Last weekend I had two B-grade races, and these served as my introduction into the world of cyclocross à la Belgique. The racing was high-speed, furious, dusty and very hot. It was around 30° on both days, so having drink bottles handed up during the race was permitted. I was there by myself and didn't think to ask a stranger to help me with this, so resorted to looking on longingly and dryly of throat each lap when all the other riders took on their refreshing tonic.
I was greeted with a mixture of curiosity and smug derision; what was a New Zealander doing over this side of the world, competing in such a strange and unique discipline as cyclocross? It's their sport, and they own it. They might be convinced to share a little bit of it though.
After that weekend of starting at the back and racing as hard as I could to try and move up the field, I felt like I'd had a taste of what the season will hold for me. It's true, even at that level the competition is so high, that going from somewhere around the top in New Zealand I now found myself picking around for the leftover scrapings, somewhere in the middle of the field. It doesn't help starting at the back, so that has to be where I first try and make progress.
So after a baptism by fire amongst the amateurs, what better way to complete my cyclocross orientation week than by going all-in against the current World Champion, World Cup champion, and pretty much the next 5 top-ranked riders in the world? I thought so too.
This was Steenbergcross, in Erpe-Mere. Over 5,000 spectators (a rather small crowd due to the World Road Champs being on at the same time). Traditionally the first real cross race of the season, it's an A-grade affair which means one thing: professionals. And oh my do they know how to race.
I spent about half an hour pre-riding the course, warming up in the process. It started with a slightly uphill straight, then a flat section with barriers and hairpins, before going into a forest with short but very steep pinches both up and down. The crowd had started to gather already by this stage, so I had a significant audience for my first attempts at riding through all the tricky bits. They were busy chatting, not overly distracted by the sight of a hairy antipodean skidding and straining his way through the course. I seemed to be the only person out riding, I suppose the others were in their mobile homes/team trucks warming up on trainers/just enjoying being millionaires.
When we did eventually get called to the starting pen, I couldn't help but laugh at the predicament I found myself in. Here I was in a fenced-off area about the size of my former living room, snug up against the likes of Niels Albert, Kevin Pauwels, Bart Wellens... the list goes on. I should've brought a pen, the potential for autographs was so great. One by one everybody else got called up before me, so although a little apprehensive, in good spirits I took my place at the back of the starting grid.
My goal was firstly not to be last. If I can manage that, then I'll see how long I can last. When I found myself overtaking a couple of riders in the starting sprint I thought this must just be good luck. When I passed another on the side of the course with chain problems 100m later I thought the same again. When another crashed in front and to the side of me in a muddy rutted section I thought the same again. Although I wasn't remotely near the front, I was in this race! Then when a rider came off just in front of me on one of the super steep pitches and I had a forced dismount, causing my chain to drop off, I felt cheated. It took a while to sort out and several riders passed me again. I would feel cheated a few more times before the end of the race. Whether it was a rider overtaking me and then deliberately slowing down just before technical sections where I was faster, or getting my front brake caught and disengaged in another rider's rear wheel while climbing a staircase, forcing me to stop and reconnect it before a massively steep descent, I suffered a range of afflictions. All you can do is just get ahead and stay in front next time. It's a lot easier said than done though, when your heart rate is through the roof and you can hardly see straight from exertion.
One thing that really does help though, is having thousands of people screaming your name and other unintelligible support from the sidelines. It is an amazing sensation, and although I'd been told about it, nothing can prepare you for how it feels. I could ride up the steepest slopes and force my pace through the bumpiest corners with everyone shouting my name in a funny accent. They must have got it from the start sheet, some saying Alex, others Alexander as it was printed, some just blaring incoherently. The best one I heard from a young boy was "Go Moustache!". People were running across the field to get into position to cheer me on in different places of the course.
In the end I came 27th out of about 30, so although I didn't have the race of my life in relation to all the other riders, I was overwhelmed by the supporters. By all accounts I may have placed second only to the reigning World Champ in decibels.
It was just the first race of the season, so if that's just the start of it then I'm going to have to get some ear plugs, because it was already one of the most amazing experiences of my life.