The Motherland. Belgium. Home of beer, waffles, chocolate and cycling. This place is addictive, even though the simplest things can become a challenge, like trying to dry one's clothes, or buy some fuel, or groceries after 7 PM, or on a Sunday.
If I weren't a cyclist I'd probably feel differently, but all those little things go away when you constantly see groups of cyclists and children, and old folks all out on bikes. Wheather it be for sport, or commuting to school or work, or going to market.
Consider that it's late January, the fields are green and saturated, there is a constant drizzle that switches between rain and light rain. It's usually around 40-45 degrees, and it doesn't seem to discourage anyone from being out on a bike.
The country is marked with thousands of canals and waterways. On both sides of these canals are bike paths, paved and beautiful. Some of the canals are quite large and extremely industrious, but the smaller canals that tend to meander through the countryside through fields and woods are my favorites. No cars, no signs of human life at all other than the canal itself and the asphalt, for miles and miles.
The fresh bread that they bake here is worth the trip alone, and the beer! OH THE BEER!!! So tasty and some pack quite a punch too. Thats probably the one thing that is less expensive when you get here, everything else is super expensive. Fuel is about $7 a gallon or 1.30 euro/litre. Groceries are expensive too. Plus you lose money on the conversion since the dollar is so week. For $100 you get 64 euros, and then the prices seem high even if the dollar and euro were equal.
There is another thing that's less expensive.....Cyclocross races. Typically you pay 5 or 6 euros for a race number which is made of thin vinyl. There are about 600 pin holes in the corners from being used that many times. When the race is over you return the number for 5 euros plus whatever prize money you may have earned.
We moved our flight up 1 day to get out of here before the big snowstorm shut down the airports. That was good planning because the storm barreled up the coast as we darted over the Atlantic Ocean, missing it by a couple hours. All our bags made it and in 1 piece so we had a major portion of the "concerns" out of the way and checked off sucessfully. We got our bikes built up pretty quickly and then headed out on our first ride to explore our new neighborhood for the next 2 weeks. This year we stayed in Tielte Winge which was a good central location and also rumored to be the home town of Eddy Merckx. I don't think thats true based on a quick search, but thats what we were being told while we were there.
The idea of this ride was just to shake out the legs and get the flight out of them and get the blood moving. The body does funny things when you fly over 6 time zones. Some respond better than others. I struggle with it terribly, while Kevin aces it. The guy can step off a plane anywhere in the world and instantly adapt to the time difference. He sleeps when you're supposed to and doesn't wake up for hours in the middle of the night like so many of us do.
We were at a house that regularly houses cyclists, so they were set up for us quite well. They had spare road wheels for us to train on, as well as trainers and a floor pump that we could use at the races. I didn't bring a lot of tools but I did throw my tire guage in my bag which was key since the pump was good but inaccurate in terms of pressure. There were 2 junior Canadians at the house (Ben Perry, & Yohan Patry)as well as another Canadian Masters rider, Ed Campbell. It was a good dynamic having so many cyclists in the house and more came and went as the 2 weeks went by. We found good training routes and interesting places.
Something I noticed this time around that I didn't notice last year were these tiny little religious shrines that dotted the roadsides as well as some more remote spots. I had noticed them and this particular one stood out as the most unique one I saw. There was a beaten in little path up through the corn field that made me think that it sees quite a few visits. I'm not religious at all, but thats pretty cool.
Our first race was in Langemark, about an hour and a half West of our location. Last year we were warned about not doing the race since it was just a pure mud race, flat as a table and deep sloggy field after field. We didn't go last year, but this year we really needed 2 races on the weekend before Worlds to get race ready. It sucked! It was almost impossible to get through the mud for me, and I destroyed my leg muscles in trying. Kevin had no problems winning the 50+ category. In an interesting twist we had a ton of Americans there. Peter Webber, who won with his teamate Brandon Dwight in 2nd. Also on hand was former Olympian (1996 Atlanta, Mountain Biking)Don Myrah who had stripped me of my National Cross title in December. Boulder had a whole slew of riders there actually, adding Brian Hludzinsky, Ward Baker, Micheal Robson as well as Kurt Perham who used to live there but is now a New Englander up in Maine. We also had a few Canadians there and although they weren't at this race Adam Whitney and his wife Marylyn Ruseckas were in Belgium as well. The legendary Steve Tilford would join us later in the week. Steve has THE most interesting blog to read I've ever come across (sorry Chandler). I reccomend giving it a look.
After a serious bike washing we loaded up for the next day's race in Bakel, Holland. If Langemark was my least favorite race of all time, Bakel was my most favorite! Right in the center of the most picturesque town they have a big wooded lot, with lots of small hills. The course serpentined its way through the woods, up and down and out into a long, hard, sandy run up as well as some short field sections. The most fun course ever! Read about it more here.
