Saturday, January 27, 2007

Howie's Belgium Race Report

Howie (Mark Howland) of Black Market Racing sent the following race report along,

Thanks Howie, and great job over there!


Finally back from Belgium, and a pocket full of racing to report on. The only computer we have access to is at the Mol city library, where we have to arm-wrestle teenagers for workstations just to get some web time. Once past that gauntlet, it's hunt-and-peck time on the French style keyboards, where just enough of the key locations are similar to give you a glimmer of hope- until you read your first couple of sentences, and realize it's gibberish.
The biggest difference about this years' trip was the weather. Packing for every conceivable weather condition is a daunting (and weighty) task. Just ask the airline baggage handler. The standard issue Belgian weather had been replaced this year with highs in the upper 40's to low 50's, while the folks at home apparently entered a deep freeze. In Belgium though, warmer weather just means more rain, so you trade one for the other.
Blackmarket Team members on this trip included myself, Janel, Trina, and Edwin. We also kept our old friend Chris Allen close at hand, since he is a NorCal refugee holding up in the south of France these days- and an overall great guy to have in the group.

Race #1: Schriek Groot-Lo, 13 Jan.: The track was very narrow, and super twisty. I had heard people complain about this course before, but you really have to experience it at race speed to appreciate it's shortcomings. This is the kind of race course that would be so cool to have in your back yard for training on, with maybe three of your closest buddies, but for racing it was just too narrow. There were really only two solid passing lanes that riders couldn't stop you from passing on, and the rest left you getting shouldered into the trees. They changed the age groups over there for masters, so Edwin and I got to race in the same group. It's now roughly master A= 30+, master B=40+, C=50+, and D= either 55 or 60+. The start of this race is in an open and bumpy field of only about 100 yds. You then enter the first deep, sandy hairpin, and into the forest. This is the last wide stretch of track that you will see for a half a lap, and since the tracks tend to be longer there, it'll be a while. My goal for the trip was to top-10 each race, which is well within my ability there, but you can't have bad luck- or poor starts. This race seemed to set the tone in starting positions for the entire trip. I ended up getting called to the back row, which was basically the kiss of death in most Belgian races- where the tracks tend to be more speed oriented, with a lot of narrow sections where riders can easily keep you behind them with a shoulder or elbow. After a hard fight for the duration of the race, I could only claw my way to 14th. Edwin finished 22nd. This race was supposed to be just to flush the flight out of our legs, so at least it did that.
Trina had the choice this time to race with the junior men, as is typical when there isn't a specific women's category, or with the master C's. She chose the latter, and got 9th overall, beating a couple of the guys. Apparently, she had a real fight on her hands as well. I love Belgium, but the men still tend to be a little chauvinistic, and sporting men even more so. There was this one guy that Trina kept passing, and he would fight her back- elbowing and shouldering- to pass her back. It was quite comical to hear about this large masters racer wrestling this tiny woman over the moguls of the course, and eventually losing that fight in the end!
Race notes: Henry finished a super solid 3rd in the master C race(50+), and Bostonian Kevin Hines finished a very respectable 8th, while Chris Allen came home 6th on the day (50+).
Official results here:http://www.cyclo-cross.info/index.php?selectie=results&taal=en&wedstrijd=1102

Race #2: Bakel, Holland, 14 Jan.: After yesterdays frustration, we were all keen on improving our results from the day before. The race in Schriek did do it's job though, and I think we all did better at this race because of it. Both this race, and the race in Schriek were new to us, as we wanted to experience a couple of new races we hadn't done before. Bakel is just over the Dutch border from Mol, Belgium, and is located just north of Eindoven. The track had similarities to yesterday, in that it was fast and narrow after a fairly short start stretch, but did offer more in the way of passing lanes. One of the main features of this race, as with most races in Holland is sand- and plenty of it! There were two deep sand pits- one, a barely ridable in-and-out affair, and the other a perilously deep cartwheel-into-steep-run out of section. Apparently, this is a larger race on the regional calendar that was part of a series similar to the BASP here. This meant that they called the top 20 or so of the overall riders first, then the rest of us. For those who aren't familiar with the typical seeding procedure, they will usually pick a number at random, and start seeding the front row from there. So the seeding at Bakel seemed unusual, but more like we do here at home. The regional contenders were pretty focused on each other, and were locked in a mortal-combat style battle down the short start straight, and into the first section of field. Those of us seeded near the back had to actually un-clip a foot and wait our turn at the first steep, technical, single track drop-in at the entrance to the forest. This race was well attended, and as locals informed us, talent-rich. With more passing opportunities, at least you have a fighting chance- not to see the front that is- but to at least have a good showing. I was able to make a lot of time in the sand sections, and work my way to 10th, with 8th & 9th right in front of me at the finish. Edwin had a tougher day, and finished 30th.
Trina had a wonderful time, as this was the first regional race she had done in Europe with a dedicated women's field of 22 contenders (various age groups mixed together). She ended up being seeded poorly as well, and was at the back of the group as they entered the first section of field/forest. Trina used her passing skills, and ability to ride much of the sand sections though, to work her way up to an impressive 12th. Something about being so tiny (and lightweight) allows her to just float the sand, where the guys on the team just plow an ever-slowing, deepening, furrow to a grinding stop.
Race notes: While Henry was fighting for his first win of the trip back in Wiekevorst, Chris Allen was first stalled by a crash that buggered his shifter cable, and then taken out completely by a horrific crash that ended his efforts prematurely, and left him battered for the next several days.
Official results here, although the masters race was somehow left off: http://www.cyclo-cross.info/index.php?selectie=results&taal=en&wedstrijd=1160

