I hope you all had a relaxing and indulgent Christmas and New Year. I didn’t. That’s not to say I didn’t have an awesome time, but there is very little relaxing or indulgent about racing cyclocross against the best in the world in the home of cyclocross: Belgium. Due to working and the desperate need to buy Christmas presents on the last shopping days of the season, Christmas Day was filled with eating, seeing family and two training sessions. Rock ‘n’ Roll. The next three days were spent recovering, avoiding the family cold and packing. On December 28th Team Hope Factory Racing teamate Annie Simpson, myself and Lucy our driver, pit crew, physio and helper headed to Dover.
Our glamorous trip began with a late night in a cheap F1 Motel in Northern France.
The next morning, after a useless night’s sleep, we hastily added hot water to our porridge bowls and dexterously sneaked a free fill from the buffet’s coffee pot. We jumped back in the car and sped north – to the safety of Belgium. (I say safety – this is because in France right now, you are probably breaking the law by simply owning a vehicle – let alone driving one. Belgians seem to have a much more relaxed attitude to policing in general).
First stop was the wind-swept coastal town of Bredene.
It is unlikely you will find directions to a Belgian cross race more detailed than the town or village of it’s location. You then need to use your sixth sense and work out on which residential street you must park and which street will be closed for the race to tear through. It is on this closed street that you will find a cafe-bar hosting grey and brown clad older men. Squeeze through, give the barman a nod and he will incline his head to a hidden back door. Exit the bar and enter the secret headquarters of the UCI. Uniformed officials will be sitting in a row behind laptops, printers and piles of numbers. They will inspect your licence, and enter your details very slowly into the database.
At Bredene, we ask if it’s ok to compete with the Junior Men as there is no separate women’s race. A quick look up and down confirms to them that we are at least the right size and shape to race bicycles, so we sign our names, gather a ludicrous amount of numbers and pit-passes and bustle out into the bar giggling, just in time to bump into Zdenek Stybar. For those who are not up on their European Cyclocross Superstars, Stybar is the former World Champion, a Czech who can part the Belgian tidalwave of the Elite men’s scene, who has just come back from a successful summer on the glamorous road circuit with Omega Pharma-Quick Step. He is very tanned, rather shiny, has lovely teeth and is willing to pose for photos. We are too shy so scurry off giggling even harder.
In Belgium, Elite Men rule the cycling roost. They are gods amongst mortals. They have their faces plastered across their voluptuous motorhomes and they have mechanics use compressed air to clean every part of their sparkling bicycles. Beloften, or under 23 male riders are seen as their prodigy. They too have campervans and are permitted to park next closest to the race venue. Junior men, although still young, can be touted for greatness if they show good enough potential, however, they are children so they must park further away from the start. Neulingen or youths are at the bottom of the food chain. They must park furthest away from the race. They share this spot with the Elite Women.
Racing with the Junior Men was actually really motivating. As a group, they tend to be very skillful and pretty fast. However, they don’t always learn too quickly. They will have a line choice in their head. They will attack that line. That line may actually be a slower/riskier/stupider option than other riders are taking. They will keep taking this disaster line each lap. Junior Men are not always to be followed.
Once finished and in a state of exhaustion, hypothermia and filth, Annie and I gave up the hope for showers when we were faced with a concrete prefab, sans lighting but with slots requesting money for running water.
On returning our numbers, the UCI official looked at us sternly and said “32nd and 33rd. There is NO prize money”. We were just surprised that he even bothered to check our finishing positions on the front page of results. Even Marianne Vos would have struggled to make page one! However, we left freezing but happy – we’d hit our targets, we hadn’t been lapped, we’d shown those Europeans that we could handle a road bike off-road and we’d been asked for postcards. Result.
Part 2 will probably explain more about the postcard phenomenon…