OK I'm finally back from Belgium and settled again. It was an unbelievable trip. If you like warm weather and mountains for your cycling preference, then maybe Belgium isn't your ideal winter cycling destination. If on the other hand your heros are guys like Eddy Mercyx, Johan Museau, Mario DeClerq, Sven Nys, Bart Wellens or Ervin Vervecken, to name a few, then you'll probably feel like a very privledged person to roll over some of the cobbles and pavement that these men have also ridden over. I'm in that group for sure. Besides, anyone can ride in nice weather.
We arrived on the 14th of January and quickly put together 1 bike each, just to get in a quick ride. We did the other one the next day, all the stuff got there undamaged and on time. There was a lot of snow still on the ground when we got in. The forecast was for cold temps so it was gonna be there for a while. Here is the little A-Frame we rented for the duration of our stay, it was actually on the Master's World Championship course. No lie, 50 meters from the start finish line.
On Friday we went to nearby Kasterlee to preview a course that we thought we'd be racing on Saturday, but we discovered it was actually the Belgian National Championships and the race would be on Sunday. In an interesting twist we were welcome to race their National Championships. Kev had a little issue with a valve on one of his wheels, so we found the local bike shop. The owner was a super nice guy and we found ourselves in the back work area where all the magic happens and like any self respecting bike shop, all the girly pictures hang on the wall. There were also a lot of Bart Wellens newspaper clippings on the wall.
Suddenly Kevin and I were looking down on the floor where there were 2 Team Fidea Ridleys sitting with the front wheels off. In very non flashy style they both said Bart Wellens on the top tube. At first glance I thought maybe it was a signature model that was available for the public, but the block letters were too small for that, and as I said "Are those his bikes?" a little guy walked by us from behind and started putting one of the front wheels on. He sort of had his back to us and had on a jacket with a high collar and a winter hat, but as he turned sideways I could see a little blonde hair sticking out and then his profile. I whispered to Kev "Is that him?" I turned to the shop owner who had a big smile on his face and just said "Ya Ya" as he laughed. Now I'm not one to get star struck, but I gotta admit standing there and meeting Bart Wellens a 4 time World Champion and 9 time Belgian National Champion, was some SHIT!!! Nicest guy you ever wanna meet too, perfect English and he talked about how he visited Boston some time ago with his pal Tim Johnson. Turns out he was a full time mechanic in the shop for 6 years before turning PRO, and he lives about 10k down the road. Later in the week the owner pulled out Barts World Champion bike from 2004, just to show it to us. He had it in the way back room. The thing was beautiful!!!
So we thought we would go race in Holland on Saturday in Bakel. We fought off the jet lag and loaded up our 6 speed Diesel, Ford Galaxy Mini Van and headed North for the 1 hour drive. Beautiful drive. Got there and found out the race was also on Sunday. Crap! We had a hard time figuring out the races and the categories and even the days the races were held on. It's not so clear and lots of various information is contradictory, oh well, no worries. We drove back to Kasterlee and burned some more laps. The course was incredible. Thank god we do our share of mountain bike races. The course was a single track winding through the woods up and down hills around tight corners with trees on the inside and also in the follow through of lots of the corners on snowy/icy "Bend" like conditions. There was also a section in a corn field that was brutally filled with frozen ruts and loose wet mud on the top 2" that had thawed. A LONG, narrow paved section (fake cobbles like bricks or pavers)made up the start and finish area.
Sunday dawned and as we understood it I would race in the B Masters which is men 40-49 at 11:30, Kev would race in the C Masters which was 50 and up and would be at 12:30. It had warmed up and everything was melting rapidly. We got to the venue and couldn't believe how many campers were there! 100s of them. Some big, some more personal, but just about everyone had one and they all set up their tents and awnings and get the work stand out and all the wash stuff. They make us look like a bunch of amateurs in that regard. Totally PRO, and there wasn't even a PRO category at this race. They're used to the mud since the country really never dries out.
We went to sign up and the entry fee was 5 Euro, which we would get back when we returned our numbers. Free racing!!! What the Heck? We get signed in and the organizer tells us my race is at 11:30, but Kevin's is at 10:30.....not 12:30. It was about 9:45 at that moment. A quick change up and a short spin and Kev was off to the line. I put his bike in the pit and then went out on the road to warm up. As I rode out I watched the last part of his start where they came off the pavement and onto a snow, ice and water covered field and then up into the woods into the single track. He was about 15th off the pavement, but they rode like pussies before the climb into the woods and Kev picked off 10 of them right there. He went into the woods in 5th. I did my warmup on the road. In Belgium every inch of road has a clearly marked bike lane or in most cases an actual bike path that runs parallel to the road. I know what you're thinking....those are dangerous because the drivers coming out of side streets and driveways pull in front of you. Not here! The drivers look for bikers first and then cross the path before looking for cars.
The commentator was busy doing the race, but I couldn't understand a bit of it. I had to get down to the start soon. I put my stuff away that I didn't need, dropped a bike in the pit and headed down. When I went by the start they were doing the Podium for Kev's race, and there on the top step fully kitted out in his Captain America skinsuit was Kevin standing next to (on the same step)another guy. This guy was wearing a brand new Belgian National Champions Jersey. I didn't have my camera. I was in the same skinsuit headed to the start.....of course I didn't have a camera, but I wish I did. UPDATE: We have a picture...He won the friggen thing!!! He's National Champion of Belgium as well as America, but they didn't give him the jersey.
