Belgian Diaries | Week 6
I must ask for your forgiveness. After a long season and a week of travel, I've failed in getting this post up at it's scheduled time. For those who counted on reading this blog as a part of their morning coffee ritual or as a break from work, I'm sorry that I left you hanging last week. The good news is that I was able to sort myself out and am happy to present the last week of my journey to Belgium.
Your patience, your viewership, and your understanding is appreciated. So without further adieu, here is Chapter 6 of The Belgian Diaries.
The Laatste Rondes
Arriving back at The Chainstay on Sunday night it set in that I was the last one left. Eric was still around Oudenaarde of course, toughing it out to the end of the season like I was, but his accommodations were across the river. When I first arrived in January the house was bustling with racers and energy. Now, the halls were dark, the rooms empty, and the last week in Belgium was suddenly there before me.
There was no sadness though, as Eric and I set out for Gent on Monday morning. The skies were gray and the rain imminent as we set out along the schelde. It was a nice spin to Gent and a good chance to ease the body into recovery. We made our way right to the center of town to Bar Bidon. What was just going to be a coffee stop ended up being coffee and lunch and good conversation, as we tried to warm our frozen extremities before heading back. Eventually we made our way out the door and set a faster tempo to get our body heat up. Sticking with the #littlevictories theme, we found a giant off-camber near the schelde and took turns riding the hillside. I was tired, feeling the effects of a hard weekend (and season) of racing, but my head was in a good place and I was looking forward to the week ahead!
Tuesday I woke up and was in worse shape than I expected. I had a bit of a sore throat (post nasal drip) on Saturday, but didn't think it was anything more than some fatigue and changing weather. That turned out to be much more as I would find out. Sticking with the positive theme, I did learn a lot about the difference between a cold and a flu, medication recommendations, and how our bodies try to fight the sickness. With lots of sleep and some meds, my fever broke on Wednesday night and I was on the up and up once again.
By Friday I was feeling better and was able to put a little more effort into the pedals. Once again, Eric and I rolled out towards Kluisbergen and then back to Oudenaarde along the schelde. We took the opportunity to jump off the cement and ride in the mud alongside the bike path. Up and down the off camber, we found steeper and steeper inclines, not moving on until each of us rode it. With Eric's help, things have finally started to click between understanding the technique and actually executing it.
With some confidence built up, we stopped by De Donk for another crack at the hill we had tried (in vain) to ride the week before. Eric was the first to do it and sharing his tips, I was able to follow suit and ride the hill. Then again, and again, and again. Doing it once would not suffice, as I worked up a good sweat ingraining the sensation and technique into my memory. Despite a week of sickness, I was once again in a good place and looking forward to finishing the season strong!
Malheur Kleicross Lebbeke (30th) Strava
On Monday I sent a text to my coach to get his thoughts on a few races this week. Obviously I was going to do Oostmalle, but there was also a midweek kermesse as well as a "local" cross race on Saturday in Lebbeke. The response... "Race as much as you can."
My plans were thrown up in the air when I woke up sick on Tuesday, but by Friday I had bounced back enough to still race. With only two races left in the cyclocross season, I was determined to race no matter how I was feeling. I decided for this race to roll over myself. No pit crew, no soigneurs. Just me and two bikes, one for pre-ride. one for the race. This will probably be seen as poor approach to racing by most, but to be honest, my motivation and the decision to race were both up in the air leading into the weekend. Fortunately for me, the weather in Belgium had been dry all week so I was fairly certain that the parcours would also be dry and pitting would not be required. Besides, how hard could a local race be??
Very hard. Looking at the list of registrants for the Elite Herren ("Elite Men") I was surprised to see so many big names on the startlist. Michael Vanthourenhout, Kevin Pauwels, Klaas Vantornout, Laurens Sweeck, and a host of other top Belgian riders all rolled up with their campers on a blustry Saturday morning. As I rolled into the venue, I asked the attendant where the elite racers could park.
