Sunday saw the hosting of the first round of the 2012/13 season's bpost Bank Trofee series. Formerly called the GVA Trofee, it is the other main cyclocross series in Belgium along with Superprestige. I had been over the course earlier in the week to practice, as it was about as close as you can get to a home course - about 10kms away in a town called Ronse. The course was essentially just a very hilly circumnavigation of a paddock and on Thursday, though it was fairly damp, I was able to ride the majority of it without too much trouble.
By the time race day arrived there had been several days' rain, and combined with the morning's added destruction - thanks to the juniors - it was now a buttery, muddy, grassy and therefore slippery rutted slogfest of a course.
I had wishfully thought that seeing it was both similar to a mountain bike course and similar to a New Zealand pastural scene I would maybe be able to do alright. I might have been correct had I not been competing against the calibre of riders that I seem to be most weeks now. I was a mere minnow against the sharks of the Belgian cyclocross ocean.
Fortunately for me I have recently found a very large influx of support coming my way, courtesy of very generous people offering their time and expertise as mechanics, mechanical assistants, masseuses and free-stuff agents amongst other things. Also lots of people have kindly been supporting me through financial contributions on my Fundme site, where I am raising funds for travel to and from and associated costs with the World Cups in Europe and World Championships in America in February, along with the rest of the season's expenses. I would love to hear of any help that people might be able to offer whether from near or far, so please don't hesitate to get in touch if you think you can offer any assistance, useful contacts or even just words of encouragement.
My biggest news of late has to be that I have just joined a team over here, called Los Pedalos. They are based in the city of Halle, just south of Brussels, and all it took was one look at my hairy face for them to know that we belonged together. They are a great bunch of people, graciously providing me with two Focus Mares CX bikes, spare wheels and a bunch of kit.
Back to the race - I had a journalist from Sporza.be with me throughout the day interviewing me and filming my various adventures, thrills and spills. He and the TV coverage made a nice video compilation of all the riders' comic attempts at the steepest and most challenging descent of the loop, and they asked the current world champ and former U23 world champ what they think of my moustache and whether they would grow one here.
We started on the main road heading up and along the hill to the high point of the course, which is also the highest race in the country, at about 150m asl. They changed the timing of the starting lights, which threw all the front row out of kilter. Klaas Vantornout and Sven Nys both stepped off early, then stopped only to find the light changing and everyone else heading off just as they put a foot back down. I didn't have any problems there, and managed to cut in on the outside at the first corner, gaining roughly 10 places - only to lose them all again when I found myself overgeared as I went to accelerate out of the corner.
I held on to the back of the bunch for most of the first lap, hearing the crowd roar as this happened at the front of the race:
But I managed to survive that corner every time, albeit by a whisker several of the times. I tried to take my own line just outside of the biggest rut, but due to the steep lead-in and seeing it was so slippery there was no way you could control your speed by braking, so I would essentially just let go and hope for the best.
It was such a hard race, I really just felt like I was riding uphill all the time. Even on the descents, they were either too tricky to not have to hold your breath for, or they were steady and required pedaling for speed. The ground was soft and bumpy, there were multiple steep run-ups, so all up it was by far the hardest rideable course to race on so far.
I didn't feel like I was able to get into much of a rythym, instead finding myself slipping back further each lap. But really I think it was just a sign of the difficulty of the race, and gave me a renewed appreciation for the skill and amazing strength of the top riders. Niels Albert came past me only 10 or so seconds after I was pulled off the course, having completed 5 laps out of 9.
Although it was such a hard, relentless race I was pleased to have stayed in it for as long as I did. It was difficult to quantify, being so difficult, but I feel like I am making progress. Maybe at the next few races I will have a better guage of this, as over the coming weekends most riders will be in the Czech Republic for the first two World Cup races. I am staying here, and going back into some of the local B-grade cross races. My fan club continues to grow, moustaches are beginning to appear on the sidelines, and the temperature continues to drop each week. It's definitely getting into the business end of the season, but I'm still looking forward to every race just as much as before.