Belgian Diaries | Week 4

Last week, World Champions were crowned and stroopwafels were eaten. The season is not over yet though, and it was time to get back to training and racing. So here is Week Four of The Belgian Diaries.

To the East Side

Though I didn't race in Valkenburg, I was still feeling tired from all of the excitement. Or maybe it was just that I was coming down off the sugar high from the pannenkoeken. After a short spin along the schelde, I hopped in the team car to visit some Canadians. Also hanging around for the post-Worlds races was my Garneau-Easton teammate, and Captain Canada himself, Michael Van den Ham. The drive over to Tielt-Winge, where Cycling Canada has a team house, was an easy loop around Brussels. Locked and loaded down, we continued our trip a short 45 minutes north to Vorselaar, Belgium. At Nationals, I was chatting with my friend Tobin about our respective end of year plans. After some back and forth, we finally ironed out the details and coordinated to stay in Vorselaar, on the east side of Belgium, for a week or so.

Sorted out, we ventured to the nearby Carrefour grocery store for some provisions for the week. However, as I've learned during my time here, most stores have hours that would be deemed unconventional by US standards and the grocery store was closed by 7pm. Fortunately for us, there was a pub across the street where we could enjoy a fine Westmalle & Kasteel beverage, respectively, and catch up on all the latest happenings from the racing world and beyond. 

Tuesday's ride was COLD. Tobin and I got bundled up to venture out into the cold and met up with Daan Soete (Telenet-Fidea). Daan is a super nice guy and is one of the up-and-coming (if not already established) racers on the Telenet team. It has been great getting to ride with such accomplished, talented riders, put pedaling behind the guy who just got 9th at the World Championships was a chore. By the time we got to coffee, I had definitely blown out the cobwebs from the system. It's easy to put the elite racers on a pedestal, believe me I do it myself plenty. But being able to ride with other men and women who are more accomplished or faster is a way that you improve and learn. More importantly, you realize that these riders are people too. The put their bibs on one leg at a time just like everyone else and once you break down those walls of accessibility, it's easier to break down the mental pedestal you've built up in your head.

Brico Cross - Parkcross Maldegem (34th) [Strava]

The skies were blue and the sun was out on Wednesday. We loaded up the car and drove the hour across the country to Maldegem, a small town just outside Brugge. The town appeared to be shut down for the event, and there were already many spectators at the course when we arrived. The track was mostly flat, save for a few minor rises. The defining features of the course were the multiple sand sections. With the cold temps throughout the week, the ground was frozen, which made the corners quite slippery. Pair that with the warmth of the sun and many turns were slick mud over frozen ground. After a few warm up laps, I thought I had a good handle on the course, and readied myself for a fast affair.

Thanks to the UCI points I earned earlier in the trip, my call up wasn't last! I lined up just behind Rob Peeters (Pauwels Sauzen-Vastgoedservice) - an accomplished rider in his own right - but the way riders line up on the grid after the first row, I was row 2.37 on the grid. The race started wicked fast and we barreled straight into two 90-degree turns. While I got into my pedal right away, it became rapidly apparent that my 40t chainring was not the right gear. Nommay and Hoogerheide were both muddier affairs that lacked some of the outright speed of Maldegem. Gearing woes aside, I tried to push my way up in the field and found myself in a good group of five riders. Pushing on the pedals, I was trying to keep up but kept getting gapped in the corners. I know that my handling is a weak spot in my cyclocross armor, and it became glaringly apparent as I tip-toed through the turns. The slippy conditions of the early afternoon were replaced with more grip, which I realized about halfway through the second lap. A bit late notice.

Stamping on the pedals, I kept trying to close the gaps to the riders in front of me. But with a small gear, it was difficult to make much headway in the chase. More than results, I've reminded myself that this dive into the deep-end of European racing is about trying to find new boundaries and push the bar higher, making this my new "normal". I kept digging each lap, smashing the pedals each chance I got and trying to get the most out of my time on course. Eventually, I was pulled at 3 laps to go, and while I was disappointed to miss out on an opportunity to finish on the lead lap, I was happy to add a few more notes to my "Journal To Suck Less" later that night.