"American, eh? You are alone?"
"Yes," I replied.
"Okay. You can find a spot in the back, okay?" he answered.
I chuckled to myself as I parked the team car behind the campers and away from the public eye. Americans are still not on the same level as the European pros, I guess.
The course in Lebbeke was pan flat. Turning off the start straight, the course has a series of 180 turns, five to be exact, in the opening section. Opening up into a field, the course wound around, with only a small ditch, and some ruts along the way. The barriers were just on the edge of my comfortability, and the only other dismount was a staircase flyover. After a few warm up laps, I was feeling confident in my lines and in my chances overall.
Since this was a National race, I was called up last. In fact, when I checked in, the officials didn’t even have my UCI World Rank on file. As a result, I was the last one to the line and the only non-Belgian in the field. I got clipped in right away off the start and wasted no time attempting to move up in the field. I picked my lines correctly and moved up a few spots, just before the left turn off of the pavement. The group stayed together through the opening turns, but as soon as the track opened up, the elastic began to stretch.
By the end of the first lap, the peloton was broken up into smaller groups. I was doing well, making passes and picking off riders along the way. Even though I was still having trouble nailing my lines, I was still making up the time on the straights and felt like I had a good rhythm going. All I needed to do was give my best on the day and the rest would take care of itself. Unfortunately, as I neared the end of my third lap on course, my chain bounced off the chainring. Pulling over to the side, I was able to replace my chain quickly (thanks to my perfected Mathieu Van der Poel technique), but the mishap threw me off my rhythm and allowed some other riders to come back to me.
I pushed on the pedals every chance that I got, knowing that my time on course was short. To further complicate matters, I came through the start/ finish line and had to make some quick maneuvers to avoid a dog that was wandering on course. The pup was on a leash of course, but it was clear it’s owners were there for the party and not so much the bike race. Over my last laps, I was able to make up some time, but eventually Michael Vantourenhout was hot on my trail and I was pulled from the race. It was a rather unceremonious exit but I was happy with my performance. After struggling with a bad cold all week, being able to drive my bike the best I had all season and hit my lines each lap was a big win for me. Moreover, it was also my best finish of the trip in 30th place.
Internationale Sluitingsprijs Oostmalle (43rd) Strava
Spirits were high on Sunday when I woke up. After cleaning bikes and re-packing my race bag, I was looking forward to the final race of the season in Oostmalle. Google did the math and informed me it had been 161 days since my first race of the 2017/18 season at Jingle Cross in Iowa City. Couple that stretch with the build up to the season, and you have a lot of cyclocross. So, on this 162nd and final day of my cyclocross campaign, I was ready to race.
Eric and I had driven out to Oostmalle on Thursday to pre-ride the course and get a general sense of where things were. Held on the grounds of a municipal airport, the course was fast and sandy. Riding the sand ruts would be key, but once we entered the woods, the track was flowy and fast. It is honestly one of the most fun courses I have ridden this season!
With just one more race left, I eschewed the normal warm up on the trainer. Instead, Eric and I rolled out with the other elite riders to warm up on the airport runway. At some point, Eric looked at me and said, “Do you realize we’re on a group ride with the world’s best cyclocrossers right now?” I hadn’t thought about it, but when you step back and realize you’re sitting behind Klaas Vantornhout and Mathieu Van der Poel is on your wheel, it’s sort of surreal. All I could do was smile and give Eric a little pinch in response. I told Mathieu to get to the front and start pulling but he politely declined. What a slacker…
They did have my UCI ranking on file today, and I was able to start on row 3.82, rather than at the back. The start stretch was looooong. Like as long as a runway long. The whistle blew and all 45 of us blasted off the line past the thumping VIP party tents toward the course. I again got into my pedals straight away and wasted no time trying to move up in the group. As we past the tents, all I heard was popping sounds, as if someone had broken a chain or a derailleur. I hesitated for a second, waiting for the inevitable crash in front of me, only to realize that we were running over empty beer cups. Somehow that was a relief.
