there's not a lot you can do to avoid getting held up.

My favourite aspect of this race was definitely the supporters that lined the course all the way around, but particularly in several key spots. It is traditional for the fans and public to come along, pay around €5 to enter the course zone, then spend the afternoon drinking beer and getting progressively more rowdy as the day goes on. A lot of them are just families out for a day spectating or following their favourite cyclocross star, but a lot of them are groups hell-bent on getting really into it and moving around the course cheering like mad, seemingly with a penchant for extra encouragement towards underdogs or foreign novelties such as myself.

There was a long bumpy corner after we came down back out of the trees that lead into the finishing straight, where one particularly enthusiastic group were located. I could hear them from quite far off calling out my name, in various forms - Alex, Alexander, Nieuw Zeelander - and the closer I got the more manic their fanaticism became. After I had passed, and been through the home straight, the course looped back around and they would all rush across to the next section to repeat their chanting and bellowing. I couldn't take the smile off my face riding around hearing it, so much encouragement, and it gave me so much energy!

The other section where the crowd were really going off their trolleys was a section of two very steep ramps one after the other, with a bike-length between of flat. This was absolute brain-haemorragingly steep material, accelerating as much as possible into it, then super low cadence pedalling trying not to have your rear wheel skid or your foot unclip. A few times through here I was alongside another rider, and the shouting was completely defeaning.

After the race I had a few people come up to me and sort of hover around, not always saying much. Others directly spoke to me, and wanted to know more about why I was here and what was cyclocross like in New Zealand. When Darryn and I were getting ready to go, a big group of teenage boys came over and asked me for autographs. They didn't have pens or paper, so when I found a pen all there was for me to sign was various limbs and bits of skin. It was a bit weird, but I appreciated being humoured for my celebrity status. I definitely need to work on a more pro signature, and something that incoporates my biggest drawcard, this big hairy thing between my mouth and nose.

I couldn't help but enjoy the celebrity status I gained that day, however genuine it all was. According to Darryn it will get to the point where I'm sick of it because I won't be able to go anywhere without people stopping me all the time, not ideal in the middle of winter when you're wet and muddy and need to change clothes. But for now I'll let myself indulge a little, happily using distance from home over podium spots to get my fan base going.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Double up at Wiekevorst

After my Belgian cyclocross debut at Zemst-Hofstade on Saturday, my appetite was whetted for another day out in the sun, riding around frantically chasing other people in the dust. I was fortunate this time around to be able to get a ride in the morning with the cousin of a friend of my brother - despite the long-winded link, they were a family of the loveliest sort.

They had come from the complete other side of the country, on the coast near the border with France. They were coming quite far out of their way to get me, so I met them at the motorway on/off ramp for Enghien and after slotting my bike into the back of the truck, alongside Wim and Tibo's various cyclocross machines, we set the Navman GPS to Wiekevorst and made haste while the sun was shining.

I got changed and rode around the course with the guys in preparation for their races, which were both earlier in the day than mine. This course was somewhat similar to the day before, but with more variation. Several very dry grassy straights were punctuated by hairpin turns which then lead in to forested singletrack, again with a very sandy base.

Tibo got off to a flier

Wim shooting the breeze
There were a couple of sand pits to negotiate, basically long trenches where you just had to hold the straightest line possible to avoid succumbing to the speed-thirsty bog. Sometimes I hit them perfectly, almost floating along at full speed. Other times I almost stopped dead, my wheel pushing a wave of sand ahead of me like a front-end loader.

As both their races were over by 2pm, my friends were heading back home. My race wasn't until 3.15 so I wouldn't have wanted them to stay and wait just for me to be finished. I got changed into my race mode vestments, enjoying the cool of the back of the truck for a moment longer before bidding them farewell.