After the race, I hit the rollers to cool down and as the other Americans trickled in, a man approached us and asked if we would like to shower at his house. Not one to turn down the kindness of a stranger, Tobin, Kerry, and I obliged. Cleaned up, we were treated to some homemade soup, homemade pasta, and a nice conversation with one of the Maldegem locals. Stomachs full and cheeks tired from smiling, we left our gracious hosts and headed back to Vorselaar. One quick stop at the roadside station for sammies and treats, then back home. Though a mid-week race is generally a training race, Wednesday Worlds in Maldegem was no joke.

DVV Trofee - Krawatencross Lille (45th) [Strava]

After the race and Maldegem, Thursday and Friday were pretty chill days. On Thursday, Tobin and I drove to the course in Lille to get some active recovery and check out the course for Saturday's race. Friday, we met up with Daan and his friend Onno for another "easy" ride. I was supposed to do openers, but between the caffeine and hard riding, I think I was pretty much set. As we set about some pre-race clean up on Friday night, the clouds rolled in and snow started to fall. It was a blizzard or anything, but the wet weather would be enough to dampen the course and create some trouble on the track.

The drive to the course from Vorselaar was a short 15 minutes. I'm really loving all of this short commuting to professional level races. I'm not sure how I will adapt in September when traveling in the U.S. requires a plane ride plus a commute. Guess I need a camper... Anywho, the track was a bit damp compared to Thursday, but the sun was out and the spirits were high in the Team USA area. With course preview completed, I was a bit out of sorts in my organization and found myself rushing to get pinned up and warmed up for the race. A part of the season long DVV Verzekeringen Trofee (here's your Dutch lesson of the day, "Verzekeringen" means insurance. DVV Verzekeringen is Belgian State Farm), the race in Lille brought all the big names back out for another battle. Fortunately, Becca Fahringer is a great friend and brought my 42t chainrings for me. So at least gearing would be less of an issue... hopefully.

Lined up on row 3.57, right next to Onno, I got into my pedals straight away and flicked through the gears. I almost surprised myself with how fast I got off the line and had to re-focus and wiggle my way through traffic. Despite getting out to a good start, I was still in the scrub zone and had to dismount to run a few of the opening sand sections. As we came down the flyover, I was attempting to make a pass on another rider and was just left of the main rut. The rider veered into me and knocked me over, which knocked him over, and then he got mad at me. Not sure how that works but I probably bent my hanger a bit because my shifting wasn't the same for the rest of the day.

Back on my bike I continued pressing on the pedals. To my surprise, I was riding the corners and ruts much better than I had in pre-ride. I felt comfortable and proceeded to ride each lap as if it would be my last. And while I was driving my bike pretty well by my standards, I was still making mistakes. I would pass a slower rider and then mess up a corner. My shoes were packing up with a mixture of mud and sand, which made trying to clip in coming down the flyover an interesting affair each lap. On several occasions I would enter a turn, only to find that I was not fully clipped in. If I'm honest, I began to get a bit frustrated as these minor setbacks amounted to seconds off the back of the group. Try as I may to reel back in the riders in front, I ran out of real estate and finished the race four laps down on the Van der Poel Express in 45th position.

Mechanical frustrations aside, I felt like I rode really well in the race and being able to ride the ruts was a positive takeaway. Try as I may to be mad and frustrated, I just couldn't do it. The sun was out, I was racing bikes with my friends, and the event as a whole was awesome. How could anyone be upset with that?!