While staying in Belgium, we choose the spartan accommodations at the worlds venue at Zilvermeer, a Summer vacation spot for campers and day use enthusiasts alike. Zilvermeer offers two small lakes for swimming and boating, a water slide area, a ropes course section, and several kilometers of walking paths, all contained within a securely fenced "compound" of sorts. The only use it sees in the Winter is a championship cross country running race, and the masters cross worlds. The cabins offer space for up to 6, but I swear if you go in with more than 4, you won't be friends for long! There is electricity, a full bathroom, and a small kitchen, but no telephone, TV, or other appliances. They have upgraded a few of the original units to include TV, phone, and a microwave, but they are more expensive. We usually end up cooking most meals in-house after shopping at the local supermarket. This helps keep the cost of the trip at a minimum, and offers us daily practice of the worlds course at the end of each road-training session. They sell Leffe like they might sell Bud here, so good food, good beer, and Lavazza coffee are cheap and easy to obtain. We even bring our own stove-top espresso makers to make the most of our mornings. The typical day goes something like: espresso with breakfast, suit up in all your foul weather gear, ride the road for 1.5-2 hrs, then do a few laps on the worlds course for practice; make some lunch; head out to explore the local bike shops for items we can't get at home; take turns cooking dinner at one of the three cabins in our group, or go into town for a modest meal. Repeat as necessary until you get home.
Each year in Belgium now, I have been able to hook up with my mentor, and Belgian National team coach Rudy De Bie. This year was no different, except that he had a special surprise for us this time. We were going to attend Belgium's first ever indoor cyclocross event. It was held at a stadium similar to say, the Cow Palace in the 80's. They had tractored in fresh, moist dirt and sand from the fields, creating a serpentine circuit similar to a very long BMX track, complete with a long sand stretch, moguls, berms, and elevated ramps- a euro-cross favorite. Standing next to Rudy at an event like this is like standing next to the president of the NFL at a formal dinner the night before the SuperBowl. TV cameras, interviewers, and personal coaches all needed to talk to him as the professional cross worlds were fast approaching. We bumped into Jonathan Page before his presentation and heat, and he seemed focused on not getting injured in a race that seemed as much carnival as bike race. After the first heat, we were whisked off to the personal motor home of none other than Sven Nys himself. It was hard to not feel like some dorky groupie, but you have to admit, the guy is one tough crosser. He was very nice and approachable, and said he really wanted to come to the states to check out our races/sights. The final heat of the event brought the much anticipated showdown between the old guard, and the new youth. Niels Albert made the attack that only Nys could follow, and drove the two away from the rest. In the end, a small attack and a superbly ridden sand stretch settled the match with Nys coming out on top in front of, by the sound of it, a very partisan crowd. After a brief introduction to Sven's mother and wife Isabel in the VIP area, we were off. Let me tell you this about those top pros: the speed they ride on a cross DVD doesn't even come even close to doing them justice, compared to when you are on the railing, and seeing them go by in person!

