I’m writing to you from self-imposed Schengen Zone exile. I am sitting in the British home of Helen and Stef Wyman drinking tea while cold rain falls (ceaselessly and endlessly).
Although Helen’s Koppenberg cobbles are in her French home (Instead, I am sitting next to a portrait of Alonso.), it’s still apropos that I reflect on my experience at Koppenbergcross.
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I wasn’t prepared for Koppenbergcross to be such an iconic race.
Koppenberg was a huge part of the reason I came to Belgium so early this season. I wanted to race a “climb-y” cyclocross. However, I appreciated Koppenberg more as “the local race,” since living in Oudenaarde, I am but a ten minute spin from the climb.
I’ve always watched the race on television, but the coverage failed to capture the quantity and excitement of fans. In fact, on television, the crowd looks sparse by Belgian standards. It seems the very long course and relatively large geographical area spreads out the fans.
One thing that was different about the Koppenberg were the mattentarten cakes. After last year’s mattentarten bakery visit, I recognize both their regional import and AMAZING taste.
At the Koppenberg, they were selling mattentarten immediately inside the entry gate. The seller’s cart was piled so high with tarts it seemed they might tumble off. How many times I rode by that cart wishing I had money on hand and wasn’t about to race! Frites, burgers, sausages, beer, and really bad coffee make up the culinary options at the average cross. Mattentarten are not the norm!
Having ridden nearly daily through the sleepy village of Melden at the base of the Koppenberg, I was unprepared to see throngs of people coming in by bus on race morning. Conversely, I was not at all surprised to walk by the Cafe Koppenberg and see them serving beer at 9:30 a.m.
The appreciation of ’cross is strong at Koppenbergcross. When I finished well off the leaders, fans were still banging the boards in appreciation. The feeling was electric. Likewise, the party is strong on the Koppenberg. When we left the venue shortly before dusk, it was clear that some revelers likely wouldn’t stumble down the hill until after nightfall.
I had dreams of doing well at Koppenberg. Those dreams fueled me through a zillion hill repeats at prescribed, seemingly impossible wattages last summer.
Some things are not to be, unfortunately.
It rained for Koppenberg. This is a bit of an anomaly. There was a bit of head-scratching the night before as ChainStay cycling house owner Gregg Germer and the Wymans sought to remember the last time it rained for Koppenberg.
I knew what rain would mean for the cobbles.
Pre-riding is limited at the Koppenberg. I did one lap two days before and one lap the day of. It was the “one and done” approach. The course is simply too taxing to spend a lot of time on.
Pre-ride taught me that there would be lots of technical descending, but only a tiny bit of running, providing conditions held.
Prior to warm-up, I chose my shoes with long mud spikes, knowing the one run could turn to many. At the same time, I reflected for just a moment, wouldn’t it be horrible to run up the cobbles on these?
For me, Koppenberg was effectively “over” shortly after the start lights turned green. There was a crash immediately in front of me just a few pedal strokes into the race. I swerved into the gutter and put a foot down to avoid it. This put me at the back of the field.
I was immediately able to start to pick up positions on the climb, but it was “busy” at the back. Riders were hardly moving within the narrow rideable space. Sure enough, a rider came off in front of me. I managed to carry on for a bit, barely pedaling, nearly track standing, looking for a place to get around. No dice. I was off my bike, on the cobbles, spikes like ice skates.
That sinking feeling when you know your race is over… There is no remounting on the Koppenberg.
Although it took me a bit to rally, technical descending is truly my favorite. This year’s race was all about line choice. Making on-the-fly line decisions and trying to minimize time spent crossing the fall line brings me back to my alpine skiing days. Remember, Jonathan Page, Amy Dombrowski and Elle Anderson all grew up alpine skiing. It’s not a coincidence.
Oddly, after all those summer hill repeats, the climb proved “easier” than normal. The cobbles were so slippery that one could only pedal as hard as one’s traction allowed. For me, it was a greater struggle to keep traction than to turn the pedals.
