Sunday, 12 August 2012

Kermesse Success

Today I had my baptism into the world of Belgian cycling, by racing my first kermesse. If you don't know what this means, it's basically a road race that is a bit like a larger-scale criterium. Typically run around a course with multiple laps, today's was 20 x 4.5km laps to make 90km.

This morning I woke up a bit late, having found a way to put the curtain up successfully in the room I'm staying in. This was initially a good thing because it meant I could sleep without a room full of light, and in the morning sleep in past about 6.30 when the light returned. However I didn't count on it being so hot last night, and the mosquitoes buzzing in my ears so it took a while to actually get to sleep. Anyway, as interesting as all that is it just meant I had to hurry a bit to get to my surrogate family's holiday house for lunch, a 45 minute bike ride away.

Summertime in Quenast
After a perfect but all too brief summer lunch, I jumped back onto the bike to head another half hour to Hennuyères, where my friend Michel lives, nestled in the trees with some of the area's best trails just up the road. He was ready to go when I arrived, so we headed along to Seneffe for the race.

The day before I had decided to invest in some road tyres, partly to save my really expensive cyclocross tyres, and also partly to be able to keep up. I'm not a very experienced road racer by any means, I can probably count all the races I've done on my hands. So it was with some trepidation that I paid my €10 and got my number for the day.

Michel had told me that this race was organised by a sort of pirate league, who aren't so rigorous with checking licenses and observing other rules such as previous convictions for doping. So you'll understand doubly so why I was unsure quite what to expect. I needn't have worried though, what with the Yeti in road-mode.

Almost fitted in with the competition's machines
When we were on the start line, Michel exclaimed that it was a shame that the field was small, as it wouldn't be so good for him. I turned around and couldn't see anything but greased-up shaved legs and carbon fibre for a hundred or so metres behind me. What was he talking about? The only race I've been to with more people than that might be the Taupo cycle challenge. He'd also said it would probably be "à bloc" from the gun, so I was prepared to put my cyclocross start into action and give it heaps.

However this didn't really happen, and the first lap was somewhat tame. A few people shouted and grunted and nuzzled their bums into my handlebars, but in all it was not as raw and aggressive as I had been expecting. I wasn't especially disappointed about it, as the prospect of big meaty embrocated Belgians salivating at my nervousness and just waiting to torment me hadn't exactly filled me with confidence. But I did feel like a little bit of a cheapskate, getting a somewhat easy run. Saying that though, the racing was still tough and there were plenty of moments where I was forced into the gutter or gravel.

It was unseasonably hot, possibly 25-30º (even thought it's the middle of summer, it surprised everyone) and I only had one drink bottle, a small muesli bar and a gel. I tried to ration all of the above, but after one bite the bar was gone and I had got through about 3/4 of the water by halfway. I did manage to hold out taking the gel until after an hour of riding, and helped by the caffeine it picked me up no insignificant amount.

They had mixed B and A grades together, with A doing 3 more laps after B finished. As we neared the end of the B grade countdown, we got their bell lap and the pace picked up. Everyone from both races was totally interspersed at this point, so I figured it best to just stay going with the majority of people. As we rounded the final bend and the sprint wound up I took it easy back behind. I was wondering what would happen when they finished, would they all go to the one side, would they carry on riding, would it be chaos with some people stopping on the left, some on the right, some just coasting down the middle of the road and others carrying on racing despite having finished their race and sporting a yellow number pertaining to the B grade race? Well, it was largely the chaos option. Some people pulled over to one side, others to the other, while most coasted and then stuck an indicator arm out just as they were being passed. I somehow managed to wend my way through them all unscathed but causing, I think, a few yelps and other typically French exclamations of alarm.

As our laps counted down I was waiting for the pace to heat up, but it never really did. It did seem to however, but this was mainly due to me reaching the end of my tether, the fog of hypoglycaemia taking me into its arms and stifling me against its abundant and exhaustive bosom. It was a slightly sad way to end what had otherwise been a race I was quite proud of - I'd given it a few goes on the front, off the front into a break briefly, and now just as we started the last lap found myself again off the front, only this time in the less desirable direction.

I rolled my way around, and crossed the line no less proud to be dead last. The way I saw it, the competition was probably equal to some of the big races in NZ, in which I haven't always been able to finish. I also figured some people probably pulled out, so I bet them and therefore wasn't really last at all. Whatever the case, after 90km in just over 2 hours, thus an average of almost 45km per hour, I was suitably wrecked.

That's not supposed to look like a smile
Nobody else there had a sculpted moustache, or italian design sunglasses that I could tell. Or a cross bike either for that matter. So there were definitely a few positives to take from this first competitive outing. The most positive thing was the awesome Michel giving me a lift back home afterwards, saving me what should have been an hour or two ride, but which would have probably turned into a lifetime of vagabondism in the Belgian forest struggling to recall who I was and how I got wherever it was that I found myself.

I've got a weekend in Gent planned for next week, visiting fellow Kiwi Darryn Medhurst in his Flandrian home town. He's been doing a bit of cyclocross in these parts for a while now, so is going to fill me in on the business, and we'll go for a few rides together in that part of the country. After that it'll be only a couple more weeks until the 'cross races begin, and I can't wait.


  1. vagabondism is a great word! Well done Alex!

  2. Great stuff, you neo-Flandrien!

  3. Glad your lurgi is gone. You don't sound so flemish... A good start!

  4. Meaty salivating Belgians,watch those dodgy buggers.
    Good stuff, always great to read about others suffering.
    Rock on

  5. There is no way those shades were designed in Italy dude.

  6. Great reading keep up the words.

  7. Hi Alex,
    Great to read your most entertaining and informative account of your trials and tribulations in Belgium so far. I am hooked already and look forward to the forthcoming episodes (sorry, posts...). By the end of your adventure, I imagine I will have gained a great insight into the world of cycling. I can't wait to shelve your book at WCL. Will it be in the 796.6 or the 914.93? That is the cataloguing question...
    Love the pictures too! I see the handlebar is growing nicely.