Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Road racing during cyclo-cross season?

Belgium may be hotbed for cyclo-cross racing, but only for men. Instead of racing cross right now, I am doing some road racing to get the racing fitness up since there is no other option pretty much until Kalmthout World Cup October 19. I briefly considered racing at Lebbeke Cross the day before Kalmthout but after fellow racer Sarah Kerlin's description of the course last year (mudpie-riddled bumpy farm field that mud so deep and tacky that it sucks the power out of the legs) I am opting to save my legs for the world cup the following day. Thanks sarah!

Last sunday was a road race in Wilrijk, Belgium. It was 90km of turns and more turns which is what i need for cyclo-cross training. Since i am now training for cross races, I was afraid i'd bonk after 45 minutes. To calm my fears - and avoid the man with the hammer, Jonas had me promise to eat and drink everything he packed on my bike and in my pockets before the race. While focusing on keeping my promise, before i realized it the race was over and I had survived just fine. I did feel the running sessions in my legs, though.

Counting down the days till I get to race cross again<<<

The weather is finally turning crappy here. It has been, and is expected to remain, 10-14 deg C accompanied by rain, rain, and more rain. Jonas and his dad just built an afdak (an awning) connecting off the kitchen in the backyard so I made good use of it by riding on my trainer under it. I figured a good way to acclimate to the crap weather is to do it in steps - first step is to get used to the cold weather, next is to get wet.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Womens Road World Championships

I watched the womens road race on TV yesterday and I felt so incredibly proud to be an American and thrilled to be a former Lotto-Belisol racer. Early in the race, Kristin Armstrong of USA rode like a woman with a mission. She not only initiated a break of about 12 racers but lead in the charge to keep them free of the peloton for most of the race. She easily got the most TV time of any of the racers and earned every second of it by showing her face at the front of the group for most of the period the break was away. I have only talked to her maybe once for about two seconds but in that brief moment she really impressed me, not with her physical prowess but with her attitude. It was at the start line of the Sea Otter Road Race a few years ago. She was calm yet clearly very happy, beaming from ear to ear. Her smile was as contagious as a yawn. (Hey, get your mind out of the gutter, she's not my type.)

Another excitement for me was to see that Lotto-Belisol's Grace Verbeke was also in the breakaway. Even when the break was caught, she still had enough to sprint to 16th place. She is usually not one to talk much but she had a lot to say in the interview directly after the finish.

When the last two minutes of the race were playing themselves out and Emma Johansson (fellow non-Belgian resident here in the country) tried to jump her lead group of 5 for the win, i really hoped she would succeed because it would have been cool to watch the gal who wasnt expected to win in a group of favorites like judith arndt, nicole cooke and marianne vos. (No offense Marianne) But when she was caught, I really really hoped it would be Marianne. And when she tried to jump the others for the win, I jumped out of the couch and screamed as i tried to push her forward through the TV set. But to no avail. Nicole got her wheel and seemingly passed her with ease for the win.

After the race, I expected Nicole to talk about how she planned the ending where she would breeze by Marianne while eating bonbons and that she knew she would win all along. But instead she said that when Marianne went, she hoped she could just hold her wheel and stay there to finish second. But when she saw that the finish was still 100 meters away, she gave it a go. That was a very humble, honest interview. Nice.

Although Amber Neben didnt win the road race (she placed 22nd) two spots ahead of my friend Siobhan Dervan), I am so overjoyed for her that she did take home the time trial Jersey. Well done. What an incredible ride.

There were a lot of announcements throughout the race about all the racer retirements but the one i didnt hear them mention during the road race (although i did hear it during her time trial) was that of An Van Rie, another former Lotto-Belisol teammate. She is so incredibly strong that it is almost a pity to see her hang it up since she has only done it for about 3 years. Apparently she is ready to be promoted in her job and make some actual money. Bike parts don't count - ebay is not always a guarantee.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

What a hectic weekend...

filled with riding and talking, my two favorite activities.

Last Saturday started early with a 9am flemish language class. It was my first class so i was really nervous. The three days leading up to it, i used all my free time to study hard - for at least ten minutes a day.

