Belgium, January 4, 2008
The eight o'clock wake up call came on time as usual from Geoff today, as has become the tradition to wake us up with his early morning anecdotes and note for the day, some being more serious then others, but all seem to just pass over me in a haze as I barely come out of my sleep. Today being a race day the schedule was all business and called for a ten o'clock departure time for our junior race at one thirty. This departure time is not to be ignored as once the vans are ready, it's time to move. Putting any sort of road block in this system would affect everyone as trying to handle a sixteen man team all at one race is no easy effort and takes complete cooperation from everyone to keep it running smoothly and that includes the little things like having your race bags ready and packed by a certain time.
We arrived in Diegem today after about an hour and fifteen minute drive to a location that truly looks nothing at all like typical a 'cross race location, but rather just another urban town in Belgium. But on the contrary this race is truly historic and very prestigious here as it offers up a course unlike any other which mixes in aspects of every course I have ever raced on and throws it into this urban historic environment which truly makes this race a once a season event not to be missed.
After us juniors got our numbers, which seems to be an adventure at every race as the language barrier and lack of pre-registration once again threw us for a loop as some of us weren't signed up which seems to be a common theme as the lack of technology and organization always creates a huge cluster. Geoff has tried to talk to them at almost every race about getting us mixed into the groups, but because of the lack of modern technology we always seem to get lost in translation and somehow always become randomly assorted on the back row.
There's also this old school feel to the races as the race officials ask for our numbers back after the race which in Balegem includes us walking to the back of the building and washing the mud off with an old cloth which was a strange sight - seeing over fifty riders bent over washing off their dirty numbers. Afterwards we went out for a recon of the course. I was amazed by the variety on the course. First you would be on grass, then mud, then pavement, then cobbles, then gravel, then sand. All these surfaces bring up the topic of which tires to ride, which could really have been anything on this course but mainly was determined by which surface was more predominant. Today that was cement and hardpack dirt. Most of us concluded that typhoons or grifos would be ideal, but later that night as we watched the elites on TV under the lights we saw many top level guys including Wellens on semi slicks which is not only a sign to their superb handling skills but also to their experience to what they can and can't get away with.
The one thirty race time finally rolled around which saw around ninety starters in the juniors' race which is unheard of in the states as forty kids is considered huge, but here in Belgium is just another race. I ended up starting in the last row behind this huge field and had to fight my way the entire race for any positioning that I could get. That really saps unneeded energy as the leaders have a clear road and can just focus on the course.
I do enjoy watching the Belgian kids try to move their way up through the field as I do. Of course, you have to be aggressive in order to move up, but there is a certain limit. Some kids are just going absolutely insane, fighting for every wheel, but then they end up hitting a metal pole because they were a little too zesty going into the first corner. Then there are all of the kids trying to make the sketchy passes by the course tape before they end up hitting a post. Here they use small trees to make the course marking posts. Then they use regular course tape, but then they also use another strap just behind the course tape that doesn't stretch or break at all. The end of the race saw the top American in 29th which although decent could be a top ten with a better starting position for it would mean that much less effort to be put out giving short bursts to pass by slower riders.
After the race I met up with an English-speaking junior from the Polish national team whom I had been racing with, and we got talking about the race including the amount of aggression out there on the course. He got a slap to the face from a Belgium rider for cutting him off, which sounded odd as this Polish kid had to be at least 170 (pounds), but this sounded familiar to me. I got a rear wheel to the helmet on the run up during the race, which is uncommon to see in the US. Here in Belgium, it occurs ever lap because in order to stay up front, you must defend your space by any means. Being aggressive is just another tool.
Well, it's another race down and and yet another great learning experience.