Belgian Diaries | Week 1

Since I'm here in Belgium for the next month and a half, I think it is prudent to start a new series: The Belgian Diaries. I'll try to keep up to date with updates and the latest deets on the racing. While daily posts seem ambitious, I think a weekly update will do just fine. Like 'Last Week Tonight' but less humourous. So without further adieu, here is Week One.

Welcome to Belgium!

After Reno I had Monday to relax, repack my things and make sure my life was in order before moving to Europe for the remainder of the cyclocross season. To be completely honest, I get a bit of anxiety before I travel. There is a constant check list flashing in my head as my mind ruminates on whether I packed too much or not enough (spoiler alert, I usually overpack). Being able to spend time with my friend Callum and tour around Reno a bit was a nice way to distract myself. That, and my teammate Erica had her own packing woes to deal with.

Tuesday came and it was a long day spent in airports and airplanes. The flight from Reno to Phoenix was uneventful, as was the 5 hour layover. But the flight from Phoenix to London was downright dreamy! As luck would have it, the flight was under-booked and I ended up having a whole middle row all to myself! #blessed With a restful night's sleep, I arrived in London feeling less groggy than expected and boarded the puddle jumper to Brussels without much hassle.

Remember when I thought I overpacked? Yea, that may have been the case. Moving fluidly from arrivals to baggage to customs to the train was easy. The hour long train ride from Brussels to Oudenaarde, also easy. The hike from the train station to the house. Not so much. The timing of my arrival wasn't great as the owner of The Chainstay, Gregg Germer, was still on holiday, and I didn't have any information for the other guests. With a double bike bag, a single bike bag, a suitcase, and a backpack, it was a long 1.6 km hike with many stops. I eventually made it, and if that's all the adversity I face on this trip, I'll count myself as more than lucky. After a shower and a quick bite to eat, I fell face down into bed.

Off to France

I woke up on Thursday feeling somewhat awake but still jetlagged from the trip. Heading out with a couple of guys from the house - Ben from Australia and Finn from England - we rolled out for a windy spin along the canal (or kanaal in Dutch). It was somewhat surreal pedaling along, passing the famous cyclocross course at Gavere (pronounced "have-er-uh"), along some winding roads which could be mistaken for bike paths in America, and even finding our way to the base of the storied Koppenberg. Not bad for a first spin around town! The rest of the day was spent getting sorted at The Chainstay, cashing out for some funny European money, and getting groceries at the Colruyt and Lidl stores. Gregg arrive with his family back from the States and while we both wanted to relax a bit the long drive to France wasn't going to be easy on Saturday.

We set out on Friday morning on the five hour journey down to Belfort, France. The drive was smooth and complete with a stop at Dunkin Donuts in Luxembourg. Luxembourg runs on Dunkin. We arrived at the house to meet Rebecca Fahringer and Kerry Werner. It was a lovely evening with dinner and a few laughs, then I was off to my hotel. Jet lag was still a thing as I woke up around 3a and didn't get back to sleep around 4:30. The benefit is that I didn't wake up until 11a and, since I missed breakfast, I was afforded the opportunity to go exploring. Belfort, as I learned, is situated between the Rhine and the Rhone rivers. It's location made it a popular route for trade but also for armies to hold.  After a morning stroll is was time to head to the course in preparation for my first European race!

Some of Flanders fields.

UCI Telenet World Cup - Nommay (48th) [Strava]

The course in Nommay was just outside a nautical ski park. Traversing the dips and ridges near the park, the track has A LOT of pedaling. A week's worth of rain leading up to the event made the track heavy with mud. It was not going to be an easy race by any means. Course preview complete and bikes cleaned, there was nothing left except to go through the normal pre-race routines and jump into the deep end.

I was the last person called to the grid on Sunday. The gray skies of eastern France hung low above our heads as we toed the line. I had a smile on my face through warm up and was giddy when the French fans came by asking for riders cards and an autograph (thanks Ryan!)! Back on the line, I craned my neck to see the light that would start the race. The air was still, the mood tense, and when the light switched to green, we blasted off the line. The start stretch in Nommay was long, and while I wanted to push up, the fast approaching stairs meant I would be at a standstill anyhow. Dismounting my bike, I made my way up the stairway and ran the first muddy chicances. You're in the game now.

photo by Ethan Glading

Remounting my bike, I kept pushing the pedals, trying as best as I could to get through the mud. Though not raining, the course was simultaneously greasy and heavy. There were corners where the bike was drifting and long straights that required everyone to utilize their best tractor pull skills. I've heard it before but it didn't make sense until that moment: the Euro races seem to float over the mud. I'm sure it helps to grow up riding in it, but as I churned away I seemed to be losing ground on my rivals. Fortunately, I was able to keep it smooth and close the gap a bit. Passing the pits for the first time, I came up on my teammate and Canadian champion, Michael Van den Ham, who had some to grief with a post. I followed him for a quarter of a lap but there is a reason Michael is a National Champion, and he powered away from me.

The race carried on and I picked up a few spots here and there. While it was hard not to look behind for the fast-approaching van der Poel-Van Aert wave, I kept my focus forward as best as I could. My friend and Grit World Racing extraordinaire, Andrew Juliano, was unable to take the start but was kind enough to be in the pits for me. Each lap I came through, Andrew was ready with a clean bike and a kind word to keep me pedaling hard. Each time I crossed the line, I put my head down for one more lap, one more chance to survive a little bit longer in the race. But, on my fourth lap, the wave came crashing down as Mathieu van der Poel came screaming past me, followed a minute later by reigning World Champion, Wout Van Aert. While I don't like losing, it was surreal being passed by the two best riders in the world. My starry-eyed day dream came quickly crashing back to earth though, as the officials ushered me off the course and unceremoniously cut the transponder from my bib number.

Though I was not able to finish the race on the first lap, I was super happy to have the opportunity to race in France. When my coaches asked me about my future goals, I told them I wanted to race World Cup cyclocross and the World Championships. I know that I have a long way to go in my development, but being able to get my first taste of European cyclocross action was a dream come true. There are still a few weeks left to go in the season, but it's safe to say that we're on the right path already!

Until next time!