Friday, 13 September 2013

Bike Hutt Cyclocross 4 Evah

For the last few years cyclocross in Wellington has meant mostly one thing: The Bike Hutt. Conceived by Mike and Alison Anderson after a relocation from Texas to Upper Hutt, the shop has spread its name far beyond the hills surrounding the alluvial valley from whence its name.  Similarly the cyclocross races that they have been hosting since 2009 have spread in infamy to all quarters of these isles and even internationally. A recent attempt to leave the Hutt Valley was only partially successful, and they canoed down the length of the river to Petone, where Abi the Jack Russell jumped ashore to chase a tennis ball. They decided to stay there and are now on Jackson St doing bike business and drinking beer.


This year saw yet another great series of 8 races put on around the bubbling metropolis of Upper Hutt featuring Moonshine, California and Harcourt parks on repeat. With races for kids, beginners, intermediates and more seasoned cyclocross riders it's made a big impact on the area and has had great support from everyone - from riders; with over 100 regularly turning up to race through to the Upper Hutt City Council for kindly giving permission for us to temporarily shred and chew up all the ground every weekend.


The final race in the series was last month, but as 8 races just wasn't enough Mike and the team are putting on another, more enduring race tomorrow (Saturday September 14th) at Moonshine Park from 4pm. This is preceded by a skills clinic, going over technique for cornering, dismounting and remounting for obstacles and other things such as tyre pressure in a cyclocross-specific setting. Then there's a kids race of 20 minutes plus a lap, and lastly the big one - a 90 minute cyclocross enduro for individuals or teams of two or four riders. Unlike other teams races this one will require changes of rider upon every lap, so it should make for a close event for all competitors. The course will encompass all that we have come to love about cyclocross in Wellington, and as a last bonus half of the proceeds will go towards helping fund my travels to distant shores to compete in international cyclocross races this coming season.

So please gather up your families and bicycles, jump into your jauntiest riding pyjamas and come along to squeeze the last drop of cyclocross out of the NZ season!


Saturday, 17 August 2013

Thank Youse and Yonder Horizon

It's a week out from our national championships in Wanaka, which also signifies one of the last races of the season. I wanted to acknowledge the support I've had of late from people and places most generous.

I have been riding and racing on my Yeti ARC-X for the last few years, a great bike that is now also a great piece of memorabilia - for me personally as it took me on many great rides over and through the cobbles and muddles of Belgium, but also because it is no longer being manufactured.


There have been many good times on Yeti bikes

Photo: Gregg Germer www.thechainstay.com

Photo: Caleb Smith   


Although it's had a fairly hard life with lots of riding and cleaning, the Yeti is still providing most excellent service. It will be joined in service, however, by the recently acquired Singular Kite.


I'm currently building it up with parts from a conflagration of sources, united in their jaunty and unerring generosity. Especial thanks to Jonty at the hallowed bicycle retail establishment of Revolution Bicycles, in Northland, Wellington. When not being raced on the Kite should make for a lovely gravel road navigator, and explorer of the world of somewhat-un-chartered terrain.

Also helping me, but more with regard to either when the conditions deem it less than desirable to go forth and explore or if the ride will involve a certain dedication of purpose as to render other essential faculties less than adequate, are the folks behind LeMond Revolution turbo trainers. It takes the place of your rear wheel so one machine can fit any bike - road, cyclocross, MTB - and doesn't involve melting your tyres down to a flattened rubbery mass, so is ideal for cyclocross preparations. They have a showroom where you can try one out at Armstrong Sport on Barker Street in Wellington.


From the same people I have also been given a helping hand into my shoes, courtesy of their Mavic agency. Even when it's muddy you still can't miss them.

Photo: Lisa Morgan/Cowbell Coaching www.cowbellcoaching.com
Riding through mud is quite hard work, especially when it's really thick. Fortunately there are FMB tyres to ride, which make it easy. Well, if not easy they at least make it possible. Paul Larkin is the Australasian distributor and a lovely guy to boot, who has helped me ride much closer to where I intended than I would have otherwise, and is a wealth of information and practical advice for fitting and riding tubular tyres for cyclocross, road and track. They are handmade in France and awesome.

