Place: Schriek, Belgium.
Folks: We entered the lions den. Today was our first taste of European racing (and European race events in general) and it was UNBELIEVABLE! More in a minute. Hold on to your jockey shorts.
Last night the sleep came...then left me for 4 hours...then finally came back mercifully. The range of emotions when you are struggling to sleep are off the charts. "Please God. Just a few more Z's." Sheep counting...whatever it takes. During my 'wake time', the rain was coming down in sheets like only Belgium can produce. So, I listened. It came down to the extent that it was just a solid 'wall of sound'. Hard to explain but you've all been in a good rainstorm. But Belgium rain 'goes to 11.' It lulled me back to sleep.
After FINALLY getting some z's, I woke to scramble. We all rallied in the AM to get out the door with the caravan. Oatmeal, yogurt, granola and killer coffee was all consumed in record time. We piled in all 6 bikes into the van and followed Mark and Rob to Shriek. They had the money GPS in their car and literally 1600 turns later, we found this absolute tiny tree lined 'ally' and we banged the turn into it. I don not think we EVER would have found it! This road T-boned into the race reg and it was already a scene. We parked in front of someone's house and about the same tile Geert Wellens (Bart's little bro) caravan pulls up. It's gonna be a fun day (mainly for Brandon) I thought...
The Shriek-Grootlo race is a 'local' East Flandrian race. This is just like the US where you have your various regional race series....e.g. Cross Crusade, Boulder Racing, Surf City...etc). But holy crap, even this 'small race' is totally PRO. Huge tents, nice sized fields, beautifully marked and WELL thought out courses, PRO double decker start/finish area with cameras, local TV crews....the works. Basically, it was set up and organized like a USGP with a few less people. Oh, and ALL these folks actually paid Euros to get in!
By the team we got to pre-riding, the rain had miraculously stopped. We suited up and began our pre ride. The course was FUN! It was apparently a non-typical course from what I was told as it took place almost exclusively on densely forested single track which featured berms, many many u-turns to power out of but no barriers or run ups. This beeatch was flat. Interestingly, the rain almost immediately sucks into the ground as it stopped raining .....as the soil here is like peat moss. Soil that is dark and super rick looking. It is SO DAMP, the trees all had this perennial layer of moss on them!
The pre-ride was great and even with sleep I did not feel bad at all. As a mountain biker, the course was dialed for me. After the warm up, I made my way to the registration/beer tent and showed them my UCI license and they automatically know given age what group to assign me (which everything is driven my here except elite' men). Master A ('Form D').
So let me take you through the reg process...
a) Go into large beer tent
b) Find old but 'official' looking man smoking a cigarette
c) Learn that it's too early through arm and facial gestures...
d) Come back a few minutes later when they've got things assembled in very typical Euro-ficiency (6 people behind a desk preforming different jobs, laptops...order!).
e) I need to purchase a Belgium Cycling Federation License ( 5) and hold up all the Masters men grumbling.
f) Proceed down the line to the next computer to get signed in and pay (8)
g) Proceed to next person and get my number (No. 18 I think?)
A few minutes before the start, we queue for the call ups. They call EVERYONE up. There is no concept of the 'top 10' then everyone DIVES in to the area to grab spots. They do it based upon race series points and then registration order. I got a 2nd row call up in a field of 30-35. Kurt and our house mates also got in there in 2nd and 3rd row as as well which was good. Behind us, staged in groups that will launch after us in 2 minute interval are the other Master's groups and amateurs. Including amongst us are various Masters World Champions....all prepping for Mol.
The gun goes off and like the parting of the seas, I pop through this hole that miraculously formed and I get on the wheel of the top 5 or 6 front row guys. We bomb into the single track and we are gone! Like 'that' a group of 7 to 10 have detached from the field and we are creating a separation quickly. We drill it continually for 2-3 laps in and out through the singletrack in a train. By lap 2, the top three guys get a gap. I see them through the trees but in no way, can I get the muscle to bridge to those guys. The winner, Bert Vervecken, with some pedigree, is an apparent hard man and would go on to win solo by 1 minute, then my group another minute back after that). I continue to dice with these Belgians. There's no real 'contact' (e.g. pushes and shoves) as I heard about with th exception of a couple of pushes I threw...HA! The younger Master B World Champ from the 30-35 age group came by in the closing 2 laps after I led him for a 1/2 lap and said "Thanks Man" on his way by. Cool. I'm also clearly American....
Moment of Belgie fame: The 'Davle Towle of Shriek (e.g. announcer) on top of the double decker is shouting off the names of the leaders and every lap says my name! SWEET! "Und, nummer achtzehn, Gregory Keller von za Roccky Mountains." HA!
At the 2nd to last lap, Kurt muscles his way up with a strong effort and pulls another Belgie with sitting on him (in an incredibly bad neon green kit...SO un PRO). We settle in as the bell is ringing loud through the speakers and neon Man attacks nicely through the absolute perfect section of trail before single track and dispatches us. Kurt and I groove and has a final good turn coming into the finishing stretch for 7th! I sprint against a Belgie closing in on us for 8th!
Here's the best part: I won some money! 6! Plus, when I returned my number, the gave me 5 back! HA! Cash money. I spent it on a beer in that beer tent, folks. Of course I did.
So now it's time for Brandon Dubba Dwight. He lines up with quite a few known hard men; Wim Jacobs (now on Morgan Blue after his stint with Fidea), Arne Daelmans (former Belgian National Champion) and Geert Wellens...Bart's Younger bro. Oh and a SLEW of super hungry Belgian neo pros without contract wanting points and victories to move up the ladder. Dubba drilled it hard! He floated today with some groups and finished on the lead lap even with a crash and nailed an 18th! Arne Daelmans won in an awesome print finish in a group of three. Geert and Wim were back in the top 10 but were never in contention. Those hungry young'ngs wanted it! You can read all about Brandon's exciting adventures in parallel with my reports and his beer reviews on upcoming Velonews Chocolate, waffles and 'cross diary updates.
So with that said, let me give you some examples of today in my best digital celluloid:
The Belgie in the ugly kit who nipped us.
Rob from our house
Me an KP apres race
On our cool down ride...that's RIGHT! We were 2 minutes from the home of Sven Nijs and Niels Albert! Yeah baby!
My quasi artistic approach at sport photography...
Henry and 'Trina on the podium.
The THICK moss on the trees
Tomorrow is Bakel Cross in the Netherlands. About 1.5 hours away. Not sure of the course but I hope legs respond. We shall see, huh? Kisses from the road, and I miss you my beautiful wife and boys.