Saturday, 22 September 2012

Steenbergcross: A Taste of Pro

On Sunday last weekend at Erpe-Mere I had my first professional cyclocross race. That is to say, my first race against professionals. I was under no illusions of where I stood in relation to them, but I had it further reinforced just how fast being professional really is.

I'd stayed with Darryn and his family at their place in Gent the night before, and he generously offered his services as my race mechanic and officer of transport and logistics. He's done a lot of 'cross races in the past year or two, including some of the World Cups so he knows what it involves. I am still used to leaving home and riding down the road an hour before the start of the race, putting on a number and going for it. As I am finding out, things happen quite differently over in these parts, especially at the big events.

By the time we got to the race, everyone else was there and set up with their faces plastered to the sides of their personal motorhomes, team trucks and marquees. The sponsorship of riders goes from the professionals right down through elite without contract and to juniors. Of course, only the pro's get a salary but the fringe benefits for the others of bikes and equipment, mechanics, team vehicles and race entry combine to cover virtually all the costs of a young cyclist's life.

After sorting out my entry and getting my race numbers (two small ones for my upper arms, one for my back) I rode a few laps of the course. Although everybody was already there, they must have been tucked away in their palatial vehicles warming up on trainers because I hardly saw anyone out on the course. I did see that there was quite a crowd building up, keen to be part of the first A grade cyclocross race of the season. With around 5,000 spectators it's certainly not as big as some of the races later in the year will be, but as a first look at the top Belgian riders and my first experience of a race with fans (not just family members and friends!) I thought it seemed like a pretty big crowd.

I have written about the race on my new section of the Spoke Magazine blog which I will be contributing to on a weekly basis now. In an effort to avoid treading on my own toes and repeating myself however, I'll be looking for different aspects to comment on here.

One person who I recognised when I got there was this man, consulting with his mechanics just before the start of the race (probably having .125 of a PSI added into his rear tyre).

The consumate professional: Niels Albert
As is standard for these races, all the riders gather in a starting pen just off the main start/finish straight. From here riders are called up to the starting line in the order they are ranked based on the international UCI points that they have. For these early races it is based on last season's points, and although I earned 60 points from my 2nd place at the NZCX National Champs back in July in Napier, it was considered out of season for the northern hemisphere racing calendar, and won't apply until this coming January. So it was unsurprising that I found myself called up dead last, taking my spot about 4 rows behind the above World Champion.

The course for this race was quite different to the others I've done so far. The Dutch word for cyclocross is veldrijden, literally field riding. That is basically what the B-grade courses have been so far - flat grassy dusty sandy off-road criteriums, straight from the gun, full spead ahead. I had been told that the A-grade courses are nicer, more interesting and typically more challenging. Erpe-Mere definitely fitted this description, with the usual flat early section punctuated by corners and a couple of barriers leading into the forest, and with it a big mix of terrain. It has been very dry the whole time I've been here, with only a few days of rain in nearly two months. However there was a small section of sticky, slightly boggy mud that somehow managed to survive through the drought of summer intact. I don't know how it did this, but it made for a good spot for spectating: deep ruts that are fine if you can follow, but as soon as your balance leads you off to either side it can end in spectacular fashion. As was the case for several riders in front of me on the first lap, and again later on.

We then headed up and down several very short and very steep slopes, with tight corners between them. It was really important to carry as much speed as possible down the ramps in order to make it back up the next one, but it was a hairy business what with the combined elements of the angle of the corners, them being off-camber in parts, and very dry and dusty. I was glad to have practised the course a few times over as part of my warm up for the race, so I was able to anticipate the necessary manoeuvres. This being said, when someone crashes in front of you at the apex of a corner, there's not a lot you can do to avoid getting held up.

My favourite aspect of this race was definitely the supporters that lined the course all the way around, but particularly in several key spots. It is traditional for the fans and public to come along, pay around €5 to enter the course zone, then spend the afternoon drinking beer and getting progressively more rowdy as the day goes on. A lot of them are just families out for a day spectating or following their favourite cyclocross star, but a lot of them are groups hell-bent on getting really into it and moving around the course cheering like mad, seemingly with a penchant for extra encouragement towards underdogs or foreign novelties such as myself.