Superprestige - Aardbeiencross Hoogstraten (42nd) [Strava]

The rain pitter-pattered on the roof Saturday night. No snow fortunately, but the additional precipitation was a guarantee Sunday's race would not be a dry, dusty affair (Is it ever in Belgium?). The drive to Hoogstraten was another short affair, just 30 minutes. Again, I'm going to be so spoiled by living here. Just outside the town of Hoogstraten, the Superprestige race traces a path around the fields of an industrial park. There was no elevation, save for one small hill and a few flyovers. For all of the folks in the U.S. that throw "Belgian" in front of every feature on course as if to add authenticity or as an homage to the Motherland of Cyclocross, read carefully... we raced in an industrial office park. I don't say that to be critical of the race, the organization, or any of the amazing people here in Belgium. Rather, my point is that the irony of "They Don't Do That In Europe" hit me as I pedaled around the course. And what the course lacked in meters of elevation, it made up for with mud. Lots of mud.

All week I heard stories from other Americans that had been warned about the course, about it being such a hard race. As I trudged through the mud and the slop on my recon laps, I understood. Cleaned up and kitted up, I lined up towards the back of our 45 man field. The wind was howling and though the skies were clear, the cold negated the warmth the sun might have provided. The lights flashed from red to green and we were off. Again, I was off to a good start and moving up in the group. As we went to cross the start/finish line, the mat that marked the finish had rolled up. Nothing like a +20 mph bunny-hop in the first 10 seconds of the race to get your heart racing. We negotiated a few fast turns on the pavement and then dove into the mud. I was definitely off to a good start and put myself at the back of a small group of riders. I told myself "Don't lose the group!" But, as luck would have it, I was tailed off the back somewhere after the first lap.

Fellow Canadian, Mark McConnell (Hot Sauce Cycling), had similar troubles at the start and was towards the back with me. Mark has been an inspiration for me moving to Belgium for the end of the season. It was just a couple years ago when I first met Mark and he has been so friendly and willing to share the experience he has gained during his own trips to Europe. I mean he is Canadian, so being nice isn't surprising, but being locked in battle with Mark, a guy who I saw dive headlong into the deep end just as I am doing now, was a pretty cool moment for me in the race. I had to pull myself back into the present though, and focus on which ever changing rut I would hit in the next section.

Fully committed to the present moment again, I pushed myself hard to make it one more lap. I was definitely at my limit after lap one and even more so after lap two. But still, I tried as best as I could in the moment to go back to the well. Mark opened up a small gap on me and I chased hard. It seemed somehow fitting that hail began to fall from the skies as I chased. Mother Nature was using all of her elements to make sure the day was easy for no one. My efforts were reinforced by the numerous fans alongside the course, both young and old, cheering for me! To be honest, I was a bit astounded hearing random strangers cheer my name, urging me on, and pushing me that little bit harder. "Come on Tyler! Come on eh?" was the stoker to the dying embers of my energy supply. Try as I may to do it for the fans and for myself, I wasn't at my best level on the day and eventually was pulled from the race after three laps. The Mathieu Van der Poel express strikes again!

I can honestly say that was the hardest I had pushed myself in a race in a while. I stood there, doubled over my bike with exhaustion, as the officials fished for my transponder on my bib. My time on course was not glorious, but I squeezed every last bit of energy out of my body that day. From turning the pedals, to pulling the bars through the gritty slop, to running with my bike on my shoulder, I was spent. And though I wish that I could have continued racing for another lap, I was content to be done in the moment. 

I followed Mark to the road where we cooled down and discussed our trials of the day. While it would be easy to feel defeated and to get down about my "lack of results", Mark wouldn't let it be so (nor would any of my coaches or mentors). This trip was about perspective, about pushing the personal achievement bar higher against the best in the world. It hasn't been easy racing my legs off for less than an hour of racing, but as Mark and others have reminded me, each day is an opportunity to learn, to experience, and to grow.

Sunday was a rough day on the track, but our aching legs were made better by some frijtjes (aka fries) and some beer. While it may appear on the surface that the top riders are all business - there is a time for that - many know how to kick back and enjoy some fries covered in curry mayo and onions. I'm getting hungry just thinking about it!

Yours in all the carbs,