Saturday, December 29, 2007

Last Thoughts

I am sad to leave this place. I love the simplicity of my life while here. I love walking to the bakery for fresh bread and pasteries. I love hopping on my bike to explore new roads in the beautiful countryside here. I enjoy the cute brick homes, modest-sized cars, farmland and the roads that lead from village to village. There are so many roads to explore! And of course, the racing is incredible.

I had fun being the only American in a house of three Canadians, and being helped by Jos and Tim, who are British. It lent a nice international flair to my trip, but without a language barrier. (Well, once I got past hearing "eh?" all the time!) Thanks to Vicki, Mark, Shaun, Jos, and Tim for helping me so much! If it weren't for you, I'd probably still be looking for registration at Scheldecross... if I ever found the race!

Sadly, I have several regrets about my time here. Maybe I shouldn't say "regret," that's probably too strong a word, but there are a few things I wish I had done while here. First, I can't believe I'm leaving without ever having had a beer. It's tough to fit in a leisurely drink when you're racing and staying with racers who are racing just about every day. And I wasn't about to go out for beers before racing in a World Cup! There's a tavern near the bakery, across from the church, and I saw three road bikes leaning up against the front this afternoon. It would have been nice to stop in for a beer after a ride with friends, something we don't get to do enough in our fast and exhausting world as racers.

My second "regret" is that I never really went out to eat, and for the same reasons as I didn't get to have a beer. You get home, wash, clean and lube your bikes, wash your clothes, wash youself, cook dinner, eat, and then get packed for tomorrow's race. There was neither time nor energy for dining out. I would like to have learned more about the food culture here than chocolate and frites. We went out once, to the Sultan in Herselt, on a rest day, and there I had some meat (not sure what kind since I could hardly read a word on the menu) fried with mushrooms, peppers, and onions with half a plate of frites and my choice of sauce - curried ketchup. Delicious, but possibly not the best pre-race meal....

Finally, I would have liked to stay longer and to have shared the experience with Ward. It's hard to share everything through emails and Skype calls, and I would have loved to have had his support and shared the whole experience together.

I have left myself wanting more, and I hope to be back again in the future. I'll miss Belgium!













In the town of Westerlo.



















The beer aisle in the nearby Carrefour, a big store with everything from clothing to electronics to books to groceries. Most of the left side consists of specialty beers like Trappist ales (although I spot some Corona there).










The road back into Blauberg on my ride today. The surrounding forest had lots of trails that would be great for cross or mountain bikes. I saw lots of riders out on this beautiful day. It was 7 degrees (about 45 F) and partly-cloudy today. I really lucked out on the weather while here!













A road leading out of Blauberg.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Azencross - No Fight Left In This Dog

If you're looking for my name in the results, I might save you a moment by telling you to start your search at the bottom of the results page - assuming they list finishers that deep. A last race of a long season, and I had nothing at all left for this one. I lost my heart rate monitor over a month ago, but had I worn it today, I can assure you it would never have registered much above my easy zone. I was going so slow it felt like warm-up pace, and every time I got out of the saddle, I slowed up more. I just had nothing to give, and I wouldn't have raced if it weren't my last chance over here. Oh, and I really wanted to try those whoop-dee-doos!

The start was crazy. As I was taking my leg-warmers off at the start, I heard my name paged to report to the start/finish area to sign in. I knew nothing about it - when have you ever had to sign-in at the start/finish for a cross race? Apparently, I missed some sort of rider presentation. I had been off searching desperately for a porta-john. They do not make that easy here. I missed most of my warm-up time weaving through massive crowds of people on my bike looking for the plastic thrones. Eureka - right next to the open outdoor public urinals. (Well, there's at least one thing about Belgium I won't miss.)

Fast forward to 1:30 pm. We were staged, I was bare-legged, the official gave the "une minute," and then said, "Wait for the light." Huh? Light? A few seconds later, everyone jumped. Then I noticed the traffic light ahead above the road. Green. Aah. That light.

It was another crazy start on a very long stretch of road into a right hand turn. I didn't have a good start, mostly because my legs had no jump. There was an enormous mud field that probably nobody rode, even the amazing Hanka. It was a long slog of a run for me through deep mud and up a fly-over. I could barely run up the ramp due to fatigue. The whoop-dee-do section was at the end of the lap, and would have been much more fun if I could have taken it with more speed!
Check out the men's leaders through that section:

video

I rode around hoping not to get lapped. I thought about pulling out, but I just wanted to get to the bumps again to see if I could ride them faster! It's hard to end my season at the bottom of a long slide in my performance, but I know it's all about the experience for me and I have a lot of racing ahead in my career. It was absolutely worth coming here to Belgium, even though I didn't perform my best. I hope to return next year with my 'A game.' I love it here, the country is beautiful, the racing is intense.

