Friday, 30 November 2012

Koksijde and the Road to Roubaix

With my first World Cup at Koksijde now done, dusted and sanded off, it's time to start looking a bit further ahead. For a race report from the day, have a look at my post on the Spoke magazine blog. In summary, it was a great course and awesome to be part of. There's so much sand that it's very difficult to ride it all, but that didn't stop me from appreciating the unique nature of the parcours. Well, maybe for the 40 minutes or so that I was in the race.

I was running a lot. Photo: Luc van der Meiren

I have had a massive influx of donations recently on my Gofundme site, thank you to everyone for the support! I'm not sure how much of it was race-related or just general kindness, after I got through 4 laps at Koksijde. Although I didn't reach my goal of finishing, I did make it into the top 50 - placing 47th. For those interested, my idea was for people to pledge something per lap that I can complete at the World Cup races. On Sunday December 2nd I will be racing at Roubaix, France. This is typically a very muddy course, so usually quite a change from sandy Koksijde - but last week's rain blurred the edges a bit, and meant that when there wasn't sand there was mud. I expect there will be a similar number of laps in Roubaix if the weather remains wet, so probably either 8 or 9. I will of course be aiming to finish the race, and once again try to gain a top-50 placing.

For some example viewing of what to expect Roubaix to be like, below is a Youtube video of the 2010 World Cup.

I'm having a weekend off racing next week, and taking the opportunity to visit family in London and Paris. When I get back to Belgium it will be a week and a half until the infamous Christmas 'Cross period - in which there are races more or less every other day for a fortnight. I'm yet to entirely work out which ones I'll do, but will decide before I go away. There are two World Cups - Namur on Dec 23 and Heusden-Zolder on Dec 26 - so I will work around those.

In the meantime keep your eyes peeled for mud-spattered riders in Roubaix, and I'll do my best to remain visible for as long as I can!

Los Pedalos fan club sandwich. Photo: Danny Zelck

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

World Cup Time

As I've mentioned quite a few times over the course of recent months a big part of my trip to race cyclocross here in Belgium was to take part in as many of the World Cups as possible. I used to always get confused by the difference between the World Cup and the World Champs, so just to clarify for newcomers to the sport the World Cup is a series of races throughout the season. There are 8 in total this year, two of which I didn't do in the Czech Republic have already been. The next is Koksijde, Belgium this coming Saturday followed a week later by Roubaix, France on Dec 2nd. There are two more late in December, Namur and Heusden-Zolder both here in Belgium, then I will skip Rome in early January and enter the final one in Hoogerheide, Netherlands on January 20th. The overall winner of the World Cup series gets lots of money and fame but generally the world title is more sought after. The first weekend of February is when the World Championships is on in Louisville, Kentucky, USA. This is a one-off competition to decide who is the world champion, and thus who wears the coveted rainbow stripes on their jersey. I am going to be there to contest the title, representing New Zealand. Faced with the international airfares, comprehensive racing and travel insurance and ongoing costs associated with travel to and from races, not to mention worn out equipment and other material, I need a fair bit of help to do this.

A month or so ago I set up a paypal-based site where people could donate towards helping me realise this dream trip of racing cyclocross in Belgium and going to the World Championships. I have to thank the many people who have already generously supported me so far, from friends and family to complete strangers. I still have a fair bit to raise to continue, so I wish to propose another, more interactive way in which to earn this support.

Being from New Zealand, I grew up with bikes as a small part of my life. While they have always been present and I have always enjoyed a bit of mountain biking and touring with friends, I have only been racing competitively since the age of 23. Here in Belgium, racing often begins at the age of 12 so some of my competitors have 15-20 years' racing experience over me! The cyclocross scene in Belgium is like nowhere else in the world, so while it really is the best place to come to learn from the best and therefore gain rapid experience, it is incredibly difficult and I find myself struggling while others make it look easy. I aim to get as close to finishing each race as possible, but as riders are automatically pulled from the course if they fall behind the leader by more than 80% of the leader's first lap time, this is a most tricky business. If a typical race has 6 minute laps, and thus 10 laps over the course of the hour of racing, I can only lose up to 4 minutes and 30 seconds before it's over. That leaves a maximum loss of 27 seconds per lap in order to stay in it, but sometimes I lose a whole minute in one lap! Considering I'm facing the best in the world, it's a tough ask.