FMB Super Mud


While the cyclocross season will be winding down after nationals in New Zealand next week, overseas it is just about to begin. About a month ago invitations were sent out for riders interested in competing at the first ever Chinese cyclocross race, in Yanqing, Beijing on September 21st. Myself and Jenna Makgill, supported by Paul Larkin, are heading over to participate in what promises to be a historic and awesome occasion, and marks a milestone for the growth of the sport outwards from Europe and America. It promises to be a remarkable experience and I'm sure I'll have plenty to write about from it so I can't wait.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Continuously 'Cross

For the past seven weeks cyclocross races have been a regular fixture on the weekly calendar in Wellington. The Bike Hutt series has continued to blossom in popularity, and I have been to a mixture of Mike’s races in Upper Hutt interspersed with the first three of the national series rounds in the Hawkes Bay, Blenheim and last week in Christchurch. It is fantastic to have so much cyclocross available now to do, thanks to so many people taking on the role of hosting races and making it happen.

A few weeks ago winter seemed to decide it had had enough, and it’s been pretty warm since the middle of July. I made my way over to Blenheim towards the end of the month with the two JGeffeoffries, Geoffrey and Jeff, for the second round of the national cyclocross series at Wither Hills. Geoffrey and I made our way over with our bikes on the ferry, and rode the 25 or so kilometres from Picton with a delicious combination of bright sunshine and tailwind on our backs, following a hearty top-up of sweet treats at Picton’s answer to Holland’s Bakkerij. One of the things I was most excited about leading up to this was the anticipation of once again visiting the infamous Voodoo Lounge, full of odds and ends and all kinds of figures embued with occult significance. 

The Lounge.
This realm of curious sanctity is tucked away in the back of the garage at Jeff’s parents’ place, with entry limited to a select few upon careful invitation only. I was last here in a sandwich around the 2012 Kiwi Brevet, and while it was my virginal experience of the lounge, I didn’t undergo any formal initiation rites. This was swiftly rectified with the aid of a small taxidermied crocodile, a poncho-blanket and a certain je ne sais quoi of mumbo jumbo.

Ritualistic voodoo shenanigans

With the voodoo’s juju satisfied, the following day’s race was largely a success. Apart from tripping on the first of three sequential barriers at the end of the 2nd lap, subsequently landing with all my weight and momentum directly on my thighs on the next barrier, I had a steady and enjoyable race. Unfortunately for Logan Horn, who was looking to be very competitive, he had problems with his tyres unseating on the sharp off-camber sections and as a result lost significant time swapping wheels. 

Photo courtesy Sarnim Dean - www.sarnim.com

Photo courtesy Sarnim Dean - www.sarnim.com


That evening provided some spectacular entertainment by way of the significant movement of the ground. A large earthquake centred close to Seddon shook like none other that I’ve ever experienced, causing lots of noise and violent tremors, and also the untimely decapitation of a delicate South American cowboy with a porcelain head. May he rest in peace in the garden of voodoo.

Back in Wellington the Bike Hutt series was reaching its zenith, with newcomers and more seasoned riders alike getting into the flow of it and improving steadily over the weeks. After a fairly big week of riding and massaging my bruised thighs I had some fairly stolid sensations in my legs for the next weekend’s race at California park, a soft but very windy course in the sun. Brendan Sharratt accelerated away early on and it was all I could do to lose only 10 seconds or so per lap.

During the week I was made a very generous offer from my friend and all-round bicycle-riding legend Kim Hurst, to help me get to the Southern Cross and next national series race in Christchurch the following weekend. So after a slightly easier week to freshen up I put my jumbled up bicycle into a bag and flew down for the race in Ferrymead. Kim and Lisa picked me up from the airport, and after a short ride to look at the course (although we were too early and it didn’t yet exist) and a visit to a bakery’s factory outlet on the way back for deliciousnesses, we checked in with our excellent hosts Michelle and Richard.

