Zonhoven, a Day in the Sand

Zonhoven. (with almost zero photos because I just can’t be bothered to take them myself, and no one else took any. I suck)

I had my very first Belgian cyclocross experience, and it didn’t go terribly. Being my my first trip to Europe to race cross, I came in with no real expectations. My only goal was to get this first trip out of the way; work out all of the kinks, all of the nerves, get the lay of the land, see the effects of travel, if the courses scared me, and basically if it is even something I want to pursue.

I plan to tell you all about my general Belgian prep-travel-stay experience in a blog mid to late week, this is mostly just a race report.

Zonhoven is a UCI C1 race that is a part of a series called the Superprestige. And as it turns out, this is not an ideal race to be one’s first Belgian experience. It is a physically grueling race with surfaces and elements unlike almost any other. ::shrug:: Not knowing what to expect, I was told top 15 would be a very solid result. Bar, set.

I had both of my Scott Addict CX’s with me, and three sets of Stan’s NoTubes carbon valors (despite the efforts of Air Canada to thwart this as a possibility). Two sets of wheels were set up with IRC tubeless (duh) muds, and one set with mids. This course was 90% sand, though 40% of that 90% was running. With that in mind, on a perfectly dry and sunny day, I ran my muds. I DIDN’T SAY I WAS GOOD AT THIS! Running tubeless I could have easily packed more tires and just swapped them, but I was aiming to keep things very simple on this trip. Sometimes, less is more when it comes to head-case prevention. That said, I did notice a lot of sand clinging to my tires and was wishing I had swapped to the mids.  Heck, I would even do a pre-ride on file treads just to see! But, instead of head casing, I just run what I brung and took it in stride. That is all you can do sometimes.

Gregg Germer (of the ChainStay) drove me to the race and acted as mechanic, with a special guest mechanic appearance by Franky Van Haesebroucke. Their presence was crucial as the language and culture barrier reduced me to essentially an infantile state of racing experience. At the venue we were directed into the BACK of the elite parking area. No joke, the guy saw “Dames” on our pass, giggled and motioned over-zealously for us to “go to the very very back of the lot”. THAT SAID, it was the same parking lot, and some of the last available spots.

Set-up is easy when you are working out of a van

 

The Course.

Oh, you don’t know the Zonhoven course? Weird. Imagine a beach draped into a bowl. There was a pit of sand that was soft on top and heavy underneath. The start straight is short. There is like, 10 meters of pavement. It goes into a gravel rise, sharp right hander, sharp left hander, fly-over, straight section on grass, left-right-left on silty grass, medium-length grassy/sandy straight, and then a left-hand turn into the first sandy plunge, into the bowl, lined with spectators.

Example of the down, and the second run up, inside the bowl. That is a lot of people...
Example of the down, and the second run up, inside the bowl. That is a lot of people…

After the down, you put in a few pedal strokes before you go up the other side. This is a run up. Then a right-hand turn, mount, pedal, right hand turn (over a root and by a stump in a chewed-out rut) into the next sandy plunge. This one heavier. Wetter. Slower. A few pedal strokes, left hand turn, and run back up and out. This run-up was longer. Harder. Hurtier. Right hand turn upon the mount, fun rolly section, a few more deep sand sections (rideable) then a slow climb of sand, with one line on the right side that was rideable if you held the line and had the legs. (I rode it 2.5/5 laps). Right hand turn up and out of this, then you keep going up, this time on firmer soil. Rideable, but owwy. I blame all the running leading up to this. Right hand turn and go down some sand. Hit a big, deep, sandy left hand rut, dismount at the apex, and run up again. Even the men dismounted at the apex and ran. Another right hand turn at the top, and we drop through some more sand before the final right hand turns before the finish stretch. And there is your lap! Yea, it was a short as it seemed. But maybe that is just because the features were so large in space, and slow in time. A dense lap.

I did 2 laps. That is all, because I was surprisingly comfortable with the course, though the plunges were fine ONLY because Nick took me on a downhill adventure last weekend in preparation for this.

MINI ZONHOVEN

After preride, I could hold it no more, and had to use the bathroom. Not finding ANY within the parking area, I leave the gated parking area to the SINGLE porta potty that was immediately before the ticket gates (because in Belgium people PAY to watch the races). That was the biggest mistake of my life. There was more poop covered non-portapotty provided items inside the john, but outside of the hole, than I have ever seen. Like people pooped inside of the hole, wiped with a random inanimate object they carried in with them, and left that on the floor of the john. And they just pissed anywhere but in a pee receptacle. I did some necessary emergency urination, not to let the Belgies know I had been put off by their vile ways, but I could not do the necessary pre-race requirement. There was no paper in sight. I dripped, and left the area.

