Sunday 11 December 2011

Signing out from Belgium

Time for my last post. What a fantastic last weekend in Belgium (and Luxembourg)! My Belgian racing career comes to an end for this season. It's kind of sad because I was really getting used to it and enjoying it a lot. I hope it won't be the last time I get to come over and race in Belgium. This weekend's race was in Varsenare about 65 km from here. The weather was clear and crisp just above freezing. The course was excellent with a mix of everything - a long straight away for the start on the pavement with some nice twisty, turny sections and ups/downs, fields, dismounts over a double barrier (for once!) and over a few ditches and a loose pebble pit instead of a sand pit with a tricky turn and small ascent at the end of it. The course was fast, probably the fastest of the five races I've done here so far. Vicki Thomas was out to cheer for Marc Boudreau from Ottawa (who just arrived 4 days earlier) and me. She's got the pictures on her camera (I hope to get them soon). This was probably my best race at least in terms of being closest to the front (on time). I was really hoping to beat the two guys who have finished consistently right before me in the past 4 races but unfortunately it didn't happen before I left Belgium. I suppose it means I have to return next year!
After the race, it was a quick drive home, time to get some lunch and then finish off the last 4 climbs of the Tour of Flanders (at least in the 2009 version) to finally have made it through all the main climbs of this incredible cobbled classic - the Valkenberg, Ten Bosse, Muur-Kapelmuur and Bosberg.

In between the 2nd and 3rd of these climbs there was this cool "bike monument" in the middle of a traffic island.

The Muur is in a town called Geraardsbergen. It's a neat place with the big church and square at the bottom of the climb.

As you get to the top of the Muur, where it kicks up over 20%, where Cancellara rode away from Boonen you get to the little "Chapel" area at the top and there's a nice view from the top (unfortunately it isn't captured well with a tiny camera shot).

Then as the sun was setting I headed off for some sightseeing in Luxembourg on Sunday. It was a gorgeous day and I set out by bike from the town of Strassen, about 5 km from the big city. If you ever get the chance to visit here I would really recommend it and do it by bike. I ended up putting in 45 km exploring pretty much all of Luxembourg city. Be prepared to do lots of climbing (and descending) as you can go up and down in many places. It's quite the incredible city with the "canyon" running through (with a surprisingly tiny river at the bottom) with the amazing walls/caves and bridges.

Then after my tour of Luxembourg it was off to do the Liege-Bastogne-Liege circuit, except I only did the Bastogne-Liege exciting parts. In Bastogne there is a monument (again in the middle of a traffic island) along with a commemorative plaque with the details of the course and each year's winner. This Classic is called "La Doyenne" because it's the eldest sister of the 5 main classics. It was an incredible ride and the guy who wins this classic is truly incredible. There are 7 or so classified climbs but in between the main climbs it is really rolling and hilly.

The countryside was truly gorgeous and I just couldn't capture by camera the beauty of the hills and villages (such as Houffalize, Stavelot, Spa) on a great day for riding (about 3C with hardly any wind). The climbs were short and steep like the Cote de Stockeu (Stele Eddy Merckx) at 1.2 km avg 12 % or long and gradual like the Col du Rasier (4.5 km at about 5 %). I took a few "road" shots here and, of course, with Philippe Gilbert winning this past year there had to be something for him. Also, lots of forest here and there was actually a cross-country ski place near the top and what looked like some great hiking trails (there was a tiny bit of snow on the ground at the top).

As the sun was setting on the day, I had time to reflect on the awesome stay here. I thought my trip to Spain in September couldn't be beat but this one has had as many or more superlatives. I will miss you Belgium!

Kingston ride on Friday anyone?

Tuesday 6 December 2011

The Climbs of Gent-Wevelgem

Got up early this morning and drove the Chain Stay van about 70 km to do the hill climbs of the Gent-Wevelgem Spring Classic race before heading into work. This is known as the sprinter's classic since the hills are far enough away from the long flat finishing roads into Wevelgem that the sprinters can often regain contact with the aid of their team mates. The climbs are really nothing much except for the famous Kemmelberg on the cobbles. There's the Baneberg, Rode berg, Scherpenberg, Monteberg and a few other "bergs" and these are repeated twice in a loop of about 15 km. It was a cool crisp and beautiful day for the ride as I started out in a small town called Reningelst.

The sun was shining over the hillside as I took this picture as I came down the Rode berg. It was kind of funny since they had a little chairlift that went between a couple of the hills right over the road (didn't take a picture of that).

The Kemmelberg has a lot of history behind it with many soldiers slaughtered here in World War I. There were a lot of monuments and cemeteries in this area. The climb starts out very easy at about 4 % by the sign and sure doesn't look like much.

However, when you make the right hand turn up here (by the next picture) then it starts to kick up to 8 % then over 20 % as you get closer to the top.