I chatted with a young guy as we warmed up, who told me the field today was pretty big and featured some strong riders. Apparently it's quite common, especially early in the season, for roadies and other semi-crossers to come along to the Sunday races and attempt to snaffle the top spots against the true cyclocrossers who have raced already the day before. I wasn't too concerned by this, mainly my goal was to improve on yesterday's 24th place, preferably making the top-20 as the small amount of prize money would help fund the train ride home.

The sun was absolutely roasting us on the start line, with a high of over 30º.  I had the good fortune to be called up early, as after riders with UCI points were seeded it was ordered randomly by drawing lots. Although I earned 60 points at the national champs in July, because they were considered out of season they will count from January 1st 2013, which is roughly the time of the northern hemisphere national championships. I was the first to line up in the second row, so settled myself in behind the national champ. There were maybe 12 in the front row, and 55 starters in total in the race. The commissaire reeled off a set of instructions in Dutch first, then in French and lastly said "and for our New Zealand friend..." then repeated himself in English. There was a bit of laughter and a few cheeky comments such as just follow everyone else. I played along with the banter, but I laughed last because I'd understood him the first time and the second time too.

It was a good thing he reminded us all of the direction of the first corner, because by the time we got to it we were motoring along at 40-50km an hour. He'd said that the first lap will turn left at the end of the straight, but from then on the course turns right. I had a bad start, with my right foot coming unclipped immediately (again - this is something to sort out!) so I all but lost my early advantage, having to get back up to speed as I became immersed in a wave of whirring, buzzing carbon and tubulars. As I came up to the corner I found a traffic island I hadn't expected right in front of me, as another rider suddenly moved to the side ahead. I haven't practiced bunny hops on my cross bike for some time, not since I messed one up last year and the nose of my saddle attempted to perforate my backside. I didn't have any choice, so just gave it everything and managed to get over it cleanly and make it into the corner without drama.

The next series of grassy straights and hairpin corners was crucial to securing a good spot going into the sandy singletrack, which extended the line of riders out to twice its former length. I took a photo of the junior race at this point, which appears to have some of them racing head on against others.

I felt like I was about mid-way through the pack, and generally held this position through the race. I made a couple of mistakes early on which cost me a few places, and I dropped my chain on a remount about halfway through, causing me to stop to get it back on. But I was feeling good and continued to progress through the field. As we neared the end and the lap count neared 1 I was still a good way off being caught by the front of the field. After a somewhat narrow escape from being lapped the day before, I was very keen to ensure that didn't happen again. As it was so hot people were able to have drink bottles handed to them in the technical zone. I should have thought about this and found someone to help me, but as I didn't I had to grit my teeth and grind my way through with dusty mouth and throat as others sipped the sweet nectar held aloft for them in passing. I had drunk quite a bit before the race, so I felt alright, but I did start to cave in a little towards the end.

Coming through into the bell lap I approached the following right-hand bend as I had every other lap, but this time didn't clear my rear wheel over the curb sufficiently going into the singletrack. It made quite a bump, and I cursed, fearing the worst. Sure enough, a couple of seconds later I heard the roaring hiss of a tyre going flat! I carried on stubbornly for the next section of singletrack, trying in vain to keep the dream alive. Thinking about my rims and my lovely tyres, I reconsidered staying on my bike and instead hopped off and ran alongside for a few hundred metres. I then picked it up and ran with it over my shoulder for a while, then walked, then stopped and ambled my way to the finish line.

It was a very frustrating way to have to end the race, especially as I'd been feeling strong. Relative to others from the previous day's effort I was ahead of where I had been, and based on who was in front of me when I punctured I was in around 24th place again, although this time the field had been significantly larger. As it was I finished 32nd, so I was pretty happy with that. The position I was in before the puncture and having had a race the previous day has given me confidence that I'm going to be able to make some good progress over here. These may be the easiest races that I will do, but I'm sure my progress will be even more rapid when I am pitted against the best in the world over the next few months! Starting this weekend, in Erpe-Mere on Sunday.

