What feels like three weeks ago, the Kona Maxxis Shimano CX Team (Beckster, Kerry, his wife Emily, Mechanic Spencer “Spaceman” Johnston (w/ a T), and supporting mechanic Kerry “Kermy” Shields) boarded a flight, hopped across the Atlantic, and started kicking up mud in the motherland of cyclocross. The Kerstperiode, is an iconic 10 days of CX racing in Belgium. The period features 7 races in 10 days, awesome courses and huge crowds.
Kerry: While Beck was saving her legs for the Namur basket I wanted to get opened up so Emily, Kerm, Spaceman, and I headed 1hr east to Sint Niklaas. (Yes, that is right. It only took one hour to get to a cross race. Not 7-13. I could get used to that)
The course is fun. It’s skinny and long following the shores of a pond. The shore is littered with sand, which adds in a challenging element and there are some slick mud elevation gains just off the beach. So it is a good mix of everything. I had just received my Pan Am kit the day before so this was the debut race! I got called up on the front row and felt pretty badass pulling my jacket off to reveal my new stripes! Huge shout out to Eliel for shipping them over to Europe.
The race was fast, like a crit race, and small foot dabs/ little bobbles caused 2-3 bike length gaps, which over the course of the race wore me down. No to mention Van Der Poel was on the front setting faster lap times. I got pulled two laps down. MVDP did 11 laps.
I felt good about how my legs felt after the Trans-atlantic flight. I just had to get my shit together and stop making mistakes. I especially needed to sort it out before tomorrow because the Namur track had changed and become much more technical.
Beckster: Kerry did race Waaslandcross on the Saturday before Namur, where I chose to sit out. Waaslandcross is a C2 race that kicks off the Belgian Kerstperiode, but to me, I read it as another drop in a really ass-kicking bucket. So, instead of racing, I rented a car to drive to Namur to preride the notoriously technical course.
Namur is the only course I have encountered two years in a row that gave me butterflies even the second time. This was the third time I have come across the course, and it changed this year. The changes weren’t scary, but they did pose the question of: can I ride this? Some of the course was reversed and whereas this wasn’t a huge change in some places, the iconic (not as iconic as the off-camber but…) 180-degree run-up, immediate hop on, ride down was reversed. I am not sure if it is the natural shape of the hill or the fact that we were working against years of previous foot-holds and run lines, but the drop ended up being off-camber into the fenceline. A lot of riders stood at the top on preride, starting, intimidated. A lot of riders crashed, myself among them. Eventually, I found I was unable to ride this cleanly more often than not, so, I committed to running down. It’s a little disappointing to find yourself not riding an element, but it only takes one crash to take you out of a race. I remember this from last year, where I tried to push the pace in a seemingly easy section, crashed, broke a lot of stuff on my bike, then was so frazzled I kept crashing and eventually DNFed. You know what they say: DFL before DNF, so I put finishing potential over my pride.
That night, we had an Airbnb in Namur and Kerry, Spencer, Emily, and Kerm headed there straight after their race in Sint-Niklaas. However, we were locked out for hours because the host didn’t send the entry code, and then, there was no hot water so we couldn’t even shower. It was terrible.
So, still dirty from the preride the day before, we show up to the race. I was nervous. I had to start in the 4th row because World Cups grid by World Cup standing and after missing two events I was far down the list. The start of the race has been notoriously bad for me as it goes straight up a hill and then there is bottleneck after bottleneck. But, somehow, miraculously, from the 4th row (24-32 riders potentially ahead of me), I don’t go further backward. You thought I was going to come out in front, right? No chance. But not going backward is a big deal here. There is a lot of shuffling, and I tend to end up on the sad face end of the deck, but not this time! I burnt a few matches pushing the pace earlier than my body likes to, but it was worth it to come out ahead of a few groups. The first time through the finish, a half a lap in, I was 28th. After the next lap, I was 11th. I was thinking to myself at every climbing section, “Just keep pushing the pace. Don’t let up. One gear harder.” At every downhill I thought “Slower at the top, less brake by the bottom, relax and eyes up”. By the next lap, I was 7th. Holy crap. The excitement got the better of me and I did crash once, but I kept battling for position. I was 8th. By the last lap, I passed Katie Compton for 7th again. Wow, I was really doing it! After the final climb, in 7th, my only goal was to not botch this. Compton, the seasoned veteran, was not aiming to just finish and passed me with apparent ease in the final corner to take 7th and leave me with 8th.
