Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Fast Times At Belgium High

It's been much longer than I intended since my last post, and time has flown by faster than the professionals I have been racing against. The last weekend of September I had my first double header racing amongst them. Saturday was the first of the Soudal Classics in Neerpelt, and a UCI category 2 race. This means the all-important points, which determine the riders' start positions in all races, are up for grabs. For the top 15, that is.

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
The race I had wasn't one to write home about, I felt out of my depth and struggled with the course's sandy features - let alone everyone else in the race disappearing off ahead very early on. I think I got through only about 3 or 4 laps before being pulled off the course, lungs heaving and my morale sifting lazily through the sandy ground beneath me.

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
So I forced myself to push at my limit for another lap, and again I approached the finish straight assuming I would be taken off. It was at about this time that someone texted the commentator (who knows how they got his number!) and asked if the New Zealander was still in the race. He replied that yes indeed, the Nieuw Zeelander is still in the race. Shortly after they cut to this shot of the aforementioned antipodean:

video 

The next time I came around I was sure it would be the end for me, but no, it was instead still 3 laps to go. I couldn't believe it, was it really possible that I might finish a race? The crowd of spectators had gone from general support with a healthy dose of jeering directed towards me, into all-out shouting and rapturous encouragement of blasphemial proportions. They really wanted me to finish this race, as did I. I had made a few mistakes in the first lap, but since then had been getting smoother and smoother as I went, taking corners a bit faster and generally feeling in control. So after all this time of expecting to have my race end as I reached the section of sealed road, when it finally happened with 2 laps to go I found myself almost in disbelief that I wasn't still in the race.

Photo: Andy Foncke
I had lasted much longer than I ever expected, about 48 minutes in total. The average speed for the leaders was a very high 27/28km per hour, and through the majority of the race everyone else had more or less stayed together as one very long line of riders. Despite being totally satisfied with how things went, overwhelmed even, I couldn't help but feel a tinge of what if I'd just had a better first lap.... But there'll be plenty of races in which to make up for it over the coming months. One of my main goals - in fact probably my main one - is to finish at least one of these A races on the lead lap. Although it may not seem like that big a deal to lots of people, the level of competitivity of these races is just incredible in comparison to anything else I've ever done, so it's a pretty lofty goal. But seeing I've come all this way, why not?

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. 
Equally too I began to receive offers from generous locals offering all kinds of services from bike cleaning, to applying warm towels to the back of my neck, to the use of a van and even a teenager who is trying to find me some sponsorship for shoes and sunglasses. So it has been an overwhelming few weeks. The publicity eventually attracted the attentions of Los Pedalos Cycling Team, who are being extremely helpful and supplying me with two Focus Mares cyclocross bikes, a stack of tubular wheels and tyres, and lots of their kit. Also they have begun to wear moustaches at the races, and further fuelled the growing hairy support club that has inched its way into the fray. I am extremely grateful for all this help, and it has been very humbling. Having a second bike means I will now be able to continue to race when I crash my bike or it just gets full of mud, as it is likely to do given the conditions that I will be racing in more and more from now. I have set up a Fundme site for donations, for financial help to go towards my campaign over here in Belgium, in which I plan to take on the nearby World Cups, and to take me through to and literally over to the World Championships in America in February. It is a long and increasingly cold season, but the reception I've had here has been warm and embracing.

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