Barbarella's European odyssey - Part the first

In the beginning... So much for being an airport ninja. I got the idea that it was possible to slip...

January 13, 2006

In the beginning...

So much for being an airport ninja. I got the idea that it was possible to slip around the airport with minimum hassle from my homie in Hamburg, Greg Reain. I flew American this trip instead of United. Rules of oversize and/or overweight baggage depending on who check you in and what kind of mood they are in. My customer service assistant, a gruff old man, was determined to stick to his 70-pound weight limit.

The double bike case weighs in at 39 pounds empty. Put two 17-pound bikes and some protective packing inside and you're easily over 75 pounds. The gate agent was insistent that my bike case could not go over the weight limit so I started removing all extra stuff from the case. Luckily, the bag had extra space because not only did I put an empty water bottle, clip on fenders and some rags into the duffle, but also both saddles and seat posts. He also went on to explain the rule stating I can really have only one bike with me, if I was to bring two, they would each need to be in their own box.

To him it made perfect sense to have two bikes each in their own case. Never mind that two single cases weigh more and take up more space than one double case. The bike case got down to 72 pounds (I don't think it was all the way on the scale) and the duffel went up to 65 pounds. He charged me $25 for each piece of baggage because they were over the 50-pound limit. This was actually good considering a bike usually costs $80 and if the customer service assistant is cranky they tack on another $25. So, I didn't get to ninja past check-in but at least I made it through security without any problems.

Sometimes I can sleep on airplanes, sometimes I can't. This trip was a no sleep trip. Every time I got my legs comfortable my neck cricked. When the neck got comfy the legs seized up. After a while I gave up on sleep and watched airplane TV.

Housemates and riding with Sven

Joscelin met me at the airport and I was informed that today (Tuesday, January 10) I was participating in a group ride and tomorrow in a race in Antwerp. The house where I'm staying is owned by a British couple, Tim Harris (former British National Road Champion) and Joscelin. The house is a fantastic old farm house with a garage for bikes. It is a bit strange for me to go from living with Josh and kitty for so long to being in a housemate situation.

Currently living in the house are Helen Wyman, British National ‘cross Champion, David, a Canadian 'crosser, Greg, also a Canadian 'crosser, Dino, a British racer training for the road season, Keirin, an Irish Citroen mechanic, and myself. There is quite the international flair here and I'm learning all sorts of new phrases and terms.

Leaving from Aarschot on Tuesdays and Thursdays is a large group ride. Large along the lines of one hundred or more riders, including the current World Cyclocross Champion Sven Nys. So many riders show up that the group splits into two or three so the roads aren't clogged.

I rode behind Sven, resplendent in his World Champion kit, until I realized the front of the line was near, not knowing the route or really wanting to be in front while stopped, I stepped to the side and let everyone past. What I didn't realize is that my group had at least 50 riders in it.

The ride had a very moderate pace pleasant without being too fast or too slow. The first few corners I got the Belgie surprise - maintain speed into the corner then accelerate like crazy. Fun. 27 hours after waking up I finally got to sleep, sweet beautiful sleep.

The 'little' race

Wednesday's race was described as just a "little" race in Antwerp (1st Scheldecross, Antwerpen, Belgium, January 11, 2006). The race party from Tielt Winge consisted of three racers, Helen, David, and myself. Joining us were two support crew Joscelin, our landlady, and Rachel, David's girlfriend.

This little race had more spectators than a whole season's worth at home. Entry was €8 with 5 getting refunded upon return of the number. The weather was perfect; just under 40 degrees with intermittent rain and thick cloud cover. The big teams were there with their custom RV's and supporter clubs.

My sleep deprived mind had not thought to pack any rain gear, so just a few minutes into my warm up there was icy water trickling down my legs. Apparently I was called up third, but didn't make it to the line until halfway through the second row's call up. This caused minor panic on my part, being covered in several layers of wet clothing that resisted removal. A Dutch cycling patron, previous World Masters Champion, and keen racer, Harrie, was at the line and took my pile of sopping clothes. He is a friend of Helen's (current British National Cross Champion, housemate, super fast 'crosser).

The course was located on the side of the river. It included four deep sand sections, a few short steep hills going up and down the side of the dike and flat smooth grass. The start was manageable, and I hit the dirt in maybe 4th or 5th with Helen, Cathy Ingels and a very small junior woman in front of me. The very small junior was easily passed on a flat straight section.

Veerle Ingels, Kathy's sister, Bart Wellens' girlfriend, and last year's Belgian Champ, was with me on lap two, she started to pull away but took a headfirst digger on the third sand section and I ran past her. From then on I was riding around alone trying to make everything as smooth as possible. Helen's gap on me shrunk as we headed into the last lap.

Then I tipped over three times on the last lap, it was like my bike was too clean and ran too well and the shifters need some mud packed into them. Even with the crashes Veerle never caught me and I rolled into the finish in third place in my first European race of the year! The post race facilities are where Euro races really beat US races. Immediately upon finishing, Kathy, Helen, and myself were ushered into a heated tent and given buckets of hot water to clean up for the podium. Being unprepared for doing this well in the race I had no rags to clean my legs and face. No matter; some random old guy produced a towel and washed my legs.

The podium old guy

All of my clothing was soaking wet from warming up in the rain but I put it on anyway for lack of anything better to wear. We got flowers, champagne, and three kisses each from the podium old guy. (No cute podium boys at this race) I was so cold on the podium, several photographers flashed away and I kept thinking - smile, smile, smile - but my jaws kept chattering. I can only imagine the odd faces that this combination produced.

When the moment of glory passed it was time for HOT showers and not a moment too soon. The showers were outdoors with a tent erected around them and a propane heater shaped like a jet engine to keep us warm. An old guy showed me the door to the tent, saw someone he knew and proceeded to carry on a conversation while all the women showered. He didn't seem particularly disturbed or interested in the fact that he was in the women's shower room and stayed for several minutes.

I watched the men's race afterwards then everyone got invited to Harry (different than Harrie) and Amelia's house for dinner. They are a couple who have hosted cyclists from all over the world for the last 35 years. We were treated to plenty of food, good conversation, and a short lesson in Dutch.

Warning: I may not come home

These first few days have been fantastic, if the rest of the trip continues like this I'll never want to go home. It is fun to remember all of the little things that are so different over here. The thick smoke in public places, toilets that have two levers: one for a big flush and one for a little flush, the matron guarding the toilets who lets you pass upon receipt of 30 euro cents, the narrow streets walled in by brick buildings, the cute shaggy little goats and ponies, fietsen pads (bike lanes/paths) on the side of nearly every road, the stunning array of Nutella and Nutella-like spreads, the waffles filled with lumps of sugar containing upwards of 400 calories each pre-wrapped and perfect for jersey pockets, shelves of cheese that would make Wallace unbearably happy, more than enough chocolate to satisfy the entire Velo Bella team (not kidding on this one), thick cloud cover and little to no need for sunglasses, thousands of spectators at "little" cross races and tens of thousands at big races, not one but two reality shows about cyclocross teams, easy access to living and racing for international racers, and bike racing national heroes.

Somehow the pro's manage to look extra pro here. Everything they wear is matching team issue down to their rollie bags. They are somehow always really clean when not racing. They show up at the start in clean matching tights, switch to a clean bike, strip down to their spotless skinsuit, and barrel down the start straight with their clean socks and clean helmets.

I got dirty just stepping out of the van.

That's it for the first few days of my pre-World's Euro 'cross trip. Until next time, stay warm and take care.

- Barb

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