* * *

Here is my favorite picture I took today. Bart! If only the light were better - the sun is so low at almost 4 pm.

It's hard to explain how many people were at this race!

Jeremy Powers had an awesome race today! He is so strong. Here's a really poor video of him through the bumps (sorry, I was doing my best through hordes of fans):

video

I have one more full day here. I may do the Begijnendijk ride for the experience, otherwise certainly I could do without riding tomorrow! Maybe Sven will be there... I heard he joined the ride the other day several kilometers after it passed our house.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Begijnendijk Ride

So I was sitting here at the table, eating my lunch of a ham and brie on fresh bakery whole grain bread and tomato soup with Marscapone cheese, when Mark alerted me that the Begijnendijk group ride would be coming by momentarily. I dropped my sandwich, grabbed my camera, and ran to the door. This local ride passes our house on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. The clip is actually only of half the group. There are two groups of 50 riders each, and the second group followed a minute after (but I had returned to my sandwich).

video

This is just a typical group ride here. On the way home from a trip to a bike shop this morning, we saw a group ride of about 25 older people, not racers, just normal people, out together on their cruisers enjoying the day. I love this country!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

My First World Cup!

Hofstade!


I have to tell you that it's going to be really difficult to put this experience in words. This World Cup in Belgium existed on a bigger scale than I even imagined. I could hardly believe the whole scene, and my pictures simply don't do it justice. Beyond that, while watching the men's elite race, I was amazed to discover perspective on just how good the Belgians are at their sport. It really is unbelievable how fast Sven, Lars, and Bart were riding. Watching gave me goosebumps. Feeling the intensity of the crowd screaming for their heroes as they flew by honestly almost brought tears to my eyes. I love this sport. They made this course look so easy, this same course where I had lost a lung, my legs, and very possibly a year off my life just an hour earlier. Watching my "hometown heroes" such as Tim and Jeremy get lapped by the three leaders racing at double the speed (well, at the moment they were lapped, anyway) has altered my whole perception of cyclocross.

After watching today's race, I am officially a Bart Wellens fan. Nys displayed amazing power and fluidity. Bart also has incredible power, but just seemed to have more heart and deep determination. (While pre-riding the course today and making my way through the end of the first long sand section, lots of people started shouting all around me. I knew immediately that a Belgian hero was coming up behind: it was Wellens. As if my heart wasn't pounding from grinding through the sand, now it was in my throat! "Make it through the sand, make it through, don't crash in front of Bart!" I made it and continued up the next rise, flat, turn around the tree, run up the stairs, and he was still there. "Ah! Bart Wellens is on my wheel!" Well, it was an exciting moment. I entered the sand again, and he disappeared. He was gone. Or maybe he passed me, for some reason I can't remember. I will be sure to take home some Bart merchandise as a souvenir, and I am hoping to get Bart to sign my "Bart Wellens Kickboxing Academy" t-shirt or to get a photo with him wearing it. We'll see if I can work up the nerve for that!

Okay, so on to my race. At staging, the announcer called my name: "From the United States, numero vignt-deux, Rebecca Wellons." Then he made some comment en francais demonstrating how my last name is pronounced slightly differently than "WellEns" (which it isn't). But the crowd and myself at least got a chuckle out of it. I rolled up to a spot in the third row. But really the second, because I played the game of jamming myself up as far forward as possible. I was right next to Christine and diagonally behind Lyne. Several other North Americans were nearby, and I felt strangely comfortable. I jammed my wheel right on up so my hands were basically on the butts of the two euro girls in front of me, and when the gun shot, I did not hesitate. I successfully started the race without being sketched out. I held my own in what was a decent start, not excellent, but a big improvement on the past 3 races. After the first corner, the track was all muddy and slick, and went into a muddy and chewed up hill that would prove to be unridable for me and most others (even the men) all race. So, there was the first dismount, and there was another short steep hill soon after that I had to run because the girls in front of me couldn't ride it. I headed into the sand, and did my best to keep my weight back. I find it difficult to drop into the sand with good speed and keep my weight back at the same time. I tend to be quite far forward like a roadie a lot when I'm trying to keep speed. I will have to work on my position for next season. The sand was hit or miss for me, and I say that to mean I would often hit or be hit by someone (and consequently crash) or I might miss riding into the woman in front of me (often going slower) and pass several others. Alone while pre-riding, I could clear it pretty consistently, but as everyone knows who has raced cross, all that pretty much flies out the window in traffic during a race.

