Sunday, 20 April 2014

WALLONIE CUP #3 - BASTOGNE

Location: Bastogne, Belgium
Distance: 90mins

I have been given two weeks off the road scene with Wiggle Honda, missing Gelderland today, then Fl├Ęche, Borsele and Westoek next week (apologies for the shorthand names). At first I was disappointed because it means that Jarrod will travel to races while I stew at home in Buggenhout. But then I sat down, wrote out my program structure for the remainder of the year, and decided that this mini break is a good thing. The idea was for me to have a break from racing, but we all know I love racing far too much for that. So instead, I'm taking the opportunity to cut back on travel, amp up the training, and most importantly- return to the dirt.

No rocks to be found here, just beautiful dirt!
Photo courtesy Danny Zelck

I haven't touched my MTB since I got to Europe so it was time to dust off the cobwebs and take it for a spin- on the road.. because I don't live anywhere near MTB trails. The seat felt high and uncomfortable. My shoes felt tight with my cleats too far back. And of course I spent the whole ride trying to accomplish an 'aero' tuck. Fail. This once felt so right, so natural, and I was angry that now it didn't. I picked out my first race; the Wallonie Cup on the Belgian border, and as night fell I couldn't sleep. The idea that I would be trekking to a MTB race tomorrow, on my own, in a french speaking region, with the nickname 'compass' (for all the wrong reasons), had me so bloody excited that I didn't close my eyes until 1am… 

I trained hard through the week and should have been tired heading into the race. Instead I felt amazing in warm up as people stared at me, the sole competitor at the entire venue warming up on a stationary machine; my Tacx rollers adjusted in length to suit my 29" MTB wheel base. I looked around at the sheer number of campers and cars that flooded the grassland, amazed that this many people would ever attend a state level equivalent cross country race. Racing had already started for the day and the venue was buzzing with weekend warriors, serious racers and of course music and catering. I was immediately jealous that we couldn't reproduce this in Australia, and sad that Jarrod couldn't be there to experience it with me.

Back in the bush…
Photo courtesy of Danny Zelck

Waves of emotions tumbled at me as I was overwhelmed by it all. I lined up in my start chute and then rolled to the line when my number was called in French. I looked around at my competitors on the grid and tried to work out where the competition would come from. Nobody would know who I was and I liked that. It was nice. It reminded me of when I first starting MTB'ing and could partake for fun. But I wasn't here for fun, I was here to race. I was here to simulate a World Cup, to potentially qualify for the Commonwealth Games when the day came. I popped a High 5 gel, poised on the countdown, and sprinted for the hole-shot when the gun fired. I was soon bitterly disappointed.

Great to be back on the knobbys
Photo courtesy Danny Zelck

The 'hole-shot' refers to the rider who takes the first corner in the lead. But today that wasn't me, I was third. And then soon after that I was fifth, and that is where I would stay for the first agonisingly long 7 minutes of the race. The course was new to me but nothing I hadn't attempted before. It was predominantly rough, corregated-like single-track, and very heavy on the legs. The dirt was thick and loose and although the track flowed, it was different to what I was used to. It consisted of three decisive climbs and opened up into a paddock for the run into the finish. I bounced around all day, in and out of the saddle, trying to find a rhythm that felt 'normal'. I became better technically as the day went on and despite catching the occasional Junior male in front of me, my five laps only varied by 10 seconds through the day. An achievement in itself.

Easing my way back into it
Photo courtesy Ludo van der Put

After 10 minutes of worrying that I was out of my league in Europe, I took a run at the leaders up a long fire-road climb. They didn't want me to pass, but I blew by at such an almightily speed that it wasn't much of a choice. I was full-gas on the roadie-type climb, and then relied on my fitness to recover from the effort through the tight single-track. After a while they were out of view and time flew through to the one hour mark. I was becoming complacent and had to remind myself that if this were a World Cup, I couldn't be complacent EVER, not for a single metre. So I pushed on and even maxed out at 187bpm on the final lap, up the final climb. I hyperventilated into the single-track that followed, but I was on a mission to get the very most out of my time on the dirt.

French beer for the winner!
Photo courtesy Pauline Delhaye

In the end I won by 6 minutes. A handy margin but comparatively speaking, all I could take from it was that I rode my heart out. I went somewhere I hadn't been in a while and wondered why I kept returning to this place. It's a dark cave where you're exhausted and vulnerable yet strong. You go deeper and darker to the point where your vision is blurred, and then you smile about it. And I dare you to wipe the smile off my face. I am so destroyed from today that I can't even imagine racing the Rabobank Paasbike tomorrow in Holland. But with UCI points up for grabs and a chance to see some more trails, no doubt I will be there to kill myself all over again.

Results: Via FCWB
Garmin Edge 510: Via Strava