My proposal is that while I am racing in these World Cups, I ask people to pledge a certain amount per lap that I complete, to donate towards my campaign. Some of the courses will have shorter laps and therefore more of them, others longer and fewer. But overall the average seems to be between 8 - 10 laps per race, depending on conditions and terrain. Pledges could take the form of a one-off amount per lap for all five World Cups, or individually by race. There are typically between about 70-90 riders in a race, and my goals are to stay in the race as long as possible (preferably right to the last lap!) and to reach the top-50.

So if you think you are able to donate, please have a think about how you might like to do it. You could choose to let me know what your method will be, to motivate me. Or alternatively not disclose it and make it a surprise. I will post on this blog before each race and describe the course to the best of my ability, what to expect and what I hope to achieve if it differs from my aforementioned goals. I have been overwhelmed with the support I have received so far - whether it be financial, vocal from the sidelines or simply friendly messages with encouraging words, it all helps and keeps me even more motivated to continue to push myself and gain as much experience and improve as much as I possibly can during my time here.

On another note, my team Los Pedalos have made a whole bunch of merchandise which they will be selling at races on my behalf, with proceeds going towards my campaign. They have had cycling caps, beanies, T-shirts and jackets custom made with a special moustachioed theme. They are a lovely bunch of people, and have really taken it upon themselves to help me as much as possible, for which I am extremely grateful. So for the Belgian fans and supporters out there, please look out for the team truck at races. For those of you in New Zealand, I will soon be sending a package to Revolution Bicycles in Wellington for further national distribution. For those around the world, it may be tricky! I'll bring some to the World Champs in February, so if not for a moustache then come along for what I'm sure will be an amazing weekend of races and festivities.

I'll add below some of the videos that have surfaced from the various interviews I've had in the Belgian media since my arrival. For further post-race debriefings and other intriguing observations from my travails please check my blog The Cyclo X Files on the Spoke magazine website. Thanks again for all the support so far, and I look forward to doing you proud!

Iedereen Beroemd - segment from Belgian TV programme Everybody Famous Reportage at Ronse round of the bpost Bank Trofee

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Tribute to Enghien

My first port of call when I had just arrived here in Belgium was the town of Enghien (in English and French, and Edingen as it is known in Flemish). Hosted by the great Koole family, who have always put the family in family friends, it was in all regards with a warm and enticing welcome that I was met. From the family lunches in the sun, with clear skies and 30ºC+ temperatures, to the myriad of small country roads and treelined lanes down which to ride my bike, the first couple of months were most definitely a welcome relief from the drizzle and grizzle of a wintry Wellington.

I'm a big fan of cats, in particular cats in unusual or unexpected surroundings. I couldn't resist taking photographic evidence of some (or all) of these chaps and chappettes, so please have patience while I briefly indulge my passion for the local talent.

Alcoholism, particularly binge drinking, is a real problem with the local cats in this part of town
Stealthy and sneaky, the jungle cat prowls the corn fields.
The cold steely gaze of eyes that have known nothing but years of incarceration

As I started to explore more widely around the area I encountered a vast array of historic places, ancient cobbled roads and a ménagerie of animals that seem to be commonplace here on people's property, but would rarely be seen in such a context in New Zealand. Let me guide you on a typical ride through the countryside of my Belgian initiation, replete with all my favourite local man-made and animal quirks, along with plenty of other curious inexplicables.

I caught this guy staggering around drunkenly, disoriented and clearly lost.

One of my more regular sections of road for training took in a beautiful, quiet tree-lined boulevarde near Bierghes, between Enghien and Rebecq. Judging by the size and architectural nuances of the housing constructions it was obviously where many well-to-do's choose to live. There's nothing like living in the forest, at one with nature. That is, only once you've cleared the section of hundreds of mature 30m high trees, planted grass, and erected some of the most industrial-looking metallic walls known to man.

There's actually a Zebra in there by the door, with a baby. Of course.

The typical Belgian horse. Although it could well be a Trojan horse...