Despite my start, I managed to finish on the lead lap. While not the race day I was hoping for, as fans banged the boards, I took a moment to savor the experience. I was finishing the Koppenberg on the lead lap. That’s something I won’t ever forget.
I recounted my woes of getting a visa in an early diary.
Since I am limited to 90 days (within 6 months) in the Schengen Zone without a visa, I have to be crafty.
Currently, I am spending 10 days living with the Wymans in England, as Great Britain is not part of the Zone.
No, this has nothing to do with Brexit, as the EU and Schengen Zone are separate entities. Likewise, I could not have stayed in Switzerland, as has often been suggested to me, as they are part of the Schengen Zone, but not part of the EU.
Plus, Helen told me that Derbyshire Dales is “the rainiest place on earth,” which is saying something since Helen lived in Belgium for 10 years. Likewise, she told me all about the hills, which are “brutal.” (This coming from the rider who won Koppenberg three times.) These things in mind, why would I stay anywhere else?
This is my first visit to England, so I am soaking up the experience of living in another foreign country. The tea never stops brewing, nearly everyone is a “chap” and there is that whole left side of the road element.
It’s often surprising what it takes to “make it” on the other side of the pond. One of these things seems to be the ability to handle isolation.
For the first few days of my stay, Helen, Stef, and Alonso were in house and Helen was A-plus host, coach, and mentor. She even made me soup when the weather turned and I returned home from doing efforts in a cold rain. She admitted to “feeling a little sorry [for me].”
Coincidentally, I admitted to feeling a little sorry for myself!
However, at the moment, the Wymans are in London and I am “house-sitting.” Okay, really, make no mistake, I am actually couch-surfing.
Although, I did take “the bin” (the trash) out to the curb, so I am basically indispensable.
I’ve been a little anxious about solo rides in foreign countries since crashing in Belgium last year. Likewise, there was an unfortunate double-flat incident my first year in Belgium, which had me awkwardly imploring a ride home. It seems I’m old enough to have lost naive self-assurance.
I don’t worry about riding alone in Oudenaarde, as I know I can depend on the ChainStay owners and residents to “save me.” After all, I met Gregg when he retrieved me from the side of the Schelde post-crash.
I’ve had two distance days since the Wymans left.
On the first day, I rode three loops of decreasing length, as I was trying to beat forecasted cold rain and wanted a bail-out option. This ride was surreal. In the valleys, I rode through thick fog, picking my way through the land on the “wrong” side of the road. High up, on the top of the hills, I broke through the fog into a frosted zone with occasional patches of black ice.
On day two, since it was sunny with only a 10 percent chance of rain, I followed a route Helen devised. It was only 50 miles but with more than 5,000 feet of climbing.
For those of you who live in the mountains, that’s nothing special, but I live in Minnesota. The only way for me to climb 5,000 feet in 50 miles in Minnesota would be to do hill repeats.
I was naive about the remoteness of the land in England. I mean, I thought, island nation, population density, no “Go West, young man.”
The ride blew my mind.
It wasn’t the hills. I enjoyed those until nearly the last one when I started to get a little grouchy.
It was the newness of the land. It was unlike I had ever seen and felt decidedly more remote than it actually was. Given the near absence of trees, it felt a bit like being above tree line in the White Mountains of New Hampshire (where I grew up) or in the treeless Badlands of the Dakotas.
I spent most of the ride grinning yet riding the climbs conservatively. I wasn’t quite sure how I’d fare with the climbing.
By the end, I was blown. Circling a small town, trying to follow my Garmin’s circuitous route and still stay on the “proper” side of the road, I was beginning to feel like an overstimulated toddler. I did what I always do in those situations (what one should do): I ate some jelly beans.
I often take walks in the evening, a habit that grew out of walking my dog. It “shakes” my legs out. That evening, as the full moon was rising, I walked into the village. I thought about how “making it” abroad requires being comfortable alone.
Next Stop Tabor
My next stop on this crazy adventure is Tabor, Czech Republic for the World Cup.
After Tabor, I am excited to return “home” to Belgium for the Koksijde World Cup, one of my favorite races of the season!