I went down many times. One time I fell running in the sand, and I didn't trip. A Belgian woman rode into me from behind as I was running the end of the first long sand section. I have her chainring imprint in my left achilles. I was pissed and got up and ran past her and put myself right in front of her. Then a French woman dove into the next corner inside me and caused me to dab. That made me mad, too, and I wanted to catch her and give it back in a bad way, but I just had no legs today. I had absolutely no power, and such is the story of my last month. I rode the first lap okay, but that was all my legs had in them. If I had a powermeter, I'd bet it would show numbers lower than my first training rides last February. I would stand, but just couldn't pump. I am cooked, and know it. (I was actually able to fall asleep in the car, in the parking lot, 2 hours and 15 min before my _WC_ race today... not a good sign.) Regardless, this is still all an amazing experience for me, and I'm so glad I'm here. I know inside that I could have been racing 10 places higher. I know that it's possible for me. Those are just words, but I intend to make it happen in the future.

I spent the last couple of laps battling with the Japanese national champion and the Belgian woman whose chainrings are my body's souvenir. I would often gain time on them in the sand, which I rode pretty well when in less traffic. I could also consistently outrun the Japanese woman. But my power was uncharacteristically poor on the flats and pavement, and I could not match the Belgian woman today. I finished 34th in the hardest cyclocross race I have ever done, and I'm very happy to have had the experience.

I wish I could stay, rest for a week - well, I may need two, then continue racing. If I could race here more, I believe I would improve dramatically as a 'crosser. But I have only one more race here - Loenhout on Friday - and then I'm home for New Year's and back to work and reality. I'm really looking forward to Friday, it's got those washboard-like BMX style bumps where you have to push and pull your bike and you gain speed as you go through the section! I can't wait to try it.

Some pics of the race:

So many people that it was hard to see the racers go by! Some people got creative and built sand mounds to prop themselves up higher.














Powers rocks through the end of the second time through the beach where many could not ride.















Tim runs the same section this lap.





























There were lots of Ridleys at the race.
Here's mine all happy after the sand:















I still haven't had any beer. It sure wasn't in the cards while doing 4 races in the past 6 days, but I'd like to have one before I leave. I haven had lots of chocolate, though! After a huge dinner tonight, I treated myself to crepes filled with Meli, which is the delicious chocolate and honey spread I am now addicted to. I think there's half a pastry waiting for me in the fridge, too....






Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Pretije Kerstmis!

We all went to the town church service last night. It was great to see some people riding their bikes to church at night! Blauberg is a small country town, and it seemed like everyone attended. For me, the highlight was the band. They sang in nice harmony and kept everyone engaged in the service. The bow ties and suspenders were charming. After the service, everyone stayed and drank cups of warm wine, soup, or cecemel, a drink similar to chocolate milk. We wanted to talk to people, but the language barrier is difficult. You can't just go up to someone and start speaking in English! Vicki knows how to count to ten and name the days of the week in Dutch, but those aren't exactly good conversation starters.

There were lots of fireworks right after midnight, but I didn't pull myself out from under my warm covers to check out what was going on. Celebration, I'm sure.

This morning, Shaun and I walked down to the bakery for some bread and treats. The place was packed! I think everyone in town went to the bakery this morning for fresh bread and pasteries and chocolate treats. The bread here is delicious! There is no Pepperidge Farm preservative-filled crap you can buy in any store in the US that sits on the shelf for weeks without molding. This is real bread, fresh baked, sliced for you when you buy it, and delicious. I am really going to miss the bakery when I go home. Oh, and the pasteries! Here is Shaun enjoying one. I am still not sure how it is possible that Belgians are not fat.

Well, I've got to go do some bike maintenance. Then this afternoon I'm off for Hofstade, the site of tomorrow's World Cup race, to preview the course and pick up my race number. I am so nervous and excited! I hope I will be able to sleep tonight!