There was a long bumpy corner after we came down back out of the trees that lead into the finishing straight, where one particularly enthusiastic group were located. I could hear them from quite far off calling out my name, in various forms - Alex, Alexander, Nieuw Zeelander - and the closer I got the more manic their fanaticism became. After I had passed, and been through the home straight, the course looped back around and they would all rush across to the next section to repeat their chanting and bellowing. I couldn't take the smile off my face riding around hearing it, so much encouragement, and it gave me so much energy!

The other section where the crowd were really going off their trolleys was a section of two very steep ramps one after the other, with a bike-length between of flat. This was absolute brain-haemorragingly steep material, accelerating as much as possible into it, then super low cadence pedalling trying not to have your rear wheel skid or your foot unclip. A few times through here I was alongside another rider, and the shouting was completely defeaning.

After the race I had a few people come up to me and sort of hover around, not always saying much. Others directly spoke to me, and wanted to know more about why I was here and what was cyclocross like in New Zealand. When Darryn and I were getting ready to go, a big group of teenage boys came over and asked me for autographs. They didn't have pens or paper, so when I found a pen all there was for me to sign was various limbs and bits of skin. It was a bit weird, but I appreciated being humoured for my celebrity status. I definitely need to work on a more pro signature, and something that incoporates my biggest drawcard, this big hairy thing between my mouth and nose.

I couldn't help but enjoy the celebrity status I gained that day, however genuine it all was. According to Darryn it will get to the point where I'm sick of it because I won't be able to go anywhere without people stopping me all the time, not ideal in the middle of winter when you're wet and muddy and need to change clothes. But for now I'll let myself indulge a little, happily using distance from home over podium spots to get my fan base going.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Double up at Wiekevorst

After my Belgian cyclocross debut at Zemst-Hofstade on Saturday, my appetite was whetted for another day out in the sun, riding around frantically chasing other people in the dust. I was fortunate this time around to be able to get a ride in the morning with the cousin of a friend of my brother - despite the long-winded link, they were a family of the loveliest sort.

They had come from the complete other side of the country, on the coast near the border with France. They were coming quite far out of their way to get me, so I met them at the motorway on/off ramp for Enghien and after slotting my bike into the back of the truck, alongside Wim and Tibo's various cyclocross machines, we set the Navman GPS to Wiekevorst and made haste while the sun was shining.

I got changed and rode around the course with the guys in preparation for their races, which were both earlier in the day than mine. This course was somewhat similar to the day before, but with more variation. Several very dry grassy straights were punctuated by hairpin turns which then lead in to forested singletrack, again with a very sandy base.

Tibo got off to a flier

Wim shooting the breeze
There were a couple of sand pits to negotiate, basically long trenches where you just had to hold the straightest line possible to avoid succumbing to the speed-thirsty bog. Sometimes I hit them perfectly, almost floating along at full speed. Other times I almost stopped dead, my wheel pushing a wave of sand ahead of me like a front-end loader.

As both their races were over by 2pm, my friends were heading back home. My race wasn't until 3.15 so I wouldn't have wanted them to stay and wait just for me to be finished. I got changed into my race mode vestments, enjoying the cool of the back of the truck for a moment longer before bidding them farewell.

I chatted with a young guy as we warmed up, who told me the field today was pretty big and featured some strong riders. Apparently it's quite common, especially early in the season, for roadies and other semi-crossers to come along to the Sunday races and attempt to snaffle the top spots against the true cyclocrossers who have raced already the day before. I wasn't too concerned by this, mainly my goal was to improve on yesterday's 24th place, preferably making the top-20 as the small amount of prize money would help fund the train ride home.

The sun was absolutely roasting us on the start line, with a high of over 30º.  I had the good fortune to be called up early, as after riders with UCI points were seeded it was ordered randomly by drawing lots. Although I earned 60 points at the national champs in July, because they were considered out of season they will count from January 1st 2013, which is roughly the time of the northern hemisphere national championships. I was the first to line up in the second row, so settled myself in behind the national champ. There were maybe 12 in the front row, and 55 starters in total in the race. The commissaire reeled off a set of instructions in Dutch first, then in French and lastly said "and for our New Zealand friend..." then repeated himself in English. There was a bit of laughter and a few cheeky comments such as just follow everyone else. I played along with the banter, but I laughed last because I'd understood him the first time and the second time too.