As I was now alone after the race, I set about hunting down a generous person to give me a lift to the nearest train station. After approaching a couple of people with no luck, I started to face the fact that I might have to sort out my puncture and ride the 20km or so before beginning the long haul three train combo back home. It turned out I actually had a slow leak puncture in my front tyre too, and an hour later it was also flat. Fortunately the next family I approached had room in their van for me and my bike, and were going towards Mechelen, the perfect place for me to hop onto one of the regular trains to Brussels. They set me up a comfy, although perhaps not especially secure, throne in the back:

Stijn and his twin brother were great company for the drive back to Mechelen, and I am most appreciative to them and their father for helping me out. I invited them over to New Zealand for a cross race or two, so if they get sick of summer next year they may well pop over.

Again after this race, as after the day before's, I found myself feeling really good and excited about being here despite having ridden myself into the ground two days in a row. I've had a less enjoyable week since then, suffering from the bites of what must have been a bunch of fleas or something that found their way into my bed. I counted 50 bites all over my body the other day, and it's made it almost impossible to sleep at night. Combined with a pretty cold week (the temperature has been hovering at around 15º) with rain on several of my rides, it's been a glimpse I think of the winter that awaits just around the corner. On Sunday I will be lining up against professionals, so my main goal will be to not come last. If I can manage that then the next step will be to try and stay in the race to the last lap. It sounds like the course has a bit of hill in it, and as it's been raining it might slow things down and let me stay in the race for a bit longer. We'll see. I'm excited about it and looking forward to doing what I can at what is sure to be a slick event. I'm heading to Gent this afternoon to stay with Darryn tonight, and he's generously offered to be my mechanic for the day tomorrow at the race.

Here we go folks!

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

True Cyclocross, Belgian Style

This weekend marked the beginning of the official getting down to business stage of my expedition here in Belgium. Despite having been here for a month now, September has only recently arrived and so with it the cyclocross season. After missing out on the race I planned to do last weekend, I double dipped this time and had one on each of Saturday and Sunday.

I have one or two items to catch up on before all that though, so let's go back to where I last left off. I was making arrangements to enter the professional road race Stadsprijs Geraardsbergen, on August 29. I had called the organisers and although all the wildcard entries had been given out, someone had broken their leg or something and therefore a spot had come available which I could have. All I needed to do was fill in the PDF entry form and then turn up a bit earlier the next day. I got so excited by this, and even though I knew it would be nothing short of a miracle if I could stay in the race for any real length of time, I was looking forward to lining up against the liniment-infused professional slickness.

Alas I got an email back later that day with the sad news informing me that I would need to either be on a professional New Zealand team to enter, or failing that, have a Belgian license. As I meet neither of these conditions it was with no small amount of disappointment and confusion that I eventually ceded to the reality of it not happening. I felt ripped off because my letter of introduction from BikeNZ says that I can enter any race under the (UCI) sun. I don't imagine this includes the Tour de France, which I can understand, so it shouldn't really say any race. This was admittedly a race for professionals, but it isn't UCI-ruled so I thought that would make it easier for me to enter, but maybe that meant they can make their own rules. Either way, I went along with my camera and enjoyed the atmosphere as much as I could from the sidelines. Not as much as this guy was enjoying his ice cream sandwich though. I marvelled at his technique, while surreptitiously capturing the moment. He's clearly done it before.

Ice-cream tongue
I went up to the top of the Kappelmuur to watch as the race passed over it on the last lap, getting up close to the riders in such a way that I could manage comfortably despite the repeated attacks.

