Photos by Balint Hamvas / Cyclephotos
“What is your race strategy?”
“I’m going to pedal as hard as I can, and try not to crash in front of all the people in De Kuil.”
“If I yell your name, will you wave to me?”
“Oh you know it, rodeo style!”
The camera crew walked away, and I finished warming up in the grassy parking lot. Apparently, someone had tipped off the crew from Sporza, the broadcaster of major cyclocross races in Belgium, that some furry-legged Californian was making his Belgian cyclocross debut here in Zonhoven. Located a half-hour outside Brussels, the track is renown as one of the technically toughest of the season (the other being Namur). It packs four sandy climbs and three loose, treacherous plunges into a single six-minute lap. It’s relentless. It’s brutal. It’s borderline scary. What better place to begin a Belgian cyclocross career?
For the first two minutes of the race I couldn’t think of a better way to start. I sprinted from the back of the grid into the top 20. Fighting through the early corners, I gained more places. “What am I doing up here?” I thought just as Klaas Vantornout, came bumping past me in a turn. I rubbed elbows with the former Belgian national champion. It wasn’t contentious. It was standard operating procedure here in Belgium. A gap opened. He squeezed into it. It was ‘cross racing in its purest form. What a glorious introduction to the Flemish cyclocross dream.
The group flew through the chicanes, and up the incline to the crest of De Kuil. Flemish for the ditch, De Kuil is among the most iconic features in cyclocross, and it’s the defining section of the Zonhoven track. Two sand chutes plunge into the center of a giant bowl, and two sandy run ups, one significantly longer and steeper, climb out. Thousands of people cram onto the steep hillsides where the ribbons of sand plunge through the horde. Zonhoven’s Pit burned into my head during the entire offseason. It motivated every stadium-stair interval, each sand rut railed, every beach I tractor pulled across. I spent four months preparing for this day, this race, this pit of despair. It wasn’t enough.
We sped into the left-hander and crested De Kuil four abreast. I went wide into the deeper sand, with ever shifting ruts. I was almost to the bottom, full-speed ahead and almost home safe, when things went sideways. The bike swapped left then back to the right and all of a sudden I was airborne, staring up at the blue sky. So much for taking my own race advice…
The body was intact, but the stem was sideways and back wheel stuck. In front of that sea of people, I started the long run up to the other side, across the far lip, back down into the pit, clambered up the excruciating exit incline, and onward to the material post and a fresh bike. The clock read +2:30 by the end of lap one. Based on the six-minute leader lap of Mathieu van der Poel, I knew it was futile to continue. I actually knew all hope was lost at the start of my trudge. The level is so high in Belgium, and I am so marginally capable of clinging to the tail end of that level, that any mishap will inevitably break the hope of a decent result.
There was no reason to keep going except pride, or what little pride remained three minutes behind the actual race. I would ride until they pulled me. I wasn’t going to stop. I’d prepped months for this day, this hour. I was going to experience every last minute of humbling pain.
Later as I climbed into bed, I itched my ear canal. The fingertip emerged covered in sand. I stared at the grains, reflecting on my first race day in Belgium. Zonhoven had gobbled me up, and spit me out, leaving its gritty residue in my various nooks and crannies. I’d plunged into the belly of the Belgian cyclocross beast, yet emerged in one piece. It was humbling. It was exhilarating. It was brutal and beautiful. It wasn’t the debut I’d hoped for (DFL) but it was everything I’d traveled to Belgium to experience, the fans, the atmosphere, the grit, the struggle. And it was only the beginning.