Belgian Diaries 2.0 | The Kersteperiode
Boarding the plane in Louisville on my way to Europe I was weirdly calm for someone who was leaving home for the next two months. Just a week before as I was packing for Louisville (and Europe) I was frantically running around the house, making sure that I had absolutely everything I could possibly need (because the internet doesn’t exist in Europe, right??). But the familiarity of boarding a plane in some airport was enough to put me at ease and keep me chilled out as I started the second chapter in my European racing career.
This is The Belgian Diaries, Chapter 2.
It was a short night of sleep before landing in Amsterdam and after stuffing my bags in the rental car, I rolled south towards Belgium. Coffee was a high priority in my sleepless state and I pulled over in Rotterdam for a quick cappuccino and cookie at Man Met Bril Koffie. Caffeinated and sugared-up, I carried on to Oudenaarde and The Chainstay. A few other Americans were in town as well, with Becca Fahringer, Emily & Kerry Werner, and Kerry Shields. Bikes built and ready to go, we went for a short spin on Friday to shake out the airplane legs and enjoy some (rare) Belgian sunshine. Smiles on our faces, we got back to the house eager for the block of racing ahead.
Diving Into the Kersteperiode
The Kersteperiode is THE Holy Week of cyclocross. Spanning from the 23rd of December to the 1st of January, it is a hectic block of racing which coincides with the Christmas (hence the name) and New Year holidays. As a result, many of the races are packed with spectators free of their 9 to 5 duties, and the fields are equally huge (in fact both the Namur and Zolder World Cups set record for participation in the Women’s field). This was my first time racing these races so the experience and the courses were brand new to me.
While I could probably write an entire post about each individual race, I will keep it brief for the sake of those following along here. But suffice it to say, this was the deepest of ends to dive into for European racing.
In between the Namur and Zolder World Cups, we had a few days off for the Christmas holiday. This was my first time being away from family on Christmas, but it was nice to have friends to spend the holiday with. On Christmas Eve, Gregg and Holly organized a group dinner where we all cooked a dish or two to share. It was quite the feast and I’m certain we were all sufficiently stuffed by the end of the night. Racers need fuel, right?
Telenet UCI CX World Cup – Namur (63rd) (Strava)
The clouds hung low on Sunday morning over the Citadel in Namur. I was thankful that I skipped Sint Niklaas on Saturday to pre-ride because the track is G-N-A-R-L-Y. The rain was falling down is a steady drizzle and the ruts had gotten deeper with so many racers having plunged down the slopes of the hillside. Whereas in the U.S. I can pretty much guarantee a start spot on the first three rows, here in Namur I was on the seventh of eight or nine rows. It shouldn’t be any surprise though as the 1st to 35th ranked riders in the world were all in attendance. Nowhere to go but up! Literally.
I was quick off the line and holding my own but as the road narrowed on the climb to the Citadel, I was caught behind a small crash and had to dismount for a few meters. I tried not to gas myself too early, but just keeping in contact with the riders in front of me was difficult. Moreover, the Pucker Factor was off the charts bombing down the drops, aiming for tiny ruts at the bottom. There were few spots to rest on the track and each time up the hill felt like it took an eternity. I was eventually pulled from the race, and while my body and equipment were still intact, I left feeling like there was a bit more that I could have given on the day. Fortunately, there was another opportunity just three days later.
Telenet UCI CX World Cup – Heusden Zolder (64th) (Strava)
It was an early start to the day on Wednesday, but our weary eyes were greeted with a beautiful sunrise. The weather was freezing in Zolder and many layers were employed for pre-ride. It is pretty surreal to ride the courses that you’ve seen on TV. From the Zolder woods, emulated at the Trek CXC Cup, to the choose your own adventure off-camber, the course definitely favors the powerful.
I joked before the race that I was going to jump on Zdenek Stybar’s wheel off the line and follow him to the front. Turns out, that might not have been a bad strategy. The peloton came flying into the first series of turns, and many of the opening sections of the course required you to dismount if you were not in the top 20 to 30 riders. It took a lap to get out of traffic and start taking my own lines. But all the power that I could muster was not enough to keep me in the race. I exited the race again before it was over, and while the result left a lot to be desired, the experience was totally worth it.
Moreover, my friends Megan Munro & Ben Craig had made the trip over for a little European vacation. It was great to have friends along the course cheering and adding to the experience!
DVV Trofee – Azencross Loenhout (43rd) (Strava)
There was just one day before the next race in Loenhout. Many had warned me about the course which is traditionally a muddy race. However, we have been fortunate with the weather and save for a couple of soft spots on course, the ground was frozen and fast. The track is known for the whoop section and many ditch crossing scattered around the course. If you had the confidence to hop everything, including the barriers, you never had to get off your bike.
I got off to a flying start, making the first turn in the top 25 wheels. I moved around some traffic and made some good tactical decisions to put myself in the front half of the field. Starting the second lap, I was in a good group with Curtis White (Cannondale-Cyclocross World) and Michael Van den Ham (Garneau-Easton). I did get gapped a little bit when I didn’t hop the ditches, but I was within sight as we were closing out the lap. Turning onto the pavement, I took the corner a bit too hot and slid across the asphalt. Crashing was a shock to the system for me and I took a moment to collect myself and check my bike. Blood had starting to trickle from my elbow and my hand, which took a brunt of the force, but it wasn’t enough to deter me from remounting and carrying on.
Shuffled back in the bunch, I found a new level of focus and started to pick up riders along the way. I wasn’t looking for help but continuing to push on the pedals to get one more lap in. It took about 5 laps before the Van der Poel Express came through, but I was happy with the effort and racing for 45 minutes.
