Wow, you just had a lucky escape, because I started writing this blog post and it was full of nostalgia about Belgium and about how my visits here had punctuated (nay, MILESTONED!) my life, from my days as a lawyer in Brussels to racing with the Australian national road team, to CX worlds last year, blah blah... and then I deleted it all because no one likes nostalgia, really, unless you were there. Phew. You can thank me later. I'm here in Oudenaarde, Belgium, for 3 weeks on a Tour de Mud. The mission is to get a block of quality CX racing (6 races over 3 weekends) in the Belgian mud, to build some skills in preparation for 2016 world champs in Zolder, Belgium. We don't get mud like this in Australia, so Mohammed has to go to the mountain to get rad mud skills.
I have yet to get myself a campervan. Campervans, as the CX cognoscente will appreciate, are de rigeur for the serious CX racer. Indeed, the quality of the racer is directly proportional to the size and flamboyance of their campervan. Svenness, for example, has a small mobile village which follows him around to races. You can tell Svenness is in da hood by the size of the crowd assembled outside campervan #1 (next to the giant trailer emblazoned with 'Have a Nys Day' and a picture of Sven choking out the suggestion of a smile). The Telenet-Fidea team, surely the leading Belgian CX presence, has a fleet of identical campervans, each helpfully catelogued by huge photos of the rider promised within.
The Telenet-Fidea Fleet (part of)
Garry Milburn and Fiona soon-to-be-Milburn are the Aussie pioneers in CX campervan territory. I've been enjoying Fiona's updates on the Australian CX Magazine blog, and those two roll like proper CX rockstars. I did not see any giant pictures of Garry on the sides of their campervan, but that man lets his legs do the talking. Where was I? Ah yes, cyclocross...
I'm staying at Hof Ter Kammen in Oudenaarde, home to the loveliest couple in the CX universe, Christian and Hilde, and their family. Christian and his friend Dirk have been my pit crew at races and I've been looked after extraordinarily well.
And the racing? The first 2 races - BPTrophee Lille on 7 Feb and Superprestige Hoogstraten on 8 Feb - were a matter of survival. I finished in 24th and 17th place respectively. Fresh off the plane, it was certainly a wake up call. Lille featured frozen sand, a bit of mud, and a generally hard and fast course (normally a bit better for me, were it not for my spectacular crashing). Hoogstraten had every single feature I could have thought of - lots of mud, a sandpit, stairs, flyovers, ditch crossings, barriers... It was a cram session extraordinaire for the Belgian Study Tour.
Hoogstraten: Pic courtesy Ladies On Wheels
This week after extensive counselling from SuperskillsCoach Neil Ross I'm working on getting out into the mud more, and using words like 'donkey-kicked' less. Today was a #skillsdoping session with a mate from CX China, Bruce Dalton, who's based in Britain but staying in Oudenaarde for some end of season racing like me. The CX community is pretty cool - already I've been riding with some supercool people who are based in Oudenaarde who have accommodated my strange accent and propensity to get lost with an air of friendliness you wouldn't see in a lot of other sports (or disciplines).
I don't pretend to be a technical specialist, but dammit, this technical shit be HARD. It's what I'm here for, but it's surprising how mentally draining it is to ride in such different conditions. There's no quick win in sight. I finish a race or ride and it's hard to focus on anything requiring mental energy for a while. If you can understand when I say that racing is like sitting an exam, then racing in the Belgian mud is like sitting an exam when you haven't studied.
I'll sign off for now, but a quick thank you to the people who have made this trip - and my racing life in general - possible: Rapha, Focus, health.com.au, FMB tubulars, SRAM, Neo Pro Imports, Kask, Perfect Pilates and the A-team of Donna Rae-Supercoach, Neil Ross, Paul Larkin, Pat Fitzpatrick, John Groves, Allister Payne, James Maebus who are the glue keeping this whole operation together. Thanks guys.