Belgian Diaries | Week 5
After a week on the east side of Belgium, it was back to the old haunts of West Flanders. With just a few weeks of racing remaining, the season is hurtling towards it's conclusion. But there is still plenty of lessons to be learned and little victories to be earned. Here is Week Five of The Belgian Diaries.
Back to Oudenaarde
The Monday after Hoogstraten was the day of nothing. With lots of sleep and lots of calories under our belts, we eventually got around to being productive. From laundry, to bike washing, to replacing parts that were worn by the grit and mud of racing in Belgium, the day ended with an empty to-do list. I said it before, but living and riding here in Belgium provides a proving ground for one's personal degree in bike maintenance. Tobin and I unloaded our gear at the car wash bay and went to town blasting the mud off bikes and kits. I would say that we looked odd to other patrons, but this is Belgium where bike racing is king. So I'm sure seeing a few guys washing kit was not out of the ordinary.
The sun was still shining on Tuesday when we loaded up the van and rolled back to the west side of Belgium. Dropped off in Oudenaarde, Tobin carried on to the coast to stay the week in Oostend, while I eased back into the grind with my American compatriots. Like me, Eric Thompson (MSpeedWax.com) has been posted up in Oudenaarde since after Nationals. An up-and-coming talent on the US domestic scene, Eric has had some awesome races this year and is a rider I've seen improve by leaps and bounds after coming to Belgium in 2016. While didn't have a chance to connect earlier in the trip, we joined forces on Tuesday for a little spin with Becca Fahringer (Stan's No Tubes). Well, it was more of an adventure than a ride. We cruised through the Belgian fields and would choose one direction over another at each intersection. It was definitely a fun ride and a great way to ease back into the week.
Having a training partner is so key in a sport like cyclocross. It provides you with someone to push you in your daily rides and opportunities to learn from another racer. Having already been to Europe, Eric has been more than willing to share his knowledge and insights about racing and training in Belgium. One thing that I've learned this week is the concept of "little victories". All season I've been keeping a diary of three things I have learned or did well each day. It's sort of positive reinforcement for the work being done. Taking that to the next level, each ride should have some little victory with it. Whether that is doing intervals at a new level, or finding some insane feature along the roadside and riding it, these little things and intentional practice adds up. Eric has helped push me on our rides to ride silly things and look for those little victories in each ride. Moreover, it's been great being able to pick his brain and start the wheels turning for how to prepare for the 2018/19 season.
On Thursday, Becca, Eric, and I piled in the car and drove a short hour to the city of Hulst in The Netherlands. Originally a fortified city from the invading Spanish armies in the 16th century, the city of Hulst is quaint with cobbled streets and a star-shaped fort upon which the course was constructed. It was great that we were able to jump on course and scope the lines for Sunday's race. With steep drops, long run-ups, and plenty of tricky off-cambers knowing where you're going and what's coming up ahead would be key. Or at least a very nice thing to know. Pre-ride complete and fear quelled (slightly) we made a quick stop for lunch and a pastry, then rolled back to Belgium. Next up was a trip to the coast for the last Superprestige race of the season!
Superprestige - Middelkerke (43rd) [Strava]
We woke up on Saturday and loaded up the van to head to Middelkerke. With a quick stop in Gent to pick up our friend and mechanic for the weekend, Lieven, we continued on to the seaside town of Middelkerke. Just a few blocks away from the beach, the course was relatively flat save for a few short, punchy inclines and drops. The best way to describe the course would be awkward. There were some sections of open pedaling, but with the punchy inclines and steep drops it was hard to find a good rhythm. I jumped on course with Tobin and Eric to recon the course. Somewhere along my first lap, I hit a rut wrong and was thrown from my bike. It was a rude awakening to the day, but a good reminder to pay attention and keep good focus. And a good bruise as a souvenir. See the Eric Thompson's course pre-ride video below!
The sun was out and the temps were perfect for cyclocross! The race started down a long start stretch. I was shuffled to the back a bit, but made my way through the first lap chaos and crashes to move up in the field. My day wouldn't be that great through, as I made my own fair share of mistakes in the opening lap. The pack had stretched out by the end of lap one and I was in a good position to chase, to put a positive spin on things. I was pushing hard on the pedals but the legs weren't having it. For whatever reason I just didn't have much in the engine room, or at least enough to hang on to the group just in front of me.
While my engine was sputtering, my technical skills were improved from the pre-ride. I was riding many of the features with improved flow over the course of the laps. Sure, it wasn't Van der Poel-esque, but I was gaining confidence in myself and my abilities each lap. Back on it, I tried to muster the last bits of energy I had before exiting the race. I was making headway and pulling back a few riders, but I ran out of real estate and exited the race in 43rd place.
To be honest, I was a bit frustrated with the race. Of course, my initial assumptions of the course proved to be wrong and the track was much more demanding than I anticipated. As it is with many of the courses here in Europe, there is a great deal of finesse and torque required. Something to work on this spring and summer! My bad mood wouldn't last too long though. We got cleaned up and dropped Lieven off in the seaside town of Nieuwpoort (pronounced "newport"). Driving through town it was crazy seeing structures left over from World War I. I'll spare the historical details, but being able to roll past such history was cool for me. Filled with coffee and a homemade waffle or two, we headed back to Oudenaarde to get ready to do it all again on Sunday!
Brico Cross - Vestingcross Hulst (48th) [Strava]
The sun was shining again on Sunday as we ventured back to The Netherlands. The temps were perfect, again, and the town was buzzing with people. After parking, picking up numbers, discussing US Driver's Licenses with the promoter, and getting pinned up, it was time to head out on course. The track was a bit more torn up compared to Thursday, but that is to be expected. I did my recon laps and was feeling at ease with both my lines and the race as a whole. All the hitters were present for this last Brico Cross race of the season. Though not quite as prestigious as the Superprestige or the DVV Trofee, the Brico Cross series has produced some sweet courses and the track at Hulst was another example of that. See Eric's course pre-ride video below!
Warmed up and ready to go, I rolled to the line to pedal up and down the start straight with the other renners (Dutch for "racers"). With no separate U23 field, the pack was much larger than normal. I was lined up just behind Eric on row 5.74. The start straight was narrow and as the lights turned green, I hesitated slightly to clip in. As a result, I was shuffled to the back a bit and caught up in the first lap slowdowns through the opening switchbacks. As we passed the barriers for the first time, I came to an abrupt stop as someone had decided to lay down on the first off camber. Up and moving, there was more of the same for the rest of the lap as riders misjudged lines and the field sorted itself out. Completing the first lap, I was feeling good and pushed hard on the pedals. Whatever power was lacking on Saturday had made it's way back to my body. Moreover, my self-belief in my ability to navigate the course added a few more watts and I made a few passes on the next lap.
Each lap I gained more confidence in my lines and rode many of the abrupt transitions smoother than the previous lap. There were a few hiccups here and there though, and I still have a lot to work on when it comes to the technique and finesse required to ride these Euro features. But overall, my race was much better and I felt more accomplished as I exited the race in 48th place.
I rolled back to the car and cooled down on the rollers. Cleaned up and packed up, it was time to say some good byes. For many of the Americans, Hulst was the last race of the season. No tears were shed, but there were plenty of hugs and high-fives to go around. It all hit me as I arrived back at The Chainstay later that evening. There was just one week remaining in my cyclocross season and I was the only one left in the house. Time to make the most of my remaining days in Belgium!