I hadn’t been to central Christchurch for a number of years before the big quakes, and when we went in to look around at the reconstruction I was almost completely disorientated. As we approached I felt a strange sensation of familiarity, on quite a subconscious level, as while I didn’t recognise where we were some sort of intuition told me that this was Manchester St, and sure enough we then went past a road sign indicating that to be the case. There is definitely the sense of a collective appreciation for people and company around the place, born out of the loss of so much I’m sure.

Ferrymead park, while largely a sort of wasteland, has a plump grassy knoll in the middle, with a small railway loop around the outside. These were some of the key features of the race, which involved crossing the tracks twice each lap – just as the small scenic tram made its way around in circles brimming full of small children and families. There was also an ex-Wellington trolley bus taking tours, and surprising riders, as it popped out of the gloom alongside part of the parcours.

Photo: Lisa Morgan/Cowbell Coaching - cowbellcoaching.com
We started, as usual, in an awful hurry and Scott Lyttle, Logan Horn and I got a gap ahead of the others through the first lap. I was feeling great and thought I could perhaps push a little bit harder, so started to creep away from the other two as we criss-crossed the railway line. After a few laps I saw the train approaching our crossing point just ahead of me, and soon found myself waiting as it passed, all waving hands, excited cries and puffs of steam. It was probably all of 10 seconds but I could feel Scott breathing down my neck and wanted to keep the gap growing. I managed to do this, and while the great number of people taking part meant the course was thick with riders, making for occasional queues to pass, in all it really grew on me throughout the hour and I enjoyed the race.
Photo: Lisa Morgan/Cowbell Coaching - cowbellcoaching.com

Photo: Lisa Morgan/Cowbell Coaching - cowbellcoaching.com
On the way back to the airport Richard took me on a quick tour of the workshop where he has started up an operation by the name of Revolution Components finely cutting out chainrings, derailleur hangers and more or less any other particular small parts that riders need made upon request. My only prior experience of anything much mechanical and automatic was a small lathe at high school technology class in third form, which I used to fashion a sort of useless ornamental wooden candlestick as part of a failed project in something or other. Needless to say the tools and machinery in their workshop are far more sophisticated than anything I’ve ever seen, and more intimidating to the thought of a stray hand than anything I’ve ever encountered too. But they are making some cool and very useful stuff with it, and most importantly they know what they’re doing. They can also protect their hands by telling a computer to do it.

Yesterday was the finale in the Bike Hutt Cyclocross series for this year, and was a fittingly fantastic outing, but I’ll say more about that next time. Coming up is the week of racing down in Wanaka/Queenstown, featuring the national championships on Satuday August 24th. I’m heading down by land a few days early, and it promises to be a historic few days with lots of racing. Not quite as much as the Christmas period in Belgium, but definitely indicative of a significant groundswell in the sport which is great to be a part of. Beyond that are some exciting plans and hopes, which I shall elaborate more on shortly.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Back in two it

New Zealand's cyclocross season has begun with a hiss and a roar, from the chilly southern depths of Otago through Canterbury to Nelson, Marlborough, Wellington and the Hawkes Bay. I've had races the last couple of weekends, the first being race one of the Bike Hutt series at Harcourt Park in Upper Hutt. I designed the course for this one, hoping to be able to re-create a little of what I experienced in my time riding overseas. It's a beautiful park, almost entirely devoid of dog shit, with a neat combination of grassy banks and treelined singletrack. Unfortunately the huge storm that I wrote about in my last post had barged through right the way up the Hutt valley and toppled many of the trees on the course. Because of this the lap was shortened roughly by half, but with about a hundred off-camber corners it managed to stay challenging and entertaining, without being too repetitious. There had been plenty of rain in the preceeding days to overload the draining capacity of the ground, so combined with a clear calm day it was the perfect introduction to cyclocross: whether as the beginning of another season or for the first time.

Photo: The Bike Hutt
There were about 20 people in the A grade race, most of whom were on dedicated cyclocross bikes. So far the growth of cyclocross in New Zealand seems to have come predominantly from those who otherwise ride mountain bikes. It was great to see some new faces out, exclaiming about how much more exciting it is than racing on the road, their usual mode of recreation and competition.

