I suppose I should not be surprised that my final training ride in Belgium, after being here for 5 months was one I became a bit lost on, was one I found my new favorite route on, and one I found two cobbled climbs on which would be ideal training grounds for 'cross. I suppose this is just a sign that I need to return for next 'cross season. When I was at my lowest of lows the days seemed to crawl by but now I wonder how the time went so quickly and how my first Belgian race in Ruddevoorde does not feel like 142 days ago. But it is a good thing to end a tumultuous season with fondness and a need to do it again…just better.
The season's final weekend, Saturday in Valkenburg aan de Geul, NED and Sunday in Oostmalle, BEL were my 25th & 26th races of the 2011-2012 season. Balmy temperatures and rain followed the frigid snow of the two weeks following Worlds. This made Saturday's race on the infamous Cauberg in Holland a mud slog. With a season of primarily dry racing it was a nice reminder of how heavy and hard the courses can be. Off-cambers, wicked steep climbs, tire grabbing ruts, deep water-logged grass and slimy mud everywhere made for a challenging day on the bike, especially when most everyone seemed checked out for the season. For me, as I rode the course the more I liked it as I relaxed and became reacquainted with the feeling of mud. A couple of mud-induced bike problems and a few times sprawled on the ground had me chasing my spots back and with a lap to go I had an off & whacked my knee and climbed off for a frustrating dnf.
I am very happy I had a second race to redeem myself and hopefully hang the bike up with a race I could be proud of. Anticipating a similar muddy day, we were ready for anything the weather threw at us. I wasn't expecting a sunny day without a trace of mud though! The Oostmalle track is in the sandy forest on the grounds of a former NATO landing strip. The wet weather just made the sandy track tacky and grippy. Much like the Middelkerke race last weekend, this course was very fun to ride, especially if you were carrying speed through the rutted corners. Sometimes the course are just there- you rock up and you race it, regardless of the fun factor. Other times they are just bloody hard and you're working so hard to simply survive. But the best is when the course is hard, fun, puts a smile on your face and you can hardly wait to race it.
There were so many signs pointing to a good race in Oostmalle. The first was for the first time I pinned number 11 - in my final race for Race Club 11 this had to be a sign. The second was when Marianne Vos asked me to wear two ponytails like Daphny (it was Daphny's final race going into retirement and as a send-off most the riders emulated Daphy's signature two pigtails). I didn't have a second hair tie so Vos gave me hers. It's not every day you get to wear a World Champion's hair tie. The third sign was when a crystal blue sky broke into a hail storm, a forewarning of the weather we would have in our race! Ok, I don't actually look for signs but when they're there I acknowledge them. My legs were good, I had a good start and for a while I was vying with six others for 7th place. On the second to last lap Sophie de Boer and I fell off the pace of that group and I finished 11th. On the final lap the sky opened wide again and flipped from sunny to scowling & spitting hail. I'd say it was as close to fireworks you could get for the grand finale.
After the race Ernst (a supporter this season) had my recovery Westmalle Trappist recovery brew pop ready. I then bid farewell for the summer to Bart Aernouts’ supporter club who were ever so supportive of me at the final races. To top it all off Christine Vardaros had her annual cookie party in the car park filled with lovely cookies and people. It is her way of thanking the Belgian 'cross community. Becoming a member of a community takes time, hard work, tears and smiles. This Belgian cycling community is something I did not experience when I came to Europe for week-long stretches. Cycling is a way of life in Belgium. In ways that Americans become their job and their job defines them, cycling defines Belgium. There are the supporter clubs who are loyal to their rider, but it is not like in American sport where fights will ensue between rivals. Bart's loyal group has adopted me; they were friendly and genuinely excited because I am here to race my push-bike. Bart's club and Stybie’s club were cheering beside another and buying drinks for one another when I noticed the different supporter emblems. When I pointed this out they both just shrugged, "we're all friends". When it comes down to it, we all wear different hats, different colors, but we're all trying to be the best we can be. That is where respect is earned. If someone throws him or herself at something and gives the best he or she can be, what is to not like, what is to not support? I think for the women it is perhaps more special, more closer to the heart because we're not rocking up in exclusive camper vans (or mansions on wheels). Everyone knows most the women are racing for fractions what the men are making (much more so in Europe than in the US), yet we're still out there giving our best and the Belgians-who-are-cycling respect and support that. The discrepancies are becoming smaller - we just need to continue to work for it.
I came to Belgium in October knowing no one. At the first race I think Christine noticed my darting eyes and asked me if I needed someone to take my jacket on the start line. That was my first step into the Belgian cycling community and I am already looking forward to that first jacket hand-off in the 2012-2013 season.