The best way to start this is with words from my coach.
Belgium racing, like running into a brick wall, best to bring your hammer.
After a strong Superweek and a spicy Cascades, the proverbial hammer was packed and I was ready for some fun on the other side of the pond.
I have wanted to race in Europe ever since I started bike racing, but I always wanted to time this adventure into Europe in such a way that it didn’t crack me. With anything in life, too much of a good thing sometimes just ends turning that good thing (bike racing) into a bad thing.
This year I felt I was ready for a little adventure. I let Cycling Canada know that I was really interested in participating in a European project. Early in June I got the word that they had space for me with the NextGen women’s team. I was excited for the opportunity to test the legs in a new cycling scene and to race with the ladies of NextGen, especially my amazing TRT teammate Kinley Gibson. Many of my TRT teammates have done European projects and each of them have told me countless entertaining stories of racing in Europe. Due to this wealth of intel I knew, if nothing else, there would never be a dull moment on this project.
Why Belgium. Why?!
What drives people to Belgium? In brief, for me, it was the lack of high level North American racing and the large, aggressive, and technical racing that Belgium promises. This year with the cancelation of the Women’s Tour of Utah and the US Pro challenge, there was literally no major racing in North American for the month of August. The specific Cycling Canada Project I was part of consisted of 10 races (Crits, Kermesses, and one UCI Road Race) over 20 days, exactly what I needed to make August a hard month filled with racing.
The typical crit in Europe consists of longer loops and is typically a longer race than in North American (NA). A typical NA crit has loops that are around 1-1.5 km with the total distance usually around 50km. While in Europe the loops are a bit longer -/+2-3 km loop and the total distance is also longer at around 70km.
This is what NA would call a circuit race, kinda. These races are typically 2-7 km loops of a circuit, with the total race being 80-90 km. Kermesses can feel like the world’s longest crit, especially when you are doing 30-40 laps of a 3 km circuit.
UCI Road Race
This race was next level insane. So much so it requires its own write up. Imagine 180 starters on roads no bigger then the Stanley Park Sea Wall.
The Base – Tielt Winge
I am not sure the exact reason why Cycling Canada has a base in Belgium, but what a base it is. The Canada House is located in Tielt Winge. Tielt is a small semi-rural town about 1.5 hours north of Brussels. The Canada House is more of a compound consisting of a giant brick house, monstrous garage and an apartment large enough to sleep 10 on top of the garage. Between the house and the apartment this compound can easily sleep around 20 athletes. From the house you can set out on many typical Belgium rides which are flat, windy, and usually at least one section of gnarly cobbles. One thing everyone warns you to do is to load google maps before you leave. Belgium has what seems like a million little roads all going in the most random directions, and many of the roads can barley fit one vehicle on them. For the first week I spent the bulk of my time trying not to get lost. Once I got my bearings I could really enjoy the riding in Belgium which is quite beautiful. Most of the training rides are spent in the country side jumping from random little town to little town.
European Racing: an Exercise in Zen
European races differ from typical NA racing in a couple of key ways. You can get 80-100 women starting an average race, with large Belgium races being up to 180 starters. Such a large field is really rare in women’s racing in NA. The biggest races I have been at in NA had 120 starters, while the average NA race has around 60 starters, and fields of 30 are not uncommon in Vancouver. The shear huge numbers of racers on the Belgium roads leads to maximum chaos. The fight for positioning is insane and it take some mega strength and bike handling to maintain your positioning.
What makes things even crazier is in Belgium they are cramming these large number of riders on to little tiny roads. The roads are rough and technical. There is a lot of street furniture, cobbles, huge cracks in the road, and pretty much every hazard you can think of. While racing you need to be 100% focused on what’s on the road and how the peloton is barreling into corners and pinch points.
It’s Europe, so at each race there is a multitude of different nationalities. One thing all of these riders from different countries have in common is incredible vocal endurance. When you are racing you are constantly getting yelled at in every possible language. I have never raced in such a vocal peloton. And the screaming, yes I said screaming, happened a lot during the races. Some of the women would scream going into corners, into sprints, or just while riding straight along the road. At first when the screaming happened, I thought there must have been a massive crash, but no, there was no crash there was just 40 odd women screaming for literally no reason. I have found the only way to deal with this is to channel what is left of your Zen and try not to let the screaming phase you. My theory is people have taken to screaming to mess with your mind and they use it to move around the peloton / psych you out. It is really unnerving sprinting to the line with a gaggle of 100 women behind you screaming bloody murder.
Thanks for being Awesome
Screaming aside, with only one more race left in the project, I cannot say enough about what a positive experience the Belgium trip has been for my growth as a teammate and as an athlete. The NextGen coach Cameron Jennings is fantastic, and having raced for years in Belgium Cameron is a great asset and provides excellent feedback to the athletes. It took me a couple races to find my legs and guts in such large fields, but I am happy to report the NextGen team was able to support one of the riders to two wins and I was able to snatch up two 2nd place results of my own in these races. Over the past couple of weeks I have truly enjoyed training in Europe and having the opportunity to push myself in what can be uncomfortable race situations. Most importantly, the experience of racing this different European style has allowed me to grow as an athlete and become a stronger member of the team.
One more race to go!