What a whirlwind… not quite sure it wasn’t all a dream now we are back.  Maybe that’s just because I’m now pretty tired, but more likely it’s because I can’t quite believe that a couple of days ago I was racing up the Muur van Geraardsbergen after some of the best cyclocross riders in the world.  No, still can’t believe it, can’t have happened.  Or did it?…

The trip was months in the planning. No, that bit isn’t true…we did put the date in the diary months back but in true Forrester style the actual planning happened only a couple of weeks ago!  With entry open for races up until only a few days before the events you can decide to race in Belgium really very close to the day (see ‘Racing in Belgium‘).  It is so quick and easy in fact, you can do it completely on a whim…2 weeks to go…enter race…get email letter from BC…book Airbnb… book channel tunnel, DONE…oops, now we are going 😬

There are a couple more slightly more long term investments that are needed in order to race in Belgium of course: the training (yes, this wasn’t the trip for a novice but if you take your cx seriously, and especially if you’re an up and coming youth rider I highly recommend going for it), and well prepared bikes (but then, if you’re reading this you probably have that sorted)…without those, well you should go anyway, it’s not just the racing that was fun. Find out more about preparing for a cyclocross race in The Cyclocross Bible!

We arrived late but self-catering meant that wasn’t a problem (pre-prepared pasta sauce at the ready).  I awoke to the kids asking if they could let the animals out… they had been very excited about the place we had booked because it had goats!  After letting them out, the kids spent all morning playing in the garden and taking videos of the animals.  Belgium trip success no. 1: keep kids happy.  Unfortunately the U12s event was Wednesday so no racing for the boys.

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Goats!

So, to start the racing with Vorselaar: surprisingly I wasn’t ever so nervous (no high expectations I guess – I’m more nervous about my first Wessex League race of the season).  We pulled up in plenty of time and registered with no difficulty and in a bar… like that… good planning!  For a local race it all seemed quite big… music, beer, and spectators.  We discovered that the bouncy castle was free so the kids were quite happy entertaining themselves for some time.

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Sign-on

As expected I was called up near the back of a 35-strong field and no one seems to worry about overlapping wheels… elbows out it is then!   The start was fast!  Most of the cross races in Belgium seem to start on roads so I wouldn’t expect any less.

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Big field!

Unfortunately, being on the back made it very difficult to get through before the wooded section. The ground was dry and sandy with huge rutted corners. When you hit them right they were great, speedy, like mountain bike trail centre berms but you had to have your wits about you.  I felt good and fast through the sweeping sections but just couldn’t get the power down enough between them to pass anyone.

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Sandy ruts! Photo cyclingsite.be

The dust was choking… oh it would have been great to have been the person on the front of the group holding us all up round the corners before a big attack.  These girls were fast… it was all tactical… one by one off they went off up the road after stealthy remounts after the hurdles.  I’m a bit injured at the moment and can’t remount properly but I don’t think even at my best I can do it at that speed (yet).  By the last couple of laps there were two of us left together.  I knew I had to get past before the hurdles if I had a chance of making it to the line first so I did all I could as we battled through the trees…great fun but it wasn’t my day!  I was really pleased with my effort and had such a great time sweeping through the woods.

Take home messages…(1) those short sharp accelerations and recovery are everything on a course with only a few spaces for overtaking, (2) mastering the ruts is exhilarating, (3) I was right to think my remounting could make all the difference, (4) it doesn’t have to be wet to be technical, and (5) Belgian races, even local ones, are faster and more technical than British ones, and absolutely worth going to!  Great experience, but finishing quite near the back of an amateur race made we somewhat more nervous about what was to come….

More goats, and on to the Bricocross at Geraardsbergen .

Iconic, televised, and packed with die hard Belgian fans… what was I doing there?!  We arrived, as planned, to practise and warm up in the slot after the U23 race but when we got to the course ready to go on this is the view that presented itself to me (well, not quite, this was during the race, but it was similar):

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Photo: Wielerfoto’s Jade

Video of Eli Iserbyt taking on the descent!

Now, I’m no stranger to scaring the absolute sh*t out of myself in the name of a good time (in the summer I entered the national XC champs in the UK on the Olympic course having only raced locally before)… this was different…

– there was no B-line here,
– I wasn’t looking at this the day before the race with an expert coach for guidance,
– rather I only had an hour to the start of my race, and I couldn’t get on the course yet, and
– I’d never ridden anything like that on a CX bike and there wasn’t any run off or solid berm at the bottom, just a 90 degree bend onto cobbles!

OMG, I was in full panic mode!

We found the start line and jumped on the course… I was shaking like a leaf… why did I come here?

We set off for a ‘quick couple of laps’ at the same time as a number of the men… yes, it was clear I was a little late… everyone else was now on their rollers getting ‘in the zone’.  The first part of the course didn’t prove too tricky… the ruts weren’t dissimilar to the day before so I felt quite comfortable with that, but then we arrived there…. at the top, and stopped, of course.