It was a good thing he reminded us all of the direction of the first corner, because by the time we got to it we were motoring along at 40-50km an hour. He'd said that the first lap will turn left at the end of the straight, but from then on the course turns right. I had a bad start, with my right foot coming unclipped immediately (again - this is something to sort out!) so I all but lost my early advantage, having to get back up to speed as I became immersed in a wave of whirring, buzzing carbon and tubulars. As I came up to the corner I found a traffic island I hadn't expected right in front of me, as another rider suddenly moved to the side ahead. I haven't practiced bunny hops on my cross bike for some time, not since I messed one up last year and the nose of my saddle attempted to perforate my backside. I didn't have any choice, so just gave it everything and managed to get over it cleanly and make it into the corner without drama.

The next series of grassy straights and hairpin corners was crucial to securing a good spot going into the sandy singletrack, which extended the line of riders out to twice its former length. I took a photo of the junior race at this point, which appears to have some of them racing head on against others.

I felt like I was about mid-way through the pack, and generally held this position through the race. I made a couple of mistakes early on which cost me a few places, and I dropped my chain on a remount about halfway through, causing me to stop to get it back on. But I was feeling good and continued to progress through the field. As we neared the end and the lap count neared 1 I was still a good way off being caught by the front of the field. After a somewhat narrow escape from being lapped the day before, I was very keen to ensure that didn't happen again. As it was so hot people were able to have drink bottles handed to them in the technical zone. I should have thought about this and found someone to help me, but as I didn't I had to grit my teeth and grind my way through with dusty mouth and throat as others sipped the sweet nectar held aloft for them in passing. I had drunk quite a bit before the race, so I felt alright, but I did start to cave in a little towards the end.

Coming through into the bell lap I approached the following right-hand bend as I had every other lap, but this time didn't clear my rear wheel over the curb sufficiently going into the singletrack. It made quite a bump, and I cursed, fearing the worst. Sure enough, a couple of seconds later I heard the roaring hiss of a tyre going flat! I carried on stubbornly for the next section of singletrack, trying in vain to keep the dream alive. Thinking about my rims and my lovely tyres, I reconsidered staying on my bike and instead hopped off and ran alongside for a few hundred metres. I then picked it up and ran with it over my shoulder for a while, then walked, then stopped and ambled my way to the finish line.

It was a very frustrating way to have to end the race, especially as I'd been feeling strong. Relative to others from the previous day's effort I was ahead of where I had been, and based on who was in front of me when I punctured I was in around 24th place again, although this time the field had been significantly larger. As it was I finished 32nd, so I was pretty happy with that. The position I was in before the puncture and having had a race the previous day has given me confidence that I'm going to be able to make some good progress over here. These may be the easiest races that I will do, but I'm sure my progress will be even more rapid when I am pitted against the best in the world over the next few months! Starting this weekend, in Erpe-Mere on Sunday.

As I was now alone after the race, I set about hunting down a generous person to give me a lift to the nearest train station. After approaching a couple of people with no luck, I started to face the fact that I might have to sort out my puncture and ride the 20km or so before beginning the long haul three train combo back home. It turned out I actually had a slow leak puncture in my front tyre too, and an hour later it was also flat. Fortunately the next family I approached had room in their van for me and my bike, and were going towards Mechelen, the perfect place for me to hop onto one of the regular trains to Brussels. They set me up a comfy, although perhaps not especially secure, throne in the back:

Stijn and his twin brother were great company for the drive back to Mechelen, and I am most appreciative to them and their father for helping me out. I invited them over to New Zealand for a cross race or two, so if they get sick of summer next year they may well pop over.

Again after this race, as after the day before's, I found myself feeling really good and excited about being here despite having ridden myself into the ground two days in a row. I've had a less enjoyable week since then, suffering from the bites of what must have been a bunch of fleas or something that found their way into my bed. I counted 50 bites all over my body the other day, and it's made it almost impossible to sleep at night. Combined with a pretty cold week (the temperature has been hovering at around 15º) with rain on several of my rides, it's been a glimpse I think of the winter that awaits just around the corner. On Sunday I will be lining up against professionals, so my main goal will be to not come last. If I can manage that then the next step will be to try and stay in the race to the last lap. It sounds like the course has a bit of hill in it, and as it's been raining it might slow things down and let me stay in the race for a bit longer. We'll see. I'm excited about it and looking forward to doing what I can at what is sure to be a slick event. I'm heading to Gent this afternoon to stay with Darryn tonight, and he's generously offered to be my mechanic for the day tomorrow at the race.