My last race was in Hoogstraten, Belgium in early February - hovering around freezing there was the most perplexing and excruciating combination of snow, mud, ice and water about the course that I could ever have imagined. I found it to be rather tough, and things didn't go my way.

Photo: Peter Schepens
Thankfully June in Wellington is a much more mild climate, and thus makes for a much easier transition into the lung-searing intensity that is a cyclocross race. There were a few of us together for the first lap, after which I managed to get a gap on Brendan Sharratt and Tom Bradshaw, which I was able to hold onto for the rest of the race.

Photo: David Connor
It had been a while since I'd ridden my tubular tyres, so as a precaution against damaging them through rough riding I put in a bit more air than I would have a few months ago, and did my best not to brake while skirting around the various twisting muddy bends.

Photo: David Connor


Andrew Kerr made this video of the B race, sliding around in the thick of it.


The following weekend I had hopes of getting up to Havelock North for the first round of the NZCX national series. In the week leading up to it I needed to warrant and licence a car I was borrowing, and renew my driver's licence. I was able to do all this just in the nick of time, and made my way up to the Hawkes Bay on Saturday.

It felt like about 5ยบ warmer than in Wellington, and totally windless, and with the sun shining yet again it was another perfect day for riding in the mud. Not too much mud, but enough for it to get stuck in and around your pedals and cleats, and it also facilitated the unwanted gravitation of lots of the dry dead leaves that were lying around on the course. I knew to expect some very good competition, namely in Gary Hall, our current national champion. Also present were Dunedin's Scott Lyttle and Bay local Josh Page. I figured I had nothing to lose by going all out from the gun, and doing my best to keep up the pace. After a section of barriers that were only 20 or 30cm high, therefore within my range for bunny hopping, I got to the front up a steep climb and lead the way for the first 20-30 minutes of the race.

Photo: Cycl1n
Gary and Scott were close behind me for this time and as is always the way in a race such as this, I was going as hard as I could while questioning whether it was too much and could I hold them off. I imagine they were feeling pretty similar, and after what I think was about half an hour Gary came past me and accelerated off ahead. My chain slipped off below my little chainring at the top of a bike carry section, and after a few seconds' worth of floundering I got it back on and was able to pedal once more. However the mud had crept its way around my cleats and the gummy grass was thick in my pedals, making it difficult to engage them together. I started to lose focus and went a bit wide on a corner, wrapping my crankset up in course tape, ruing the simple errors that were now costing me valuable time as I untangled my steed. We now had three laps to go and Gary was out of sight from nearly all points on the course.

Photo: Cycl1n
I strung together a couple of steady and accurate laps, and before long was able to see the figure of our national champion ahead of me again. Towards the end of the last lap I soaked up the support of my friends and family who had staked out several points, and drew forth numerous ragged breaths to make it back to Gary. It was only in the last 50 metres or so of the race, as we slid through the boggiest section that I managed to get a faster line and slither to the final corner just in front. Unfortunately because of the angle that I approached it by I didn't think I'd be able to make it in an upright fashion. So I jumped off to run through, only to then lose my footing as well on the slippery ground. I don't know if I took Gary out exactly, but I definitely got in his way, and I felt bad for this. It was totally unpredictable so I don't think it justifies feeling this way but it was an anticlimactic final few metres over the finish line. Gary wasn't phased and we both aknowledged the great race that we'd had, and next time I'm sure will be another close affair.

Intended course of action. Photo: Cycl1n
The next few weeks' races will be back in Wellington, before I potentially go to the next round of the national series in Blenheim on July 21st. My hopes of getting to America to race later in the year are still smouldering away, and I may have some more to say on this in the next while. Likewise with Belgium, it may be that de snor is niet achter de rug.


Saturday, 22 June 2013

Acrosstic

As the rain comes down, torrentially of course, I find myself at the beginning of yet another cyclocross season. Tomorrow is the first round of the Bike Hutt series, which is going to accomplish two things for us. It will answer the question we are always seeking an answer to, namely how long is a piece of string? because the series will be in a string 8 weeks long. I think it's been tricky to answer that questions in the past because I've always thought of length as a measurement of distance, rather than one of time. Perhaps some of the Iyenga yoga I've been doing lately at Wellington Yoga has increased the flexibility of my thinking as well as that of my hamstrings. The other thing it will accomplish is to satisfy a city that has waited almost a year since its last cyclocross race, desperately champing at the bit to get going again. The addition of two rounds to compensate for the unfortunate demise of the Hot CX series (due to land use restraints) has gone a long way to keep chipper everyone who was so looking forward to getting muddy and exhausted from slightly earlier in the season.

