There’s still time this season to take the plunge and go racing in Belgium. The racing is faster, you can rub shoulders with the best in the world, and the fans can make you feel like cycling royalty (briefly).
Below is some advice to help you compete in your first Belgian cyclocross race, but first something for all the family to enjoy.
This is a fun bit of riding for you and your kids on some of the course of an international cyclocross race. Riders are accompanied and helped by former professionals like Rudy de Bie and Roland Liboton. It’s free, includes free entry to the event and you get preferential parking. For the Koppenbergcross there is even a police escort down closed roads from the town centre. Here’s a link to register for the upcoming Soudal Classic event in Leuven.
[Above] The Koppenbergcross jeugdinitiatie.
Deciphering the calendar
The race calendar is on the website of Belgian Cycling www.belgiancycling.be (link to calendar). This includes both international (shaded rows and with the giveaway ‘Int’ codes) and local events (white rows).
[Above] Snippet from 2016/17 Belgian cyclocross calendar.
The local events may be part of a series (just like here, but there are fewer of them) and most of the international events are counters for series too (DVV Trofee, Soudal Classics, Brico Cross, Superprestige, World Cup).
Assuming you’re not entering a World Cup, there are two main categories of international events for men (heren): CL 1, and CL 2. It really doesn’t matter much if it is a CL 1 or 2, the best riders in the world will be there. There are international races for women (dames)- Int.Dam, U23 – Int.U23, juniors – IntJun and usually a race for U16s too – Nwl (short for nieuwlingen).
The courses for international events are often extremely challenging (one of the great things about racing in Belgium). Although the races are very fast at the sharp end, it is ok to go and have a try. From what I’ve seen, I would suggest trying to get to a nieuwlingen race rather than waiting to go to a junior race the next year, as the standard really ramps up.
You can’t enter a men’s elite international race in Belgium unless you are a professional rider or one of the best amateurs or, conveniently for us, not Belgian. The race organisers will actually be pleased to see you, as they need to have at least five international riders to be able to run a CL 1 race the following year. Indeed for some races, like the Koppenbergcross, they will pay you to race. If you have been doing well at home and have some points from our UCI CL 2 races (the National Trophy Series), they may pay you more money.
Entering an international event is very straightforward. You go to this link and click on the link just below ‘ONLINE INSCHRIJVEN’. This page has an English tab, so you should be fine. If you’re entering an elite race, when filling out the form you will probably be ‘Elite Zonder Contract’ (elite without contract’, i.e. not a professional).
On this page you can also see who else has entered the event. It’s quite confusing, with many riders not appearing on these lists, as they have separate contracts with the organisers (I assume that’s the reason anyway). Kevin Pauwels is always on there early though (he must like to have the next month or two clearly laid out – I bet his sock drawer is really tidy too). You actually have until five days before the event to enter.
The start list is not published until (roughly) three days before the event. I get a bit nervous that I’ve booked the train and hotel, but I might have my entry refused at the last minute. It never has been though, and it would still be great to go and watch or do a local race instead.
Very important! To race abroad you need a letter of permission from British Cycling. They will be happy to provide this if you phone them up. I have never been asked for this letter, but keep an A6 copy folded up in my wallet just in case.
Very important! For international races in Belgium your pit crew (up to two people) have to have racing licenses. This is following the incident where a motor was found in the bike of a rider in the U23 women’s World Championship. They now want your mechanics to be identifiable and you to be accountable for their actions. This lead to the hurried and bizarre process of obtaining a UCI racing license for my 70 year old father the day before heading out for the Koppenbergcross. British Cycling will sort this out very quickly. You need ‘Silver’ membership plus a standard racing license. You need the license details for this form (link also in the email confirmation of your entry) that you give in at sign-on.
[Above] UCI approved Dad!
BTW, it doesn’t cost anything to enter the event – they might even pay you. You also get to park close to the course and get in for free. The nerves will destroy your chance of enjoying watching any events on the day before your own though.
