Saturday, February 28, 2009

Offseason Transition

I am now in the middle of the season-to-offseason transition where my routine goes from race-day-centered to a more balanced form of living where i get to catch up on projects long ignored, make a little time for socializing and be a bit more flexible in my riding. Although i love incorporating more balance into my life, it is always a wierd two-week period where i re-train myself to leg go of my obsessive focus on race day. Rides are the funniest during this period since half the ride is spent wanting to ride hard and the other half I am wanting to stop and picnic on a sunny patch of grass alongside the trail. Motivation erratically swings to both extremes.

On the mornings when motivation is really lacking even though i know i will feel better on the ride, i trick myself to start the day by committing to baking tasty treats like pancakes, scones, cinna-buns. Since my last race i have made pancakes once and scones onces - so basically i have ridden twice.

On the first ride, with Jonas, Chris - his brother-in-law, and son Lukas (sporting his tom boonen world champ jersey), I was so unmotivated to ride that i was dropped two kilometers into the ride. Lukas is eight years old. But then after the first thirty minutes, i was ready to take the speed up.

The second ride this week was with the "old men". My body again flipped between the motivation extremes. Part of the ride, i held back the urge to go to the front and push the pace, while the other part was spent wishing the wind was less and the pace was slower. Oddly enough, it dawned on me during this second ride that the times my mind is set on "riding for fun" is when i ride the strongest. And when i was dropped by an eight-year old it was when my mind was focused on "training to race". Now if i can switch my mind onto the "riding for fun" setting works for World Champ Marianne Vos.

Aside from the little rides, I've been going to therapy where they are rebuilding my quads and neck. At the visit yesterday, i showed marked improvement! yippee! Still a long way to go but finally in the right direction.

I've also had a little time to socialize. Yesterday we had lunch at Amy's house - soup, a spread of hummus and veggies for build-your-own-sandwiches, and blueberry bundt cake - yum! We also got to see Lukas play soccer. There are few event more entertaining than to watch little kids play sports. Wherever the ball went, twelve little feet followed. Unfortunately for Lukas, the other team was heaps better. The final score must have been about 30-1, with our very own Lukas scoring the solitary goal. His dad, grandparents, brother, Jonas and I were all on hand to see the elated yet confused look on his face when he turned to us after the ball went in.

We were supposed to go to one other party last night at Jonathan Page's house but Jonas had to go to work. Bummer.

Tomorrow is mountain bike tour day. We are doing the 50km (30mile) loop. They expect at least 2500 riders since it is expected to be 14°C (57°F) AND sunny - a rarity for Belgium this time of year. I would blame it on global warming but our winter was crap - freezing cold. Waffles with maple syrup for breakfast.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Oostmalle Post-Season Parties a blur...

Three glasses of wine may not take a whole evening to drink but the effects surely last that long on a post-race stomach filled only with pretzel sprigs, cookies, and a handful of pistachios. Read my after-season party report below (just posted on Cyclocross Magazine) to see how it looked through my wine-blurred vision...

“Is this your first after-season party? Do you want a drink?” While I watched his lips move, I was thinking, “Who is this guy? Am I supposed to know him? He does look familiar and he is standing next to Stybar whom thankfully I do recognize, so maybe he is a bike racer. But without jersey and helmet, they all look alike.” As he walks away to get drinks, I ask his female companion (road racer Angela Van der Velde) his name. It turns out to be Rob Peeters of Landbouwkrediet-Colnago. Funny how everyone looks so different without their (cycling) clothes on. Either way, I was still embarrassed that I didn’t recognize one of the top cyclists in the world after screaming at him dozens of times from the sidelines. If that unassuming guy was Rob Peeters, then maybe I also knew the shirtless guy sporting ripped abs leaned against the wall with arms outstretched above him to grab hold of the speaker as the music vibrated through his body. It was after 10pm by the time we arrived - our fourth party of the evening.

