The US can claim ownership over a lot of things but cyclocross is not one of them. Over the course of the past twenty odd years I've narrowed my interest in racing bicycles down to this one aspect and turned a lot of my time and energy towards becoming stronger and more proficient. I've had mixed results, some years are better than others but I continue to learn a lot and most of all enjoy the pursuit. The bike has taken me to a lot of places, but many of those are easy to get to and low threat in regards to being self sufficient. I've watched a few of my peers travel abroad to foreign start lines with a degree of envy, not just at the next level of the competition they are engaging but also at possessing a degree of proficiency required to solve the mystery of managing so much equipment, specific needs, and maneuverability in area unfamiliar in the most basic degree.
The idea to travel was impulsive by my standards; shortly into the season I realized that we were only going to get four months of racing in the US now that nationals was moved back to December. Being that I, as much of the community, spends the other eight months of the year getting hyped up for cyclocross season, loosing an entire month was a bit of a letdown. The thought began to materialize that there was indeed another option, that I could lengthen my season by seeking out racing elsewhere.
Securing the ticket was the first hurdle, I didn't plan much beyond that, I had some Euro from my winnings in China and I figured my credit card should work. I rented a car from a bike related company at the recommendation of another racer who had been previously so the hope was that all the gear would fit in. I would be staying with friends from the US for the first few weeks, through the block known as Kerstperiode when the holidays allow for a huge chunk of racing in a very short period of time. We stayed in the town of Geraardsbergen west of Brussels, founded in 1068 (wrap your head around that one) and often featured in the Tour of Flanders for the cobblestone "muur" or wall that climbs to the church at the top of the town from the canal at the bottom.
Much of my travel abroad has been to Asian countries where it was very obvious I was a foreigner. It was a pleasant surprise that I could blend in until a conversation chanced to start. My go to response had become "English?" in hopefully a shorter response time than it takes anyone to get frustrated at my blank stares, and many times it yields productive results. In turn I am often asked if I'm British, which was initially a surprise. I often feel as though "AMERICAN" is tattooed across my forehead accompanied by the stigma my home country seems to exude.
Indeed there are notable differences in Europe that are a fair shock to my standards of living; Clothing driers are not common, sinks and showers, ovens and water heaters are small. Heat is used sparingly, often in room to room situations, consequently there are a lot more doors to open and close. Interiors are not uncommonly creative renovations to impressively ancient buildings. Cars and roads are smaller and more conservative and space is regularly dedicated to bike commuting. The farmland landscape is spectacularly flat and dotted with sheep and goats.
Cars are in turn more respectful to bikes, the assumption is less that that individual is a cyclist and therefor in a different category of recreation, rather cyclists are people too and sharing the space means there are less cars in an area that is already swamped with narrow roads.
Food servings are smaller, and the ingredients are more simple. The vegetables are not the giant varieties I'm used to finding in the grocery, instead they are more flavorful and often have slightly different characteristics such as ridges on the sweet potatoes or carrots with rounded bottoms. most of the trips to the store involved walking and purchasing only what you could carry.
The nights are long during the depths of winter and what daylight there is passes by quickly. The sun comes up late and sets early with barely eight hours of usable outdoors time. The days are mostly cloudy with low, rapid moving clouds traveling west to east, likely to do with the close proximity to the ocean. When the sun does come out the damp is still permeable but without the severity of the cold, the undertones remain warm and the colors green.
We were easily in the vicinity of about an hour long drive to each venue and with a maxed out roster of American women at the first few world cups I was present for I opted to head to a local race to see how I felt on the bike rather than sit the weekends out. Most of the racing in Belgium is listed on a website, with the browser to translate it to English you only have to pick out your race and select register. There are no fees or timelines, for some of the more popular races the registration is blocked out and you merely have to show up and ask for a bib number.