It seems quite some time since my early races in Belgium last year, riding under sunny skies and with wide-eyed wonder. I wonder how different the races here at home will feel now, after such a contrast of cultures.

Neerpelt, my second race against the pro's
But in terms of the season and the time of year relative to the northern hemisphere, now would be right at the peak of it - December, with the kerstperiode or Christmas period. It's a pretty different climate, and while I didn't see any snow in Belgium until January it's pretty far off being icy right now. Although saying that these past few days have seen an amazingly powerful storm ravage the country, in particular the South coast of Wellington, moving the footpath from one side of the road to the other:

Formerly quite an ordinary-looking street
In the lead-up to this season I have been for some lovely rides in relatively unfamiliar places:


Making the most of my time and the opportunities presented by a generally kind onset of winter.


I have a mixture of new and old bicycle riding necessities to take me through the next while, from my trusty Yeti ARC-X, to Mavic shoes


And a supply of Vittoria clincher tyres for general riding and in races where I'm not using my pair of Dugast tubulars


Lately I've been doing a bit of work at the Makara Peak MTB park gravelling and tidying up some of the tracks with my friend and entrepreneur Thomas. Here he is making the tank engine work.


My plan for the season has roughly taken shape, based mainly around the Bike Hutt series and a few of the NZ national series rounds. In and around Queenstown in late August there is a week of racing which includes the Winter Games NZ Cyclocross Series, so that will be the busiest part of the year. At least in New Zealand - I am hoping to arrange a period of racing in America later in the year as their season builds up, and if possible a return to Belgium for December and another taste (hopefully somewhat more acquired) of things over there. But these international plans depend an awful lot on things like money, so at the moment are looking rather limited.

On another note, it looks like we may not have a UCI-endorsed national championships this year, which is a great shame after the success of last year and the momentum that has been generated around the country. I'm looking at a way of facilitating the growth of the sport from all fronts - riders, race organisers, industry representatives and the national federation - to come up with a plan that suits everyone, in order to keep it going. There is huge potential in the sport, and already a lot of interest in New Zealand so it can't be let fizzle out. If the international success recently of some of our cross country mountain bikers is any indication, we may not be far off in 'cross if we steer it in the right direction.

Creamy mud
Yikes
Conglomerated mud
Languishing brakes
Oh my
Crestfallen
Riding on a rim
Oh well
Superfluous
Skids

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Back on the Horse

While in a Brussels department store looking for a Dutch language book to assist in my Flemish assimilation last year, I stumbled upon something that struck me at the time as being quite unique to that part of the world. I'd been aware of computer games in which you manage a football team, but they'd always seemed like they were missing the best part - ie. you never actually got to kick the ball or make the players sprint to exhaustion and do radical slide tackles causing them to get sent off, which was definitely the best part. Instead you just did whatever else there is to do in running a team, and I never really thought that sounded like much fun.

You could be the next Patrick Lefevre
As curious as I was to see what exactly was involved with the management of a pro cycling team, there was plenty of evidence coming out in the media at the time of what some key components were in the last dozen or so years. I suspect that institutionalised doping wasn't a feature in this game, as crucial as it seems to have been in riding the road to success.