Hope you all have a wonderful Christmas.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve and a Day Off

It's getting late... I decided to post pics and write tomorrow. These were all taken today on my ride or at the church service tonight that we attended in town. Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Zeddam

Did you know that cyclocross is a full-on contact sport? I didn't, either. But it is over here. I was determined to start more aggressively today, so I could show I am better than pack fodder, but it was a similar story to yesterday through the first few turns. It doesn't matter where you get called up here, girls jam themselves in between you, those in the 3rd row jam themselves up in between and onto Daphny's wheel, so everyone starts pretty much touching each other. Elbows are out. When the gun goes off, it's mad. Girls take all sorts of risks like a mob in a crowded burning opera house. They'll do anything, cut you off, elbow you, push you, pull you, whatever to get in front of you, then they are completely out of control and take themselves out right in front of you and cause a pile up. If you're not in front of it, you're out of luck. In the second pile-up of the first 1/4 lap today, I had to pull some girl's pedal from my spokes, and I basically came to a stand still for several seconds as bikes and bodies were all around me and we were trying to navigate a 180-degree turn. The first 20-25 places got far away up the road. Then we had a long, fast descent that transitioned into a very long stair climb - 100 stairs!! Again, I came to a stand still, since the first 2/3 of the stairs were narrow and single file, and the wankers in front of me were going so slow. It was like frantically trying to walk up a crowded escalator at the mall on Christmas Eve. I lost so much more time. Apparently, part of the traffic jam was caused by an actual fight somewhere on a stair up ahead of me. Review sentence one.

I rode reasonably well in similar fashion to the past two days: picking off riders in front of me, one by one. I have noticed a strange paradox in race behavior here. In the first lap, everyone's out for blood, but when you pass someone later in the race, they don't even seem to attempt to challenge you. Maybe it's because I have been stuck at the back with riders compared to whom I am significantly stronger, and I pass them with enough speed that it crushes their spirit. Maybe that's wishful thinking. I ended up 18th, I don't know how many starters. I know without doubt I am stronger than that result shows, but the start is so important, and I have to learn to add anger, aggression, and fearlessness to my bag of tactics. Honestly, I think maybe those things are not in my nature. But frustration is building, and it may tip the scales of my temperment.

Zeddam was another incredibly fun course. Apparently it was a totally different course than when World's was held there in 2005. Not overly technical, lots of power sections, a 100-stair leg busting run-up, and grassy turns. I loved it. Even though I was not riding further up where I wanted to be, I was having a blast on the course. I can't wait to do it again next year, because I want another try!

Post-race, I decided to play avid fan. I watched the men's race, took some pictures, ate my first frites with mayo, and talked to some spectators. This trip is about racing, but it's also my vacation! The scene is fun. The crowd is much quieter than I expected. They watch you intensely, but don't shout often - well, unless you mess up! Just like inebriated Nascar fans, they are definitely excited by race carnage.

Erwin!
The race pits. Notice how low the sun is on the horizon? It's about 2:30 pm in this shot, and the sun never got much higher. It sort of skims the treetops then sets. It also likes to sleep in, taking until 8:45 to rise.
The band and the frites!
Snapped this on the way home. Anyone want 98 octane? The cheapest octane is about 1.20 Euro/liter. There are 3.8 liters in a gallon. That's a little over 4 Euros/gallon, and one Euro is about $1.65. You can do the rest of the math.
Well, today marked three races in a row. The legs are now tired, as is the rest of me. I am really looking forward to sleeping in and having a rest day tomorrow. I think we're going to visit the second largest bike shop in all of Europe tomorrow afternoon! I might bring my camera, but I think I'd better leave my wallet at home.

Oh, does this adventure and the racing ever have to end?!? I am loving this so much. And I am already excited just thinking about all the training and preparation I'm going to do to be faster and stronger next season!



Saturday, December 22, 2007

Huijbergen

Off to Huijbergen, Holland today to race. I think Huijbergen must be the cutest little town on the planet! Cute and tidy little brick houses line the streets, plants growing in most windows, all-brick layed streets fashioned with geometric designs and bike paths. Loved it. I wish I had time to explore it and take some pictures to share. But I was otherwise occupied with racing!