I got 8th place at Namur World Cup. Not only is this a top 10 in a Euro world cup, but the most technical and one of the hardest races on the entire circuit. I let this set the tone for everything moving forward.
The next race on tap was the World Cup Zolder the day after Christmas. Set on a car race track, this course is ripping fast. Last year after getting caught behind a 1st lap crash I chased the whole race and only ended up with 51st. The start is imperative here as there is a 90-degree turn, a 180, another 90, and another 180 immediately after the start straight. Luckily, this year, I got a GREAT start. Unluckily, I rode straight to the heart of the biggest bottleneck on course and stood still, getting passed by dozens of riders. Then it happened again. I felt the pressure for another standout result melt away and went into salvage mode. I went from 13th at the start to 31st at the end of the 1st lap, after I was passed and after I did a lot of passing back. The best I could manage on the day was a 25th. Considering how last year 25th in a Euro world cup was a standard result, I am pleased if this is the worst I can do here.
Kerry: Zolder for me is a tough track. The punches are spread out between long drawn out power sections, which isn’t necessarily my cup of tea. There are a lot of group races and the course itself isn’t that technical. Last year I finished mid 40’s, I had my mind set on mid 30’s this year.
The conditions were dry and the crowds were huge. Stybar (ex cx world champ) kicks off his season with this race and it’s so cool to be near him in pre-ride or the race and roll through a section of spectators. They go nuts!
I had a decent start. I did get stuck behind Toon’s crash but it didn’t really affect my race (he later came by me like I was standing still). I held steady the first two laps then started hemorrhaging places. The power was not with me and I ended up finishing 46 or 47 the same as last year. But no worries. During the Kerstperiode there is always a race tomorrow.
Beckster: With not much rest we head into Loenhout and Bredene, a C1 and C2 respectively. In Loenhout I made a good push for a 5th place finish, but made a lot of judgment errors trying to ride sections I should have been running and ended up 10th in a tight group of riders.
Kerry: Loenhout has been my favorite course of the trip so far. It had big ditch gaps, small 10 foot banks with tricky off cambers and punchy climbs, really drunk spectators, and more ruts than you could shake a stick at.
It was a big race in terms of racer attendance. Wout’s first race back after his Tour de France knee injury. With that said I was eager to see how things would shake out upfront. There were tons of people there to witness his come back and it fuels good racing from everyone.
I found my grove about midway through and was happy to finish 24th. I at least made the lead lap!
Beckster: In Bredene I was also on the losing end of a battle, but it was a battle for 2nd and I ended up 3rd. I made it onto a European UCI podium with the world champ Sanne Cant and rock star Anna Kay!
The courses in Europe are much different than those in the US – the ground is somehow always slick, some parts of the course can get muddier during a race while others are heavier, and each element seems abrupt. Instead of choking turns being a feature, the features are punching up, down and across steep humps. There are numerous surface changes. The riders ride different, too. Smoother and punchier at the same time. When battling at the front, or somewhere with more experienced riders, I find myself making more errors than when I am at the back. It is taking me a while to find their rhythm of speed and flow: I am putting power down at the wrong times and making dumb mistakes. I am getting too close to the course ropes, not judging my own angle of leaning. Apparently in an interview after Bredene, Sanne Cant mentioned my apparent lack of technique. And I would agree, right now on these courses, I am riding more like I was in the US last year: throwing fitness at a skill problem. Brute force. I learned last year that doesn’t work, but when you’re in the snake pit you don’t exactly have your critical thinking cap on.
Kerry: Beck and I sat out Diegem a key event in the Kerstperiode. But it is a night race and we were going to race Bredene the next day. I was hoping for fresher legs then my competitors and I think it worked.