These events are described by lots of different codes in the calendar:
- Min – 8 to 11 year olds (Miniemen)
- Asp – 12 to 14 year olds (Aspiranten)
- B – Elite Senior/U23 (Beloften) race
- C – Juniors and U16 (Nieuwlingen)
- D – Amateurs and Masters (lots of categories: U30, 30-34, 35-44, 45-54, 55+)
- Dam – Women (Dames)
- Gentlemen – slightly slower amateur race
For example, the race in the calendar snippet above at Hechtel-Eksel has a race for 12-14s, U16, Juniors and Women.
Once you’ve decided which event you might like to do, you can get more information from this site, which has a searchable calendar (I find the pdf one above a bit easier to plan the season from, and also useful to see which races are coming up to watch on TV).
Search for races in a date range to find the race you want, select it and click on the black button to reveal more coded information.
[Above] Searchable race calendar and route to further details of races
[Above] All the details you need to go to the event!
In the above details we see that:
- the race is 40 minutes long;
- has a prize list of 450€;
- the sign on (Inschriving) is at Kantine Hondenschool, Hoefstraat, 3940 Hechtel-Eksel;
- the sign on opens at 08:30, closes at 14:30 and the race is at 15:00;
- changing facilities are available at FC Hechtel;
- the organiser/contact is Brecht Toelen, Het Steegje 15, 3530 Houthalen (Tel.: 0478905850) (email@example.com);
- there are two races: women (prize fund 250€) and youth women (prize fund 200€).
Events may also have their own website/Facebook page.
You just rock up and enter this type of event on the day. It never hurts to get in touch with the organiser beforehand though.
Where to stay
You can of course really cut costs by going there and back in a day, which is doable if you live in the South East. For races in the Oudenarde region, we’ve enjoyed this place (crazy cycling mad owner). I’ll add more places as we try them!
At the race
Local races are very much like ours, except the organisation is particularly good, there may well be a beer tent, jet washes will likely be provided, and some sections of public road may have been closed for the event.
Pre-ride the course in the gaps between other races as you normally would.
The pace will be blisteringly fast but, like back home, there’s bound to be an adversary around your level.
This is a totally different experience to racing at home. Ostensibly it’s a bit like a National Championsips. For me there were three key differences.
- You get to warm up on the circuit with the pros. Having a chat with Mattheu van der Poel while coasting up the Koppenberg is a memory I’ll keep for a while (he was maybe coasting a little more than me). The pit crew also get to rub shoulders with dad, Adri).
- With cyclocross in Belgium being a bit more like football is here, as a rider you get a lot of attention and respect. Groups of fans watch you warm-up (chatting in Dutch – presumably saying “you can see he hasn’t spent much time on rollers, if we wait here a few more minutes he’ll probably fall off. Look at those legs – he’ll be lapped before you can say Roland Liboton”). You’ll get asked for photocards (see below) and autographs, and crowds part as you soft-pedal towards the course, feeling terribly embarrassed that your tights don’t match your jersey.
- The organisation is really smooth, so everyone is relaxed and that improves the whole experience. Officials behave more like theatre ushers than VIP bodyguards (presumably they’re saving their energy for the drunken fans later).
In terms of the actual race, I could say just ride it like you would any other, however, if you pace yourself for an hour, you’ll be lapped and pulled out before you’ve got going. You’re going to have to go hammer and tongs from the off to last as long as possible. This is a problem when it comes to dealing with a course that is likely to be far more technical than anything you’ve raced before.
Practice by attacking a race or two at home as fast as you can, with total disregard for blowing up in the latter stages. Also find a tight technical loop for some interval training. I still think this is good advice even if you’re in a shorter duration category. Put it this way: it’s easier to imagine someone who can ride really fast round a course managing to hold on for a lap or two more, but it’s not so easy to imagine someone who’s slow suddenly doing the whole thing faster.
For all but the fastest riders, the time will come when the official just before the finishing straight indicates for you to pull over. An opportunity for you to watch the end of the race! I usually go to the pits at this point to wash the bike and get a good view of the action.
If you’re riding an international event, you should get some photocards made. It seems rather egocentric, but it’s fun and fans are desperate for them. I had one guy persuade me to send him some by post, presumably so he could complete his 2016 Koppenbergcross set.
Just upload an image of you on a bike, with your club/sponsor name to somewhere like Vistaprint. I got 100 made and they all went at the first race!