Wandering through yet another airport terminal, I was surreptitiously struck by just how quiet it was around me. While quite a few people were bustling along either on the powered treadmill-like walkway or naturally with foot on ground, there was no din. It was perfectly light inside, without bright lights shining in my eyes to make me feel even worse begrudgingly transferring from plane to plane. Nicely curved wooden panels surrounded tastefully arranged sets of chairs and couches. I was in Copenhagen, and whether by presupposed assumption or reality, it struck me as just as orderly, comfortable and practical as I could have imagined. My arrival in Belgium was a rather less orderly affair - traipsing through the endless corridors accompanied by a large school group of teenagers boisterously being heard above all others, wondering to myself quite what awaited me on the other side of the baggage claim. As it turned out, a fair bit. A TV crew from Sporza, the Flemish national sports broadcaster and my bike sponsors Thomas and Simon Nichelson to present me with my new Bioracer kit.
Oh, and the friendly folks at Red Bull appeared to give me and my bike a lift in an understated, nondescript vehicle.
After a brief interview and some photos I had a meal with the Nichelsons in Brussels partly to get to know them, and partly to kill time while a huge concertina crash on one of the motorways was cleared up. Over 100 vehicles were involved, the worst accident in the country for a long time. I then made my way back to some familiar territory, heading to Oudenaarde in the province Oost Vlaanderen. My home of the previous season, my old ground to translate literally.
Still feeling fairly well ravaged by jet lag, nonetheless I had my first races back on second-home-soil that weekend - beginning with the Scheldecross C1 in Antwerp, followed by Vlaamse Druivencross in Overijse the next day. These were both races I hadn't taken part in the previous season, and while I was looking forward to checking them off the experiential list, I was more reticent in my expectations of how I would fare.
A highlight of being back in the land of the cross was that I would be reunited with my distantly unrelated compatriot in cyclocross, Denmark-based Angus Edmond. We had only met fairly briefly the previous season, but as rare as it is to see a Kiwi in the wild, so too is one at a cross race in Belgium. He'd been travelling down regularly to compete through the season, and was steadily working his way into the game. He's been getting called Alex a bit, and I've found people calling me Angus, so it's helped to keep both of our presences alive. While we don't appear to look all that similar, you be the judge.
Scheldecross is raced along the bank of the river Schelde, a fairly hideous waterway that comes from France, through Oudenaarde and spews forth its vile juices into the port of Antwerp. While I haven't seen any three-headed ducks swimming about in its waters, the smells that emanate from the industrial sites it passes mean it's surely only a matter of time. But it would almost not be a race in Belgium without sand, especially if there is a negligible supply of mud. This I knew would be problematic for me, as my final month of preparation (that didn't end up possible) was going to involve sand-specific exercises. Nothing for it but to dive back in at the deep end. Literally, as it turned out.
And when not diving, flying.
It was a good race, fortunately sand is mostly forgiving, and I managed to piece things together well enough for a first time so I was pleased. The homecoming welcome from the crowd was fantastic, and felt like I'd never left. In an effort to get a little more mileage out of my time here I'd arranged an interview with alternative cyclocross TV broadcaster Vier, who were on hand at the end of the previous season to witness the eradication of my moustache at the hands of Isabelle Nijs. I managed to look sleepy, and attempted to speak a few words of Dutch, poorly enough that I don't know that people really understood, but they seemed to appreciate it.
The following day the Nichelson brigade and I made our way to Overijse, close to Brussels, for one of the oldest cross races in Belgium, if not the oldest. It takes place on the side of a hill and involves cobbles, a steep sealed climb, snakey hairpins down a grassy bank and then after winding through trees we ride though a small children's play area.
I felt more alive after the previous day's efforts, and was looking forward to some more excitement on the course. I would be very much obliged in this regard, unfortunately for my leg and rear derailleur. After riding reasonably well for the first few laps I slid out on a greasy cobbled corner and landed on my derailleur, bending the hanger inwards just enough that when I went to ride again it shifted into the spokes and exploded. I should have thought about this, given the side I fell on, but as is often the case in a race - my mind was elsewhere. Somewhere between wanting to catch back up to Angus and make it as far through the race as possible. So I was then faced with a substantial run along and up the road, onto the grass and into the pit at the top of the hill.
I'm not sure how much time I lost, but I carried on as best I could, but was pulled a lap or two later. Angus had also slid out on the road earlier too so we then headed together up to the medical tent to have our injuries cleaned. Mine was a pretty superficial graze, Angus had a more substantial patch of road rash. Sufficiently hardened, we sneaked back across the course to get cleaned up and changed.
I had a TV crew from Sporza following me during the day, with an interview just before the race as part of it. As is usual with television it takes a whole day of recording to end up with only a 2 minute piece, but it further cemented the ebullient welcome I had received from everyone, especially the spectators along the sidelines and back at the parking/warmup area.
With a double weekend under my belt, I was looking forward to picking up the scraps of my physical condition and settling back into a routine, as I prepared for the Christmas onslaught that awaited me in a few weeks' time.