Larkin reports from the homeland of cyclocross: Gullegem and DVV Brussels

The Women’s Commission supports riders through its bursary programme, and we were delighted to support cyclocrosser Maria Larkin. Read how she got on racing in Belgium; the homeland for cyclocross.

An Update from Belgium

I decided to come to Belgium with two objectives in mind, race my bike against the best in the world and get back some race legs before Nationals. I have always wanted to race my bike in Belgium ever since I started following cyclocross and the Kerstperiode, cyclocross’s holy week, is known around the world for it’s large fields and fearsome competition. Although technically I arrived after the Kerstperiode had ended there were still a lot of international racers around and stellar courses to race. Work and family commitments prevented me from doing the entire week of racing, but after discussing it with my coach (Jen Sharp of ALP Cycles) two races in seemed like the perfect compromise and would be the best preparation for Nationals.

Thursday – Arrival

I arrived on Thursday in Brussels airport with my husband and mechanic Kyle in tow, tired from a restless night and without any bikes. Not an ideal start to the week. My Colnago Prestiges had not followed us on to our connecting flight and were stuck temporarily in Dublin of all places, it’s almost like they knew they were almost home and decided to stay put.

Denis Dhondt of Cyclocross Custom, met us at the airport and he assured me that we could cobble together a race fleet from what he had if worst came to worst. Definitely not an ideal situation as riding an unfamiliar bike on challenging courses would be tough to adapt to, but it was reassuring to have Denis and team ready to help me if I needed.

We decided to leave the airport and settle in to our AirBnB and try and get some rest. Thankfully the bikes arrived on the next flight, 12 hours and a nap later, and after a long back and forth (they had been misplaced again upon arrival) with the Brussels airport staff they handed over the bikes and we were on our way.

My bike made it!
My bike made it!

Friday – Recovery Ride

The next day and after some assembly I got out for a ride with American Corey Coogan-Sisek (Amy D Foundation) and she showed me the sights around Oudenaarde including the famous Koppenberg climb. I was delighted to get an opportunity to ride up it, and less delighted when I got some dirt on my tire about half way up, found my tire to be slipping out and then had to run a section part of it. Honestly it seemed to me that running might be faster!

It was great to see a friendly face and to get the lowdown on what to expect from racing this weekend. This is Corey’s second year racing in Belgium and she will be staying until the end of February. You can follow her travels on CxMagazine where she’s been writing extensively about her experiences as a foreigner racing in Europe. One of the reasons I picked up a little dutch before coming here was based on Corey’s articles. Knowing the word for ‘fiets’ and ‘dames elite’ goes a long way here and is well worth the time it takes to learn a few words.

Saturday – Race Day: Gullegem

Gullegem was the perfect race for me to start off with. It was a relatively simple course, quite flat, very few death defying features, and a high but not insane level of competition. The ground was a damp, slippery but not very muddy. There were only a couple of spots where I felt out of my depth and for the most part I was riding sections similarly to the Dutch and Belgians around me. I rolled up to the line and was ready to race, I felt confident that I could get around the course and that I might have a decent day if my legs were ready.

Gullegem Photo – Pol Demeyere Pomer
Gullegem Photo – Pol Demeyere Pomer

The start was fast, down a main street in Gullegem, and in classic Belgian style, with an abrupt right turn down an alley and into a field. After avoiding the first corner pile up and staying upright after being bumped on both sides in the start chute the race was on. I felt decent but not amazing. My legs were sluggish, and I couldn’t find the next gear to hang onto the larger group in front of me once the race had settled down a bit. I tried to be positive and keep pushing forward, knowing the the purpose of this trip was to find my legs, not have them already. I had a couple of missteps.

Specifically I tripped comically on the barriers when hitting them at full speed. I escaped unharmed and dusted myself off, uttering a loud ‘WHOOPS’ to the delight of the crowd standing by, they laughed with me (I think) and I continued on. I had to drop my bike at the pit as I quickly realized my shifter was twisted in, but with Kyle and the Cyclocross Custom crew waiting for me I didn’t loose any time.

Cyclocross Custom Care
Cyclocross Custom Care

I had another minor slip up at a small kicker over a ditch, I reached out to grab a post to save myself, missed it and fell down the hill and let out an expletive. This time the laughter was most definitely not with me but it wasn’t too harsh either, so I got up unharmed and was on my way again.

The rest of the race was pretty uneventful and I was happy to make the lead lap with Loes Sels, Annemarie Worst and Nikki Brammeier on the podium I knew I had done well on my first day out in Belgium.

