Naar België (to Belgium)

Do you remember the moment in time that you came up with a really crazy and wild idea?

I’ve been to Belgium three times before for short competition trips.  The last time I went was February 2016.  I was at the final Superprestige of the season (notable because it was Sven’s last Superprestige).  I had just finished the race, and was somewhat lost in the finishing area, as a crush of people were suddenly on the course making their way to podium.  Ellen Van Loy (yes, that Ellen Van Loy) got my attention and led me behind the podium and out.  Riding through the crowds, soaking up the atmosphere, I though, there’s no reason I couldn’t…..

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GP Sven Nys, Baal, 2015 – Photo: Tom Prenen

That particular race was overwhelming.   It took place in an industrial area, essentially in the backyard, unused land of several businesses. They must have dropped tons of fill there when they built the buildings, as the course was nearly 100% loamy, saturated soil, and sand.  One could ride downhill through the mud with the assist of gravity, but much of the lap was just a foot race through mud over the ankles.  It was different than any race I had ever done before; well, save high school cross-country.

Going to Belgium once a year was one thing.  The first two times were eye-opening and wonderous.  The third time, I was struck by how really different everything was, the riding, the language, the culture.  Cyclocross in Belgium (at least the late-season heavy, muddy races) is so very different; it’s almost a different sport. What if I prepared the best that I could in the U.S, and then went to Belgium and raced to set a base-line?  Over the course of a Belgium season, could I move up 10 places in the field; essentially, could I learn to ride Belgian CX?

As I looked around me, I thought there is so much different here: challenging courses and weather, the atmosphere (the smell of frites, beer, and cigarettes) and announcements in a different language.  If I immersed myself in the place, what could I learn?

This project was two years in the making.  For the remainder of that trip, I walked around trying on the idea for size.  Where would I live?  Could I drive a car in Europe?  Everywhere I went with my husband Michael, I imagined what it would be like doing this alone.  And I gently shared my idea with Michael, “What if?”  Fortunately, I have a loving, supportive husband, who appreciates this overwhelming sport passion that makes me, me.

My original plan was to go in 2016-2017, but the idea burned out somewhere in the middle of the summer, between looking realistically at costs, and the summer weather taking my mind so far away from wet, cold Belgium.  I thought I had kicked the crazy Belgium idea to the curb.  Who am I to dream of such a thing anyway?

Then fall came, and I started streaming Belgian cross every Saturday and Sunday morning.  There was the Flemish, and those tough courses, and the mud.  I hadn’t gotten over Belgium. And then friends and family supported the idea, even nudged me along, as I spoke of it with more and more passion.

The Details

I am leaving the Sunday after Thanksgiving and returning near the end of February.  My trip is just shy of 90 days, the maximum visit allowed without a visa.  I am staying in Aarsele, which is near Ghent.  I will be racing a full UCI schedule and watching the World Championships.  Michael will be visiting for Christmas and hopefully again in February.

This whole trip is possible thanks to the support of a team of mechanics who I worked with the last two trips.  They have become friends, and will not only be providing me professional support on race days, but have helped me with the many other details: housing, borrowing a trainer and road wheels, recommendations for chiro and massage, etc.  I feel welcome and supported.

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2 of 3 of the great friends/mechanics making this trip possible!

It took two years of focused saving to afford this trip.  I set a trip budget and then a savings plan, tracking all my expenses in an ap.  I’m very lucky to be able to take a leave of absence from work.  This keeps me in health insurance and assures me the chance to rebuild my savings when I return.

Goals and Objectives

This is a racing trip, but that’s not all.  Think of it as a semester abroad at the University of Cyclocross.  I don’t know exactly what my post-elite racing life will look like: coaching, directing, managing a non-profit supporting athlete development?  While I’m delighted that CX is becoming international, its heart remains in Europe.  I want to be part of developing the next generation of U.S. riders who can succeed abroad.

Ever know that you need a kick in the pants?  We’ve all heard about how hard it is for an American to live and race in Europe, especially, cold, dark, wet Belgium.  And living alone and away from my husband for three months…need I say more?  But why do people thru-hike the AT or paddle a kayak around Lake Superior?  This is living life to its fullest.  Years of racing (and life) have taught me that no one will ever tap you on the head and give you an opportunity; you make your own opportunities.

I want to learn Dutch.  I don’t think you can really know a place until you learn its language.  To that end, I’ve taken two semesters of Dutch from the University of London, followed up by tutoring from a Flemish woman who lives in St. Paul.  In Belgium, I plan to continue with the University of London, and join a local conversation group.

I’ll be writing here, as well as for CX Magazine, and doing some podcasts.  While Trek has brought the DVV series to American computers on weekend mornings, and Crosshairs Radio and CX Magazine provide great coverage, there’s still room to shed some light on European cyclocross.

So begins the trip of my lifetime…..

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