Cycling in Belgium enjoys a status similar to that of car usage on the road. It is an everyday activity for many people, especially elderly ladies who you see loading up their panniers with groceries every time you head to the local supermarket. There are often many options for navigating via cycle paths, small roads between main ones, as well as recreational routes through scenic landscapes. Sometimes I didn't feel like wearing a helmet, and would take the opportunity to feel the wind through my hair unimpeded, savouring the sense of freedom that it inspires.

It's often quite surprising to find out exactly what some of the sponsors of professional teams actually do. Some make jeans, watches, or GPS units, others are car rental companies and many are banks. This one was a revelation, and I found it while ripping out the old 19th century flooring of the house of my friend's relative. This was to be the replacement! 

I always find it interesting to read the graffiti in foreign languages, occasionally being able to make sense of what I see. However it seems tagging in English is the cool way to do it. As always with a second language mistakes are inevitable, and an essential part of the learning process. They also make for good comic moments when on display in public:

better luck next time

Dangerous intersection - not one staked out by pirates with a map showing hidden treasure.
Not being one to ever let the opportunity for a predictable joke pass by unsaid, this was too good to refuse.
You are so silly!

Come on now, don't be silly.

If ever I was riding past the main motorway to Brussels at about 2pm I would witness the passing of the French TGV, the high speed train from Paris. In some ways it was impossible to miss, due to the volume of the noise it creates rushing through the air. But on the other hand, if you didn't look up at the right moment it's actually quite easy to miss because it just passes through so quickly. Add to this the occasional fly-over courtesy of the local Belgian Air Force jet flighters, and humans' ability to make very fast machines that make lots of noise and are very expensive to run was most explicitly displayed. Only for very brief moments however. Then, like the children playing on the church organ after mass getting overly enthusiastic and physical with the instrument, the dusty velvet would once again be draped over the keys, and hushed tones would issue forth about it being time to move on.

My favourite aspect of a regular ride I did had to be a road sign by the motorway offramp near Rebecq. Well, it was actually three road signs. And each actually had about 10-15 smaller signs on it. I marvelled at how much new information I was able to garner at each passing, yet never really having the time to take in anything that I saw in the time I had. I could just imagine people in their cars leaving the motorway, only to find themselves confronted by this scene. The frantic darting of their eyes as they try and take everything in, hurriedly looking for their destination while the pressure of being at an intersection and having cars queued behind them fuels their growing unease. There is so much there that apparently must be pointed out immediately, from a piano shop to a removal company, even an abandonned velodrome. And that's only the first sign. They almost need to have a cafe alongside, so you can take your time to find the place you are looking for, maybe have a coffee while doing so. But then they would most likely be closed when you visited, as it would probably be lunchtime. Or it would be a Sunday, when everything is closed. Or a Monday, which is sort of like another Sunday. If indeed it was a day that they were open, by the time you'd finished reading the sign and worked out which way to go, they probably would have long since closed for the day.

Christmas trees already in September? Looks a bit like a permanent sign...
I had one puncture in all my rides through August and September. Despite potentially having clocked up a few thousand kilometres, among which many were over cobbles, my tyres held up extraordinarily well over some very rough terrain. The one time they couldn't quite handle what was thrown at them, it was fairly evident why. I have had a more impressive object go through my tyre before, but that was passing through an industrial part of town as a cycle courier in Wellington years ago. This nail was a good 4-5cm long, and on a fairly innocuous stretch of cycle path just outside of Enghien.

It reminded me a bit of this guy, from the Kiwi Brevet back in February, at Castle Hill heading towards Arthur's Pass. Both prickly characters, in their own way:

Lastly, where would we be without thousands of small breweries scattered all over the countryside? Not Belgium, that's for sure. I have found a few in my travels, the wares of which I have even managed to taste on a small scale.

Brasserie Lefebvre in Quenast

Brouwerij Roman, near Brakel.

Brouwerij Den Herberg, Buizingen.
I have since moved to the town of Oudenaarde, in the heart of Flanders. Close to much of the cyclocross races, the only hills in Flanders and a long flat stretch of calm canal road, it is ideally situated for the life of a cyclist. Like everywhere in Belgium, there seems to be roadworks taking place on every other street. But it's a nice place and I am happy to be here.