What an AWESOME update from Pete today and admittedly, reading this installment I was pulled back to my own experiences while racing in Belgium and the Netherlands in 2008 on 'Za Trip.' It was great to read his words about courses, logistics, prep, registration and the style of racing you experience and every master 'cross racer who has an idea about going to race in Za Motherland should read this entry. It's essential...
The racing continued today, folks!
Today was at a lake-side sports park in Sint Niklaas, a small city between Brussels and Antwerp. It is an annual UCI race, but not part of any big series. It was great to have a masters race at a UCI event because everything was totally pro. the course was more groomed and buffed than some of the Flemish Cup courses I did last weekend. It was flat, firm, and fast. There was only one dismount per lap, on a steep, slippery hill. I rode the hill twice during the race, so for over 15 minutes I didn't even get off the bike at all. As someone who favors lots of technical stuff, power, and running, this wasn't ideal for me.
There was a long section of lake-shore beach that might have required some running in normal conditions, but the wet sand was frozen and it was all rideable. What the course lacked in elevation, it made up for with turns. Constant back and forth, with only short straights. It froze last night, and some of the turns were ice under a thin layer of mud, very dicey, especially with massive pine trees looming on the exit. Also, there were insane frozen ruts from yesterday when practice riders must have been sinking in the mud, but then night temps had locked it up solid. There was also a staple of all the Sint Niklass courses, a dicey off-camber grass stretch along the water's edge. It was similar to the off camber thing at Bend this December. As usual with cambers, the trick was to not touch the brakes at all. The course also had a crazy steep flyover made of steel that was loud as hell.
Riders were staged according to the Belgian national ranking system, and the field was pretty big. I had a clean start and moved up to about 15th at the first turn. For the first lap, I focused on passing, and I stuck my wheel into every gap I could find. As expected with the icy turns, there was some carnage, which thankfully I managed to avoid. After two laps of frantic passing, I had worked into 4th or 5th. Unfortunately, I could see the rainbows of Marc Druyts up the road and opening a gap. I still had to get around a few more guys before I could fully try and chase him down. With so many corners, no climbs, only one dismount, I worked hard to make up time and positions. Passing was pretty difficult. I finally made it up into second place, but Marc was off the front and a couple guys were still glued to my wheel.
The main location to draft was the long start/finish. With 3 laps to go I attacked and opened a small gap on the chasers. One of them, I think it was Bert Vervecken, chased back on the straight. With the wind from the side, I moved to the fence to minimize his draft. He cut loose with a manic yell. I don't know what the problem was cause I didn't look back, but if he thought I was gonna let him echelon for 600 meters he was wrong. Shortly after that he slipped onto his knees on the slippery run up, while I ran it clean, digging in with my extra-long toe spikes. He never connected again.
I chased the leader as hard as I could, but the gap was unwavering at about 10 seconds. Lapped riders started getting in the mix, and I couldn't make a dent. He stayed in sight, but at the end, I never got close and rolled in with a solid second place. I was psyched to be in the fight, and to have beaten some strong guys on a fast course.
After my race, we got to hang out and watch the other races, including all the US juniors and other hard chargers. Skyler Trujillo (see photo above) from Fort Collins finished a soild 10th in the juniors! Nice.
See all the results here.
Ok, so now on to some other Belgian insights... You've heard it before, the racing in Belgium is much more aggressive than the US. You've really gotta be strong and confident to stay in position. And if you wanna make a pass, you've got to do it forcefully. Expect to be bumped, and to bump back. Not radically different than a good tight race at home, but definitely not all courtesy and camaraderie like some of our races can be. During the past week I've been yelled at, brake checked, shouldered, elbowed, and blocked. But I've been giving some back in return and mostly have held my own. I've gotten good at sticking my brake hood into whomever's butt is in my way, and thanks to years of watching moto racing on TV, I've perfected the block pass.
Another big distinction that comes into play is road racing tactics. In the US, it seems like a lot of races turn into individual time trials, with lots of gaps between riders. Over here, riders really fight to hold position and chase back into the groups. Fortunately I've been riding strongly and have had some opportunities to force the pace and attack. But these guys will dig deep to close the gap and hold the wheel as long as possible - they won't settle in and ride their own pace. To get away, you've got to do something extra, or have some technical gain.
Another notable difference is how the courses are marked. The entire route is fully taped off on both sides, and steel fencing is used where more spectators are expected. All the posts are 4" diameter pressure-treated poles, sunk deeply into the ground with a power auger. The posts are totally immobile, unyielding, and you do not want to hit one. In addition to the plastic course tape, rope is strung tightly between posts. So if you run into the tape, it ain't gonna break. There's no cutting corners, running the tape, or going wide. The edges of the course are completely fixed.
The master's field I've seen here is similar to home: pretty diverse. There are really fast guys, medium guys, and slower ones. They have a range of technical skills too and are not all bike-handling ninjas. But they all have dialed equipment, meticulous preparation, at least one helper, and lots of experience. The average speed is a bit higher than the US, but its not dramatically faster like the pro level. Motivated masters racers from the US could be competitive here if they bring a good game and don't make mistakes.
One thing that really stands out is the race-day preparation. All riders come with at least one helper to handle the bikes, unload the car, pump tires, and work the pit. You rarely see racers arrive in their car alone. Everyone has a selection of wheels, and two matching bikes. They do not bring their own bike to the pit, the helpers do that. And everyone brings a small portable work stand, buckets and brushes, the whole set up. In a word, PRO. Riders don't change in their car - there are changing rooms for that purpose, and plenty of full-on hot showers at the bigger events. You're not likely to see muddy riders standing around drinking beers. You'll see clean, dressed and warm riders inside the cafe drinking beers.
A few other notables: registration is performed by uniformed officials, inside a building, all is computerized and there are no forms to fill out. Entry fees are dirt cheap, like 3 euros (or they pay you if you're an elite) but spectators have to pay. There are no liability waivers and don't forget your safety pins - they're not provided.
Tomorrow we head to St Michielsgestel, Holland for my last race of the za trip.