I had a few offers of management while I was in Belgium, all of which were from strangers over Facebook or email. I never actually met any of them throughout the length of my stay, but apparently one was a teenager, while another was rather disinclined to reveal anything much about himself. The closest I ended up coming to any actual management was seeing myself available as part of the Fantasy Cross online game where you have a budget to pick riders for your hypothetical team and get points based on their results. Unsurprisingly I was the cheapest rider, and while my results were never sufficient to earn anyone anything it did have the upside of meaning I was quite affordable as a final rider, filling the empty space left when people's budgets had been virtually exhausted by purchasing all the big names of the sport.
Welcome back
One thing I thought about a lot between the hedonistic cyclocross races and the enchanting whispers of heavy snowfall was mountain biking in New Zealand, or more specifically riding the native bush singletrack. By all accounts there is plenty in the Luxembourg region of Belgium and the Ardennes, but apart from a few exceptions in Flanders the closest thing to this was narrow trenches and small slabs of concrete between corn fields. As my impending return to Wellington approached, the anticipation of warm weather and great riding gripped me ever tighter. Despite only having a fully rigid bike to come back to initially, the first rides up big hills and down narrow rocky descents in the sun were a bumpy breath of dusty but fresh air.

You can't beat Wellington... etc
Despite making the decision to ride Karapoti on my cross bike (which you can read about on my Spoke blog post) I was looking forward to having the use of a Yeti SB-95 for some of the upcoming Super-D and Enduro races courtesy of Kashi Leuchs at Black Seal in Dunedin. The numbers in the name correspond to the following: 9 for 29" wheels, 5 for 5" of rear wheel suspension travel. Smooth and grippy up hills while incredibly confidence inspiring back down, it has been inordinately helpful in bringing me back up to speed on tricky trails and forgiving me for what I had lost in finesse by riding through more or less flat stretches of mud for 6 months.



This is a size large demo bike, and is available to be taken for a test ride by contacting Kashi and the Black Seal team here - http://www.blackseal.co.nz/about-us/ - but be warned that it will most definitely cause spontaneous good times and a renewed enjoyment of all things mountainous.

Between now and the resumption of cyclocross in late May I have the Mt Crawford Enduro and Mt Vic Super D events lined up, at which I shall be astride the majestic SB-95 looking to profit from its abundant suspensive and fat-tyred qualities before returning to the skinny and rigid in the field.

Friday, 1 March 2013

From Be to KY and NZ

For most of the past cyclocross season in Belgium I had been hoping that things would work out for making it to the World Championships at the beginning of February, but at the same time hadn't wanted to put too much pressure on myself or get too excited about the possibility of going just in case it didn't happen. As January rolled around I was able to plan going to Louisville, Kentucky properly and thanks to all of the generous donations people made through my fundme site I could book my tickets and start packing up my bikes and gear for two weeks with two races in the States.

I have written about this trip in two parts on the Spoke magazine blog (one and two) so will now jump forward to slightly closer to the present and my final week in Belgium.

Returning to Belgium after the high of the trip to America - meeting so many great people and getting to be part of an amazing and historic event - was somewhat of an anti-climax, and although the snow had temporarily cleared it was still cold and a bit miserable. As I had decided to return to New Zealand some time previously it was all I could do not to think about the magnificent summer that everyone was raving about back home in Wellington. Up until this point I had been sufficiently distracted by all of the racing, living in a different country and the novelty of the Belgian fans and their reaction to my moustache so as to not get down about the summer I had swapped for the coldest winter I've ever experienced. But now, seeing the end of my season approaching I couldn't contain it any longer, I missed the warmth of the sun.

I decided to make my final race the penultimate Superprestige in Hoogstraten, on Feb 10. I was due to leave for NZ the following weekend, and had arranged to meet and visit some friends in Holland and Germany over the days between, so wanted to have a good last sprint around in the mud or ice with my extended cyclocross family before bidding farewell. In the end it didn't quite work out to be the best time - I couldn't find the GPS so although I was fine for heading to Hoogstraten, I had to track back and forth a fair bit when I got there as I looked for the arrows in the street pointing me in the right direction. Snow had fallen overnight and the temperature was hovering just above freezing, so it was an awful combination of wetness and sloppy mud with occasional patches of frosty terrain. Due to my problems of navigation and time management I didn't manage to fit in a pre-ride of the course. This is generally considered essential, as it is really the only way to work out what tyre selection and then tyre pressure you are going to use in the race. And it allows for practising tricky sections. Most of all it just makes sense to have some idea of what you are going to be racing on. I ended up relying on a combination of advice from other riders, my experience after a 6-month season, and my general relaxed demeanor to get me and my bike to the start line in a state of more-or-less appropriate readiness.