The first was a casual gathering around female cyclocross racer Maaike Lanssens’ mobilehome where she, her family, Danish champ Joachim Parbo, Jonas, a few others, and I drank champagne, wine, beer and ate pretzels, speculaas (spiced cookies), pistachios, chocolate and my homebaked chocolate chip cookies. Throughout our celebration, rotating folks joined us. The most famous was Marianne Vos. Every time I spend time with her I am reminded of her incredible humility - not especially common for a multiple world - and Olympic - champion. (She's the one wearing the red jacket and white hat)
The next party Jonas and I attended was held by Kevin Pauwels (Fidea) in front of his mobilehome. We met a bunch of his fans, friends, support crew, and his legendary new trainer, Marc Herremans - a former top pro triathlete (pictured in photo with Kevin). After a drink and a (very) quick interview, we swung back to Maaike’s camper but only for a moment as the champagne was running thin. Instead, we relocated our group to the party tent set up at the finish line where we could keep the liquids coming. Inside the tent were easily over a thousand party-goers consisting of both racers and spectators letting loose after a long season. There was a bar on one side and a DJ on the other, while most of the tent was filled with little round tables for setting drinks. Standing room only. The music was a mix of pop rock that spanned the decades and Belgian music, both contemporary and folk-style where most of the crowd sang along at the top of their lungs. We drank, danced, talked (or rather yelled as it was very loud inside the tent), and laughed so hard my abs hurt.

(Maaike is in Yellow/blue jersey with Jonas; Femke - Maaike's sister wearing red/white jersey - and their dad is pictured with Joachim; Ben Berden - Elite w/o contract Belgian Champ wearing red/brown flannel shirt and cap; jonas hugging David Van Ermen And when it was time to depart, we cried. For five months, we were one big extended family, spending time with each other a few times per week. When time was up, it was emotional to say goodbye to folks whom you will most likely not see for another seven months. I felt it a little in America but here it is so much more intense. Belgium’s season is two months longer, giving us more time to get into a routine of being in each other’s constant company. And the “family” is much larger since all racers AND supporters located in this densely cx-populated (mostly within a two-hour drive) area go to the same events. We’re not split up as in America where, aside from a few select events, the cx communities don’t cross paths. I was in the NorCal group.

After shedding a few tears, Joachim, Jonas and I drove over to the neighboring town of Westmalle for the final event. As soon as we walked in, Jonas and I walked right back out. It must have been 85°F in there, sweating bodies packed in there like sardines all sticking to each other. After stripping our thermals off in the van, we gave it another go - still overdressed but not committed to ripping our shirts off like that one guy who was impressing the speaker with his slinky moves. We set up at a table with Nikki Harris and mutual friend Jos Ryan, got Westmalle Trappiste beer (when in Westmalle…) then roamed the joint.

I’m sure I was surrounded by “this name” and “that name” but without their usual outfits, I was lost. I could only make out a few. Of all the happenings at the bar, the most interesting was watching the dancers’ reactions to the music. Every twenty seconds, the DJ would change the song to one with a different beat, resulting in a rampant spread of “two left feet” syndrome. If you think watching just one bad dancer is funny, you’d have really enjoyed the show.

When it came time to go, Jonas and I took the party atmosphere with us for the drive home. We thoroughly finished off our already strained voices by loudly singing (or in our case screaming) along to random songs on the radio such as “Viva La Vida” by Coldplay and “Mr Brightside” by The Killers.
As for the actual racing, I really enjoyed the course. It was basically a technical road race, where much of the loop was hard-packed dirt trails that weaved through the woods, while the sections in the open areas were layered with mostly rideable sand. What made the race most special for me was hearing a steady stream of cheers - for me personally! I was quite moved by the show of affection. My result that day may not have made me feel special but the fans more than made up for it. I finished the race with a wide smile and a tear of gratitude in my eye. Sure I wish I would have ended the season with a superb result but frankly my thoughts were already on next season. It’s only seven months away. And you know how time flies when you’re having fun…with the spring classics right around the corner and the grand tours on their heels, cyclocross is only a click of the helmet strap away.
Thanks for reading and following me this season!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Heerlen down, Oostmalle to go!

Here is Cyclocross Magazine's coverage of my last race.