While contemplating the sheer terror and enormity of the situation some of the best male riders in the world arrive and stopped in a gaggle reviewing the course.  I couldn’t understand most of what they said but there were a number of murmurings involving ‘mountain bike’ and faces that suggested they weren’t considering this to be simple. But the discussions were short, and soon they’d all popped off over the top and had varying degrees of success at negotiating the tight turn at the bottom.  I had to go… how could I race on a course I wasn’t able to ride?

I moved back, clipped in and moved slowly towards the top… ready position… weight back.  I thought my disc brakes had a good chance of slowing me but with skinny tyres they didn’t have quite the desired effect, and I didn’t have the confidence to let them go and hit the bend at that speed… instead, having just averted disaster by slimly avoiding the post and huge rock part way down I slid, with brakes fully locked, directly into the advertising hoarding at the bottom.  That. was. not. an experience I wanted to repeat, and certainly not on national television (even if it was in Belgium and not the UK).

I continued on around the rest of the course finding it hard to concentrate on anything else… lines, what lines, if I couldn’t ride the drop, surely I shouldn’t start.  Maybe I’d be able to run it… surely that would be safer?  I’d probably only get in one lap before being pulled out, but I was there now I suppose.  At the top for the second time, and running it would be a lot worse… I knew that… slower, higher chance of injury but lower chance of serious injury.  I can’t admit to my thoughts being that clear… it was more like PANIC… I CAN’T DO IT… I CAN’T RACE… I CAN’T… I CAN’T. There was encouragement from the crowd… some teenagers saying “you can do it”, but I’ve been training all year for the season, one stupid incident in a race I’m set to be at the back of anyway. I ACTUALLY couldn’t do it because I wasn’t willing to… this weekend had already been a success in terms of my racing… I didn’t need to.  That was the sad reality – I’m not actually a professional, and although I’m willing to try hard on difficult terrain (like that in Diegem last season), this was just a step to far for me right at the beginning of my season.

While I stood staring into the abyss the clock was ticking, one of the other lady’s had ridden it twice (not with complete success) and headed off, and I was stuck at the top.  Alex talked me down… I just managed to walk it, sliding the initial steepest section, but now I was a long way from the start line.  I hurried there (after we’d moved the van so an injured rider to get to the hospital)… still having no clue what I would do when we arrived at the top in the race… surely I wasn’t the only rider with doubts… would the back of the field all be sliding down on their backsides, or was I going to be the only one?

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Quality field!

We were off… I didn’t go crazy trying to stay in the mix at the start… it wouldn’t be long before this course sorted us out! As I sat on the back, feeling pleased that I was, at least, able to stay comfortably on the back, it happened…they all turned left where the course had previously gone straight!  It wasn’t there… they’d taken it out! You can see it on TV, the moment where I shake my head in relief and disbelief… the organisers had taken out that hill!

Now, I’m all for keeping the men’s and women’s courses the same and for ‘fortune favours the brave’, but I was SO glad they’d done it for this race.  Turns out some people had complained about it, and I think rightly so… I don’t think any of the pros had been training on anything like that and to risk season or career ending injury in the first race of the year seems foolish.  In wet mud things may have been different.

Still, I’m not really in a position to argue this, and I’m not a pro… for me though, it made my day, and I set forth to race the rest of the race like I’d never raced before…I did not want to stay at the back… if the others didn’t want to ride it either then I had just as much right to be there and I was going to prove it.  I was focused, and I had learnt from the day before… I had to push beyond my perceived limits to get past the group ahead of me and maintain it through the tricky corners.  In the end I managed to do just that to pass one rider, and then another. I thought I was catching a third at about the point I was pulled out (as the leader approached the Muur with 2 laps to go).

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Photo: Jens Morel

Wow! I’d done it… I’d entered another prestigious race and I hadn’t been last (actually 29th out of 35), although even if I had, I’d ridden well and maintained my focus throughout.  Looking at the stats it turns out I reached my highest ever 5, 10, and 20 minute heart rates in recorded history so I guess I was going some!

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Photo: Roger Vandenbosch

We took our time leaving the continent, enjoying a nice glass of Chablis and moules frites in France en route home.  We’d certainly enjoyed it (Alex as well, but if I described his race too this would get pretty long), and the kids seemed to too – bonus.

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Moules frites & Chablis!

Now I’m back at work. I don’t think everyone needs to go to Belgium and enter a very big race, but they sure should enter a local one… maybe next time I’ll just spectate for the second day and cheer in awe of those you do this so much faster than I can, and week after week!  Or maybe I just won’t be able to let it go and I’ll be booking another trip soon!

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Tom Meeusen!

Thanks for reading! Please like and share, or even better, jump on your CX bike and ride, because there’s always another story to tell!

One thought on “Starting the season in Belgium

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