I picked up the pace to try racing the climb (after this picture) to the top. It definitely was tough. There's a hostel and place that looks like a castle on the top in a beautiful forested area. For the descent, I took the steep cobbled direct route (20 %). Apparently, this descent was removed in 2007 after too many crashes and now the racers go down an easier asphalt descent back to where it is less steep.
Then it was off to work. For those of you who don't believe I actually work on my sabbatical I snapped a picture of the Institute where I've camped out for the past few weeks with the large steel DNA helix monument in front - not the prettiest of buildings, especially since they are doing some additions but it's got some nice features inside.

I'll probably post one more time from the CX race on the weekend and the last remaining rides on the roads of the famous Belgian classics before the big return to K-Town.

Sunday 4 December 2011

Dodging the Cow Pies!

It was a busy weekend racing. Saturday's race was in a place called Lottenhulle about 35 km from here. This time I had company for the ride and race. An American guy Chip and his Canadian partner Laura accompanied me as Chip was racing in the Master B race. These two work for the Olympics Committee with Laura stationed in London for the 2012 Summer games and Chip in Sochi, Russia for the 2014 Winter games. The weather was more typical of this time of year with strong winds (37 km/h from the SW) and pissing rain. I got a great start this time and actually could have led out into the field but backed off a bit in 4th. As it seems is the case for a lot of these races, they take place in farmer's fields. This one (and the one on Sunday) was full of cow paddies and manure and the first stretch was tough grinding (and became harder as the race wore on) through the dung and mud. I liked this course because it had a good mix of road, single track and farmer's patches. These courses tend not to be so technical but it's full out racing the whole time. I didn't touch my front brake the whole race and only used the back one at a few spots each lap. Laura took a picture of me with Chip's camera after the race covered in mud but the picture will have to wait until Chip gets back to Sochi and emails it to me. I just took a few shots from the race after me. This weekend the weather turned nice after our race (the opposite of last weekend).

Some of the young riders milling around just past the finish line.

On Sunday the race was only 13 km from here in Tiegem - where else? in a farmer's field. This one also had it's fare share of cow pies and was very sloppy with mud. There was one tricky rolling section just after we sprinted off the road section one dismount with a jump over a ditch, otherwise all in the farmer's field, which was mainly mud and grass. After the race I don't know if I've ever seen as much mud and grass caked on my bike. Once again the pictures will have to wait until Chip emails them to me. I'm really surprised my gears didn't jam during the race because they were doing it like crazy afterwards. I continue to move up the standings from 13th in the first, to 10th, and 6th and 5th, Saturday and Sunday, respectively. The top three guys are just too good and they are quite a ways off the front. As in all the races I've done here in Belgium, I've come out on top in terms of $$. For some reason the guy today thought I paid twice so he gave me back 21 Euro after the race and I only paid 8 to get my number and 5 to get into the farmer's area.
For a cool down later in the day, I did part of the Tour of Flanders route going up the Koppenberg one last time (this time with road tires), the Steenbekdries, the Taaienberg and a couple of others that I can't remember the names of right now. This was probably not the best idea. My legs are tired!

Friday 2 December 2011

Climbs of the Tour of Flanders

It took a long time to get into the research institute today. Turns out there was a quickly-called bus driver strike that I (along with many of my fellow passengers) didn't know about. The trains ran smoothly but it ended up being a long walk from the train station to work then back again after work. I've been slowly trying to get through most of the 17 or so climbs of the Tour of Flanders. Each year the courses of these classics races (including Paris-Roubaix) change a bit so the climbs are not always the same. I've done about 7 now with the Eikenberg, Steenberg, Leberg done today. Not all of the climbs are cobbles.
The view from the bottom of the cobbled Eikenberg (these felt smooth after doing Paris-Roubaix).

Just before getting to the Leeberg there's this big church.
On the way back to the Chain Stay I came across this
church I hadn't seen before, which looked neat as the
sun was setting.

Riding along the canals it's neat to see the long barges going up and down. I think these guys must live on the barges and call them home. You often see them with their car, small boat and dog so when they anchor up they must take off into the city wherever they find themselves.

Back along the main highway I took a picture this time showing the bike lane and how far it's separated from the car traffic. Bikes definitely rule here but I have to say that just 50 or so km away when I was in northern France there was a huge difference in driver habits toward bike riders. In several places between the cobbled sections guys would pull right out in front of me or honk, stuff I haven't seen at all here in Belgium. Perhaps it's just this one area because southern France, Pyrenees and Alps didn't seem to have this type of behavior.

Next up on my ride list are a few more climbs of the Tour of Flanders including the famous Muur-Kapelmuur where Fabulous Fabian rode away from Tom Boonen in 2010 and the 14 climbs of Gent-Wevelgem with two CX races in between.

Wednesday 30 November 2011

My head hurts!

Got up this morning at 5:30am to catch the train to Roubaix, which involved one switch in a place called Kortrijk. Today was the big adventure of my Belgium trip to ride Paris-Roubaix from the Arenberg Forest into the finishing velodrome, about 92 km with 17 of the 27 pavé sections totaling 30 km of cobbles.