Here we go folks!

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:

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.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Ronde van Vlaanderen: How to Ride Cobbles

This will be the final post in my trilogy of Ronde van Vlaanderen novels, featuring suspicious characters and shady exchanges of all varieties: be it pecuniary, alimentary or linguistic-ary. Sometimes even all three together. Most of the time, in fact.

Last week I made my familiar migration over the hills (I have since found out it's actually about 40km each way, taking about an hour and a half) to the town of Oudenaarde to complete the final leg of the coloured triumvirate that I began a few weeks ago. All that remained for me to discover was the blue route, which covers 80km and in particular some of the longer and rougher sections of pavé, or cobblestones.

This loop heads North out of town, generally in the direction of Gent, before veering East to Zottegem, and back around to the South through a series of twists and turns until it arrives slack-jawed and trembling once again on the doorstep of Oudenaarde. It is pretty flat, at least on paper, but as these things always feel like in reality, it's up and down most of the time. Not only that, but there seemed to be a fairly brisk headwind at all times, just to make sure it wasn't any easier than its hillier brothers, the orange and green routes.

The first section of cobbles goes past one of the first of the Molen (windmills) that I have seen here, and I can tell you they're as quaint in real life as are the stereotypically bucolic countrysides you see them in, on TV documentaries and in National Geographic photospreads with the be-clogged people of Holland and Flanders. I was concurrently trying to make it through the constant bumping and clanging of this stretch of cobbles as I took the photo, so my hands were anything but still. Somehow it seemed to come out alright!

I'd heard it said, probably by Phil Liggett or some other mollusk of the cycling world, that the best way to ride pavé is to chuck it into a big gear and pedal at a moderate yet comfortable cadence, maintaining a decent clip. This is definitely good advice, as the bigger gear keeps tension on the chain which stops it from slapping the frame so much, and potentially falling off. But there's a limit to how much comfort one can expect to enjoy across terrain such as this. Some of these sections were two to three kilometres long, so even cranking along it's still a few minutes as least. Plenty of time to rattle loose those fillings, expose your root canals have you grinding what's left of your teeth down into blackened stumps. And that's not to mention the other parts of your body that will suffer: hands, eyeballs, internal organs. In the interest of keeping your bum comfy, it's necessary to stand slightly out of the saddle, taking the weight with your arms and thighs. Combine the large gear, trying to ride fast so as to even out the bumps, then standing up, and it adds up to be an absolute killer for your thighs. Interestingly however, of all things I found the itchy bites on my arms and hands were the most affected by riding cobbles. I suppose it's because they are quite firm when swollen (mine tend to get very large, I don't know if it's an allergy or what) so they shake around and feel like they're coming loose. If only they did!

You're in for some chop, riding the waves of cobbles
Steady as she goes, captain.

I was making pretty good progress through Doorn, but I could hear a car approaching from behind. It's a funny sensation, the more you ride on the road the better you get at judging the stealthy approach of vehicles. But riding on pavé turns all this upside down. You hear noises, plenty of them, but they're all coming from your bike. Bits of your bike that don't even move make noise. You hear cars approaching all the time, sometimes very convincingly, only to look back over your shoulder and find a deserted stretch of road between the cornfields behind you. Your bike is capable of making all kinds of new and interesting noises in such a setting, but almost every time you hear an unusual one that could be a vehicle, it's just your rear wheel messing with you. When you do actually witness a car drive over cobbles, you wonder how you could ever have thought that the noise from before was a car. They are so much louder, and you can feel the ground resonating beneath their wheels. That is, if you can feel anything at all. This time I was correct, and there was in fact a Police car on my tail. I was riding more or less in the centre of the road, trying to find the smoothest line over (although most of the time it was between) the ramshackle cobbles. I was worried my bike was going to disintegrate beneath me, such was the roughness of the ride, so I wasn't really in a mood for moving aside into the even more marginal state of roading on the right. Whether they were being patient or just not in a hurry I don't know, but they didn't catch up to me.

I was then able to enjoy a very pleasant hour or so until the next setion of pavé. You really appreciate how buttery-smooth a normal road surface is for the next 5 minutes or so after cobbles, it's like ice cream on a really hot day. The next step was Paddestraat, 2.4km long. At least the first section of it, that is.