Counting Them Down, Ready to Party - A GP Heerlen Report by Christine Vardaros
February 17th, 2009
by Christine Vardaros

The second and third photos below were taken by Hugo de Spiegelaere. First and fourth by Bart Hazen

With only two races left to the season, my sole mission for the GP Heerlen in the Netherlands was to have fun. I expected no miracles in fitness but hoped for luck on my side. This race contained neither. Twenty seconds into the race, we hit a sand section and I was knocked off my bike. A girl came up from behind and somehow managed to squeeze her body between me and the fencing. In hindsight, I guess she didn’t manage to fit as I ended up involuntarily moving out of her way. There was a small upside of my crash though - it was suddenly easier to focus on my mission again of having fun. What made it even more effortless is that there were so many people cheering for me throughout the course. There were even fans who knew I was from California, cheering to me that I seemed ready to go back to there for vacation. If I ran faster out of the course’s famous “cave” I guess they wouldn’t have had so much time to chat with me. Just a thought.

I did put in a serious effort on the last lap after the disappointment of getting nailed in the first lap faded. I went from fifteen seconds behind a girl in front of me to finishing 35 seconds ahead of her by the finish. Funny how an intangible thing like motivation can create something real. Again, just a thought.

The infamous cave is like an oversized bowl. You dip into it, then back out on foot up a steep slippery mudslope, cross over to another dip, ride across the sandy bottom and then head back out on two wheels, but slowly since it is a tough power climb. Just when you think you’ve had enough ups and downs, the course takes you down below again only to deposit you at the bottom of a 28 step staircase. They’re the wide ones that require two steps per level.

The other interesting aspect of the course was the start/finish. It is just uphill enough to light your legs on fire (think 2007 Kansas City Nationals). Sprinting for placings up the gradient is like no pain I ever felt on a flat straightaway.

In the men’s race, the real star of the day was Holland’s Richard Groenendaal of AA Drink. Since the announcement of his retirement a few months ago, every one of his races has been treated like a retirement party. It is his last race in Zolder, his ultimate showing in Scheldecross, his last time attending a GVA race, his final Superprestige event, his ultimate appearance in Holland. He has always been one of my favorite riders. I have known of him for years since he played one of the leading protagonist roles in dozens of cyclo-cross videos Coach Elmo lent me when I was just starting out in the sport. I will surely miss him. And even though there are many Belgians who will never publicly admit it, I am sure they too will miss his animated riding style.

Next week is the last race of the season for most of us here in Europe - Int’l Sluitingprijs in Oostmalle, Belgium. I look forward to that day, since the post-season bash is held that night. All the superstars of the sport usually attend. Now to figure out what to wear…

Thanks for reading. Drop a comment if you have attire suggestions!
Photo Gallery, go to Cyclocross Magazine's website

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Wanna know how to get in shape...

and stick with it?

Read my article that's printed in the current issue of VegNews for some helpful advice. Or at least pretend to read it so you dont hurt my feelings as I am super excited to be a columnist for them!

In the same February issue there are articles on where you food really comes from, the truth about water shortage, fountain of youth foods, and easy recipes from Indian food to whoopie pies.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Photos from Amgen Tour of California

Courtesy of Will Matthews, I received a couple of spectacular photos in my inbox from Amgen Tour of California. I loved them so much that I wanted to make sure that they were shown to as many people as possible who can appreciate them as much as I. If you want to see more of his photos from the race, go to .

As you look at the large photo of Lance, is it me or does he look like an american football player - pads and all? Maybe it is partly the misplaced yellow strip and party his over-muscled body.

According to Johan bruyneel, Lance still needs to lose a few pounds, not of fat but muscle mass in his upper body. That must surely be a tough one to deal with. It's not like he can cut out cookies and cake or ride a few extra kilometers. Oddly enough, i bet if we saw him with regular clothes on he would look like he had a tiny upper body.

AND on a tangental note, i finally found a doctor who is giving me hope that my nagging repercussions from my head injury of last year can finally be resolved. Yippee!! I will surely keep you updated. This Sunday is my last cross race of the season. It is in Oostmalle, Belgium. By now i expect no miracles in my result - especially now that i found out what is going on in my body from the neverending head injury - but i will surely make the most of it in fine "peanut" form. After the mens race, I have an invitation for a drink at the Kevin Pauwels mobile home. That could be fun. Maybe i will even snag a quick interview for Cyclocross Magazine if it works out.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A weekend of riding...

it doesnt get better than that. OK, well maybe a little better if it included my home baked chocolate chip cookies and a few more of my friends!
(top photo taken by Krist Vanmelle, photo below taken by Hugo De Spiegelaere)