When i walked into the building, I asked the secretary where the class was (of course in my best dutch.) As she got up to walk me to the classroom, she turned to a guy who was sitting in front of her and said, "this one was easy" in dutch. She deposited me in a room filled with 5 students and a teacher. I immediately introduced myself and told the instructor that i had to leave early for my first cyclo-cross race of the season (all in dutch). When he responded in dutch and continued with the class in dutch only, I realized what the woman meant when she said "this one was easy." She was referring to which class I belonged - beginner or advanced. Somehow instead of going to the beginner class which was where I planned to go, I ended up in the advanced conversational class.

It was scary at first since the majority of my conversations thus far have been with little kids and old people. But it went well. Everyone spoke real slowly so it was relatively easy to follow. I even found myself talking a lot. I owe most of what I knew to the Simpsons TV show, the same way that Belgians learn English - reading the subtitles. Every time i watch tv, i read the subtitles in hopes of learning some Dutch. I guess it worked. It did feel funny saying the words aloud that I have only read on TV subtitles.

After 1 1/2 hours of language class, Jonas picked me up and we headed directly to the race. That class gave me enough courage to speak Flemish to everyone at the race site and I swear I understood more that day than ever before. If only i could get everyone to speak as slowly as they do in class.

The course was laid out on a cow pasture. The trails were almost completely covered in bumpy ditches and cowpies. Even the one "good line" around the course was only slightly better than the rest of the course. This made it very hard to pass people. But it did give me lots of practice on that type of terrain that seems to pop up often in races.

They ran the womens race with a mens 35+ Masters, as they sometimes do. My start was a little slow because i got caught up behind a guy who refused to be passed by a girl. By the time i got around him on the second lap, I had exhausted myself both physically and emotionally. I had forgotten how exhausting frustration can be - never again. With 2nd place (Anja) only 10 seconds behind I focused all my energy on pushing myself as hard as i can to build a significant gap on the hard-charging gal.

A bit later I looked at my watch to confirm that the race is almost over, only to find that I had completed a whopping 15 minutes - 30 minutes left! Just as I was fearing that I would lose the motivation to keep up the pace for the rest of the race, I was passed by a guy who was traveling at the perfect pace - slightly faster than I. He was like a gift from the cyclo-cross gods.

As we pulled into the grassy field just before the finish line, he asked me if i wanted to sprint. At first I laughed, but then I gave it a go for fun. My sprint turned out to be exactly the same speed as our pace. We (Jan and I) finished 18th and 19th in the mens 35+ category while I got extra bonus money for 1st woman. Total prize money for the day was 10.50€ - 8€ for 1st woman and 2.50€ for 19th man. The cost of the race was 6.50€ but you get 2€ back when you return your race number. I also scored a girly Tee.

Overall, it was a blast - a great way to start the season. The organization VDN - combined with belgiancyclingselection's Ludwig Gladines efforts - put on a great race! It was lively, fun, ran smoothly, and offered De Koninck beer in their "beer garden". I am not sure if it is still called a beer garden if it is only alonside the course and doesnt have the course go through it as was the tradition in Belgian cross races up until three years ago. The UCI made this decision stating that it was unsafe for the riders due to the temperature difference inside/outside the tent and that the riders may get hit by a beer bottle. They based their info on a quote made by Richard Groenendaal that was taken out of context. Pity because they were a lot of fun.

After a shower and change of clothes, we sat at the cafe and watched the mens event. As I sat there waiting for Jonas to bring our drinks to the table, I thought about how thrilled i was to feel relatively recovered so soon after the race. But my thoughts immediately came to a crashing halt when i tried to raise the glass to my lips. My arms were so worked from all the bumps that it was an effort to lift the liquid. The pain was well worth it all.

Thanks always for reading!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

I WON...

my first cyclo-cross race of the season. Yippee!

More details to come...

Thursday, September 18, 2008

For weight weenies who have no time to follow politics

With cyclo-cross season just about here for most of us (my first race is this Saturday), obsessive bike talk has been fully consuming many conversations between bike racers. One hot topic is obviously the bike - tweaking the machine to win a few spots in your results at upcoming races. The leader in the long list of ideas is always weight loss - how to get the bike to weigh less than the number of pounds of pasta you eat in a month during race season.

Usually i dont have to think much about weight because I am lucky enough to get sponsor equipment that is super cool (superlight). But every once in a while I like to check in with weights of other products compared to mine or possibly change the little things that I have control over - like chains. I use the infamous Weight Weenies site. While perusing through the site a few days ago I now see how people are getting their cross bikes down to 15 pounds - crazy.