Then just when I thought I'd made it through alive, I crossed a main road and was hit with this, an old Roman road. Cobbled too, of course.

So I don't know how long it was in total, but by the end of it I was worried my arms were going to give way beneath me. It's really hard to change gear when you're cobbling along as the bike, and therefore the chain, is jumping around all over the place. Your hands are also sort of floating somewhere around the handlebars, which isn't a very secure feeling either. You've basically got to pick your gear early and stick with it. I learned this fairly early on, and likewise how to put on a Belgian hard-man grimace. It's easy enough to peel off again when you're through the worst of it.

I stumbled upon what I think is probably the nicest looking goat I have ever seen while on this ride. I've never seen so many goats as in the backyards and hobby farms that are scattered all over these lands. I can only assume people tend to them for the milk and thus cheese products they can produce, because they certainly aren't kind to your front lawn. They'll eat anything - thorns, grass, steel wool - but they normally won't leave it looking pretty. Here is my new friend, who was obviously proud of his patch of pasture:

I think it helped not getting lost or going the wrong way at all on this particular occasion, as the 80km loop took me about three hours, roughly (but) as I had hoped. As I made my way back home to Enghien I stopped off at a Frituur for a drink and a snack. The owner was a slightly washed-out looking character, but very friendly and happy, enthusiastic even, to point out in detail all the different sizes and vessel materials that he had of Coke for sale. I spotted a chocolate milk for €0,80 and so, reminiscing the week I spent practically living off that stuff during the Kiwi Brevet in February, snapped it up along with a can of coke and a small Milky Way.

That was an unnecessary description of the Milky Way. An unusually principled stalwart of tradition, the Milky Way has always been small, curiously yet nobly remaining steadfast against the tide of ever-increasing chocolate bar size. I don't recall seeing them around much lately, perhaps they stamped out millions of them in the 80's and 90's then closed the factory, and those that remain as yet unconsumed are really historic artefacts of a bygone era. Even if that were the case this one was still particularly delicious, and with no discernible discoloration despite potentially being as old as me.

I took a seat and attempted to read the newspaper I found in front of me. I was able to make out a bit of it, mainly because I was familiar with the story already. It was just after the big drama involving Lance Armstrong had begun to escalate:

As I was seated doing my best impression of comprehension, the owner came over to me with several pastries on a napkin. He was clear to point that they were yesterday's, but that I could have them if I wanted. I had one pain au chocolat, but after the Coke, chocolate milk and Milky Way, didn't think I could handle any more. He put them in a bag for me and bid me farewell. He was a cool guy, and whether it was because he didn't know too much English or if he was just patient, he let me try out my somewhat increasing ability to butcher the Dutch language with him. I made a point to remember where I was, so that I could stop by another time.

Each time I pass through Geraardsbergen I take special pains to go up the Muur-Kappelmuur. Partly because it's on the way and avoids busy roads up the hill, but mainly because it's just such a cool place and you can't help but feel like a legend of cycling history when you crest the final rickety rise. This time I was climbing to a big crowd of spectators, lining the street on both sides cheering. Well, maybe they were just talking, but either way they were buzzing in anticipation for what I soon found coming up where I had just been:

It was the Stadsprijs Geraardsbergen voor dames, I assume, a kermis race that (at least for the men) has been going on for nearly 100 years in this town. I saw the Australian girls that I nearly got to talk to the other day, still slogging it out in the race on the last lap when it goes up over the Muur. I watched as they all made they way past, most looking pretty whacked by this stage, then continued back home for some pasta and a salad.

The previous week when I was climbing the Muur I saw a sign advertising the Stadsprijs race on Wednesday 29th of September. I could see that it was for professionals, but when I went to the website I saw that there were wildcard entries available for riders without a contract. I spent a few days wondering about this, and with some encouragement from Darryn I was going to try and enter. When it got closer to the time and I still hadn't entered I thought it was probably not going to happen. But after being there for the women's race it made me really want to just go in it, regardless of the fact that I'd be racing professionals and the moment they put on the gas I would be spat out the ass, so to speak (I realise an ass is actually an animal). So the next morning I took it upon myself to phone the organisers and see about getting myself amongst it. I'll let you know in another post how it all panned out.