After pinning my number and waiting, I could wait no more. I found a second portapotty. I had ridden my bike to it, and unsure as to what the likelihood of theft was, I leaned the bike against the john and went in. This thing was full, but much cleaner than the last. And had paper. But, mid-activity, I hear a bang against my (and the only) portapotty, and a freewheel spin. I get up and open the door without pulling my bibs up only to find some lady PICKING UP MY BIKE. GET AWAY FROM MY BIKE!!!! WHY ARE YOU TOUCHING MY BIKE!!?? Completely and utterly defeated by the not super prestigious bathroom situation, I gave up on my pre-race necessary doodies (like duties, get it? Hahahaha) and succumbed to being VERY uncomfortable on the start line.

So far, after 1 race, Belgium venues receive a FAILING grade for toilets. I will no longer judge anyone I see peeing willy-nilly in Belgium. The worst. Now I see the actual need for campers. Toilets.

Okay, I just wrote an entire Microsoft word page on SHITTING. Now, for the part of the day that wasn’t shitty. The racing.

Embarrassingly I could not find my way to the staging, and I had to crawl over one of the huge banner-covered gates to get onto the course, had to ride over the flyover backwards, and even had to stop at the pits to ask directions. It was embarrassing and didn’t bode well for the race. But redemption came with my SECOND ROW CALLUP! Which in Belgium equates to row 1.5, because my front wheel was in line with the rear wheel in front of me. Not too shabby.

 

Gregg got this shot that features me already losing, as my wheel is still back further than anyone elses!
Gregg got this shot that features me already losing, as my wheel is still back further than anyone elses!

The light turned green. (No whistle. But I was ready.) I didn’t have the greatest snap, but was aggressive in the start straight and didn’t give up spots. I feel I out-aggressed a few, even! But then I got my ass handed to me. Some tried it, literally. I was warned that the biggest difference in racing out here, besides the course, would be the aggression of the other racers, and I was not let down by that. Even expecting it, I found myself nervous and unsure of what to do. I kept giving up spots! I got handlebars in the butt and elbows in my gut, I was getting cut off and leaned into.

So, after hemorrhaging spots, we come to the first drop into the pit. HAHAHA WHY WOULD YOU PASS ME ONLY TO LAY DOWN! Seriously, I have sought out footage but I cannot find any of the carnage that occurred during the first lap of the elite dames. I rode the first drop in sand despite women laying down and crashing and running. I get to the run-up and try to pass, but I can’t get fast enough in the deeper sand. I play patient for the run and the subsequent ride before the next drop, but there is more carnage there. Two crashes right at the top, more happening down below. Sophie de Boer gets off and runs down, so I didn’t feel shame getting off right behind her to do the same. Another run up the other side.

The men running up
The men running up

It is frustrating – I am behind a group and I see gaps forming but I can’t find anywhere to pass! The ground is undulating and there are sand trolls everywhere. Each time I try to pass I end up losing ground because I get out of the rut or off of the path and stuck in deeper sand. ARGH! I pass during a flatter run and on the few hard patches there are.

By the pits, where Gregg was apparently taking photos and watching the mens uci road race, not fretting over meeeee
By the pits, where Gregg was apparently taking photos and watching the mens uci road race, not fretting over meeeee

The drop- round two. It goes cleanly for me and everyone around me. Good. I was sitting in the high 20’s halfway through the first lap, up to 20 or so by the end of the lap, was hanging out in the teens for a lap, and made a few more passes to end up 11th.

Thanks for this shot, MeowClanks! #notacat
Thanks for this shot, MeowClanks! #notacat
This chick passed me, which doesnt happen often, and just kept walking away. She was a rabbit to chase
This chick passed me, which doesnt happen often, and just kept walking away. She was a rabbit to chase

I am pretty pleased with the result. I know a lot of the time and places came from a bad immediate start, followed by not having a lot of good places to pass. On top that, the travel combined with all of the running (steep steep climbing) made my legs so heavy I could not pedal how I would have wanted on the few sections with opportunity. I achieved my main goal of surviving. I didn’t crash, I didn’t get completely shut out, and I stayed calm.

For the next few races I hope to find a way to be more aggressive and to find the flow in these tricky courses. Also, to pedal harder more often.

Best part, we got out before the end of the men’s race, AND I GOT A MARS ICE CREAM BAR!!! (Thanks Gregg!)

Next stop, Ardooie Kermiscross on Thursday!

7 comments

  1. Good race and nice report. While race reports are usually boring as hell to trudge through the entire piece about shitting in the middle certainly kept me entertained. haha

    1. The potty problem is truly universal, and needs to be addressed. I’m gonna pack those toddler potties, now.

  2. Did you see anyone using wide road tires? I raced Hüsden-Zölder back in 2000 where the podium and several other racers all ran slicks. It made sense on a dry course after thinking about it. Some techniques would have to be employed, such as pre-launching before climbs, but they made it look easy, as the leaders always do.

    1. I didn’t see any slicks, but there were really no climbs so maybe they would be okay? Next year I will bring files. Everything is getting much less scary!!

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