Viral product placement

After the riders had all been through, I observed a bunch of drunk guys half running/half sliding and tripping down the steep grass bank from the chapel. They were making a beeline for a young female journalist from Het Laatste Nieuws, one of the local newspapers. They saw me standing there with my bike and called me over to join them. Not sure quite what I was in for I went over to them and found that they wanted to set up a photo of them cheering from both sides of the road as I passed through them. I was happy to oblige, and they started chanting "Freddy! Freddy! Freddy!" Not quite sure where they came up with that name, but it was a lot of fun. They asked me about my trip and what I'm doing here, and I explained along with the details of my non-participation in the race. I then spoke to the journalist for a while and she took some more photos of me and my bike. I haven't been able to get copies of any of these yet, but I'll put them up when I do. I rode back home feeling much happier about things, and looking forward to the first 'cross race of the season that coming weekend.

It was at a place called Kessel, South-East of Antwerp and a little bit remote. I had my bike all ready, and had made a lunch to take with me. I caught the train at 10 in the morning, heading for Brussels. After a short wait there I changed to the Antwerpen Centraal connection,  and then waited for another half an hour or so for the local line. After about 2.5 hours on three trains I rode the 10 or so minutes from the station to the race course, and was greeted enthusiastically by a young guy from the host club. He paraded me around and to the official tent, whereby I was asked to produce my license - ....oops! In all the times I've had my license on hand at races only to not be asked to present it, this time despite my organisational diligence I had managed to take the wrong wallet and leave the one with my cards in it at home. No amount of gesticulation or conflagration of emotion would suffice to assuade the official's officious will. So I moped around dejectedly for a couple of hours watching jealously as the mid-teenagers and juniors raced their hearts out, eating my lunch and drinking my lightly salted sugary race drink. I had a quick ride around the course when there was a beak between races, then headed back to the station to begin the trip home, arriving at last at 7pm.

I made myself get over the disappointment, and chalked it up to futureproofing my routine from now on - much better that I should do it now at the very beginning than at a later stage and risk missing a World Cup or something monumental like that.

Despite it having been about two weeks since I had broken the spoke on my rear wheel, I still hadn't managed to find anyone who could help me fix it. I asked several shops, but all came back with the same answer, that it was an unusual spoke and they could only buy them in boxes of 100 and seeing I only wanted a couple it wasn't worth it. This was obviously a rather unsatisfying response, but one I had half expected. I was fortunate to be lent a spare one in the interim, by the local shop here in Enghien called Action Bike. I didn't really like the idea of racing on a borrowed wheel, not cyclocross anyway.

A few weeks ago Darryn put me onto a great website here in Belgium called Wielerbond Vlaanderen which is basically the region's cycling website. It lists the whole calendar for the year in all disciplines, so as you can imagine in a country such as this, that is a mighty accomplishment. Scrolling through it, there are just races every day all over the country. As a replacement for the missed 'cross race, I had a look at what was on offer during the week on the road. Lo and behold there was one very close by on Monday evening, a kermis in Denderwindeke. I headed up the road towards Ninove and signed in, being sure to have both my international license and letter of introduction on hand. The sign-in was successful, and I was greeted with a mixture of surprise and good-natured derision at my presence so far from home. The hub of the evening was the local pub, which had set up an outdoor bar in the carpark, serving beer and frites to the crowd of locals enjoying the warm late summer evening. The organising crew were predominantly older gentlemen with haughty paunches and prodigious smoking habits, giving off a hazy air of insouciance. However at the slightest request they were quick to help out. One drove home to get me some pins for my jersey race number, while another sought some zip ties to attach my bike's number. I rode a couple of laps of the course, then settled in for the start.

It was super fast straight from the gun, as the race was only about 70km long. It looped around a 5km circuit, the first half of which headed up a slight incline on a rather broken up road - large plates of concrete that inevitably start to separate over time. Then it flattened out, and was smooth until the final run to the start/finish over some very gentle cobbles. I was breathing pretty hard immediately, but able to stay near the front and respond to the fluctuations in speed every few seconds.

