Jake Sitler diary: An American embraces the gutter life at Schaal Sels
Het leven van de goot. The gutter life.
During a three-week trip racing some of the biggest UCI 1.1 and 1.2 races from France to the Netherlands, me and my CCB Velotooler teammates began shortening it to “Berm leven” because it’s easier to mutter when you’re stuck in a gutter, a kilometre back, watching some angry Belgian smash the front like he was late for his family dinner.
The problem is, sometimes you feel like you weren’t invited to that dinner. And if you didn’t move up soon the only thing you’d be eating was the exhaust fumes from the caravan cars.
Speaking of dinner, I ate enough European dirt over those three weeks that I shouldn’t be hungry for a week. All during my recent trip I thought about a nice burrito, but here I am typing this on a plane just worried about US customs. “Have you brought any foreign soil with you?” Uhhhhhhhhhhh, yeah I’ve swallowed about a kilo of it.
They say it takes years to acclimate to the European style of racing. They say the differences are so large, that soon we will need to send a development squad of toddlers on striders to begin learning the ropes if we want to be competitive. Maybe they even say Americans are soft as hot butter.
Personally, I disagree. Yes, It’s really, really hard, and sure, the roads are smaller, there’s more road furniture (aka some random concrete piece protruding from some random location), there’s cobblestones, dirt fields, and roundabouts. And yes, maybe the natural physique of a fit Belgian male is double the size of me. But at the end of the day, it’s still a bike race, and I think if you are an aggressive bike racer you can fit right in.
Honestly, I loved it in Europe. The racing was pretty much always full gas from the beginning, so I actually had an easier time than I do Stateside. I was able to position a little better because the swarming was so much less than back home. Of course that is until you’re guttered, then the only position is, well… in de goot.
My CCB Velotooler team, an American UCI Continental team, put together an incredible schedule of racing in Europe, and we were fortunate to cap it off with one of the most insane races in Belgium, Schaal Sels.
Schaal Sels is a 198km “road race” through dirt fields, cobblestones, grass fields, bike paths, doubletrack trails, and what seemed like a very small amount of pavement. Last year’s rendition of the race was won by cyclocross world champion Wout Van Aert, if that gives you any indication of what kind of course it was.
I flew in the middle of August, and within two hours of being off the plane I was in the Kermess “world championships” called Heusden Zolder. Surprisingly the legs were good and I was even in the wind and into some moves. “Racing in Europe won’t be so bad,” I said.
The second experience was in a Dutch criterium during a festival at 10pm. Criteriums in the Netherlands are not like criteriums in the states. The course was 800m long and maybe five metres wide at best. It was shaped like a hotdog with a random roundabout on the back side. Before the race the boys looked at one another and the 50-person field, “we should be competitive today.”
Boom, gun goes off. Berm Leven Berm Leven Berm Leven Berm Leven Berm Leven.
I was bleeding out of my eyeballs, then we’d slow down to a stop get my first breath of air only to jump 1000 watts out of the corner. Rinse, repeat.
Soon half the field was losing wheels, and I was exhausted nine minutes into the race. I look back and no one is behind me. I keep riding my race. I get lapped by six riders about 20 minutes in and then I’m about to get lapped by the reduced field of 15 left in the race. I pull it together and somehow un-lap myself and am back in this thing.
In Dutch criteriums they don’t tell you how long the race is, they just say it will be somewhere from 60-90 minutes. Therefore I have no idea what’s happening, and am 99.9% confident they are purposely going 3 mph into a corner so they can get the joy of jumping out of corners at 1 billion watts just for sport. Finally the agony ends and I’m 19th, I roll to my teammates on the sideline, we laugh and say, “we should be competitive today.”
In reality, the difference is that in the United states, we race very quickly through corners and use the wide features to rest and recover where we can. We tell ourselves, “it’s a 90-minute race, let’s do this accordingly.” In the Netherlands, they’d rather just cyclocross smash it from the start until everyone is dead and then it’s just a battle of the apocalypse survivors the final half.
From there we had four UCI races in six days: Grand Prix des Marbriers in France, Druivenfeesten van Overijse, Omloop Mandel-Leie-Schelde, and Schaal Sels, which all took place in Belgium.
Grand Prix des Marbiers was through an amazing town in Northern France on extremely narrow roads, very similar to Sunset Loop at Redlands but with a 500m finishing climb. Seeing the course was narrow, we knew we needed to be attentive all day, I was about 30 wheels from the front when a group of 15 rolled off the the first lap. I tried to bridge but no luck, they were way too powered. A lap later, 15 of us formed a chase group. This is where I spent the rest of my day.
A nice day in the chase, I thought. Wrong. This break was just a glorified rendition of tag. One guy would attack, we’d all take turns closing down the gap, he’d be caught then someone would launch again. By the end of it, eight of us were left and we didn’t have any fight left to attack, I rolled in second from my group for 18th. Of the 190 starters, 70 finished. “La Bloc” they call it — always on the upturn.
The next two races didn’t get any easier. Quick-Step Floors and LottoNL-Jumbo made sure Berm Leven was in full effect. Thankfully I was able to stay competitive in Omloop after an unfortunate mechanical at Druivenfeesteen. I tried for a few moves but nothing seemed to stick. On two laps to go a break of 15 rolled off the front, with one to go I held onto the group and was the last finisher in that chase for 34th. Dylan Groenewegen, the guy who won on the Champs-Elysees at the Tour de France, finished 16th.
