Another post from my enduring wife Jen, who has inadvertently become addicted to cyclocross racing – big time!
If you travel to Belgium to experience ‘true cyclocross’ in its heartlands even once you’ll be addicted…that’s what I discovered and I’ll try to explain why through the story of my international debut at Diegem.
The saga starts, as is often the case, with Alex and his crazy ideas for exciting adventures that all the family will enjoy (or, sometimes, endure). He’d always wanted to race in Belgium and had never done so but after his comeback cyclocross year in the UK, he was busy hatching a plan…a local category B race and the jeugdinitiatie (that’s the children’s cyclocross experience) at the Koppenberg ‘cross. There is a load to tell you about that particular excursion (back then we didn’t even have a van to take us and all the kit), but that’s a whole other story. Needless to say, that particular adventure was enjoyed. So much so, that we all wanted to come back for more, …, and more, …and more! Alex started entering the races that the pros were in, and he didn’t always come last! In the end, the kids and I were becoming rather experienced pit crew, but I was yet to race myself.
This year, I trained more than ever. In fact, I trained, rather than just riding (even got a coach). It still seems insane, and maybe it was, but I did it, I entered, and not just any race, a Superprestige – Diegem. Oh, you only live once! I kept thinking that they wouldn’t let me in, that someone would find me out and say I couldn’t enter, but there it was a few days before the race plain to see; my name next to the superstars of the sport: the likes of Helen Wyman and Nikki Brammeier, on the start list.
So, we were to spend New Year’s Eve in Belgium on a weekend bookended with mud, sweat, and beers. As is often the case, leaving our plans to the last possible moment meant that finding accommodation for us (and the dog) wasn’t entirely trivial. But we found a spacious quirky apartment, just so happened it was one end of a barge on a rather large canal. It was lovely, …just one small problem …I get quite seasick! I really didn’t realize that Belgian canals were that big! After settling in, I left said barge to try to recover and do some race openers.
Despite sitting in the van with the heaters on for half an hour first, I attempted my riding and promptly fell off, and again, and again. I couldn’t read the screen on my Garmin. I rode along the towpath but still felt dizzy. Who needs openers anyway?! I lay down on our coats and started to drift off to sleep in the sanctuary of the van and was woken by a bang on the window…at least Alex is a dab hand at cooking too…a hearty pasta dinner was ready for me, and at 10pm the water was starting to look decidedly calmer. Sleep at last …no chance of nerves stopping me sleeping, but still feeling pretty groggy by morning!
The big day…quite a build up, but the late timing of the Diegem race (famed for the night-time floodlit party atmosphere it provides) gave me a chance to start to feel human again!
I wasn’t nervous, not like usual anyway. I suppose when you enter a race you know you can’t be at the front of the feeling is different but the adrenaline was still there, the battle was still on. I really didn’t want to be last, or at least not so last that I got pulled before anyone else. I also knew I would be pulled at some point so the race was unlikely to last the full 40 minutes. So, the plan …go hard, harder than usual, but not so hard you can’t stay on the bike …don’t forget those skills in all the euphoria …most of all, ENJOY IT!
Not much space for warming up…64 cyclists from all around the world, preparing for the grueling challenge ahead, rolling around in circles with only centimeters between wheels, some veterans of this procedure chatting calmly, others like me trying to soak it all up and remember every minute.
On the line, “two minutes, one minute, in the next 30 seconds” …go! The biggest field I’ve ever raced in and the biggest race. I don’t know how fast we raced up the start straight but I was carried along to the inevitable squeeze into the slippery, muddy, off-camber bends. Stay upright, just stay upright! Keep pedaling… Keep running… Keep going… Don’t stop! Keep focused!
Rest, there’s no rest, there was no rest, but more than any other race I’ve entered, this was more about the focus, the mental demands for keeping your head, choosing the right lines, the right timing for dismounts and remounts, the right time to change bikes. But man, this REALLY was FUN. This race has everything, everyone is having fun, maybe that’s the timing, but I think even most of the riders love it. They must, the fields for all the races were big. Sand – tick, muddy run-ups – tick, planks – tick, ruts (REAL deep stay in or face-plant ruts) – tick, bridges – tick, steps – tick, sweeping dry woodland track that I can just about maintain my speed through, a steep road descent with kerbs to hop (that wasn’t expected), and major off-camber like nothing I’ve known with a slippery root to throw you off halfway (it even threw MVDP off!), all lit up at night with music, Belgian commentary, and jet washes going constantly in a sea of mud!
And just in case you weren’t finding it all hard enough, there was the climb on the road, not a rest physically, but your only chance to relax mentally before the next brutal obstacle.
I can’t praise this race enough. It was the toughest race that I’ve done technically, but not the scariest – for the most part it was just really great fun, but I certainly wasn’t relaxed – I recorded my highest ever heart-rate, …but then that may have been the double espresso caffeine gel I bought by accident and had before the race!
Of course, I had to finish it all with a Belgian beer, and a fan photo with Sanne Cant (I’d already been back to the van and got changed when she was heading back after her podium).