It started off with a race in Lille, Belgium on saturday. The course was a lot of fun - a heavy one with lots of sand, mud, undulating twisty singletrack, flyovers and thousands of fans lining the trail. Before the race started, newly crowned world champion Marianne Vos and i rode up and down the straightaway together to keep our legs moving. And just as we approached the far end of the course, a group of fans started going crazy with their enthusiastic cheers. But when they continued their cheers after Marianne had already made a u-turn back to the start line, I instantly realized they were for ME! I was so overwhelmed with excitement and humility - what a warm welcome. They were the same guys who cheered for me at a few other races this year - my very own small but extremely vocal fan club! Next year i have to make hats or something so i can get them to these guys!! That would be so cool.

The race unfortunately did not go as well as my warmup though. Within the first ten seconds of the race, I was almost last. Shoot. By the time i clawed my way back through the tail end of the race the front end was long gone. And if it couldnt get any worse, every sand section turned into a time loss for me. In my haste to get to the front, I tried riding every sand section even when (in hindsight i now see) it was faster to run. But even so, i still managed a 12th place which makes me pleased. (for my full report, go to THIS LINK on CX Magazine)

After we got back home, I unpacked, showered and did the laundry while Jonas kept busy washing my bikes. At the moment when we were done with our chores, it was time to walk over to the Team Goeman Presentation in town. We sat with the parents of team owner Jan Goeman and my friend Ronny. It was four solid hours of speaking 90% dutch since his parents dont speak a word of english. Luckily they served wine to help me through the evening. Even though I only had two modestly-sized glasses, it was enough for me to pretend to be fluent - or at least enough to be in denial of my lack of fluency. Surely the latter but it was fun anyway.

The most challenging was actually trying to understand them since they are from Ninove, an area west of Aalst - direction "unintelligable" where the dialect is so strong that even native Flemish speakers have to really pay attention to understand most of what they say. I did understand, however, their compliments on my language improvement! Or at least i think that is what they said.

Afterwards, jonas and i headed to his favorite place to visit when buzzed - the local youth club. There he had a couple more pintjes to top off his multiple Duvel beers while i had a water to recover from my wine hangover. While we sat there, I quietly gave thanks to Jonas' parents for speaking such clear Flemish. You never realize how much effort goes into living in a place where English is not the primary language until you're doing it. I cant even watch a Simpsons episode without it turning into homework where i study the subtitles to make sense of where the verbs, nouns, adjectives, etc go in a sentence - not to mention learning new words. I have learned a lot from sitcoms here which makes me better at reading and writing but saying the words out loud still earns me much laughter. Work in progress...

It may have been a later evening than planned, but the 7am wakeup call the next morning remained unchanged. We needed to get up early to ride a 65km mountain bike tour along with a couple thousand other folks and return home in time for Jonas to go to work.

The first 20km were lightning fast, we were both feeling good. I was on adrenalin from racing the day previous while I swear Jonas was still drunk in the morning and fueled by his buzz. By KM 30 we were crawling. Jonas apoligized a few times for riding slowly. What he doesnt know is that i was dying too. And to rub it in, some guy passed me at KM 45 and said, "Is that the best you can do?" Two KM later another older guy rode up to me and said that this was a heavy course and that his legs were tired. Two seconds later he rode away. The race from the day previous took more out of me than i realized.

At KM 64 we passed the camera woman taking shots for the website. I tried to smile but i have a feeling i was only smiling in my mind since my mouth was frozen, thus requiring too much energy to move the lips.

We got home just in time to watch Hoogstraten Cyclo-Cross race on TV. With our legs elevated, we sat down to a feast of pasta and garlic bread. Unfortunately fifteen minutes into the race, Jonas had to go to work until 1am. And about five minutes after he left, i passed out on the couch with the race playing in my dreams. Nys won - yippee!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

One more tidbit from World Championships

I am not sure how public this was made but the night before Worlds at about 2:30am Sven Nys received a call in his hotel room. Terrified that something may have happened to his family, he rushes to the phone only to hear, "Ben je klaar voor morgen?" just before the caller hung up. It means "Are you ready for tomorrow?" Clearly the guy was drunk but was he a fan of Nys? It seems strange to ruin your favorite rider's race. And if they are a fan of someone else, how inconsiderate must you be to possibly affect the outcome of the one race these guys work a whole year towards. Inexcusable. Unfortunately the police did not track him down. I wish they would have. I would have loved to see his face on the cover of the newspaper with the words "I sabotaged Sven Nys' Worlds". That wouldnt quite be justice but it would be a start. In a country like belgium he will be sure to make instant enemies for life.