My race was unspectacular and there were some serious headhunters in there. I struggled with the jet lag and did my best, but I was way off. I thoroughly enjoyed it though and found it cool to be cheered for as the "Americana". What was wierd was seeing how many actual fans had come out for a non PRO race. These were not people from the other fields. These were townfolk that walked over and plunked down a few Euros to watch the races and socialize in the beer tent. Oh ya, they almost all smoke too, and riding through clouds of cigarette smoke wasn't the coolest thing I ever did. I ended up 15th, the last paying spot. I gave back my number and got my 5 Euro back and another 5 for the prize money. Kev won 30 Euro which is almost $50. They had hot shower facilities there and everyone just walks into the shower with their kit on and gets the heavy part of the mud off of everything before actually showering. Very cool!
Now we had 5 days to get ready for Worlds and I don't intend on boring you with the details of that, but one day sticks out. Wednesday after doing a nice road loop, and some beautiful wooded bike trails, we hit the course for some laps. After a few easy laps we saw a group of guys that really looked like they knew what they were doing. We hitched onto the back of the group and there was one guy riding the whole thing on his tops wearing a Masters World Champion's kit. It was an awesome kit!!! Another had on a white Jersey with the Belgain National Champions tri-colors across it. That ended up being Gert Wellens, Bart's brother. He had just won the "Elite without contract" national title a week and a half earlier. There were a few others too and we went from doing tempo to doing hot laps. It was so cool and also the perfect Wednesday training session. I went from riding the course pretty well to riding it very well and my confidence went way up. We spoke to the World Champ later after we cooled down a bit, he's (was)the 30-34 World Champ, nice guy, his name is Sven Van Eyndt, he got beat Saturday and was suffering from back pain.
Race day. We had our info straight finally and Kev raced at 11:30 and I raced at 12:30. It was gonna be hard to watch his race at all if I was gonna prepare properly for mine. The big thing here is the call up. They do it randomly, but the USA has a history of getting flicked. After I burned a couple of laps before Kev's race I went up to the start grid where half the field was lined up, Kev was on the 2nd row! That's a very big deal.
He hadn't made any friends at the Natz the weekend before, and the guy that was the most upset with him, Mark Verloo, was undefeated all year until that race when Kevin's participation changed the dynamic and another Belgie took the jersey. Verloo was actually in the last row, so this was encouraging for me in regards to hoping for a good call up for myself.
After 1 lap Kev was in the lead with the Belgian Champ on his wheel. There was a gap to the next riders and I'm not sure if Verloo was in there or not. Kev dropped everyone on the 2nd lap, but at the beginning of the 3rd lap Verloo showed up. They rode around together for the remainder of the race and I guess Verloo has some cagey characteristics to his riding and also lots of power and skill. He was able to gap off Kev on the last lap and charge to the line with Kev in hot, close pursuit, but off just enough to see it slip away. An awesome result to finish 2nd at Worlds but also heart breakingly close. 1st is the only result that matters. But he equaled the highest ever finish for an American man at Master's Worlds. I think.
I was all keyed up to hear my name in an early call up. 1st row...nope. 2nd row.....nope. 3rd row......no. 4th.... nada. 5th.....niet. 6th.....not a chance. 7th.....no sir. OK last row it is. CRAP CRAP CRAP!!! There was a fat guy in front of me. I took some risks on the pavement to move up and they all worked out OK. I hit the beach in about 35th or so, where everyone got off and ran except the front row guys. I passed a ton of guys running and hit the woods in 16th. Made a few passes and got to 14th by the pit, where Kev told me my spot. Long way to go, but I told myself I could do it. I passed lots of guys, but one Italian tried to stuff me into a tree, just because I was going faster than him. I wanted so badly to get off my bike and kick his ass right there, but I hit the brakes and waited for a better spot. I passed him on the road.....never to see him again. I got into 3rd place and was in no man's land. At the start of the 3rd lap a former world champion, Danny Verhestraeten came out of nowhere and passed me going onto the beach, he gapped me, but I made good pace on the riding portion of the beach. He bobbled in the deep sand going up into the woods and I grooved a rut and passed him. He was breathing really hard. I kept him between 3-6 seconds for the next couple laps when I started seeing the 2nd place rider. I was feeling good now and had the course dialed, although it was possible to make mistakes everywhere, true cross racing. I closed on 2nd and pulled away from 4th. At the pit on the last lap, Kev said "He's right there....7 seconds" I drilled it as best as I could and was clearly catching him. That lap might have been my fastest of the day. Over the barriers and onto the pavement he was right there, as I pressed hard to gain on him I looked up and just in front of him the guy going over the line (there were some lappers mixed in) raised his arms up in victory. I couldn't believe it. It was the first time I saw him all day, and I just missed catching the 2nd placed guy too.
37 minutes of racing. We always go 45 in the USA, but we were scheduled to do 40 here. I feel like if we raced 1 more lap like we should have that I could very well be World Champion. I was feeling good and they were starting to crack. Oh well, I'm very pleased to go over there and come home with a medal from Worlds. Silver or bronze are the same in my eyes. The only result that matters is 1st! It turns out that the guys in 1st, 2nd, and 4th are all former or present or defending World Champions. There might have been more in the field, I'm not sure...
A HUGE congratulations goes out to Marilyn Ruseckas, from Vermont! She got the job done and will wear the World Champions colors for the following year. An honor I get goosebumps thinking about. Good on ya New England, and USA, way to go Marilyn, and thanks for the tasty beers during our celebration.
Thats it for now, Thanks for reading, JB