I had a good start, and for the first while was riding alongside a few riders who I am generally quite far behind. This didn't last long though, and the first moderately tricky section of ruts caught me out and spat me off to the side and into the barrier tape. By the time I had extricated myself and my handlebars from the tape I was at the back, and the subsequent discovery that my front brake was largely disconnected as I accelerated down into the next descent caused me some small amount of discomfort. Once I had that back together it wasn't long until I dropped my chain, twice in a short space of time, slipping off just like my hopes of a combative and successful final endeavour in the mud of Belgium. Although this was a bit disappointing, I could never forget how amazing the whole time has been and how every race has really been a new and great experience for me, with lessons to be learned in every case.

Photo: Peter Schepens
So after the busiest season of racing ever for me, ready for a bit of rest and recuperation I cast my eye back to New Zealand and allowed myself to look forward to the sunshine and company of family and friends once more. I had seen that one of the biggest MTB races of the year in Wellington, the Karapoti Classic, was adding a cyclocross bike category to its roster for March. It is a brutally steep and rocky course, and while I realised how unpleasant it may well be on a cross bike, I have done it on my mountain bike several times and figured after my time overseas I might as well continue on with my 'cross bike and give it a crack. If not a crack, then at least a few punctures that's for sure. So now that I've finally got around to writing this, the race is on tomorrow. I think there are only a few other individuals testing themselves in this way, so it will be interesting to see how we fare against our MTB counterparts.

Whether it goes well or not, it feels like a nice finale to book-end my time racing cyclocross in Europe and dovetail into the coming cyclocross season in NZ, due to start in about June.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

A Day in the Life of a Minor Celebrity

I had a day off on December 27th and spent it in Gent with Esther and some other guests of the Chain Stay - Luke, Aaron and Mark - wandering the streets looking for trouble, coffee, lingerie, art supplies and a movie theatre. After roaming for a few hours picking up various people's desires we got tickets to see The Hobbit, and while waiting for it to start we headed into the bar next door.

It's been a slow and unscientific progression of tasting the beers on offer in this country, for me at least, due to the combination of the sheer number and strength of the beers, and my relatively weak fortitude. An 11% one I tried recently had me struggling to stand steady, looking for a seat and almost nodding off after just one sip. Despite the factors working in favour of a higher consumption - the price of beer and wine here is unfathomably cheap in comparison to New Zealand, especially for the quality - I have tended not to indulge apart from on the odd occasion.

After we'd finished our drinks and were putting on our jackets about to go, I saw the bartender glance at me. He gave me a look of recognition and mouthed hello, or possibly hallo, then walked over to ask me if I was going to be racing that coming weekend, and wished me luck. Suitably surprised and entertained by being recognised in a city I've only visited once before, we then went into the cinema to watch a drawn out and unconvincing replica of LOTR. The main highlight for me was that it had two sets of subtitles the whole way through - French and Dutch. Although it took up about a third of the screen, it was a great chance to practice my Dutch reading undisturbed for a few hours.

We then traipsed out into the night, seeking a source of sustenance. Finding mainly only high-brow establishments we made our way down a few streets until we came across a pub jam packed with people, most of whom were sitting down with meals. We waited at the bar until a table became available, watching as the barman almost singlehandedly ran the place. There were two other waiting staff doing tables, but this guy was doing all the drinks and coffee for both the restaurant and bar, answering the phone, taking orders for food and cleaning glasses. He also did a good job of defending me when an impatient dude, presumably of the opinion that I was hogging it, tried to grab the menu out of my hands. He took it in turn out of his hands, put it back in mine, and told the guy to go back to his seat. I saw a couple of small bowls of peanuts come back from a cleared table, which he put aside - presumably, I thought, for him to eat later or to throw out when he got the chance. He washed a few more glasses, then with wet hands stacked the bowls of nuts on top of one another. I really started to wonder what was going to happen to them now, but had a sneaking suspicion of what he might be up to. Esther and I then watched as he poured drinks for the impatient guy, following his movements with smug amusement as he proceeded to wack down the half eaten, slightly damp peanuts in front of him. The guy gobbled them down like they were delicious. It was poetic justice before our very eyes.

