This weekend just gone was again a double header. The difference between this pair and the others I did over the weekend back in early September was that this time they were both A grade, classified as UCI category 2 and 1 respectively. The addition of UCI points and the increased prize money available because of this meant that the field included not only the top Belgian professionals, but also those of several other European countries. I'd just moved house in the days leading up to the first race, and combined with a few nights' minor insomnia (I think largely due to the growing anticipation and excitement of the impending big crowds and big competition) I was feeling a bit rough around the edges. It's a funny feeling being at these big races, and quite a surreal experience lining up beside these guys that I've previously only seen on TV or via YouTube videos now transformed into flesh, of the slickest and most pristine and fastidious order. I feel like a cheat and a cheapskate, usurping my way past the legions of Belgian amateurs who would beat me any day but for their national ranking policy, and jumping the queue to nestle somewhat smugly at the highest level of the sport. Despite these feelings, I find any anxiety or nervousness I experience vanishes as soon as the gun goes, replaced quickly with an overwhelming humility as I focus on following wheels from the back of the pack.
Saturday's race was in Neerpelt, pretty much up as far North-East as you can get in Belgium without becoming Dutch, and was the first in the Soudal Classics series. From what I gather the courses don't tend to change much from year to year, perhaps one or two minor adjustments, so for most of the pros it's just a matter of reacquaintance each time. This race is mainly through a forest with quite a sandy base, made a wee bit boggy in parts through recent rain. There was also plenty of sand in the beach volleyball "court" that we rode through, twice each lap. The sand was very loose not only on the flat, but equally on the short uphill sections, making it very difficult to ride them. If you can't commit 100% to riding up these as hard as you can, you really need to dismount as early as possible because there's a nasty no-man's-land in between where if you try and ride but lose too much momentum before hopping off to run, it's very tough to get moving again. I'm pretty new to riding in sand, so even without the competition I was facing, I knew I was in for a challenging day.
When I entered the holding pen shortly before the start, I was approached by a reporter from the local newspaper, keen to do a story on me. Or maybe just my moustache. Who knows what it is exactly that they like about me, but as I can imagine, it's interesting to them that a New Zealander would come to Belgium to race against their pros. Wouldn't we too find it curious if a Belgian moved to New Zealand for rugby and automatically qualified to play with the All Blacks? That's the equivalent level these riders and races are at in the Belgian society.
I was having trouble right from the start at this race, not quite hitting the right line through corners, dropping my chain on run-ups, but surprisingly doing okay in the sandpit. I came unstuck on a corner towards the end of the first lap, and looked up to see the next placed rider disappear around the corner, forcing me to ride yet again solo for as long as I could hold off the clock. I wasn't the only one having trouble with the pace and the course, and managed to make my way past another rider or two before we all got pulled for not being within 80% of the lead rider's first lap time. This is what happened to me two weeks ago in Erpe-Mere, and I had vowed to ride as hard as I could in the time I had in the race to make the most of this opportunity. I was disappointed because I had only made it through three laps today, so I made my way home feeling a bit dejected and wondering what I was getting out of a race such as this.
Quite a lot, as it turns out. I forced myself to remember why I've come all this way, and having now committed myself to this grand plan it's such a great opportunity to learn and improve, and I'm not going to let it slip because I get my arse kicked every week. I even knew it would happen; what else could I expect? It wasn't so much that I had been beaten so quickly, but rather that I didn't feel like I did myself justice by my ride. So I took away whatever I could find that was positive from the day and focussed on absolutely hammering myself the next day in Kalmthout.
Sunday was a beautiful day with clear skies and sunshine to firm up the mud and dry the grass, turning the course into the Belgian cyclocross Autobahn. I had a good look over the course between races earlier in the afternoon before my race started at 5:30, and I made sure to get in a particularly good warm up, which I think really paid off for me.
Things started much better for me this time, with no unclipping at the opening sprint. I even managed to overtake a bunch of riders through the first corner, even though they did all get back past me within the next minute or so. The main thing was that I was doing what I could to stay in the train, for now.
All it took was one small slip-up on a corner, dipping my knee briefly in the dirt, to leave me on my own with a massively uphill battle to stay in the race. I cursed to myself for having let it happen, and set about rampaging my way through as much of this race as I could.
The crowd were half cheering / half jeering me at this point, in their inimitable style - calls of "go Sven" rich in sarcasm further fuelling my fire. After two laps completed, I passed through the finish straight to be told I had 7 laps remaining. I figured this would probably be my last lap, so I'd better go hell for leather. And I did, blasting my way out of corners after skirting the edge by millimetres, doing everything I could to keep my race alive.
6 laps to go. This time it'll be my last, just crank out another one to make it worthwhile. 5 to go. Ok, don't toy with me, just pull me out Mr UCI. 4 to go. What the hell? Every time around I was exhausting myself with effort right through the lap, and apparently it was working. As good as this new policy I had come up with was for maintaining my presence in the race, it was bloody hard maintaining myself. I experienced a bizarre mixture of emotions as I passed through the Start/Finish straight - elation at being still on the course this far through, but then panic and nausea at the realisation of what I had to do yet again. 3 laps to go. Was it possible? I didn't want to get my hopes up too much, that I might be able to finish this race. It may not seem like a big deal to finish a race, but for me here this is.
By now the crowd's occasional jeers had turned into uproarious cheers, bleating and screaming. People were no longer taking the piss, they were instead drinking it ever faster and expressing their delight at its euphoric effect, and the surprising length of my tenure in this race. I found out later that someone texted the commentator on Belgian TV asking if the New Zealander was still in the race! I don't know how they got the number or who they were, but it was confirmed live to air that I was indeed still in it, and shortly afterwards they cut to a 10-15 second wide shot of me riding up the finish straight with my name on the screen and all.
Alas my dreams were not to be fully realised that day, and it was with two laps remaining that I was guided off the course. The average speed for the leaders was 27-28km per hour, so significantly faster than most 'cross races. In the end I was racing for about 48 minutes, at which point I was just over a minute and a half behind the leaders. I was absolutely stoked with this, and after the disappointment of the day before I realised just how much you can do when you put your mind to something. Cranking out each lap like it was my last defeinitely helped, so I now have a much better idea of what it takes to be up there in the race.
But then again, going by what I heard offered to me most commonly by new-found burgeoning fanbase, maybe you just need a big moustache.