CX Apprenticeship: Back in Belgium for the Cyclocross Season Home Stretch – Cyclocross Magazine

Before the final UCI weekend of cyclocross, Cyclocross Magazine contributor Corey Coogan Cisek sent in her penultimate column of the season. She was the last American standing over the weekend in Leuven and Oostmalle, and will have on final season wrap-up column coming soon. Enjoy her most recent chronicles below. 

I have been back in Belgium for nearly two weeks. I’ve been surprised to find that my personal life in Flanders feels calm and routine. In contrast, the weather has been anything but calm, as a series of wind storms barreled through. My physical adaptation has also proved difficult. Did I forget to pack my race legs?

It’s So Easy Now

The thing is, it’s so easy now.  I can do things on autopilot.

Once upon a time, taking the train was intimidating, but now I know the timetable, cost, and platform for the Brussels Zaventem airport to Oudenaarde. I can breeze through the Delhaize grocery store buying my favorite products, showing my loyalty card, and anticipating the questions and answers. “Yes,” to the loyalty stamps.

I can also anticipate the actions and behaviors of the locals. When shopping, I’m not surprised when someone squeezes into my personal space without as much as a “pardon.” On my bike, I laugh inside when a farmer on foot stares unflinchingly as I ride past. (Staring is more socially acceptable here.) Riding with the Scheldepeleton, I can predict a large Flemish man who is barely hanging on will push me into the wind—chivalry be damned.

Feeling so much at home, I forget that I am in Belgium. No, I don’t accidentally speak English. Rather, there’s nothing to be stressed about. I am no longer hyper-alert, trying to read the situation. Life is just day-to-day life.

While it’s a victory that Flanders feels like home, there’s something lost too. I’m no longer excited by each cute, little European storefront or every stretch of cobbled road. Campers at races and throngs of fans seem ordinary, ignorable.

Corey Coogan Cisek is still amused by some things in Belgium.

Corey Coogan Cisek is still amused by some things in Belgium.

Returning to Belgium from Florida, I felt the effects of jetlag and struggled to get my racing legs back. My Cyclocross Custom mechanics tried to buoy my spirits by reminding me that two years ago when I got off the plane and immediately did Koksijde, it was one of my best races.

I wanted to say, “Yes, but I am not the same person anymore.”

Two years ago, I was still new to Belgium. It was my first time racing iconic Koksijde. Basically, I had enough adrenaline to last me for weeks.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t take living and racing in Belgium for granted. However, my experience goes to show that one can eventually feel at home in Belgium cross. U.S. “roadies” have come to Europe and made it their year-round home, finding success here.

Yet, we still tend to think that cyclocross in the harshness of Belgian winter is all but impossible for an American. No doubt, I haven’t made any great impressions on the results sheets, but I have succeeded in making this place “home.”

My Training Partner

I met Michelle Geoghegan on the Scheldepeleton. We got to talking and discovered that we were both racing ’cross, and we were both being coached by Helen Wyman.

Michelle is an Irish rider currently living in Flanders year-round. She’s lived here on and/off for years, racing on the road for Belgian and Dutch teams. More recently, ’cross has become Michelle’s passion and focus. She was runner-up at Irish Nationals this season.

Michelle’s every bit as driven and persistent (maybe stubborn?) as I am. She shares the same willingness to do the difficult. I mean, why not move to Flanders and learn cyclocross in the heartland?

She also committed to Belgium by taking classes in Dutch. We are similarly fluent. We are not conversant, but we can puzzle things out together.

She’s become my ultimate training partner. Obviously, due to the “Wyman influence,” our training often syncs. Likewise, Helen, and the success of the Experza team she mentors, have taught us the value of working together. “If she can do it, then so can I.”

It’s Been “Winderig”

The races have had some weather challenges of late.

My first weekend back was Lille and Merksplas. It always takes me a race to feel open after a long training block, so I viewed Lille as an opener. I knew I’d feel flat and out of sorts on Saturday, but I’d be better for Sunday’s race in Merksplas.