Accelerating out of a corner on the second lap I heard a loud unpleasant noise from behind me, or was that beneath me? A light tinkling sound continued for the next 10 or so seconds, then it fell silent. There were lots of us all close together going as hard as we could so it was impossible to tell where the noise came from, but I had a bad feeling about it. Sure enough, on the next corner the noise struck again and my heart fell as I looked down to see a broken spoke in my rear wheel. I stopped to pull it out, and undo my brake as it was rubbing. To say I was upset would be somewhat of an understatement, but it was largely a feeling of disbelief that overwhelmed me. I gingerly made my way through to the finish line, trying to avoid all bumps in the road. After handing in my number I took my deposit (this is standard protocol, pay €10 to enter and get €5 back when you return the race number) and headed for home, gently making my way along the cycle path for the 10km back to Enghien.

Things hadn't been going well for me lately, and I was understandably upset. Admittedly some of it had been my fault, but largely it was bad luck. After an evening of disillusionment and questioning of my resolve along with my reasons for being here, I put myself to bed, hoping to do the same to this unfortunate run of affairs. Like it or not I did come here of my own volition, so I'd better get my head around that. All I could do was redouble my efforts to solve the various problems I felt like I faced. Either that or learn to manual on my front wheel very comprehensively.

The next day I took the borrowed wheel back into the shop, found a correct spoke (it was easy as it was a common one) and trued it up like new. The owner was happy for me to keep using it, so thankfully I wasn't without a bike as well for the foreseeable future. In the meantime I had been to another shop 15km away to enquire about a spoke for my wheel, and the mechanic informed me he could get one and would call me when it came in. A few days later I still hadn't heard so I went out there again and he had gone on holiday, and the boss indicated that it wasn't possible to get the spoke. Feeling somewhat aggrieved now back at square one, I was about to give up hope when I went past one last bike shop on the way home. This one had generally looked closed when I'd peeked in before, so I hadn't paid too much attention in passing. However once inside, and especially once I'd met the mechanic, I knew I'd come to the right place. He looked at the wheel and nodded, saying "I think I can fix that now."

About three or four spokes later Gregory, the mechanic, had successfully managed to cut and re-thread a replacement one. He installed it and after what seemed like about one minute in the truing stand it was done. I stayed on for a while chatting with him, and it turns out he has done a lot of mechanical work for the United States cyclocross team in the past. He doesn't have too much planned for this season, so if things go well I could have a cool guy and a highly competent mechanic helping me out a bit.

So it seemed the tide was turning in my favour at last, and I now had my own wheels back and a double weekend of cyclocross races to get stuck into. I hadn't intended all that preamble to be quite so long, so bear with me here. This is the exciting bit now anyway.

It's a heartbeat, beat street.

Candles of flowers?
Here I was now in Belgium, at my first cyclocross race. Finally I had made it! It was again a bit of a mission getting there, but only two train rides each way this time, with a 5-10km ride from the station to the course. The location was Zemst-Hofstade, a cool name if ever I heard one. It was already about 25º at 11am, and it showed on the course. High speed sections on dry grass with plenty of dust and a very loose and extraordinarily bumpy section through a sandy forest was the order of the day.

Smoking and eating hamburgers not prohibited on the course

Any semblance of a tree root must be highlighted!

There was a race starting just as I got there, kids aged about 12 - 15 by the looks of it. It's quite a different dynamic to that of New Zealand. Still a more relaxed community when compared to the road racing crowd, but so much more competitive over here. Even for these kids, check out the video of the start:

Just what was I going to be up against if that's how they race at half my age?

Rooster, bro!

When I had signed in and got my number, I was relaxing in the shade outside having some food when a guy came up to me and asked me if I was the Kiwi entered in the race. Not one to deny these universal truths, I acknowledged the attribute and asked him about himself. He said he was an Aussie, but he had quite a German accent, so I was a bit confused. After a bit more conversation I found out his name was Max and he'd spent a number of years in school in Australia, before getting onto a road team there and eventually the Rabobank Continental team. He isn't still on the team, but had always enjoyed including a bit of cyclocross into his schedule.