Sunday – Race Day: DVV Brussels

Sunday’s course couldn’t have been more different. It was the first time they hosted a race at the University in Brussels and they certainly found all the most challenging terrain they could on the grounds. There was a drop off of death, a flyover of unforeseen steepness, two trips up and down a grassy amphitheater as well as a host of other tricky off-camber spots and about 1000 curbs and roots to puncture on. I was not feeling very confident after my pre-ride.

I had attempted the drop off 3 times, and bailed each time, escaping unharmed but not feeling like I had it in the bag. I had also fallen down the flyover once, and came close to crashing down it another time. The top was so short you could not easily clip back in before heading down the ramp, and the ground was soft at the landing so it was very easy to dig your front wheel into the ground and buck yourself off.

DVV Brussels – Martine Verfaillie
DVV Brussels – Martine Verfaillie

I normally have enough skill to get around a course without feeling like I will be in tears by the end, but this was next level.

There is also very little time to get familiar with the features here with only two small pre-ride windows. Usually in the US you have Friday to pre-ride, then there is a race both days so there is plenty of time to ride the features multiple times and in different orders. I heard someone once say;

‘In the US you have course features, in Belgium, you just have the course.’

4 (ish) laps before the start would have to be enough and then it was into the deep.

DVV Brussels – Martine Verfaillie
DVV Brussels – Martine Verfaillie

Overall the race went better than expected considering I was talking myself off a literal ledge just an hour before. The course made more sense when ridden at higher speed, and I had made a resolution with myself before the race started to just run the scariest parts and avoid putting myself at risk of serious injury. I had too much at stake to try to push beyond my limits this weekend, I have a very important race coming up and it wasn’t worth it to break myself or my bike with a week to go to Nationals.

My running worked out for the most part, despite loosing momentum in critical spots (un-avoidable if I couldn’t stay on my bike) I was not making huge mistakes, I was at least moving forward and cleanly, just not as fast as the others. I had one run in with the dreaded flyover after not getting clipped in before dropping off, I slipping my pedal at the bottom and landed all my weight on my bike, resulting in a saddle 3 inches below where it had started and cocked to the left. Luckily I could pit soon after that and was on my way again.

DVV Brussels – Martine Verfaillie
DVV Brussels – Martine Verfaillie

It was not a complete surprise to me when I was pulled after three laps, it was not what I wanted, but I knew that I was loosing valuable time to the leaders due to my inexperience. In fact I was not the only on loosing time, the top ten was extremely spread out with minutes between the riders. Overall I was not disappointed in my performance, only disappointed that some sections of the course had bested me and I wouldn’t get another chance to master them.

My goal this weekend was not to focus on results, instead I wanted to focus on gaining experience and see what it’s like to race in the homeland of cyclocross. I did the best I could and considering the level of skill and competition here in Belgium, it’s not half bad for my first time racing here.

Monday – Sleeping In and Exploring

As is normal the morning after a weekend of racing cyclocross I felt like I had been hit by a train. Normally I have to go back to work on Monday morning and have to suffer through my ‘cyclocross hangover’ aka extreme dehydration and mystery bruises. That is not the case this week as I’m living it up like a pro. I slept in till almost ten and feeling somewhat refreshed we headed into to Ghent to explore and see the sights. Ghent is a beautiful town, with cobbled streets, castles, trams, and bicycle riding Belgians everywhere. It was the perfect recovery recipe, and with plenty of water, and a Trappist beer I was feeling like myself again. The weather has been unseasonably dry here, so I am sure it helped that we were seeing Belgium in the best light possible, and not through a haze of rain and fog.

Ghent
Ghent

A Flanders Weekend

I would highly encourage anyone who is thinking about coming over to race in Belgium to just give it a go. The courses are the best you can find, the competition is high and the people are friendly. Come prepared, invest in a good Airbnb, make sure your bikes are in full working order and be ready to try something that firmly pushes you outside of your comfort zone.

I am incredibly lucky to be able to take the time to race here. I couldn’t do this without the support of my husband Kyle, my coach Jen Sharp and my sponsors. I also have to thank my friends and family who are constantly encouraging me to continue to follow this journey. 

Kyle as Het Nieuwsboy
Kyle as Het Nieuwsboy

I’d also like to thank Cyclocross Custom for their support. They provided washers, trainers, start and finish line support, and if I had needed it, a whole bike to race. If you want to get the full race experience over here I recommend using their service, it makes life a whole lot easier to have someone showing up to the course at 9am, setting up a tent and then being able to speak the right language in the pit.

Tomorrow we pack up the bikes and head home to Mayo. I’ll be taking everything I gained this weekend and putting it towards one last race of the season on Sunday. So far this has been a fantastic trip, and something I would definitely do again. Maybe next year I can squeeze a few more days in before Christmas and get to really experience the Kerstperiode in full.

I’ve had a taste for Belgian racing now, and I have to say, I liked it.