Race #3: Mol, Belgium. Masters Cross World Championships, 20 Jan.: The course has been pretty much the same for the past several years. A wide start straight leading into a 90' turn, straight into about 10" of sugar-like sand. You ride/run about 60-70 yds. of this beach to the waterline, then ride the waterline for another 70 yds. or so before you exit the beach in ever-deepening sand into the forest. Once in the forest, you navigate three more deep sand pits, two forced dismount mounds, and fast, narrow single track through the forest. There are some passing lanes, but you have to be selective. Much of the off-track areas are pine needles hiding more sand or loose dirt. Passing in the wrong section will get you stuffed into a tree.
The story of the day was going to be Trina's race. She had won the silver medal last year, but we didn't know how it might go this year. She ended up having a great start, and came onto the beach in 2nd. Three women came out of the first lap basically together, and it was clear the winner would come from this trio. By the end of the 2nd lap, Trina and the French world champion from last year had made the selection, and dropped the other woman for good. Trina and the Frenchwoman traded places several times. At one point, Trina had a small, but winning margin, but a mistake on the beach cost her dearly. She lost a handful of seconds, and entered the final two laps at about 6 seconds back. What could have been a surmountable gap, doubled, when a mens 60+ rider caught her from behind, and fouled her up over a barely ridable root section. He was free and clear of his group, but still chose to pass entering this very technical section, even though he could see the two women were locked in a close battle. 6 seconds turned to 12 instantly, and the damage was done. Trina won a hard fought silver medal, with the margin to gold settling at a scant 15 seconds. Trina's race turned out to be the closest, and most exciting race of the day.
The men's 40+ group was the largest field of the day, followed closely by the 45+ field. We would be on the course at the same time, so passing not only your own field, but back-markers of the group starting behind, was going to be an issue. As luck would (NOT) have it, I get yet another back row start position. On this course, that is the toughest draw of the trip. At least I had company. Will Black from Texas, fresh off of his silver medal winning ride at the US National, was stuck back there with me. I followed Will onto the beach, but we basically all got hosed at the back. We had to run the entire beach section, while the lead 20 or so just rode away into the forest at full speed. Will put about 8 or so guys between us, and kept that to the finish as we both leap-frogged through the field. In the end I had passed 45 riders to finish a respectable, but disappointing, 18th place. Meanwhile, Edwin was fighting his own battle from the near-back of his group (45+), to finish a respectable 39th.
Race notes: Chris Allen finished a hard fought 16th place (50+). Henry finally got that medal he's been pursuing for 5 yrs. now, with a fantastic silver (50+).
Official results here: http://www.cyclingnews.com/cross.php?id=cross/2007/jan07/worldmasters07

Race #4: Wilrijk, Fort 6, 21 Jan.: This is a new race on the calendar, and we did the first edition two years ago. It is a course that encompasses open fields that are part of a sports complex, but the main feature is that the course ascends onto an old city defense fort. The fort is now a special paratroopers club, and is only open to the public, we've gathered, for this race. Otherwise, it's members only. This race is known for it's awful, muddy field sections. Two years ago, I ripped my derailluer clean off. The warmer weather that had brought the rain, had also made this race what can only be described as, perilously muddy. And with each lap, the mud only got worse, creating longer and longer running sections. Trina took one look at the muddy fields, and decided to give Janel a hand in the pits. We weren't even sure how long a bike could hold up to this kind of sticky, peanut butter goo. Of course I got my requisite back row call-up (bring it, right?!), and we were off. The mud and long running sections proved to be good passing lanes, but the lead 5 riders had done their damage to the rest of us. I chased 3-5th for the whole race, mostly alone, but never got closer than 20 seconds. I settled into 6th, and pretty much stayed there the remainder of the race. Edwin also made good use of the deepening mud and long running sections, by securing 12th.
Race notes: Chris Allen came home 8th (50+), while Henry won his second race of the trip (50+).
Official results here: http://www.cyclo-cross.info/index.php?selectie=results&taal=en&wedstrijd=1107

With the final Peak CX series race this weekend, Blackmarket Racing is about to wrap it's 06/07 cyclocross campaign. Sorry for the long read, but many have requested detailed accounts of the racing/living, to better get a feel of what it's like to race over there. Thank you all for your support along the way. Check our team site over the next month to put pictures and videos to what you have read here. We wish you all a strong, healthy, and happy 2007.
Thanks for reading,
Mark "Howie" Howland
Blackmarket Racing
Santa Cruz, CA

8 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mark, that was a great report and it sounded like a wonderful trip.
Thanks for the knowledge on the race scene and tactics and stuff, and the culture.

Keith D.

11:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would like to know about the Euro women???

Are they super fine or what?

I bet they have some serious freaks over there?? maybe in Amsterdam?

I think they must dress off the charts?

Seems the Belgium chicks are not racing, just looking fine!

10:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Or is it true that they are big and strong?

T.M.

11:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i heard the girls are big, and tall and muscular just like howie!!!!!!

12:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i agree, but i think that some of the howie look a like girls do not have smooth shaved legs like he does. but they are that tall and large.

12:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After a little belgium beer, I think id be ready to hit the streets of Amsterdam and really find out what type of Cyclo-Cross- dressed racing man I am! I want to visit the red light district like I do here in San Fran and maybe see what those Euro she-men can really do! I want to be the Master of their Worlds!

10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really like the 6 foot plus beasty women from central Europe!
Long legs, 175+ pounds, and full of fun!

7:15 PM  
Blogger strozzaprete said...

See you Kansas City.
Larry & the Van Dessel Boys

7:46 PM  

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