Once we had been seated and were about to start eating, the waiter asked me if I was famous in New Zealand as well. When I said no, he explained that there was a woman from NZ at a table on the far side of the restaurant and he wanted to know if she would know who he was talking about if he mentioned my name. I replied that she would probably not have a clue, and we laughed at the bizarre nature of being famous in a foreign country for something that most people have never heard of back home.

The Canadians, Aaron and Mark found it particularly amusing to be in my company and witness it. It's been quite useful sometimes, in particular for getting good parking spots at races. Generally the big professional teams arrive on site very early, sometimes even the night before. They take up a lot of space with their trucks and mobile homes, which tends to force the smaller contingents such as ours out along the access road, or at least to a second and more distant parking space. At the race in Leuven in December Aaron was driving us in, and when we were stopped by a parking volunteer it looked like we would be turned around and told to try elsewhere, as the car park was "full" (most of the time full means half-full, especially if you are neither part of a big team or an elite men competitor). Just as it seemed he was about to utter the bad news, I leaned forward and looked across from the passenger seat. The guy's eyes opened wide, he exclaimed brightly and pointed us in the direction of an area taped off for the Sunweb-Revor team, saying we could just park in their space.


I have got a little more used to people wanting to take photos of me at races, even though it often seems just to be a shot of me positioned awkwardly on my bike that they are looking for. Families with small children (typically covered in Sven Nys or Niels Albert merchandised clothing) come up and pose excitedly beside me, and wandering adults too linger near the van when I'm warming up looking for a cheeky snap. Most of the time people ask, but sometimes they just stand off and take a photo without saying anything which is a bit weird. I don't know if it's a language thing, but even so gesticulations and sign language tend to work pretty well if spoken communication is out of the question. I've met some great characters, and enjoyed as much as I can being recognised most of the places I go, so even if it all ends with the racing in a few weeks then I will look back happily upon the strangest time of my life as I slink back into the crowd.

Photo: Julie Vanbelle

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Post-Christmas Daze: Part One

Every year around Christmas the cyclocross season in Belgium reaches its peak, climaxing with a combination of World Cup and Category 1 races from the major series, and other category 2 races that aren't part of any series but want to squeeze in nonetheless and be a part of the action. Despite having ridden mountain bikes for a few years now, I've never had more than about 3 consecutive weekends of racing, even at the peak of the season. Certainly I've never had midweek races in addition to this, so my schedule of races looked to me like a lot. However it was only a selection of what was available to do and the top professionals race almost every other day during this fortnight.

I've written about the first half of it in my blog on the Spoke magazine website so I will leave the description of it there, but here I will include some more photos that didn't make it into that blog. I am very thankful to the many generous Belgian photographers who come along to all the races, take great photos and then share them with us riders. It's made my posts much more interesting to look at, and will be a great source of memories once the season has ended.

Leuven Dec 16th:
Schooled by Canadian Aaron Schooler! Photo: Jozef Cooreman

You can't beat a fist punch. Photo: Rita Thienpondt
Sint-Niklaas, Dec 19th:
Photo: Geert Van den Bossche

Lewis Rattray sneaking away. Photo: Rita Thienpondt

Single file early on. Photo: Jozef Cooreman
Namur World Cup Dec 23rd:
Photo: Jozef Cooreman

There were greasy corners a-plenty. Photo: Dirk Bruylant

My Canadian bro's Aaron and Mark. Photo: Ludo Nagels

I got some good airtime on TV when I blocked the world's view of Pauwels leading!


Biggest World Cup field so far, over 60 starters. Photo: John de Jong
Heusden-Zolder World Cup Dec 26th:
Rubbish begins to cover course. Photo: Tom Prenen

One lap down, feeling good. Photo: Jozef Cooreman
Two laps down, bad crash, not feeling good. Photo: Jozef Cooreman

Photo: Tom Prenen
 I'll put out a second part in a few days once I've come up with the words, and made my way through a ton of leftover Christmas chocolate.