Some times you win, sometimes you lose, and other times you get spanked really good. I’m not talking about sketchy European red light districts, but rather the 3 day Belgian Mountainbike Challenge down in La Roche en Ardenne in the southern hills of Belgium . Tom Smets had invited me over to Belgium and together with his wife Ilse have been a great homestay and tour guides of there small country. Tom had organized this weekend at the BeMC so we took off thursday morning for the mountains (all 600 meters of them) of Belgium! The first half of the drive was pancake flat then we hit some nice rolling hills and the small town of La Roche situated along a deep river ravine. It was a nice oasis of a pocket compared to the flatlands of Belgium with an ancient castle towering over the town and a pedestrian only cobblestone downtown core.
The race itself with over 500 racers started on the cobblestone streets, it was a tight fit getting us all in there but luckily I had the #3 call up as it was based on UCI points. The days before the race we had prayed for sunny skies, but it was to no prevail as the rain clouds moved in and turned the 67km, 2200 M vertical course into a muddy pig sty. The first climb was intense with many of Belgiums World Class Cyclo cross taking to the front. Once we hit the mud it was a gongshow with bikes and bodies sliding everywhere. The racing itself was hardcore with steep 3-6 minute climbs up sloppy fire roads, followed by 20-40 second descents at 100 miles an hour back down so we could start the next climb ASAP. My body worked for the first 20 minutes then fell ill and went into hibernation mode. Usually my body will come around in the 2nd half of races but it just got worse and worse on this day as I drifted far out of contention, averaging a heartbeat of 128 bpm, a far cry from the normal 160 +.
Stage 2 the sun came out providing a bit of relief from the mud. Again we went up and down a million small hills. Pretty much a repeat of Stage 1 but 30 km longer as it had some nice flatter sections across the Belgium farmland mixed in. It was a day for the roadies with virtually nothing technical in there. Again the body worked alright for the first 30-40 minutes then collapsed into a ill state. I tried coaxing it out of its dormancy but it was done like some burnt Canadian bacon. After 4 months of great training and eating nutritious foods, it’s a surprise when you ride your bike worse then when you were a 12 year old commuting to the Jasper Elementary school. Too me it was a clear sign the past few weeks of travelling, racing, training, and poor sleeps due to shoulder problems was catching up. The flimsy shoulder itself had been holding together pretty good all taped up although the hike a bike sections were a bit worrisome. At this time of year it’s better to fold your deck of cards and get back on track for the rest of the long race year rather then drain an already depleted body. Sometimes the body needs some good care before it can get back up firing on all cylinders and this appeared to be one of them.
After the race I figured it would be smartest to call it a weekend and let the body start the rehab process. My buddy Lander had driven down from Northern Belgium with a few friends to catch the race and ride around. They were at the finish line, watching the lead girls come in figuring they had missed me, but I eventually rolled through afterwards. They were a good crew and let me have some razzing after Lander had built my racing abilities up pretty high. Together with Tom we hit a traditional Belgium pub and then some good eats downtown in the cobblestone district which was a great relaxing way to end the day.
After a long 10 hour sleep I woke up rather refreshed for the morning of stage 3 and decided to put the kit on and take the day as a 5-6 hour training ride to finish off a big 80 hour, 3 week training block. It’s not often I get a chance to ride my bike through the Belgium Ardenne hills with top notch feed zones to support the efforts so I figured it would be better then spectating. The body worked a little longer before halting on this day and I stuck in the lead group for the first hour. We hit some real trail for 300 meters, and the guys got off there bikes and started walking . I don’t understand how some of these guys can ride so fast uphills yet so poorly on the fun trails. Its a head shaker. Soon after the body hibernated again and I started to question if it would make it to the finish line.
The highlight of the day was stopping at the feed stations as usually we blow by them. It was amazing how many different options of treats they had. I lost time just trying to decide what to enjoy. Over the 99 km course we did nearly 3000 meters of climbing which was solid given it was Belgium and probably meant we climbed every hill in the country. Luckily my body held together enough to get to the finish line where we had a nice afternoon relaxing near the river catching up with the other racers. The famous Crocodile Trophy in Australia is televised on Belgiums national sports channel so there were a lot of curios racers asking about the legendary event. All I can say is it’s one of the best races-adventures out there and must be done!!
It’s always a shocker not racing near your potential but the Belgians are a great crew to race bikes with as they are some of the happiest down to earth bike racers I’ve met in Europe. The race itself is really hard with all the short punchy climbs, little areas to recover and pretty much zero trail to make up any time on the European fitness freaks. What really makes this event is the organizer Koenraad Vanschoren, who is down to earth and a real mountain biker himself. He sacrificed his own training for the Crocodile Trophy to put on this race for us which we really appreciate! He knows how to pull off a great event with everything dialled in. The courses could use a bit of North American flavour though as its a bummer to lose all the climbing efforts straight back down fire roads.
On the way home we hit some of Belgiums famous traffic. Apparently Belgium standouts from outer space as it glows from it’s endless network of roads which is one of the densest in the World. For some reason all the freeways are lined with lights, even though there is often an energy crisis during the cold winter months. Sometimes it’s better to not try and think about the logic behind some ideas. Back at there place in Kontich Toms wife Elsa had prepared a great Belgium style dinner complete with stewed meats, french fries, wine and salad.
After 3 hard weeks over here in Euroland it is time to step away from the bike for a while too get the body and health back on line so it can fire at full throttle again soon!