Merry belated Christmas everyone, and Happy New Year. I don't have all that much more energy for celebrations at the moment, as the last couple of weeks have been quite different to any of my life until this point. For a start Christmas was cold on purpose, being in the northern hemisphere. Not snowing, but kind of grey and chilly - a bit like a really bad one in New Zealand - but that was about the best we could have hoped for. The sun came out for about an hour when I went for a ride, so I had a brief sensation of festive rides from back home. Christmas eve is the main time of celebration in this part of the world, so, joined by a bunch of fellow foreigners we settled in for as traditional a meal as you could hope for when you are in Belgium but come from NZ, England, America, Canada and Denmark. The day before I had raced my 3rd World Cup in Namur, which is in the southern half of Belgium, the region of Wallonia. This course is famous for its steep drops and climbs, and has a tendancy to be muddier than a flounder's back yard. I made my way out to the course the afternoon before with fellow Kiwi Genevieve Whitson, to look over the course and go to the team meeting to retrieve our numbers and parking cards. It was also a chance to check out the heated changing rooms and hot showers that were a highlight of the course, and I probably spent about as much time in there cleaning myself off as I did riding in the mud that necessitated it.
The race followed the same course as last year, starting on a road that goes for several hundred metres and gets progressively steeper as it gets rougher and muddier until an even steeper section of felt-covered ramp up to the high point of the course. After this brutal lung burner to cauterise your airways it was a matter of staying on your bike around slippery corners and down steep chutes. The crowd was thick in all the most exciting bits, lolling around in the glopular mud, hoping for some carnage. I had heard all kinds of stories about how challenging the course was, and leading up to my practice lap the night before had been feeling anxious and not sleeping well in anticipation. Well, I had a great time riding around the course and immediately my fears were cast aside. Granted it was still difficult but I was expecting something much gnarlier. There were a lot of rocks just under the mud, so with the low tire pressure needed to be able to get traction in the mud, the main concern was going to be punctures.
There were a lot more riders at this round than in previous ones, mainly because there was no separate U23 race. I was called up sufficiently late as to be positioned on the rearmost line, and found myself more or less at the back from then on. I had a few good moments, and generally a pretty clean race free from major errors or crashes, but the course was just so much more intense than anything has been recently - the muddy uphill sections required dismounting and running, the flat bits were thick and grinding, and then the downhills were fully sphincter-puckering good times. I was at my limit the whole time, and although I was doing all I could it just didn't seem as much as in the races that you have tangible speed to measure your effort by. I had great support from the crowd, and extended TV footage when I was passed by Kevin Pauwels shortly before the end of the lap. My final place was 55th, 4 laps completed but 4 laps down after about 38 minutes. As an indication of the difficulty, and the speed of the winner Pauwels, only the top 35 finished the race and there were a number of very good international riders who didn't make that.
I was happy to have got through it in one piece, and with the help of my pit assistant Christophe and his friend had no mechanical problems either. My next focus was Christmas dinner with some of our local friends, and then preparing for the next World Cup in Heusden-Zolder on the 26th, quite close to the German border. This course is part of a Formula 1 circuit, but apart from a smooth start/finish straight it has little in common with its motorised cousin, as it then features some sandy corners, a section through trees and some fairly tricky sandy rutted descents. I'd love to see Alonso take his multi-million dollar machine down that.
I've been living and training and travelling with a couple of Canadian guys who came over to race the busy Christmas period, Aaron and Mark. Mark is a year-round cycle courier in Calgary, Aaron is more sensibly an engineer. Where they are from it is currently probably about -30°C so when our first ride together took us through some quiet undulating roads during the only frozen days we've had all winter, I was a little anxious but not entirely surprised when they started joking around riding no hands and no feet down some of the hills. I was in ultra-precaution mode, scanning the road for any sign of ice, glimpsing its white tail snaking across the concrete from time to time, all while the ditches alongside us were glistening in the crisp air and pale wintry light.
Having Lewis the Australian, and now Aaron and Mark, lining up at the rear end of the World Cup start grids has made for a much more inclusive race for all of us. Aaron has been able to draw on his prior experience racing in Belgium and Canada, and tended to disappear up ahead - even lapping it out with Jeremy Powers for most of the race at Zolder. I was feeling strong, as though my legs had recovered from the effort at Namur three days prior, and enjoyed the mixture of sand and mud, and the odours of beer and second hand smoke that I have now got used to racing a season in Belgium. Unfortunately I had a rather large crash on the second lap down the rutted descent, flying over the bars and off somewhere that involved inconvenient and painful contact with both my bike and the ground. It took me a while to get going again, with quite a bit of pain in my shoulder and right hip. I nursed my way back to the pit, and swapped to my spare bike thanks to my pit man Steven. A lap later and I started to get feeling back into my body and my legs came back to life, spurred on largely by one of the most supportive crowds I've had since the Koppenbergcross at the beginning of November. I made it to the end of the next lap before being pulled with 4 laps completed, 4 remaining and in 47th place.
I was very cold from the rain and moisture on the course, could hardly move from my injuries and topped it off with a feeling of disappointment at having crashed myself out of the race when I was feeling physically very good. After talking to other people however, I came to see it as more of an unlucky day than anything else, and I wasn't the only one to have suffered under such circumstances. I've been pretty lucky I think so far this trip, and while I've been struggling just to compete I haven't had anything major go wrong at all so it was about time some things didn't go my way. It was reassuring to know I'd felt good and so I looked forward to the next few races that would round off the Christmas phase.