Coogan Cisek returned to racing in Belgium. © Hans van der Maar

Coogan Cisek returned to racing in Belgium. © Hans van der Maar

That great plan assumed there would be a race on Sunday.

I had never heard of a “European windstorm.” Evidently, European windstorms are cyclones that occur most frequently between October and March.

The first sign of trouble came on Saturday. At Lille, the mechanics’ rumor mill was a twitter with talk of potential cancellation for Merksplas due to  “Windstorm Ciara.” After all, Sunday “voetbal” matches were already canceled.

About Sunday’s ’cross, we heard both it will be canceled if there is an orange wind warning and conversely, “The show must go on. This is not a contest, but a sport. It will not be canceled!”

For the record, Ciara is pronounced “Keer-ah.” Thanks to Michelle for clarifying. When windstorms come ashore in Ireland and the U.K., the two nations share the duty of naming the storm.

Late Saturday evening, Merksplas promoters adjusted the Elite start times forward by 20 minutes, causing chuckles. “20 minutes is going to fix this problem?”

On race morning, we checked Twitter constantly and delayed our departure as long as possible. When we finally made the drive, gusts of wind violently blew our vehicle side to side. Arriving at the venue, we got out of the vehicle and were struck by the kind of wind that takes your breath away.

We signed in (no mention of cancellation) and headed to rider parking. It was at rider parking that I learned a new word, “afgelast,” or “canceled.”  I was speaking Dutch with the parking guard and the new word stumped me. I switched to English. “No race?”

Indeed, no race.

Accordingly, that morning, we drove in a three-hour circle. It was even windier on the way home.

The following weekend, Ciara’s “little brother” Denis made landfall. This time, Sunday’s race in Hulst, Netherlands looked to be impacted. The Dutch were resolute, the race would go on.

Luckily enough, the wind warning was only yellow that Sunday, so we were able to race.

The wind was truly monstrous. When we arrived, the parking control was holding onto his hat and leaning sideways, in true “Weather Channel hurricane reporting” style.

We wisely called it “not a day to put up the tent” and warmed up on trainers sheltering each other from the crosswind.

No tent for the Hulst warm-up. © Claude Colpaert

No tent for the Hulst warm-up. © Claude Colpaert

Then there was that little matter of the tree falling over.

We arrived at the start and were informed of a 20-minute delay. They needed the time to remove a fallen tree from the course. They also “changed the course,” moving the tape inward about 15 centimeters.

Out of an abundance of caution, a marshal was posted by the reroute. He whistled and waved his arms frantically for the entire duration of the race. This “safety measure” was hilarious considering the course has two plunging descents a couple of stories high. I could not help but feel that their concern was misplaced.

The Gamble Pays Little?

I said that doing a mid-season training block in Florida was a gamble. There were moments in early December, before I got sick, where I felt I was coming into form. I did not want to disrupt this momentum by leaving the scene.

At the same time, by the time I left Belgium after the New Year, I was feeling frighteningly cracked. If I had stayed, perhaps things would have started to look up again, or perhaps I was too deep in the hole.

Returning from Florida, I am fresh as a daisy. It’s odd to be here in February feeling A-Okay. It’s so normal this time of year to be burning on fumes.

Coogan Cisek was feeling better upon her return to Europe. © Hans van der Maar

Coogan Cisek was feeling better upon her return to Europe. © Hans van der Maar

I know that my fitness improved over the month in Florida, but getting back to racing has proved much tougher than I imagined. There was that “opener” race in Lille and then the Merksplas cancellation. Following that, I had significant crashes in Middelkerke and Hulst, the latter captured in slow motion on television.

It’s one thing to start the season fit, but short on races. We are all in the same boat. Likewise, it’s not too difficult for me to dive into Belgian racing midseason coming off racing in the U.S. However, jumping into the most competitive, most technically challenging racing scene in the World (right after Worlds), coming off of “just training” stateside…

The good news is that despite the crash and early pull, I definitely found my race legs in Hulst. Finding one’s legs on weekend number two really is a reasonably quick adaptation. It’s simply a shame that only one more weekend of racing remains!

Stay tuned for Cisek’s final column for the season! You can read Cisek’s past columns here.