|Neerpelt by Johan Pelgrims|
In Belgium, a country that seemingly revolves around cyclocross, the first big weekend of the season is always filled with much anticipation for both the riders and fans. While the riders are curious to test out their offseason training, the fans are equally occupied with thoughts about the riders as well as with their own preparations for the long season ahead. Just like racers, the fans’ work begins months in advance, with tasks like making sure to equip themselves with the newest supporter clothing, readying their winter gear, clearing their calendars for their favorite events – even if just to watch it on TV which is equally important, creating facebook pages for each event where they can check in with others about the race, and solidifying plans with their friends and supporter clubs on where to meet at the event as well as their game plan once there. Just like the racers, the fans show up a few hours before the start of the event. They use that time for meet-and-greets, giving their favorite riders a few encouraging words before the event, collecting photo trading cards and setting up their ideal spot to watch the excitement.
|Neerpelt by Jozef Cooreman|
Now that the first big weekend has come and gone, it appears to me that it did not disappoint. While some of the riders and their fans may have been dissatisfied by the results, the festive atmosphere clearly remained intact.
The weather may have helped the atmosphere as it was atypically sunny and warm for Belgium at almost 70°F. The riders could luxuriously parade around in their short sleeve skinsuits while the spectators could enjoy a nice cold beer under blue skies. The weather also led to swelled crowds, adding to that party atmosphere that was felt by both rider and spectator alike.
The first up was Soudal GP Neerpelt (formerly known as FIDEA Neerpelt). The course was very interval-intensive which proved to give many athletes a test of endurance, including me. The first half of the lap was mainly mini semi-sand where you have to either power ride or run up, then immediately descend to the base of the next one. For the ones we had to run, the trick was to clip in the moment we remounted before shooting down the bumpy, loose descent. Otherwise it was a scary ride from what I discovered the hard way on one of the laps. The second half was mainly flat winding terrain with an out-and-back sandpit close to the finish.
|Neerpelt by Lesley Staes|
I had only done one training race before this weekend so I felt a bit underprepared. My mind, though, was keyed up and ready to go. I stood there at the start line feeling confident as I watched the giant LED screen above the start-finish strip that was to signal us when to take off. As the five red balls that spanned across the screen lit up one by one, I knew it was a brief moment before all five red balls simultaneously turn green which was our signal to GO!
As every cross racer knows, the first few minutes of that inaugural race is always a shock. It was no different for me. While part of me was overwhelmed with excitement to hear all the cheers of my friends and supporters, my legs and lungs were screaming in pain. It turned out to be worth the suffering when I crossed the line in 10th place – a first for me in over a year at one of these UCI events in Belgium.
The next day I was even more motivated to race, with the goal of besting my 10th from the day previous. I am usually better on the second day of racing so it was perfectly possible that I could make it happen. The course was mainly winding singletrack – the kind that reverts even the toughest badass into a free-spirited kid as he shoots out of berms at rocket speed.
|Start by Robbe Jochems|
The first two seconds of my race played out perfectly. I nailed that elusive instant “clip-in-and-go” and was powering my way to a solid run down the starting straight. But it was that third second that shot me to the ground – almost literally. Out of nowhere, my right leg jerked straight to the pavement with an explosive force that left my bike uncontrollably wobbling from side to side. Magically I was able to keep it upright. Once steady, I took a peek below to see what was off. My chain. It had bounced off the big ring and onto the crank arm.
I soft-pedaled for a bit while trying to tease the chain back on. Just as I slipped it in place, the last place girl came by and kindly gave me a push to help me on my way. I still am amazed by that unbelievably kind gesture. On such a course with single-file turns every few seconds, I had a trying time moving up in the field. By the time I got four gals in sight who were fighting for 8th through 11th, I was fried. Game over. I rode through the finish in 12th, feeling both dejected yet optimistic for the races to come.
|by Victor Zandbergen|
The flipside to my race was that I put in a good show for those who came out to watch me (HEEL ERG BEDANKT VOOR JULLIE AANMOEDIGINGEN!!!). I may not have made it anywhere near the podium but my supporters managed to make me feel as though I were just as spectacular as Sanne Cant, the well-deserved winner of the race.
The next race on my schedule is Sunday, the first round of the Superprestige Series to be held in Ruddervoorde. As of this week, the cold rainy grey skies are back in action here in Belgium so I expect it will be a Limus kind of day – mud, mud, and more mud. It may have been easier to be a cross racer in California when it comes to the weather, but I must say there is nothing like being inspired by tens of thousands of folks at every race – even when the weather turns to crap. The Belgian tradeoff, I suppose.