Last weekend I had my first taste of real Belgian mud, or modder as it is called here. I was encouraged to enter the race by my friend and local ex-pat-to-Belgian convert Darryn Medhurst. It was just down the road from his house, and he'd actually showed me the course a month or two earlier when we went for a ride together. But I wouldn't have guessed that I'd ever been there in my life on the day, it was unrecognisable. Maybe if I'd been a first World War veteran I might have felt at home there, but it was essentially just a massive bog with occasional relics of a cornfield or two.
I went out to ride around the course a couple of hours before my race, but soon found this to be more or less impossible. I rode the first hundred metres or so, then proceeded to carry my bike for most of the remaining lap. I cleaned it at the pit and went back to the car, having successfully made all my clothes and shoes filthy and wet. There wasn't going to be an awful lot of riding in this race.
Although we had a few pretty muddy days in Wellington's cross calendar this year, nothing compared to the bog at Laarne. Sven Nys was the first to dismount, being at the front of the race, and it was a surreal and comic scene watching the race transform into a muddy slogfest. In slow motion. It didn't take all that long for the leaders to push on up ahead, helped by superior physical prowess and a team of bike-cleaning hampsters trained on a diet of bike-prep. Most were getting fresh bikes twice per lap, at the two technical zones. I still have just the one bike, so was enjoying the extra weight and rolling resistance of a bike covered from saddle to tread in juicy lucious mud.
I got into a bit of a groove eventually, and was fortunate to find myself racing against other people the whole time. This helps a lot for motivation to keep pushing, as either a metaphorical wolf at the back door or a metaphorical carrot dangling in front waiting to be devoured. I made plenty of mistakes, but was also able to enjoy some sections where I went better than those around me, however briefly it may have been for. After 5 laps I once again found myself being directed away at the finish line, shortly before Niels Albert came cruising through like it was a road race. Although there were still four laps remaining in the race, I felt like I'd done all I could to stay in it for as long as I did, and was pleased to be up there with some high-calibre riders, and ahead of a couple who have eluded me in the past.
A solid day's running and struggling in the mud proved to be quite a bit more taxing than the previous racing efforts I've so far endured. So, in keeping with my tradition thus far of exploring new physical boundaries and far-flung corners of my mind to squeeze out every last drop of possibility I had one of the beggest races of the season to follow the next day. That is, at Ruddervoorde for the first in the annual Hansgrohe Superprestige series.
After such a swamp as the day before, you could understand why I thought the conditions might be similar the following day. However, this is a specially-made course: hand-built from the drainage piping dug under the ground right up to the cobbled section of road and olympic swimming pool-sized sandpit.
All the pro's come out to play for this one, as not only do they get contracts for starting each race in the series, accompanied by a friendly pay cheque, but there are UCI points available to help improve their seeding position at the start of all races. So it was a big field, racing over a fast but obstacle-ridden circuit.
I had a good start to this one, and although I may be inexperienced I definitely had nothing to do with the crash in the starting sprint. I spotted Jonathan Page not far up ahead, and concentrated on sticking as close to him as I could. This lasted for about 100m, before we entered a narrow section of chicanes, and thereon I never saw him again. But I had one or two fellow riders to try and stick with, and although I found it very challenging riding through the sand and around the vast array of off-camber slippery corners, I kind of felt like I held my own and was pleased to race for as long as I did after the leg-breaking effort of the previous day. I had the Belgian crowd very much in support of me, which definitely kept me going for a lap or two more than I might have done otherwise.
I was toasted for several days after the weekend's racing, longer than previous double weekends. I put it down to the courses being more demanding, and my continued progress in pushing my limits beyond a normal all-out effort. I was fortunate to have been loaned a pair of very nice carbon-rimmed tubular wheels by my host here at the Chain Stay, the fine statesman and photographer Gregg Germer. They definitely made a difference on the slick corners, with a significant amount more traction, and a general smoothness that I've never experienced before. Sadly I wasn't able to unclip my foot at the base of one of the stairs after the sand around the cleat blocked it up, and I hit it pretty hard taking the front wheel and myself out in the process. I wasn't hurt, just a little stunned, but sadly the wheel came off much worse for wear. However it will be rectified, and she will ride again.
I have a race close to home this weekend, which is part of the other big series in Belgium, the BPost Bank Trofee (formerly called the GVA Trofee) at Ronse. I had a look at the course yesterday, and it is just like a New Zealand farm - very hilly grassy paddocks. Not an easy course, but I'm going to trust in my innate agricultural nous, channeling the 20 or so sheep that would theoretically be mine if that game we played as children were to be real. You know, the one where the sheep get divinded up into a per-capita basis.
It's threatening to rain all weekend thus I'm sure it'll prove to be an interesting race, so stay tuned!