During my search, I came across a chain i'd never used before - FMC 10X. It is not the lightest but I heard that it was the quietest. Completely true. It was so quiet that it was hard to believe there was actually a chain on the bike.

With most of my attention on getting ready for the cross season and hitting my writing deadlines, I have little time for following the presidential race. But thankfully I have friends who keep me updated. For those of you who are in the same predicament as I, here are a few links that summarize the race:

Video:John McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, touts her service as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. A Slate V slide show takes to the remote town where Palin's political career began.http://link.brightcove.com/services/link/bcpid988092926/

The palin/ clinton skit on Saturday Night Live recently:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PBFk9XC3YLs

A link for women, by women: http://womenagainstsarahpalin.blogspot.com/


Friday, September 12, 2008

Got a headache from my cyclo-cross ride...

not from hitting it against anything but rather from thinking too hard. (I have actually managed to avoid trees, wooden beams and concrets awnings for ten months now.)

The weather today had come close to cyclo-cross season proportions - 13°C, overcast and rainy - so I figured I was in for a very uncomfortable ride since I am not quite mentally prepared for crap weather.

But once I reached the woods, everything changed. It was so extraordinarily beautiful and peaceful that I almost forgot about the chilly rain. The thick woods were bright green and covered in mist, making me feel like I was riding through an exotic rainforest shown on some nature channel. The only sound I heard was that of rain droplets hitting the leaves. I brought my iPod for the ride but obviously opted not to turn it on for fear of ruining a magical moment.

For the first 20 minutes of the ride, my mind was devoid of any real thoughts. I was in the moment of the ride - enjoying every aspect of it. But when minute 21 arrived, it brought with it a little bug that lodged itself on the back of my throat. It entered during an inhale, as they always do. It was then that the heavy thinking started.

What should i do? Try to swallow it or cough it out? I am a vegetarian so I really cannot eat the bug in good conscience. But if i cough it up, it will surely lose its wings and die. I tried to delicately release it from my throat with short bursts of air but to no avail. It only made its wings flutter more, causing me to dry heave a bunch. That didn't release it either.

After various attempts of getting the critter up and away, I finally struggled some more with the idea of swallowing it. If i swallow it, will it make it but halfway down only to take twice as long to re-emerge? And what if it does make it all the way down, will my body be okay with taking in non-plant protein? Will I be okay with it? Can I actively swallow a bug while keeping my feminity intact? (Girls don't eat bugs, you know!) What if only half of it goes down?

Decision time - it's going down. I reached for the water bottle in my back pocket only to realize it is still back at the house. I guess it is on to plan C - denial. Failing to fill my mind with any thoughts that can distract me from the perceived sound of fluttering wings, I turned to the iPod for help. Eminem and I finished the ride together.

As I pulled up to the house, the rain stopped and the sun popped out from behind the clouds. (Isn't it always like that.) Water never tasted so good -or functioned so well. I will keep you in my thoughts, my mini-winged friend.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

I saw this in the Belgian Newspapar yesterday

The big talk about Lance Armstrong's return has been circulating around here for a few weeks now but hasnt made it to the front pages of the newspaper until yesterday.

I wonder if he is planning his return because he was able to stay with Dave Wiens for most (READ: bonked towards the end) of an endurance offroad race recently.

Sarah Palin has been getting her fair share of media coverage here as well.

ps. in case you are wondering what the cover of the newspaper above Lance's head reads - "Divorce becomes even more easier".

Sunday, September 7, 2008

My bike rides just got a whole lot better...

thanks to my new shipment of PROBARs. Yippee! As you all know, I am sponsored by PROBAR (I approached them a long time ago after tasting every single vegan energy bar on the market AND interviewing all the companies who made them.) So naturally I shouldn't be shocked by any new flavors they'd come up with. But there were a few flavors in this last shipment that really blew me away, actually motivating me to ride just so i can bust open the package. The longer the ride, the more excited i get about the bars in my pocket because every bite is different making each bar taste like ten.

It is especially exciting to get the bars delivered to me in Belgium where the expressions 'vegan food' and 'tasty energy food' hasn't really been discovered.

I know i shouldn't discriminate but here are my new top three flavors (not sure if they made it to Whole Foods yet):

#1 Maple Pecan - there are whole chunks of pecan and the overall taste reminds me of maple sugar candy (Vermont favored over Canada of course -although I have had some impressive Canadian Maple syrup.) Hard to imagine it's good for me.