Kevin, Don myrah, Marc Bodreau, Adam Whitney and I were in the back row while the Boulder crew had figured out a few tricks and got some sweet call ups. I had made my way up to 8th or so with lots of guys just in front of me that I had been gaining on all day when I made a small mistake and slid out a corner trying to take it too fast. I didn't lose much time in getting back going, or so I thought. The chain had come off and in an attempt to pedal it back on it got wedged between the stay and chain ring. I lost huge time and about 5 or 6 places before I could get it straightened out. I ended up 12th, but the result wasn't as important as how I felt on the bike, and I felt tremendous that day, on a course that was very similar to last year's World's course in Mol, Belgium.
If Belgium is a great place to be a cyclist, then Holland is twice as good. Often times the roads have more space dedicated to bike lanes than for vehicle traffic. There's often one thin road for cars going both ways, but after a small strip of grass or trees there's a bike path on BOTH sides of the road. On the way into Bakel which was the most beautiful day of our trip, 55 degrees and sunny with no wind, we saw group after group of cyclists on the paths on both sides of the road. Not just some group of 3 or 4 hackers, but 20-25 guys all kitted up like PROS. They all sit on the bike like PROS too. The wanker ratio is low. They've been raised from birth with cycling in their blood, the 30-40something that picks up Bicycle Magazine and decides to take up cycling doesn't exist here. If a driver hits a cyclist with their car, they can be guarenteed to go to jail. There is no problems with cars. The "cyclist hate" is non existent.
The week between the races is the hardest time for me. It's hard to keep yourself busy and productive. We had intended to go to Oudinaarde on Tuesday for a trip up the Koppenberg as well as a visit to the Tour of Flanders Museum. But a quick email to Kurt (the Boulder crew is staying in Oudinaarde) confirmed that the museum was closed, so we scrapped our one day of planned tourism, although we had toured Antwerp's pedestrianized Diamond District on our first full day in Belgium which also included some hot laps on the semi broken down Belgian National Elite Championship Course, so that was kinda touristy.
We did daily rides and daily bike washes, including 2 trips to Mol, which is about a 45-50 minute drive, for recon laps. I visited my favorite little tree lined lane in the woods near the race venue. I don't know what it is about this spot in the woods of Mol, but I'd gladly have some of my ashes spread here when I die. It's as peaceful a place as I've ever experienced.
Daily trips to market for dinner stuff and fresh beer were also part of the ritual. Finally we were up to the day before the big race and all I had to do was take the race rig out for a shakedown ride and do some openers for about an hour. I went by a street called Stevens St. so I thought I should snap off a picture. I wish I had taken more pics of the local landscape. You would've seen that most everything is built from concrete and brick or stone. I guess I won't be a Belgian carpenter, I'd probably struggle cutting rafters by the metric system anyway.
Race day came and it was raining lightly as we drove over to Mol for the 3rd time in 4 days. It stoppped shortly after we arrived. Kev's race was at 11:30 and mine was at 12:30. We got there at 9 AM. Thats way too early for my liking, but his race was earlier so I had to just chill for a while. To me theres no reason to get to the venue too early, especially if you've already done a ton of laps on the course and have it all dialed in. Too much time can be a negative as you just get more nervous being at the actual venue. He wanted to go get a number right away, but that was the last thing I wanted to do. He asked why not? and I said because I didn't want to be on the top of the list. The way this works is that the call up is random. When I hear random, I think every name is gonna go in a hat or a bucket or something and they'll pull the names out 1 at a time. NO! They can't be bothered with that. I found that out last year. The way they do it is they take the list of entrants which in my race was 80 guys, way more than last year, and they choose a place to start. Somewhere in the middle is typical. Then if they start at number 40 they go right up 41, 42, 43 etc. When they get to the end they either go to #1 and go up, or go to #39 and go down. The thing that I sort of thought of during one of my 4 hours of awakeness in the middle of the night earlier in the week was that the top guys always seem to be in the front 2 rows. I thought that if I signed up right next to them that I'd at least improve my chances at a decent call up. Shoot, anything would be better than last row, which is what I got last year. I figured if I signed up for a 12:30 race at 9 oclock that I'd probably be #1 or 2. I didn't want that. I waited in the warm car til 10 and then went up to registration. I couldn't believe it, but Marc Druyts, the present World Champion in my group was right at the table next to me filling out his form, the next guy that walks in is Mario Lammens, the present Belgian National Champ. Druyts got #44, I got #45 and Mario got #46.
I was rolling around warming up when Kevin staged, he was in the last row, but the field wasn't too big. I made it up to 3rd last year from the last row and Kevin is great at working his way through traffic. The other thing working against him though was the length of the race. They were scheduled to race for 30 minutes. Steve Tilford got a 4th row call up that he "converted" to 3rd row, wearing bib #1, so I figured my "system" was probably pretty worthless. I was prepared to start in the back and brawl my way up.
Tilly was 9th after the first big sand section and in a good spot to contend. Kev was way back in traffic so heavy that he was having trouble remounting his bike because it was so crowded. Then I had to leave and go to the car to go through my trainer workout and last minute race preparations. I wouldn't see the race, but I knew that going in. Mark Verloo won again and Tilly was 3rd after losing a spot on the last hard sand section in "the bowl". Before that he was in 2nd at 5 seconds down. Kevin got all the way up to 6th but was never in it.
Belgium 1st and 2nd, USA 3rd.