‘This is going to be insane’
Now in order to accurately describe Schaal Sels, I want you to close your eyes. Imagine a nice 77-degree day, and a light wind. Pump up your tires to 85psi and roll on over to the local playground. I want you to sit on one of those little rocking horses with the spring on the bottom. Now have a giant Belgian man thrash you on it for four and a half hours.
Before the start of Schaal Sels, even the Europeans seemed nervous. During neutral roll out, which took place at the shipyard in Antwerp, I rolled up to my old teammate Brecht Dhaene, who is a stagiaire for Wanty- Groupe Gobert, and he quickly affirmed my fears — “this is going to be absolutely insane, man.”
Five minutes into neutral roll out and we start hitting potholes so big I already lose a bottle. Yep, this is going to be insane.
Neutral ends, and we start racing like we will have to shove 130 riders into a four-foot wide gap in seven kilometers. Oh wait, we do. And this tiny gap leads to cobbles. What? We are going to do this at 50kph you guys? At this point I’m not sure if I’m riding over these cobbles or bouncing from one brick to another.
Once we are off the cobbles we are onto a bike path, then we have to send a hard left onto a grass field for a few hundred meters; then we head onto this six-foot-wide dirt road in a field. Dudes are sliding sideways like a Cat. 5 crit in the rain. I guess not everyone races cyclocross over here, I tell myself.
Cross eyed, I see a tractor pull happening to my right with announcers screaming at the tractors and us at the same time; diesel is pouring into the air, making a nice brown hue when mixed with the dust. Mmmm. This is going to be good for the lungs.
You know that feeling when you’re holding a wheel as far into the gutter as possible? Just praying the dude ahead of you calls out something bad? Well that’s not going to happen here. Gutter at your own risk, because sometimes there’s going to be a hole the size of Rhode Island and you may end up in China if you go into it. Regardless, I liked the berm, a lot of the bigger guys would ride the crest, but I preferred to stay on the smooth stuff and take my chances.
Around 32km in, a small break of two got up the road, and the peloton relaxed for a few minutes. This is the last time I will use the words relax and Schaal Sels in the same sentence.
Video: Full HD broadcast of 2017 Schaal Sels (Sitler crash at 37:10)
The break was quickly brought back and the race for the A-lines continues. Guys were dropping wheels left and right after 50km, but because it was so dusty you didn’t realize it until you rolled past him and had 10 bike lengths to close. This is what partially makes Schaal Sels so special, sure drafting plays a part, but a lot of time you’ll be out in the wind or picking your own lines through certain technical sections.
Around 80km in, Lars Boom — another world cyclocross champion — lays it down in a loose corner. I quickly skrrrted beside him and closed down the gaps. Jeez man, Lars Boom? Am I living in reality? A few times I would find myself on the back foot, but I was always clawing my way back into the front group — a group that was getting smaller and smaller by the kilometer.
Around 12km in, a gap opens up and I find myself on the back end of it. I’m out of water, and I think this might be the end. Finally I pull it together and a group of eight of us make it back into the front. 130km in and we finally get some pavement. We sit up to assess the situation, and this is it. Maybe 40 of us are left, at best. My director Tim comes over the radio: “Jake you need to come back and feed right now.” Me: “Tim, I’m so scared, they won’t stop attacking!” Tim: “Jake, you have to come back, this is your only chance.” Me: “Tim, I’m scared, can you just bring it to me?” After a bit of reluctance I went and got some bottles.
The thing about Schaal Sels, is if you are more than 15 seconds behind the front group, there’s a good chance you may never make it back. It’s not like you can just caravan your way through a dirt field and easily make it back. Well, Wout Van Aert probably can.
Bottles in hand, I chugged one down — ahhhh, good to go. As soon as that happened, I looked up to see the guy in front of me locking it up. I went left, ugh no, curb. I went right, ugh no, dude seven times my size. Welp, no more thinking, boom. I slam onto the ground.
What just happened? Did someone seriously just cause a crash on the easiest portion of the race? I quickly jump up. “Oh no, my wrist hurts, oh no, the race camera is right in my face, my mom and fiancee are going to lose it.”
Tim runs out of the car and starts checking on my bike. He tells me it’s my decision if I want to continue to not, I tell him I think I can. I get back on and start going. But regardless, I knew I could never catch back on. The race was long gone. I pedaled for 10km until the bumps proved too much for the wrist to handle; 54km to go and my day is done. Heartbroken.
(After looking at the race footage it appears a guy ahead of Wout Van Aert caused a crash, and I was two wheels behind that with nowhere to go. It ended up taking out his teammate and one of the race favorites Timothy Dupont, along with myself and a few others).
I hopped in the team car. I was emotional but composed. I felt an odd sense of disappointment mixed with accomplishment. I stared out the window as we drove back to the start, and all I could think about was what could I have pulled off. Maybe another big result in Europe, and a successful end to the year; but instead there I was, once again on the fine European pave, at least this time I wasn’t under a car like in Ireland. I chuckled, what a life.
Down, but not out. Despite my disappointment, I knew I raced my heart out and gave myself the confidence to come back next year with my eye on a top 10. Three weeks of racing in Europe this year, and they’ve been some of my coolest racing experiences to date. Maybe the Berm Leven isn’t so bad after all.