#2 Cherry Pretzel - Pretzels aren't popular in Belgium so it's one of those treats that I treasure in almost any form. You know those peanut butter filled pretzel logs? well just imagine them filled with peanut butter AND wrapped with whole fresh cherries.

#3 Superfood Slam - on days when i feel like i may not have eaten healthfully enough (like travel days), this bar takes the edge off the guilt of an imprefect diet. It has more nutrients than I could ever possibly get in my diet - even when i am perfect. And somehow they were able to make ingredients like wheat and barley grass tasty.

OK, I'm done gushing. Now back to watching House M.D. with my Kettle Corn PROBAR (honorable mention for 4th place.)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Let the RACES begin...

not exactly cyclo-cross racing but racing nonetheless. Last sunday I was part of a three-person team competing in a mountain bike relay race called 6 hours of Kortenberg. My teammies were Jonas and his brother in-law Chris. We wore the black version of the Vanderkitten kit and called ourselves the Phat Cats.

This was Jonas' first race ever, Chris just started riding a mountain bike in April, and I was under Coach Elmo's specific instructions not to go over low-tempo so we were there primarily for fun with no designs on taking the gold. And fun is what we got - lots of it in fact.

We turned the "competitive" event into an all-day play date complete with friends and family joining in the festivities. It was easily over 80 degrees F so we brought the oversized umbrella from the backyard and set up our picnic underneath with lawn chairs and a table filled with food such as cookies, beer, pasta and energy drinks.

The course was about 3.5km in length and included everything from fire roads, power climbs, technical descents and even a water fall (actually it was just a spray hose hung above the course that was very welcome by most of the racers to drop their body temps below boiling from Belgian's version of a heatwave.)

Chris was brave enough to start us off and battle the other 35 riders for the whole shot. Next it was Jonas with me last. I figured i should go last so that way when i jump on the course at low-tempo nobody will notice how slow I'm going. It turned out, though, that low-tempo on a cross bike (i used the Ahrens Whole Shot) isn't too embarassing when racing on a course that is not terribly technical. I really lucked out.

Our original plan was to do 2 x 45 minute turns, then 1 x 30 minute turns to total 6 hours. But what we found is that it doesn't work that cleanly in a relay race. Instead we should have done it by number of laps instead of by time so the rider up next has a better idea of when to stand in the blazing sun waiting for the racing baton. We also noticed later on in the race that the other teams were taking shorter turns. Something to consider for our next attempt.

My favorite part of the race was duking it out with the Butterfly Powder Team (the other girly jersey team) that were next to us in the transition pit. We are friends with the riders so we had a race within a race with them. In lap 20 we were passed by them but we didnt fret. Our patience paid off on lap 43 - the pentultimate lap - when Jonas passed them early in the lap and put a sizeable gap on them as he pulled into the transition zone and handed me the baton. Shoot. It's one thing to race your heart out but it is completely something different when you have to do it at a low-tempo pace. It really makes you race smart. I took a little more speed into areas where it would shave a few seconds off, and chose my lines and gearing wisely.

As I was coming down the last descent, I looked over to my left at the climb and spotted the butterfly jersey charging up the hill - about 15 seconds behind me. Although nobody outside of our two teams cared that I crossed the finish line ahead of him, it still felt like a little triumph for the Phat Cats. On a side note, due to a glitch in the Organization's lap counting method the Butterfly Team officially beat us but that didnt stop us from celebrating together with them after the race. We just forced them to buy the beers. haha.

It was no surprise that Jonas had the fastest average speed from our team but what surprised me was that Chris and I didnt pull him down too much at the end of the day since we finished somewhere mid-pack of all the teams - and 2nd place overall of teams with only 3 racers.

After we showered, we all went to the official post-race pasta party with life music. We even got party gifts - laundry detergent. Strange but thoughtful.

Overall it was a very pleasant experience. It was especially exciting for me to compete in a race where I can solely focus on having fun with absolutely no pressure to perform well. My coach is always joking with me about all of my lessons learned but I surely learned one from that day that i can take with me forward into cross season. If I can minimize the self-induced stress going into the upcoming cross races, I may actually have more fun - and perform better. Hey, you never know.