BricoCross – Versluyscross Bredene (55th) (Strava)
Cleaned up and warmed up from the frozen day in Loenhout, we repacked the van in the morning and headed North to the coast in Bredene. The smaller BricoCross race was still packed with competition. Wout Van Aert was in attendance along with some of the Telenet and Marlux guys. As Kerry and I rolled to the course for pre-ride, I could feel the cracks starting to show from the stress of racing. The course itself was not too technically challenging, some abrupt uphills and downhills, but there was no let up for the entire length of the track. I took two to three very easy laps to acquaint myself with the twists and turns, but that was about all I could muster in terms of effort.
I couldn’t repeat the feat of my start in Loenhout off the line and instead got swarmed and shuffled to the back. As a result, I was doing a lot more running and slow pedaling than I had anticipated doing over the course of the first lap. As I crossed under the finish banner already many dozens of seconds behind, I just wanted to make it to 4 laps to go.
I pushed hard on the pedal when I could and found myself taking some better lines towards the end of the race. But the exhaustion from the week of racing had worn on me and the lights went out in the engine room and I started to falter a bit. It was a bit frustrating to be honest, as I was pedaling really hard and the groups were just riding away from me. But I cut myself a bit of slack on race four of six, and cooled down on the rollers to come back to equilibrium. At least I had a few hours to sleep in before the next race in Diegem.
Superprestige – Diegem (56th) (Strava)
It was a lot of sit around and wait all day on Sunday. The men’s race didn’t kick off until 8:00p so it wasn’t until 3:00p that we got loaded up and headed down to Diegem, just outside of Brussels. The atmosphere at the course was amazing! With most of Europe on holiday for the New Year celebration, the bars and frituurs were packed with people in the early afternoon. I found my space with the Cyclocross Custom crew and got ready for pre-ride. The course itself is set right in the middle of town, through the streets and around the soccer fields in Diegem. It is more of a road race to be honest, with lots of climbing on the road, and a few technical sections on the dirt. The famous off-camber was treacherous. With ruts just a few inches wide, if you missed the path it was down to the bottom or off the bike for you. So while there was a great deal of pavement, there was enough technical sections to keep you focused at every moment.
I was again towards the back of the grid in the full field of 70+ riders. As the whistle blew, I got into my pedal quickly, but as I went to accelerate forward, there was a slow down on the right side where I had lined up. Later I learned that Wout Van Aert had some trouble off the start, but in the heat of the moment, I was shuffled back in the pack. As a result of my poor positioning, I was running the first several terms and the first pass of the off-camber. It took almost a full lap for the field to stretch out, and by then my chances of a solid result were gone. Nowhere to go but forward!
I pushed the pace on the uphills and flowed the downhill/technical sections. I wasn’t in the running for a solid result, nor was I going to be able to make the lead lap. So I started to have a bit of fun around the course. Airing the flyovers and the drops, pulling (small) wheelies for the kids that asked for them, smiling at the heckles and the cheers. The party atmosphere spilled over the tape and onto the course for me. And wouldn’t you know it, I actually started to go a little bit faster. I found myself in a three-way battle on my last lap and was able to beat one of my two competitors. But the final result was not important to me. I had just finished one of the most iconic, and now one of my favorite courses ever. I was happy.
GP Garage Collé (24th) (Strava)
The end was near as day broke on the first of 2019. Rather than go to the GP Sven Nys in Baal, where the rest of the World’s best would be, the Kerrys, Emily, Becca, and I drove down to Petange, Luxembourg for the GP Garage Collé. The event was local in every sense of the word. The registration was at the town’s rec center, the course ran through some of the streets, and the crowds were mostly folks that had awoken from their revelries to enjoy a bit of the ‘ole “hair of the dog” while watching some bike racing. The course itself was also local. Straight uphill from the fun and onto some single track with small bits of course tape in the woods, you could be forgiven for thinking you were doing a mountain bike race.
Motivation was really low for me. I was tired, the skies were gray, and the six days of racing had taken a physical and mental toll on me. But as race time approached, I switched into game mode and was ready to put together a solid ride. I was on the second row of the grid at this small C2 race and knew that I had what it took to collect a good result. The whistle went and I was in my pedal quick, but as I went to accelerate, the rider next to me came bumbling over into me. I unclipped my left foot, bumped into a few more riders, and by the time it was all said and done, I was still standing in the start grid watching the group pedal away. What little motivation I had was now almost gone.
I got back on my bike and caught the group just as we got to the steps at the top of the hill. Already riders were giving up, so I took spots where I could, riding like a rider that belonged at the front of the race, rather than one floundering at the back. I moved up in the first few laps and eventually found myself in a battle with Yu Takenouchi of Japan. We traded spots a few times and by the final lap, I had done enough to distance myself from him and finish in 24th. The result left a lot to be desired, especially with the trouble I had off the line. However, the race was over and I was glad to have a few days of rest in front of me. Finally.
The Kersteperiode is unlike anything I’ve ever done in my life. It’s like a stage race on the road, but every day the peloton goes hard like it’s the last race of the weekend. It’s enough to break you. There were for sure some dark moments for me throughout the six days of racing. I felt like I have leveled up the season, but the results weren’t showing that. Instead, I was pfaffing about at the back of the pack, hoping that I could grab a decent result. And while I kept chugging along, lining up and taking my beating each race, I know that I can do better.
The racing is over for now, but the experience will stay with me forever. And as I kick my feet back and reflect on the races I finished over the past week, I can smile knowing that I’m doing something many only see on TV. For now though, there is work to be done, and more races to be had this weekend. So it’s best to get my body and mind in order, polish up the armor, and get ready for battle in the fields of Belgium once again.
With Love & Belgian Toothpaste,