Because most of the best guys raced Diegem the start list at Bredene was as stacked. Regardless, MVDP, Tom Pidcock, Tim Merlier, and others were there. I got off to a good start and started picking my way closer to the top 10. This was my second favorite course. Again, relatively flat but tricky moves on a bunch of banks and steep punchy bits, a sandpit, and super slick corners. I managed 11th, which I was pleased with.
Beck: To ring in the new year we raced a UCI C2 race in Pentange, Luxembourg. This race is a right-of-passage sort of thing. Each generation (at least of men and now some women) of great racers seems to have cut their teeth on this New Year’s Day race. This is our second time racing, thanks to the good start money offered. The course is either up, or down; more of a mountain bike race than a cyclocross one.
I had a slow start, which was okay with me as I was managing fatigue for the races yet ahead. On the first lap, I climb to 4th but had a bad crash on a descent, head-butting a tree and cracking my Giro helmet (It did its job well – no concussion for me!!). I took the next lap a little easy trying to make sure my head was okay – it was a really scary sound and crash. After 2 laps I didn’t see a lap card. Sometimes that happens if the officials are still calculating, but usually that is with a shorter course. We were only 20 minutes in and I assumed we had 3 more laps. The first lap card I saw was 1 to go. Well, this is less than ideal. I was in second with 1st in sight. I put in a good effort on that last lap, but the best I could do was close the gap to 1st but not quite catch her. I ended up in 2nd, but a 2nd bouquet and Euro podium!
Kerry: Down south for the Petange Gran Prix. This track is basically a mtb course. You take a few walking paths and logging roads up through the forest then bomb down on a single track. It’s pretty cool because it’s so different but also hard as hell because we did 1900 feet of climbing in a 1-hour race!
This race doesn’t boast a deep field because Sven Nys’ race, Baal, is the same day and they top guys stay in Belgium rather than making the journey south. I was looking for a top ten and Beck a podium. Plus, we got decent start contracts so Lux it is.
Marcel Miesen was the heavy hitter at the race and he quickly took off on lap 2. I was sitting top 5 for the first half of the race then started going backward. I flatted a rear tire coming into the last lap and lost a group of two for 9th place. Until I got to the pit for a bike change, and to say hi to Spaceman, I was in 11th and that is where I stayed.
This is my last race of the Kerstperiode. I decided to fit some bigger rides in after Lux, then take the weekend to recover. We traveled to Spain on Monday and I wanted to hit the ground running on Tuesday. So I pulled the plug on racing and started focusing on the races down the road, which there are still 9, Nommay WC, Zonnebeke c2, Hoogerhiede WC, World Champs, Maldegem, Lille, Merkplaats, Middlekerk, and Hulst.
Beck: A couple of days rest and on to the next race weekend of Gullegem and University Brussels. Gullegem is a fun course, even if a little awkward. Not associated with any major series, it still brought a strong contingent of riders. I had an amazing start and ended up in 3rd by the second turn of the race. I stayed in 3rd for a couple of laps before being passed by the same rider who beat me on the 1st. I made a few mistakes, but still managed to bridge back and pass to be in the final podium spot again. However, she was reinvigorated by the chase and managed to pass me and keep a gap into the final lap, eking me out of a third podium for the week. I finished in 4th, but with a lot of TV time.
Moving on to the 7th and final race in my 2-week block, I have a new contingent of Belgian fans! The University Brussels race is a technical and slippery course. I had a not super stellar start and the best I could do was manage the bobbles in the slippery conditions and enjoy the cheers around me. In typical style, it took about 2 laps before I could settle in and find the flow of the course. Sometimes on these euro courses the elite men put in some killer ruts during their preride before the women’s race and it can take me some time to figure out the new lines, or even if I am supposed to be riding or running. I ended up 13th in the DVV series race, not a bad result in the field given my extremely fatigued condition! Hopefully, I didn’t do anything too poorly to let down the new supporters. But if they are Belgian, I guess they can’t be fair weather fans.