Photo by Tomás Montes
It’s a familiar corner through the farm fields, a mere kilometer from my home in Oudenaarde, Belgium. If hit just right on a dry day–swing wide on the setup, catch the banking of the inside, miss the dirt patch in the middle, then gingerly drift over the crown to the off camber exit–this is a ripping brakeless turn, the kind that puffs up the chest as you speed away.
But today, that brown patch of mire glistens with moisture. I’d just PR’d the first of eight VO2 max intervals after a rest week. It was a wonderful start to a training block that would build toward the end of ‘cross season. I was jazzed. My chest already puffed as I dropped off the back Koppenberg. With an extra dab of the brakes–it is wet, after all–I sail into the aforementioned corner.
I realize my mistake while sliding into the ditch. This is no dry, banked canyon descent in sunny Southern California. This is a slimy farm lane in the bergs of East Flanders. Moments later, I stand dazed, skin missing from my left side, thinking, “This is no way to start a four-day training block.”
I pedal home, and hobble straight into the shower. The holes in my hip and forearm are packed with well-fertilized farmland. It’s the kind of stinky soil that grows beets, celery and other delicious vegetables in Flanders fields. That same dirt will happily cultivate all manner of unwelcome organic matter in my skin. I groan, nay whimper, while scrubbing the wounds with soap and blasting them out with the showerhead. When the pain subsides, I ponder, “Just what the hell am I doing to myself?”
It’s a question that arises frequently as a neo-pro in Belgium. It’s a common query in races, where despite going deeper than I’ve ever gone in my entire life, Mathieu Van Der Poel still comes flying up behind me with one lap to go. It comes when I’m standing outside in the rain, washing the mud off my bike just so I can wake up to get it dirty again the next morning. It’s a constant consideration as I head out for training when that rain turns to snow in Belgium even though it’s 80 degrees at home in California.
Why am I subjecting myself to this? I wonder as the showerhead blasts mire out of my hip and shoots pain to the brain. At every turn, Belgium seems to have a vendetta against the psyche of bike racing hopefuls. But, that assault is part of the process. It’s nothing personal. It’s just how it is. If this cycling land doesn’t break my spirit, it will eventually break me into proper bike racer.
I climb out of the shower and dry off. I contemplate just sitting on the couch for the rest of the day. Instead, I walk over to the dresser. I grab a new kit and pull it on. Red oozes through the white fabric on the thigh as I throw my leg over the bike and roll back into the fields. I have three more months left in cyclocross season. Three months to train, strain and struggle through this cycling crucible. Three more months for Flanders to crush my spirit and send me scurrying back to the sunshine of Southern California. But that won’t happen today, Belgium. Not today. I’ve seven more intervals left to do.
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.