Sunrise on my way to the Arenberg Forest just outside Roubaix

It was exactly 50 km to get from Roubaix to Arenberg. This place is not easy to find and I'm very thankful that Gregg loaned his GPS to me for the day. There is no way I would have been able to get to the start and do the course without it. The course is not marked in many sections and believe me that those cobbled sections are not easy to find in the middle of farmer's fields.

After 2 hours including a few missteps I made it to my designated P-R start where there was a memorial to a cyclist Jean Stablinski, who won quite a few races in his time but I'm not sure why there's one here since he didn't win P-R and I didn't take time to read the long inscription.

The cobbles of the Arenberg (these were the worst of all the secteurs I did). Not a nice way to start. My head and brain received a real shaking today (that's why my head hurts!). These cobbles were also filled with grass and moss growing over since the gaps were so large. I should add that I wisely chose to do this with cross tires.

Cobbles and more cobbles.

As you can see, I had a beautiful day riding through the farmer's' fields. Here in France and Belgium I keep seeing these huge piles. At first I thought they were rocks but up close they looked like huge turnips. I saw a sign nearby selling "endives de la terre" and maybe they are the root part of the endives. Maybe someone knows out there?

Each of the sections are marked off by little red and white markers with the name and length but sometimes there are other signs.

This one had a little flower growing beside it.

Crashed out on these cobbles.

Not really, this was staged!

In between the cobbles it is very flat and most of the roads are in good shape so I could see that during the actual race the pace must be very fast. I only recall one significant downhill in the 92 or so clicks where I got up over 55 with the cross tires and I really can't recall climbing anything more than a few meters.
A few nice pics along the way.

Finally, making it to the velodrome after 142 km and many hours in the saddle. Yes, you can actually ride right in and do a "victory lap"!

The "Hell of the North" (L'enfer du Nord) was actually more heavenly today than hell-like (on the building it says that it leads to paradise and today was definitely paradise for a cyclist.

I rode the few km to the train station and after a 40 min wait hopped on to Kortrijk. By that time, I was getting the chills and didn't warm up enough on the short ride plus I felt great so I decided that I didn't want to wait 30 min for the connection then set out to ride the additional 40 km back home to bring it up to a cool 195 km for the day. What a day!

Sunday 27 November 2011

Racing in the Carrot Patch!

This morning I headed out to a place called Maria Aalter about 38 km from where I'm staying for my 2nd CX race in Belgium. It was warm (about 10 degrees C) but windy (steady at 35 km/h). I had a hard time finding this place from the Google Maps directions because I found myself in the middle of a farmer's field - but that's where the race was to take place! I already feel pretty comfortable driving here and finding my way around and figuring out how to sign up, etc. It's pretty easy when you get the hang of it. I didn't arrive so early this time but I still had a full hour to ride a few laps. About two-thirds of the race was in the farmer's field and he must have been growing carrots since there were bits and pieces of carrots everywhere on the course. The ground was hard packed in this field and was extremely rutted. I don't think I've ever had a shaking so bad in a race or training session (for the Kingston guys it makes the Fort Henry trails seem very smooth). There were two mud sections in the field along with a few ditches. After we finally got out of this field, we went into a school area with a playground section where all the technical and fun stuff was situated including a 3-stair dismount and then up and down a 4 meter hill 3x with 2 sandpits and 2 ditches interspersed between, then around a couple of soccer fields. There were lots of switchbacks throughout the whole course.
There were 20 guys in the Master C race and about the same number in Master B. Same format as last week with the B guys starting about 30 sec in front of us. I got a much better start this time and was in 5th place as we made the first swing onto the farmers field from the road (starts are almost always on a road here with at least a 100 m straight away). However, a few minutes later on the ditch dismount before the mud section I remounted too soon and got bogged down in the mud and was passed by about 7 or 8 guys - bad mistake! Anyway, I had a few mishaps that cost time on the 5 laps but got into a good group with two others. On the last lap, I got stuck in the sand pit when one of the two in our group misjudged his line so I ended up going down then lost contact with these two and finished 10th. Not sure if I would have taken 8th but it was definitely in reach. I was much more competitive this time and closer to the leaders so I'm hoping I'll be in the top 5 by the time I leave here. I recognized the faces of just about everyone so it seems like the same crew shows up at each of the races and I beat at least three of them from last week that beat me. I won 5 Euro again and on top of getting the 5 Euro for returning my number I again finished ahead by 2 Euro. I could get used to this racing for free or picking up a few $$ each race!
I was planning to take some pictures after my race when the juniors were riding next but the weather turned very nasty with rain and even more winds. So, I snapped one shot on the soccer fields and that's all I have to show.

Next weekend I'm going to try doubling up in Lottenhulle on Saturday and Tiegem on Sunday. We'll see how that goes. I'm also planning on a mid-week ride of the last half of Paris-Roubaix with all the cobbled sections from the Arenberg forest into the velodrome at Roubaix. This will depend on a few things working out including weather, being able to take my bike on the train and some good maps! Roubaix is about 40 km from where I'm living. It could mean a very long day 130+ km with not a lot of day light so I hope I can work out the logistics. If not this coming week I may still be able to try the following week but daylight is working against me.