Huijbergen proved to be a very technical course. To me, it felt like a mountain bike race. Or what I imagine a mountain bike race would be like, that is. It's been many ages since I tried one. I am beginning to think that I really need to race mountain bikes to improve my 'cross skills, so you may see my on the fat tires a bit this summer. How I'll fit that into a big road season, I'm not quite sure yet. Anyways, after pre-riding the course, I was a little nervous to be racing on it. I wasn't nervous to just be riding around on it medium-slow, but to actually be trying to go fast would prove to be quite another story. There were two tricky descents, and the ground was frozen solid, making the cow-trodden field hard bumps to ricochet off, and several corners were slick. There were two run-ups, one dirt, one sand.

I am no psychologist or biologist, but cycling has led me to believe there to be a certain survival instinct based on self-preservation. For example, when you sense danger in speed, you instinctively pull the brakes. When you sense danger in a corner, you might unclip your inner foot. Well, I have figured it out: I am simply evolutionarily superior to most other racers. I have the self-preservation instinct down-pat. I will live longer and healthier than my daredevil competitors and bear more off-spring. Well, great, but it's not helping me one bit in cyclocross!

The whole race I was trying to coax myself into letting go. Letting go of the brakes, letting go of fear. My body has so much more inside, but I am caging it. If I could let go and trust myself I could fly. I suppose that's what sport is about for so many of us - wrestling with our demons, conquering our selves. Every lap I tried to go smoother and faster. I believe I did as the race went on, at least I relaxed a bit and had some fun on an awesome course.

There was this super steep sandy descent with a 90-degree right hander. Boy, was it a disaster on the first lap in traffic! I did improve on it every lap, and was having enough fun by the last lap that when I almost bit it, I actually laughed, and the surrounding spectators laughed along with me. Well, I prefer to see it that way - only they know whether they were laughing with me or at me, but it seemed in good spirit.

Speaking of laps, I had no idea how many laps we were doing! There were no lap cards, and the race seemed incredibly long. Every time I came through the finish straight, I had no idea if it was the end! I don't speak Dutch, but I now know that 'ronde' means 'lap.' Of course, I don't know numbers in Dutch, so that really wouldn't have helped much. Finally, when I came through again, the announcer took pity on my ignorant American soul and said in a thick accent "Rebecca Wellons, this is your last lap." It was the only English I heard him say over the speaker the whole race.

The start was ridiculous. The girls over here have none of that aforementioned "self-preservation" instinct. None at all! I do a lot of crit racing and have never seen anything like this. I thought I might actually eat pavement in a 'cross race. The starting chute began straight and flat for 150-200 meters, then took a had 90-degree corner. I was the last woman called up to the front row and was stuck with the spot furthest right. Not the one I wanted. I should have declined the first row and taken the left side second row. But I figured I'm a good starter, so I can maybe get ahead of most. The gun shot off and we charged. I tried to move left as we went up the road in one big pack, but some girl shot through where there really wasn't space to put herself, bumped me on the left side pretty hard and unexpectedly, charged in front of me right at the corner on the inside. She did a full-on powerslide into the first corner and almost took out the first 5 riders, cramming in maybe second wheel. I was totally stunned. Honestly, I want to race hard, I'm not afraid of an elbow or asserting myself if need be, but that was f'ing ridiculous. And it didn't stop there. Girls swam around chomping like sharks at blood. I felt like a guppy. Someone went down in the next corner into the woods and we all piled up. I was now at the back, and rode the whole race trying to pick off riders in front of me. The same lonely game I played yesterday.

Sounds disappointing, but really just being here was fun! Riding these courses will improve me. I need to learn to start more aggressively. I need to let go. I have the legs to be there, but I have to strip away this instinct limiter.

I was in the pits for Shaun in the elite race today, and I have to say it was exciting to feel a part of the race as Bart, Sven, and others shot by. I got to the finish in time to snap this shot of the finish from a spectator point-of-view.
Bart Aernouts wins!

A pep band livened things up!
Bart comes through with one to go.
The two Barts and Sven come through, taken from my vantage point in the pit.
End of the first woods section. Very single-tracky-mountainbikeish.
Standing in the pits, the good elevation difference to the first hill and descent was very noticable.
Check out all the press for the men's race!! No, the women got nowhere near the amount of press or spectators.

Check out this crazy tree-shrub hedge I saw on road outside Huijbergen on the way back into Belgium. Does someone trim this??

I really want to race Zeddam tomorrow. I am on the start list. Iwant another shot at this! I am having too much fun to miss one, but I am unsure if I can get a ride there. Nobody has room to take me! I'm hoping the friendly Northwest duo of Sue and Wendy can pick me up and bring me....