I started to get a feeling for the quality of the field I was going up against. I'd seen a guy warming up in a Belgian national champion kit, and sure enough that was the national champ of my grade - elite zonder contract (elite without contract). He looked quite a bit like Niels Albert. I rode a couple of laps with Max, then got changed and headed to the start line.

I was called up somewhere near the end, which had me sitting in the 4th row, each with about 10-15 people across. It was frantic, boisterous, and everyone wanted to be at the front. I unclipped on my second pedal stroke, so by the time I got back up to speed I had a good bit of space between everyone else and me. This is not ideal, as nice as it sounds. As soon as the course narrowed and wound through a few corners and up over a steep but very short mound, people were off their bikes running around each other, desperately taking any opportunity to get past at this early stage.

Several laps in, grinning the grin
I managed to sneak through a gap that appeared at the edge of the course just as people were remounting, gaining about 4 or 5 places in the process. I then had to set about sustaining this pace, or close to it, for the next hour. Although I'd ridden through the wooded section a few times, everything is harder when you are in oxygen debt, in particular technically demanding sections. We haven't had many races on sand in NZ, but this whole section was dry mush, and so it was that I proceeded to ride through it in a very erratic fashion. I came off at least 4 or 5 times in the first few laps, having passed riders just before, only to have them pass me again each time. I did eventually start to find a rythym, and just paid more attention to riding smoothly and not over-braking. The sand tends to slow you down as is, and any extra braking force just upsets the line of your wheels and throws your weight around unpredictably.

I definitely noticed the benefit of my trying to maintain a steady consistent pace and control through the sand, as I began catching back up and passing others. I also put this down to the large amount of riding I've been doing in the past month or so. While I might not have had the explosive power and intensity of the top half of the field, I felt like I could keep this pace up with only the requisite amount of pain and discomfort. It was my first race, and with a long season ahead of me speed will come - I'm not in any hurry to crack into my top form just yet - especially if it means I cave in towards the peak of the season, when I'm really up against the big boys.

On my last couple of laps I could tell that the race leader was approaching, due to the spidery nature of the course through the trees. I really tried to put everything I had into these last laps, mainly to avoid getting lapped, but also to see how it felt. Beneath the sand the ground was extremely corrugated, with moguls about the length of bicycle wheels. It was incredibly hard to ride through; too much bouncing to be able to pedal effectively, and you couldn't rest on the saddle for all the bouncing. It was mainly hard work on my lower back, fortunately though the rest of the course was on grass and provided adequate time to stretch it out and recuperate.
Even further in, somewhat less of a grin

I wasn't sure what place I was in, but I knew it was pretty close to the back. Some riders were pulling out, coasting along as I passed them. It was very hot, so everybody was getting a drink bottle hand-up at the feed zone each lap. I'd drunk quite a bit before the race so was feeling ok, apart from having a face and mouth full of dust.

When eventually I made it to the finish line, I stopped to acknowledge the guys I had been racing against, then carried on to warm down. Although I'd given it everything on my final laps, I was feeling good and found myself smiling, thinking about how cool it is to be here doing this. There's a lot more where that came from, so it's just as well!

Back on the train home I was looking out the window as we approached Brussels North station, and I saw what I thought were mannekins down below behind a window on the street level, until one of them moved and was talking to bunch of men outside! I thought it was a typically Amsterdam thing, but apparently not. Perhaps not quite as sophisticated though.

I was home in time to clean my bike and my person, have something to eat and then more or less go to bed in preparation for another day racing in the sun on Sunday. It was a great feeling to have uncorked the bottle and tasted a little 'cross, and I felt the successful day out had vindicated my effort to maintain a positive attitude after a recent rough patch.

The next day was at Wiekevorst, which is in the same area but even less accessible as the nearest train station was about 20km away. I was anxious to see how I went in back-to-back days of racing, but I'll write more about that in the coming days.