Refocused, I managed to pick the correct lines and slip through the first lap bobbles and mix ups. As we passed the pit for the first time, I was way up in the field, and had no intention of moving backwards. As we entered the woods, however, I had made a few mistakes in the sand that opened up a small gap. Not wanting to let the gap grow, I was riding as fast as I could to make up the time. Somehow though, it wasn’t fast enough as the guys behind me were chirping at me to pick up the pace. “More?!” I thought to myself. I was already handling at the edge of my comfortability and what I assumed was warp speed. Apparently my current limits are medium to slow speed by Belgian standards. They passed me and left me in the dust.
At the end of the first lap there was some uncharacteristic rattling coming from my bike. I looked down, only to see that my skewer was not where I left it. Pulling onto the start straight, I dismounted my bike and tightened the skewer back down (or so I thought), and got back to chasing. All seemed well, but still, something did not seem right. As I got to one of the more technical sections of the course, I noticed that my work had come undone. So I went through the process again. This time it did the trick.
I kept pushing myself to ride the ruts and take the turns faster than I had before. In pre-ride, I was ripping up the course and feeling really confident. But bike handling in pre-ride and bike handling at 180 BPM are two very different things. Still, I kept challenging myself to ride each section better than the lap before and I was making progress on that.
I came around and was sure I was going to get pulled. However, the officials granted me one last lap in the cold, blustry Belgian sunshine. With the leaders hot on my tail, I felt the pressure to ride each section as fast as I could. Maybe that turned out to be a good thing, as I hit most of my lines successfully in the closing lap. And that would be the high note that I would end on, exiting the course in 43rd place, the last of the finishers for the day.
There were no tears shed or sadness felt though. I had raced as fast as my body would allow and could only smile as I gathered myself at the car. Our Belgian friend Anneleen arrived with a tall Jupiler she had promised me, and Eric and I split it as we toasted to a good season. Finally, after 162 days of training and racing, the season was over.
To say that this season was a success, would be an understatement. While there were a few lows along the way, the 2017/18 season proved to be more than I could have ever hoped for.
I’ve been asked a few times,
“Why go to Belgium?
Why put yourself in a situation where your odds of winning are zero and you have so much you could work on back home?
Why invest the money, the time, the effort in the rain and the mud?"
To be honest, that question stokes the fires of my own self-doubt. I know that I am not the guy that is competing for top 10s each week (yet), nor the guy that is on the bubble to making the Worlds team (yet) or racing in the US World Cups (yet). I could save my money and work on my handling, learn how to hop barriers, how to rip ruts, and how to bomb down descents right in my own backyard in the US. So why even try to go to Belgium, other than to be a tourist?
To put it succinctly... I moved to Belgium to get my ass kicked.
Each and every week was a beat down. From the cold and the rain, to the constant bike cleaning, to racing against the Van der Poel express each weekend. And while there were plenty of time when I wanted to pack it up and call it a season, I made the decision that I would absorb a new lesson each and every day. Failure was (and is) not going to be a label for me. Rather, failure was an opportunity for growth and to figure out what it takes to compete at the highest level. I am a firm believer that we need to project ourselves to the place we hope to perform. To put it another way, if you want to be one of the best in the world, you have to prescribe to the same routines and regiments as them. This is true for any field. Moving to Belgium, for me, is about stepping into the ring with those guys and seeing what I have in comparison to the best riders in the world. There were many failures, but sometimes you need to get a healthy dose of failure to realize your shortcomings and how bad you want it.
The experience I had in Belgium was amazing. From the people to the courses and the crowds, it will all stick with me for a lifetime. I’m so grateful to have had the chance to finish the season in the "Home of Cyclocross" and I'm looking forward to the day that I can hop on a plane and jump into "The Deep End" again.