Race parking and navigation is always a solid question mark but once you have a general idea of the flow it's fairly straightforward. Many of the races are staged out of neighborhoods and certain blocks are set for parking. Entire roads of driveways are blocked off but the locals seem to be more interested in joining the festivities than bothered by the inconvenience of a hundred RV's taking over the area. There are an abundance of parking monitors with florescent vests guarding any blocked off area and a few offers from me of "renner?" "elite renner?" and "dames?" usually is enough to have us directed to wherever there is room to set up camp. With the exception of the first, non-UCI, local race I went to this has been the rule rather than the exception and it's been quite easy to navigate from there.
Finding registration can be a little more tricky, generally a look at the race website and course map, known as "trail" will have the "inschrijvingen" or "inscriptions" location marked on it. This has been in everything from a campus recreation center, a mobile construction type office, a car dealership, a community center, a castle, to a tavern or coffee shop. They do have signage set up as well but it helps to know what word you are looking for! There is also success to be had at stalking out athletic looking individuals carrying the white envelopes containing bib numbers and concluding what general direction they are coming from.
Probably the most notable difference of all is that the bike racers maintain a degree of rock star status. At every race there are requests for rider cards or autographs, selfies or to have your bottle or sunglasses, I was even asked if I would give over my socks. Warming up on the trainer attracts a crowd, some more aggressive than others, and when you have a chance interaction with a fan they then cheer for you by name as you pass by them. The race programs list the names and numbers of the racers so while momentarily confusing through the blur of race brain, it's not uncommon to hear your name shouted out in an accented voice.
The cheering itself is different in style to that of Americans, when I've had the chance to spectate I became more in tune with the startled looks and then laughter from the folks lining the course at my yells for the riders passing by. It is easy to pick out the cheers from your fellow Americans, the locals have more of a lean in and grunt style as compared to our shouting and whooping. When it is realized that you too are a racer there are plenty of stares and finally a request of a photo, not uncommonly with a child being shoved at you to take the picture with.
The courses are fantastic, wet even when dry and filled with peril that in no way would be suited for the standard American line up of early day amateur racing. Off cambers, severe drops and step ups, ditches you literally couldn't' climb out of if you fell in, flyovers, stairs, insanely short remounts, curbs and more curbs, mud bogs and ruts as deep as your hubs are in abundance. With cross having been present for near the entirety of the 20th century, many of the features were man made at one point and now have been in existence and utilized in races for over 50 years. What seems like an unsuspecting cow pasture or riverside park is quickly transformed into a massive venue of course tape and barriers, sponsor banners, party tents, VIP areas, and frites venders.
The courses are double fenced in many areas to keep the riders clear of the eager spectators but still the ground can fill up with beer cups. Often the spectators target a certain spot on the course with a feature that allows for the racers to show off a bit and I've seen everything in the crowd from the wave to enthusiastic singing. The spectators love it when you almost crash into them, it's not rare to have a line take your wheel under the course tape and I've had the tape pulled back for me or passed by in a flourish of giggles or "oh hello!" when I've come too close.
The biggest challenge of racing is comfort with the near constant bike handling requirements and aggression of other riders. Every little hesitation will cost you a spot and as is common in my spot in the pack, many of the riders have either strength or skills but not both. I've spend a number of races trading spots with girls I can out-maneuver but not overpower while also seeing first hand the benefits of knowing when to call it and run, a change from the usual thought process that riding even the most heavy or technical features adds credibility. While indeed it may, it also can be significantly slower.
The opportunity to hone my skills in such a thrilling setting is unparalleled, learning the intricacies of European life under the basis of bike racing is a best case scenario for me. Each weekend there are new places to go, reasons to visit the far corners of the various countries and opportunities to interact with the locals in a manner completely out of the realm of tourist. Being set loose on a bike to explore and gain familiarity with the every day doings of a culture of people so different yet so similar to home is a thrill, while there were opportunities to play tourist it's more meaningful to me to gain the understanding of values and thought processes through navigation and a chance interactions on two wheels.