After my awesome virginal experience with the professionals last weekend, I let my fledgling ambitions of fandom take a back seat and once again found myself staring at the rear ends of what was this time a massive field in the B grade at Hoboken.
The weather has taken a rather drastic turn in the winterly direction in the last week or two, so I believe the days of high-speed, dusty and thirsty cross races may well be a thing of the past. A week of scattered showers leading up to Sunday's race at Hoboken had softened the course up, and on the day it was overcast, spitting at times, windy and about 10 degrees. Not a bad variation on 30 degrees only two weeks ago.
I had a bit of a mission getting to this race, still relying on the multiple-train-journey ride-bike-to-race combo. It didn't help incorrectly remembering the spelling of the town I was heading to, so when I tried to prepurchase my ticket the lady at the ticket office couldn't find the station and after a few minutes I had to run and hop on the train anyway. Trains passing through Brussels generally stop at all three of the main stations. Every other time I happen to have disembarked at either the North or South stations, but this time I made the mistake of getting off at the Brussels Central station en route to my connecting line, and was denied entry onto my next train because as I was to find out Brussels Central is the only station where bikes aren't allowed. No apparent signs or information regarding this policy to be found anywhere, and likewise apparently there are no exceptions. Irrespective of the fact that there was more or less an empty train behind her, the officious female ticket officer was holding one arm across half the doorway to block my way, while she stood in the other half and defiantly averted her gaze and attention from my protestations. So what do you do when you arrive somewhere by train but can't leave by train? Wait for the next train and try your luck.
Luck was on my side this time, and a genuinely pleasant guard on the next train took pity on my predicament. I felt like I was being smuggled onboard as he looked around briefly, surveying the area suspiciously before giving me the nod, the cue to which I hopped hurriedly inside. He also knew the city I was looking for despite my spelling mistake, further confirming my impression of him as awesome.
When I at last made it to Mortsel I still had about a 10km ride to the race course in Hoboken. This didn't get off to a great start, as although I'd had a quick look over Google Maps before leaving the house, the reality of a bigger and busier township than I expected—where the medium roads look more like main roads—proved quite a challenge to my internal navigation system (INS). After riding up and down the main street looking for the road that I'd noted would lead me directly to the course, but whose name I had forgotten apart from that it started with a 'K', I decided to solicit help from some locals.
I picked a couple of guys around my age first, and after a couple of shaky exchanges they said they didn't know Hoboken. I proceeded to ride up and down the road some more, taking a street heading in what seemed like the right direction, but not named at all like I remembered the one I wanted to be. When I turned back I was heading past the same guys and they called me over. One had his phone out with a GPS and they'd brought up the area. It turned out the road I had just headed down was indeed the right one, and changed its name shortly after. He commented that I had a nice accent in Dutch, and that they thought I was German at first. Whether those two things necessarily go together in most people's opinion around here is debatable, but I happily took the compliment and with a sense of accomplishment and renewed enthusiasm headed along the abundant cycle paths to ...the general vicinity of the race.
I knew I had to be close, as the road signs were telling me I was at the edge of Hoboken, so it was just a matter of exploring the area. I had a look down the industrial lane, past burnt-out trucks and abandoned trailers, but I found no race there. Through suburban streets I roamed, still to find no race. I started to wonder if I would ever get there, and it was at this point that I saw in the distance, the familiar red and white plastic tape that they use to mark out the course. Although fairly overwhelming, my relief was muted slightly by the realisation that as I had less than an hour until my race, I had no time to pre-ride the course.
I was feeling good just to have made it there, and as it was cold I was able to break out, for its first European assault, my special Revolution skinsuit that I had custom made shortly before leaving New Zealand.
I was given number 70, out of a total of 71 riders. It was once again ordered randomly, and unfortunately not in my favour, with me starting more or less at the very back once again. The course proved to be a difficult one for passing riders, as despite the average speed feeling quite high, apart from two longer straights on sealed sections (both with strong winds) it was basically all just winding corners through the forest, with an effective width equivalent to that of singletrack. Most of the corners were already very cut up and washed out from all the day's prior races, so it was a vicious battle early on to try and get ahead through each one, with elbows out sharpened to a point, riders ramming each other and sliding out all over the show.
One particularly memorable occasion was when a young guy in horrible fluorescent yellow kit crashed in a pile of dust, and was subsequently overtaken by a number of us. He was obviously in a bit of a rage already, but when he was right behind me up a little ramp my foot unclipped and it made him stop. What followed was one of the most impressive and disgusting outpourings of verbal diarrhoea I have ever witnessed, made even more so by the fact that as I don't know the words that he was saying to me it came out as one elongated burst of nauseous vocal distress. The World Health Organisation says diarrhoea is technically identified by three or more liquid or loose stools per day. Well, this guy had the first one when he slipped over. He wiped himself down and got going again only to have his biggest one was when I held him up. It then dribbled on discontentedly for the next half a lap until I took a corner a bit hot and put a foot out to steady my drifting wheel. Once again I heard his croaking and spluttering release behind me, and he busted a gut to get past me. I let him go, pleased to be rid of the stench of him. I passed him again a couple of laps later, over-cooked and riding with his head drooping and morale deflated.
I was feeling really good during this race, and found myself constantly catching up behind others when we went through the twisty technical sections. As the field spread out over the course of the hour I was able to gain more and more places, and after making it to the bell lap I was still able to put in some good hard efforts and recover just enough to push myself right to the end. Although my final placing of 40th wasn't quite as far up as I had hoped to be, I was satisfied to have got through about half the field and to have had a strong clean race free from crashes.
My return journey to the train station was a far more straight-forward affair than the previous leg, and just after I went inside it started to rain heavily. Later that night I was treated to possibly the most incredible electrical storm I have ever experienced, with lightning flashes several times a second and torrential rain for hours. If it hadn't got me so excited I would have been annoyed at its ability to deprive me of sleep, I just couldn't help but go to the window and watch.
It was a good feeling to be back racing against mortals again (although, saying that the top 10 or so were professionals - being junior or U23 means they can enter these races all the same. Go figure.) This coming weekend I'm jumping back into the ring for a double header of fighting the big boys in the first UCI-points allocated races of the Belgian calendar. UCI Cat 2 at Neerpelt on Saturday followed by UCI Cat 1 at Kalmthout on Sunday. There will be lots of international riders this time, so the fields should be huge. Which means so will the support from fans, and as I found out last time, they will be sure to pull me through.