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|
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|
|Photo: Andy Foncke|
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 Sporza.be and Wielertoerist.be 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.|
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|