While the rest of us in Australia are enjoying the sunshine and taking in all the racing that January has to offer, Aussie cyclocross pro Lewis Rattray is having the time of his life slogging it out racing in the cold and wet European cyclocross scene. In this post Lewis brings us inside his world from 16,000kms away and tells us about racing the “Kerst Periode” in Belgium.
Kerst Periode (or Christmas Period) is a fortnight held either side of Christmas where there is a UCI race pretty much every second day. I chose the ones I could squeeze in logistically a few weeks earlier, and raced the following over a 10 day period:
– Sint Niklaas UCI C2
– Flemish Cycling Federation Kerst Cup (club level race)
– Heusden-Zolder World Cup
– Loenhout B Post Bank UCI C1
– Diegem Superprestige C1
Sint Niklaas was a race held in a picturesque park next to a lake. There were quite a few achterblijvers, (a phrase the commentators use to refer to the riders out the back, meaning those who are left behind) which meant I’d have some competition at the back of the race. I had a really good result here, my best in a UCI race, as I was just one lap down on the leaders riding for 59 minutes before being pulled.
Just a few days later, I raced a club race with the Flemish Cycling Federation (Vlaamse Wieler Federatie). From my previous experience racing club races, I’m well aware that the Belgian talent pool runs right down to club level. I’d been told that one of the riders had been undefeated in every race he’d done this season, so I made sure to keep my eye on him. All the clubs run their own Belgian, World and European Championships, and their club World Champion was also racing, in his rainbow skinsuit.
The courses used in club races are generally far less technical than the UCI races, it was dead flat but there were puddles of mud as deep as my hubs.
The gun went, and shortly after I managed to move to the front of the bunch, with the undefeated rider sticking to my wheel. We traded attacks, as I’d gain time hopping the logs, and he’d gain time powering through the wet grass. Eventually I managed to pull away to score my first win on Belgian soil, with a nifty trophy to put in the pool room.
On Boxing Day, I raced the World Cup in Heusden-Zolder. This was the location of my first ever World Cup last year, so it’s one I’m particularly fond of. Record rainfall meant that sections of the course were ridiculously muddy, and there were many riders coming off down the two steep descents. I ended up having a really good race, rather than feeling like I was struggling the entire time, I felt like I was finally comfortable racing. I rode the descents smoothly and kept it upright to record my best result in a World Cup, 43rd at 3 laps down. The crowd was particularly merry, being the day after Christmas, making for an awesome atmosphere and a really enjoyable race. Fans were beginning to remember me from last year and I’m getting plenty of support around the whole course.
One of the highlights of my season so far came about at my final race of the Kerst Periode, part of the Superprestige Series in Diegem. The race had an amazing atmosphere, held in the dark under lights, with around 15,000 fans lining the course. Unfortunately my body was completely exhausted from the previous 10 days, and I struggled around the course before being pulled after 45 minutes.
I was covered in mud, soaking wet and freezing cold as we were packing up the car, when I was approached by a family with a young son named Victor. Victor’s dad explained that they remembered me from last year and enjoyed watching me entertain the crowd during the races. I was given two drawings by Victor showing me in the green and gold, winning a race and standing on the podium. I was honestly taken aback at how lovely that gesture was, and of course I posed for a photo with my young fan. It certainly lifted my spirits on an otherwise exhausting night!
Struggling with the weather
One of the most difficult aspects of racing ‘cross in Belgium is training in the weather; it can be absolutely miserable here. My first 2 weeks were fine; I still had that buzzing excitement of being back here, but all it took was a cold front and a difficult race to crush any motivation I had enjoyed previously. For an entire week the weather didn’t go above 3 degrees, with most days being less than zero. If it wasn’t snowing, the cold wind blowing off the river was enough to lose the feeling in my fingers and toes. Not exactly conditions to make me want to get out and ride! That week I did almost all of my training indoors, the worst being a 3 hour day on the trainer. Whilst it’s better than nothing, I get into a rut if I ride too much inside, and the week left me feeling fairly uninspired for the upcoming races.
Coach Compton came to the rescue however, with a week of intervals dotted in-between long rides that required me to leave the house in order to complete properly. One thing that makes it a whole lot easier is accountability. Thanks to an attentive coach, you’ll know that he/she will know that you haven’t completed the intervals or the required duration. It’s not as if they’re going to berate you for it, or stop coaching you because of it, but it’s enough for me to get off my ass and brave the cold for a few hours each day. If not for that, I’ve got two other questions I ask myself to get the wet weather gear on and head outside “What would Sven do?” and “How many people would kill to be in the position I’m in right now?” At the end of the day, I’m exceptionally lucky to be here, and that in itself is enough for me to snap out of it and make the most of such an incredible opportunity.
Whilst I was battling the miserable weather, most of the top pro’s had spent the week in Tenerife on the Canary Islands, getting in some bulk kilometres at altitude. I can’t confirm if it’s true, but I had heard that ahead of last year’s World Championships on the sand dunes of Koksijde, a number of pro’s had organized for the course to be recreated around a hotel on Tenerife, allowing them to hone their skills whilst riding in beautiful 20 degree sunshine. Not a bad life at all if you ask me!
I have a break in between UCI races now; my next is in two weeks, the day after the Belgian Championships. In the meantime I’ll be racing some club races and training in Luxembourg.
Feel free to read any specific race reports of my trip so far on my blog.
I had a question on my last post asking about tyre options and the differences between the top professionals and other competitors.
I’m somewhat limited in my tyre options due to the difficulties involved with taking two bikes overseas with me and a lack of finances. I had planned on having a third wheelset with me, but there was no way I could fit it in my luggage without going over the limit. You’ll notice the pro’s have a quiver of wheelsets and tyre combinations available to them, but given my circumstances, each bike has a tubular wheelset and I have one spare clincher wheelset for training (kindly loaned to me by my host). I must have spent a week wondering which tyres to go for and whether they should be the same or different treads, but settled upon the FMB Super Muds on both wheelsets. My reasoning was that I would rather sacrifice some speed on the drier courses and be best prepared for the worst the Belgian weather has to throw at me. So far it’s been the right decision, there’s really only been the World Cup in Koksijde where I would have used the SSC (FMBs intermediate tread, it was still too wet for file tread tyres).
The amount of money these teams have to throw around is quite ridiculous. Whilst we’re making do with a lightweight canopy and a station wagon, the pro’s have gigantic campervans with showers, heating, stovetops, pressure washers and toilets built inside. Companies and local businesses are heavily involved with funding all the endeavours, and I’m sure they see valuable exposure as a result of it. It’s always interesting seeing the companies who sponsor cycling teams over here. Some of the sponsors that stand out are a music festival, an underwear brand and an adult toy shop.
Until next time, enjoy the rest of your holidays watching the Sun Tour, Nationals, and Tour Down Under. I’ll be following from here!