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|
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:
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!