It was a nightmare stop and go roller coaster before we even got to the race. I couldn’t tell if the surges in traffic were making me more or less nauseous then the radio ‘Donna’ mix of incredibly bad American pop mixed with Belgian techno-esque noise. In either case, those of us in the back seat were rapidly reaching terminal sick state accompanied by the desperate need to pee. Great.
Step one after arriving at the venue was to miss the access to our parking zone. Step two was to use the facilities between a team sprinter van and some nice Belgian person’s shrubbery. Ahh… After that desperate evacuation of fluid and some much needed fresh air there was the question of this whole race thing we were supposed to be getting ready for.
The weather was pretty atrocious…I mean, nice typical Belgian weather. In other words it was two degrees Celsius and raining. It doesn’t take a degree in soil science to guess that rain, plus bike racers, plus a farmer’s field equals all sort of pasty, peanut-buttery mud. Sweet! Because really, my bike has not had enough beat into it over the last couple of days. Sigh.
Morale in ‘Camp USA’ was not what you would call high upon arrival. There were shivering Under 23 riders milling around, waiting for their ride home. Unfortunately their race was still being called in the distance. Me and my two other ‘profs’ (Troy and Brian) sat in the warming van after riding our one course reconnaissance lap. We pondered the deeper questions of motivation, purpose, line choice, dismount or ride and did some just general complaining about how hard it was going to suck to slog through a tractor pull of mud for an hour. Our musings did nothing to change the weather or the course however, and soon it was time to ride the trainers and do something of a warm up.
The course at Loenhout is nothing if not a really good example of an inventive use of open featureless space. When I say that a lot of it is just a farm field, I’m not kidding. But through the magic of design – plus a lot of sponsorship dollars – out of this field rose multiple flyovers,\ and a pump-track like whoop section (if you think this sounds like fun, go to your local BMX track, put 20lbs of air in the tires of your cross bike and try it out: it’s terrifying at high speed, and I like pump tracks).
Once again I was amazed at the crowds at these races. I mean, who wants to come out on a day like this: sane animals are hibernating or migrating right about now. But despite this there were thousands upon thousands of Belgians making their way into the rainy wetness of some random field to watch us accomplish what a tractor and a plow would in about half the time.
As I made my way around the course trying not to look like a flailing idiot too much of the time, I rode through clouds of cigar and cigarette smoke so thick I could almost taste it. This is racing. This is awesome. I’m riding well. I’m being lapped by Sven Nys. Sigh.
It took forever to figure out how to get back to the car. I was cold, dejected and not wanting to stare into the faces of a public so excited by this sport. How many fences are there in this place? Where the hell am I? But in reality the people were polite and eventually, after me looking dazed and confused for long enough, gave me directions back to town and the parking lot. It’s amazing how you can ride so many laps around a labyrinthine course without having any understanding of where it actually goes.
So now we were back in the van, piling wet muddy clothes into bags to deal with later. Another day in the books and still not much of a result to speak of. Troy managed a pretty solid result riding in with a group containing mountain biking icon Jose Hermidia for 30th. Not too shabby. The rest of us, or at least myself, spent the van ride back thankfully a little less motion sick, albeit a little more reflective.
As I sit staring out the window at the Belgian countryside passing by I’m already thinking about the next race, and the bike maintenance I have to try and get done in the next couple of days, plus what I’ve learned here that I can take with me into next season and beyond. It’s been a humbling day for a lot of us to be sure, but I know that – at least for myself – I’m trying to soak in as much experience as the Belgian mud soaks in the rain…Tomorrow is another day.