As I wound my way through the Brussels airport in search of my bikes and wheels, the most valuable cargo to my European cyclo-cross campaign, I thought to myself, "Wow, Ryan. You're really acting like you know what you're doing here." I was a man on a mission. A far cry from the previous year's stumbling around, attempting to pronounce the foreign words in my head. I was leading two other Cross Campers through the airport to the baggage claim, and although I had only been to Belgium once before in my life, for last year's Cross Camp, I could already feel the new-found comfort level that one year of Belgian bike race travel had given me.
After a minor hiccup, we corralled our supplies and we're greeted by a friendly face, our Belgian driver, Josef. We dragged our bags out to the blue USA Cycling-labeled Sprinter van and set off out of the parking garage toward Izegem. We were again met by an old friend, the classic Belgian weather. The harshness of the environment didn't leave me feeling intimidated as it had previously. Instead, I felt a home-like feeling. Not because Belgium actually feels like home to me, but because things are how I expected them to be. Things felt right with the Belgian world.
As a camp "veteran", I'm starting to get a feel for the process. The process that fuels these trans-Atlantic journeys in the name of progress in one form or another. For some of us the experiences offer mental growth, and for others it teaches the physical skills necessary to compete at a higher level. During my racing block at Euro Cross Camp last year, I found myself wide-eyed in many situations surrounding each new racing experience. Whether it was bumping shoulders with Sven Nys during pre-ride, or being physically kicked by a fellow competitor during the free-for-all that is the start of a Belgian cyclo-cross race. No matter the event, it is now just part of it. Just part of racing your bike against the best the sport has to offer. That newfound comfort in these alien surroundings feels, to me, like progress as well as an integral part of "the process".
In the start of last night's race in Diegem I found myself mentally and physically ready to dive into the corners leaning on the riders to my left and right as we fought for the same rut. I was prepared to run with my bike on one shoulder and "make space" for myself with the other. These qualities alone don't immediately teleport you to the front of a bike race, but they're certainly skills that Belgium has given me to use towards that goal.
No, the racing hasn't gotten any easier and my legs haven't magically transformed into the pistons of a world champion, just by pinning a number in a Belgian bike race. However, I see and feel the minute changes that offer me progress.