Koppenberg is to a cyclist as Kitzbühel is to a downhill ski racer and as Stephen King is to horror novels. It’ll either make you wee your pants and waddle home with your tail between your legs or you will narrowly triumph, teetering between success and failure, bravery and tears. The first of November is All-Saints Day or Allerheiligen in Belgium and what better way to spend your day-off than at a ‘cross race, The Koppenbergcross? It’s the king of cobbles and the king of cross; indeed, the king himself, Sven Nys had won this 8 years running…though an unfortunate flat tire robbed him of his 9th win yesterday.
We were told to arrive early because parking is hard to come by at this venue. Arriving 3.5 hours ahead of time pushed both my desired wake-up time, as well as the comfort zone for finding a parking spot. At 10am it was already absolute mayhem and the elite men weren’t starting until 3pm!
When I could finally make my way through the masses of people to recon the course I felt excitement, nerves and pride to ride such a legendary road in the cycling world…something as famous as the Champs-Élysées or Alpe D’Huez, both ‘roads of fame’ I will probably never race. The crowds were similar to that of a World Championships, in that there were already people taking to the bottle and cheering at 10am as I was riding around the course slowly, simply checking it out. By the time our race finished the venue was soaked in beer and covered in a haze of cigar smoke and the smell of frites, all a rehearsal for the men’s race.
There was a false start in the U23 race and I can see why. There was an illuminated board in front of us which counted 1-minute down. It then swapped to 5 red dots which individually illuminated before changing to green which means go-time. Despite a run-through trial example while chomping at the bit we were still confused and still faltered a bit before green. Finally pedals clicked and I powered away to a solid start. The first lap I was where I wanted to be in that front group of 6 or so. But I felt my fatigue creeping in through the 2nd and 3rd laps. The climbs were eating me alive and I just didn’t have an entire race left in my legs. I faded to 9th place on the 3rd lap and the field was shattered to bits so for the remaining 3 laps I was all by my lonesome battering along on the cobbles, through the wind, up & up, down & down through foreign cheers. I’ve been hitting the races and training hard since early September and am due for a bit of respite. Fortunately the Europeans have their championships this weekend so a needed break is on the platter for me. I finished without weeing my pants but I wouldn’t say I triumphed. Either way, the race was bloody hard and today my legs feel cobbled, but what a piece of history to pedal on!