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:

video

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.

6 comments:

  1. "The organising crew were predominantly older gentlemen with haughty paunches and prodigious smoking habits, giving off a hazy air of insouciance." This is gold standard evocative writing, Alex. Sorry to hear about your travails, but I figure you knew some were inevitable, and I'm very glad to hear that you are having great experiences to go along with the less great. I just wish I was there holding some spare wheels for you...Keep the faith, brother.

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  2. Freddy could be a reference to 1976 world champ, Belgian Freddy Maertens. Or maybe they were simply calling you a fred. Surely the former.
    Pedal on.

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  3. Jonty and Myself were discussing this "Gold standard evocative writing" and figured it a by-product of substance abuse !

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  4. 08/09/2012
    08/09/2012 ZEMST-HOFSTADE (VB)
    Veldrijden form. B
    Technische gegevens
    60´ - 620 EUR. - I: Chalet Verbroedering Hofstade, Ossebeemden, Hofstade (015613479). - U: 08:30/14:15/15:15 - K: Verbroedering Hofstade - Contact: Jean Schoovaerts, Leuvensesteenweg 217, 3190 Boortmeerbeek (Tel.: 0476992023) (jean.schoovaerts@skynet.be)
    Veldrijden form B
    AANTAL DEELNEMERS: 38
    1
    HOFMAN Joeri
    KDL CYCLINGTEAM
    0
    2
    CANT Kevin
    PRIMATOR CYCLING TEAM

    3
    VERSCHUEREN Bart
    KDL CYCLINGTEAM

    4
    HOFMAN Bart
    AFDELING OOST-VLAANDEREN WBV - VZW

    5
    VAN GREMBERGEN Kendric
    CYCLING TEAM SOENENS-CONSTRUKT GLAS

    6
    BEELEN Sven
    SUNWEB-REVOR

    7
    UYTDEWILLIGEN Ingmar
    MELBOTECH PRORACE CT

    8
    HUYS Stijn
    ORANGE BABIES

    9
    DE KORT Tom
    DE KASTELSE DURVERS V.Z.W.

    10
    BAELEN Pedro
    CYCLINGCHAMPS

    11
    BOSSUYT Matthias
    SUNWEB-REVOR

    12
    VAN ZEEBROECK Jan
    A.S.B. PAREIN-ROGELLI CYCLING TEAM

    13
    LAPERE Kris
    MEZ TEAM BELGIUM SNELLEGEM

    14
    PASCAL Adrien
    AC BAZANCOURT REIMS

    15
    MELLEMANS Jeffrey
    HEYLEN MEUBELCENTRALE ZLWC ST.TRUIDEN

    16
    RISBOURG Raf
    KDL CYCLINGTEAM

    17
    VEESTRAETEN Sieën
    SPORT EN STEUN - LEOPOLDSBURG

    18
    PEPERMANS Lorenzo
    CYCLING TEAM ZEMST VZW

    19
    MAES Kenny
    DE TOEKOMSTVRIENDEN BAAL

    20
    DE SCHUYTER Tim
    C.T. KEUKENS BUYSSE KNESSELARE

    21
    VERHEYEN Onno
    W.A.C. TEAM HOBOKEN (KON.) V.Z.W.

    22
    VISPOEL Bryan
    ASFRA RACING TEAM

    23
    GIELEN Stijn
    DE DIJLESPURTERS V.V. MECHELEN V.Z.W.

    24
    REVELL Alexander
    PORT NICHOLSON PONEKE CYCLING CLU

    25
    GAUDY Cédric
    THE BARRACUDA COMPANY

    26
    DEBACQUER Joris
    ISOREX CYCLING TEAM

    27
    DIRIKX Niels
    SPORT EN STEUN - LEOPOLDSBURG

    28
    LAHAYE Rutger
    MELBOTECH PRORACE CT

    29
    SMETS Sibe
    K.W.C. HEIST ZUIDERKEMPEN V.Z.W.

    30
    VAN GIELS Lars
    W.A.C. TEAM HOBOKEN (KON.) V.Z.W.

    31
    KOCKAERTS Jorne
    MELBOTECH PRORACE CT

    32
    JANSSENS Joachim
    CYCLINGTEAM DDT-STAS

    997
    DE GRAEF Neals
    W.A.C. TEAM HOBOKEN (KON.) V.Z.W.

    997
    THIELEMANS Mike
    TEAM-THIELEMANS & CO

    997
    OOMS Niels
    DE KASTELSE DURVERS V.Z.W.

    997
    NUYES Wouter
    K. EDEGEM BICYCLE CLUB - BMX RACING TEAM VZW

    997
    DE WIT Edwin
    KON. W.C. DE RUPELSPURTERS BOOM

    997
    PODSCHUN Max
    RG BSV HAMBURG

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great stuff Alex! Good on you for giving adversity a bit of a kick in the arse. Can't wait to read about Sunday. And, I'm going to have to dig out my thesaurus!
      JR

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  5. Hi Alex,

    Can you send me an e-mail? tomdekoster@hotmail.com
    I have some questions for you, for the Dutch cyclingnewssite, www.wielrenwereld.com

    Thx, Tom

    ReplyDelete