On a more positive note, it was good to see Nys crossing the line with hands in air so soon after Worlds at yesterday's Parkcross race in Belgium.

My next race is this Saturday at Lille. I am really curious to see how my body responds. I have done the physical work to be ready. The rest is left to fate i suppose.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

My Thoughts on Cyclo-Cross World Championships

The Cyclo-Cross World Championships just ended. By now most everyone who follows cross knows the results.

But just in case not everything is translated into english for us english-speaking fans of the sportm, here are some tidbits of what transpired during the interviews.

For the last weeks, lars boom has been joking with the belgian team saying that he is not threatened by them and doesn't believe they could ever come together to work against him. He even mentioned in an interview in his house that he was only threatened by Stybar, and possibly Belgian racer Kevin Pauwels (Kevin Pauwels?????? the guy who peaked too soon according to Fidea Team Manager). In a post-race interview, Bart Wellens, Sven Nys and Belgian Team Manager Rudy De Bie confirmed that the belgians indeed worked together. This is something that has never been done on the Belgian CX team before.

When Bart Wellens attacked early in the race, the belgians stayed put on the Holland riders' (Thijs Al and Lars Boom) wheel. Once Bart was caught, Niels Albert jumped to the front with Nys on his wheel. When nys realized there was a string of Orange (holland) jerseys on his wheel, he caused a gap to let Niels free.

When Stybar took off in pursuit of Niels, Sven Nys was having a weak moment and couldnt stay on his wheel.

But when Nys took off again, as did Wellens later in the race, they didnt take anyone with them while the rest of the Belgians helped block.

Most of the belgian racers and fans agree that if Lars wouldn't have been so vocal about his antagonizing of the belgian team, they wouldn't have come together to bury him. As they say in Flemish, the belgians "hebben Boom droog in z'n gat gepakt" (english translation: The belgians took Boom dry in the butt). Crude, huh. I guess that's how much Boom pissed them off.

Regarding Niels Alberts' win, he admitted to hiding himself in roubaix and milan so the other riders didnt mark him as a guy to watch. He continued to say that is exactly what he needed to win.

Nys said his inability to stay on Stybar's wheel early in the race was due to a bad moment. He was having a tough lap coincidentally when Stybar took off to chase Niels. It makes sense to me since he jumped away shortly after that on his own to claim the last spot on the podium behind Stybar and Albert. Nys went on to say that every belgian can be proud that he helped the belgian team to claim the win. And that Niels will prove that he is a great athlete over the next few years.

Included in the string of interviews was Ellen, Niels' girlfriend of eight years. She was absolutely beaming with excitement. Considering Niels is 23, that makes them a couple from the age of 15! Shortly, Niels plans to move out of his parents' home so he and his girlfriend can live together.

I dont know what eventually happened to Jonathan Page but earlier in the race he got caught up on a pole in a u-turn - or maybe that was Jeremy Powers who had a strong race for 35th i think.

Regarding the womens race, my first choice was obviously Katie Compton (i must admit that this is partly so there will be an extra Worlds Team spot awarded to USA for next year). But if she didnt win, my second choice was easily Marianne Vos. I love her. She is so sweet, humble and down to earth. Before some races, she even camps in her mobilehome with her dad and brother. No high class hotel for her! I interviewed her recently and I especially loved her response to any special pill, food, ritual or preparation she takes before a race. She said that when the fitness is good, the rest doesnt matter. She also describes racing as "playtime" with the other girls. She races because she loves to play and rides because she loves just being on the bike.

I was expecting that USA's Rachel Lloyd to place top ten - closer to fifth, but after watching the race it was clear to me that she spent much of the race at the front, dragging almost ten riders round and round. If she pulled off the front it seemed the other riders would slow the pace down. And on a fast course like that, it is especially tough to break away from other riders. With that in mind, she rode an incredibly admirable race. Georgia Gould who placed a couple spots behind Rachel seemed to have ridden much of the race solo. With a windy course, it only proves that Georgia must have been exceptionally strong on the day.