In my race the first call up was #38. I was on the front row right between the World Champion, and the former World Champion/current Belgian Champion.....right where I belong, I thought. I figured if I could handle these 2 guys I'd probably win the thing. I beat them both, but two 3-time World Champions also beat me. I won the hole shot with ease and led onto the beach, Mario came around me after we ran and he sort of bobbled the exit of the beach which was also deep sand, I had to dismount and lost some spots, but was still at the front of the race. Mario checked out right then, but he started to fade after a few minutes and by the end of the lap we were all together again, a front group of 5 with 2 more close and trying to make the selection. Just as we came out of a tricky little sand section that spilled us onto the finishing straightaway, Tilly yelled to me that "it's better to ride at the front on this course Jon". I thought, my thoughts exactly and drilled it to the front again gapping them off slightly before hitting the beach 1st again. I rode the sand OK, but Dirk Mertens, jumped around me before the exit. He did the same thing on the next lap, but Eric Teck had gapped us a bit in the initial run in. When we got off the beach I passed Dirk and was riding in 2nd with Dirk on my wheel and Marc Druyts hanging on. Mario was dropped. Just before a little "down up" with a hard left hander in it, Dirk shot past me again. Thats where I lost the World Championship. I'm pretty confident in saying I was the strongest guy that day. There's a tricky double root at the top of the little rise and with the sandy soil diminishing, the roots were getting taller and taller all day, and there's a big stump just to the left of the line on the exit too. It really was a very tricky little spot with a lot going on. I had it dialed though.
I figured Dirk would do a good job with it like all the top riders and I didn't leave much of a gap. He gaffed it and basicly got hung up on it. With a split second to react I had no where to go. I slammed into him from behind and basicly pushed him forward right when he needed it, and helped him get his momentum back. I had to hobble over the roots and my chain dropped. As I sucessfully pedaled it back on Druyts went by, and a big gap was created. Now Eric was in the lead with Dirk very close, and Marc and I chasing at about 12 seconds or so. OK time for plan B. I let Druyts slay himself to defend his title while I sat to learn his lines and see if he knew something I didn't. He didn't. His lines sucked and he was in my way. I passed him and dropped him, but he was still close....scrapping. Dirk caught Eric and seemed to gap him immediately. I don't think Eric bobbled a sand section, but he was just in a bad patch. I caught Eric and Druyts was scrapping to get back. I slayed it as best I could but Eric was way better in the sand. I was more fit and able to hurt him, but anthing I gained I lost in the sand. On the last lap we were about 10 seconds back and unless Dirk made a mistake we were racing for Silver. We traded passes several times all of them clean. There was no bullshit at all, the guy was a classy rider in every sense. I had the front position coming into the barriers which is less than a minute from the finish. He came flying by as we hurdled the barriers and passed me on foot. Turns out he was better at the barriers than me too. He handled the last tricky sand section with ease and started sprinting while I swerved out of the sand. He had beat me and we both knew it. I looked up and Dirk crossed the line, then Eric, then I noodled in for 3rd.
Belgium 1st and 2nd, USA 3rd.
Last year, I just wanted the chance to race, this year I got it, but with the same result. The 2 races were polar opposites though. Last year after working through traffic, I was alone for 3 laps just chasing my brains out. This year I was in the mix all day racing for the World Title, leading at times and being very agressive. I didn't get disrespected at all by guys doing things the Belgies have sort of come to be known for. I know when I'm racing another guy that is confident and strong, that it makes a statement, and respect is automatic. Maybe I made that statement. Maybe they recognized me from last year. Dirk was 2nd last year. All in all it was an excellent experience. It was such a buzz to be in the race. I keep playing through my head what might have happened if I protected my spot better, not letting Dirk get by me at that critical moment. He would have lost time to me and I would have caught Eric when he was in his bad patch and I coulda gapped him. This will torment me, and motivate me. In hindsight I think the lap before Dirk had probably seen that I cleaned that obstacle and wanted to get in front of me so I wouldn't gap him if I cleaned it again. Smart racer! This reminds me of my pal Sammy's quote..."Cyclocross is like trying to play chess while you're drowning". The good ones do it well. All I can do is tip my hat to Dirk. He beat a few guys that were there to win, and capable of it that day. Nice ride!
So now I have two.
Poor Don Myrah had a similar fate as Kevin and was buried on the start grid in about the 7th row. He passed a ton of guys, but also was never in it and finished 12th pretty far back on time.
Later I watched and cheered for Pete Webber and Brandon Dwight, as they were our last chance for a jersey, but it wasn't to be. The guy that won their race was on another planet and had power and skill to spare. Pete was 4th and Brandon 6th. I did get a good shot of Pete going over the little "down up root section" though. He also had it dialed, and I snapped this picture. You can't see how exposed the roots are below or how loose the sand was in the approach but you can see the big stump that made it even more tricky if you bobbled left a little. It gave guys fits all day, Marc Druyts was running that spot and he's a 3-time World Champion.
Anyway, thats that. The next day we went to the World Cup in Hoogerhiede, but I'm sick of typing, so I'll save that for another day.
Thanks for reading, JB