The last two weekends have featured some of the coolest and most unique races of the Belgian cyclocross season. After getting sick for a couple more days following Hamme-Zogge I eventually started to feel better, and by the end of the week was able to do some good riding and training again.
Sunday the 18th was round four of the Superprestige series in Gavere, a course featuring essentially one and a half precarious and terrifying high-speed rutted muddy descents followed by a wallowing slog/trudge back up the hill. The mud is simultaneously thick and granular, necessitating special care of one's derailleur. With the exception of last year, when it was hot and sunny and more like a BMX race, probably half the field of riders tend to have some sort of mechanical problem, or loss of a mechanical item. This year was unexceptional, in the sense that there was an exceptional number of distraught derailleurs untimely ripped from their nestled hangars. Several riders were forced to run on the first lap, many on subsequent laps, and some of them were even unlucky enough to lose the derailleur on their spare bike too, very effectively ending their race. This worked in my favour, as not only was I having enough trouble getting around the course on my bike and in one piece, but the collection of mud on my tyres and frame made it almost impossible to pedal. I ran a lot of the course, or at least tried my best to, finding it more challenging overall than the Koppenbergcross from the end of October.
After the start with about 35-40 riders, I found myself swiftly at the back until I was lapped out with 3 laps remaining of the total 8, but thanks to the destruction on-course sitting now smugly in 24th place. I had some scars to bear for my toils though, with very battered and lacerated legs. My mechanic and now soigneur Gregory, along with his schaat Nele helped me clean myself up with a very successful mud-removal/massage technique. A few casual outings over the next days with maximum leg-warmth-containment vestments helped to ease the swelling and tension in my knees, and by the end of last week I was good to go again in anticipation of my first World Cup race at Koksijde.
I was to be joined in this endeavour by, against all odds, another kiwi. Angus Edmond has been living in Denmark for the past decade, and just like in NZ and Australia recently the popularity of cyclocross has picked up a lot of momentum over there. He came down to Oudenaarde and stayed here at the Chain Stay for a few nights, and we went out to the coastal town of Koksijde the afternoon before the race to pre-ride the course and attend the international race managers' meeting. Despite how it sounds it's not very exciting, apart from the complicated multiple languages in use and the superfluous UCI staff who seem to be there to refer your questions on to another person who has just left the room, then when you turn back to them give you a disgusted look that oozes "I don't give a shit." However it is essential for getting race numbers and parking permits etc.
Having watched hours of previous years' Koksijde races, I was aware of the huge amount of sand that features on the course - it is essentially a race over sand dunes, only some of which have plants growing on them. So although it makes for a beautiful location and a great technical challenge trying to ride up and down the sifting slopes, it is somewhat of an ecological no-no. I managed to ride a lot more of the sand sections than I had expected, so was feeling pretty good about the race the following day. Angus and I bumped into our fellow Antipodean crosser, and special guest at the NZ national champs in July, the Australian Lewis Rattray. He's back for a couple of months for the busiest part of the season, looking to improve on the foundations he set a year ago in his first trip to race cyclocross in Belgium.
Most people tend to run the most minimal tread pattern they can get away with for riding in sand, so file treads (semi-slick in the centre, with a small ridge on either shoulder of the tyre) are most common. However on the day of the race it was raining and with all the riders practicing, followed by the juniors, U23 and elite women racing, the rest of the course that wasn't sand was turning into mud. The word went out that Sven Nys was lining up his bikes with Dugast Typhoons, and therefore almost everyone else did the same.
As always, the first corner of a cyclocross race is fraught with nervous over-braking and therefore risk of crashing. With rain falling on the startline, it was always going to be an exciting first corner onto the muddy grass. As people in front started to brake in anticipation of this, I too pulled on my levers only to find them unresponsive. The rain and surface water had left them momentarily ineffectual, and just as I thought I was about to bump into the back wheel of someone, a gap suddenly appeared on the left of the course, and I managed to slip through unscathed around the corner. If my heart wasn't already racing from the opening sprint, it certainly was now, and I did my best to keep with the pace and not lose places.
About halfway through the first lap I slipped over on a greasy muddy corner, sliding out of the way of Lewis behind me, but right in line with an oncoming silver fern-clad Angus. He in turn fell over and this further wedged my bike under the barrier fence, so by the time I'd got it out and straightened my handlebars I had lost a lot of time to both of them. I was disappointed and had a fairly rough next couple of laps trying to get back into a rythym, but did eventually did so and managed to get back past Angus. I was pulled from the race after just under 40 minutes, at the end of 4 laps, in 46th place with 4 laps remaining. I didn't realise how close Niels Albert was behind me, but I was already going as hard as I could!
It is a great course, slightly different each year it seems but always very difficult. Sand is a strange thing to ride through, if you have a rut to follow and it's flat or downhill it's a simple task of following it - simple in principle, that is. If it's uphill and loose then you have to be Albert or Nys and just insanely skilled. I was pretty happy with how I rode, running as fast as possible when I couldn't ride or feel like I was about to vomit my lungs. It's just a shame that for someone of my level you don't get longer in the race to compete when faced with the precision and strength of the top dogs. I guess that just means I have to go faster, earlier and perversely therefore for longer.
One of the highlights of the day was having my team there supporting me very vocally and libatiously on the sideline, all the while porting the moustache-themed merchandise they are selling on my behalf for World Champs fundraising. The extra burst of cheering I had at that point of the lap pushed me on up the steep pinch immediately following, and I could hear the singing continue from a long way off. It was great to be a part of a World Cup for the first time, a race that really feels more international than all the previous ones I've done. This Sunday the next World Cup is in Roubaix, France (just over the border) starting and finishing in the famous velodrome that ends the road classic Paris-Roubaix. It's going to be muddy and probably cold, but I've been getting used to that lately. I'm feeling good at the moment, and looking forward to it so let's see how close I can get to finishing on it this weekend too!