After the broiled cess pit of a bog that was Laarne a fortnight ago, I thought I’d encountered some of the worst that Belgium’s rain on recently harvested cornfields could produce. The following week I had a painful but exciting frolic around the NZ pasturescape that was the bpost bank trofee round in Ronse, and although not as muddy as it could have been, it was still a bit of a slippery brown buttery mess.
Last week I raced the 2012 edition of Kermiscross in Ardooie, West Flanders. For those of you who don’t know what a kermis is, it is the quintessential Belgian road race. Typically run over a short loop many times, from about 2-8km per lap and about 80km in total, the races are really just like extended criteriums and have an average speed of around 45-50km per hour. The best thing about them is that almost all towns in Flanders, big and small, host their own kermis during the road season, on any day of the week. It’s not uncommon for there to be 10 or so on any single day around the country. Monday, Tuesday, you name it and there’ll be a race nearby. Technically kermis just means party, and the local pub is the hub of operations, and supplies bubbling beers and frizzling frites to the hefty fans who line the course as it passes through town every lap, helping to sustain them during such a time of exertion.
After its name, you would expect the cyclocross version of such a race to be an all-out, fast, flat affair. And I’m sure it can be, under different circumstances, such as not having received two solid weeks of rain leading up to the event. As it was, the race was definitely still all-out, but with the majority of the time racing spent with the bike over your shoulder, running haphazardly through the shin-deep muck.
I was fortunate to have the benefit of two bikes at my disposal, having recently received them courtesy of my new team Los Pedalos. On the day I had the mechanical help and assistance in the pit of Matthijs, a fine young man. Without him there to swap my bike and rinse off the mud each lap I would have been even slower and potentially destroyed my derailleur or other vulnerable parts of my bike. Even with this help it was still an incredibly tough race, and running through the mud as fast as I could before remounting to cover the short sections that were rideable was making my heartrate skyrocket. I was able to have a bit of a duel with another guy at the very back of the race, eventually making my way past him and another chap shortly before the 80% cutoff at 4 laps to go. They were pulled off the course, but it was my last lap, so although I was to finish 3 laps down overall I was happy to have been at least a lap up on some others in the race. On my final lap I could see the leaders creeping up quickly behind me. Niels Albert, Klaas Vantornout and Sven Nys eventually came cruising past me in a running section, with strides about twice as long as mine. I did my best to weasel along behind Nys for a bit, but their accelerations were just a little too pointy for me at that stage of the race.
That was on a Thursday, my first mid-week cyclocross race. This will become more and more common in the lead-up to the busiest time of the year for ‘cross racing. Christmas and New Year are public holidays and public holidays mean one thing: cyclocross races. The days before and after also mean cyclocross, so for the period from about 16 December through to early January there are more or less ‘cross races every day.
The Sunday after Ardooie I went to my first B grade race in about a month, at Zingem. It was a nice change from the hype and crowding of the A races, and had the benefit of meaning I was no longer out the arse of the race, but very much in the middle of it, perhaps somewhere around the bial duct. There were about 35 starters, and I was on the second row. After a pretty good start I found I wasn’t quite able to hold the pace, and had a few people pass me. I found a rythym after a couple of laps and set about making the most of being in the race, competing against other people – rather than the individual time trial that the A races are for the most part. I held on when others attacked, jumped away from riders sneaking along close behind me, and found myself enjoying the more dynamic race, changing pace often and in close proximity to others every step of the way. By the end I had managed to slink into the top 20, earning myself €10 prize money and an outpouring of congratulations from the beaming, rosy-cheeked patrons of the pub where registration was held. They had seen me in the newspaper, and although bemused as to how far I’ve come to be here, offered kind words and hearty mirth at my having done so.
It seems as though mud is going to be the main meal for ‘cross over the coming month or two, until it gets cold enough to freeze. I definitely noticed I was riding and running through it better the second and then third time around, so I’m feeling good about what’s ahead. Although we had some very muddy races in NZ this year, it was never as thick and palpable as here, so will definitely be something to work on back home.