Jack & Matt's Belgian 'Cross Road-Trip
September 30 2010
Up and coming rider, Jack Clarkson, reports from his weekend visit to Belgium where he competed in the Neerpelt Grand Prix, his first taste of the European Cyclo-Cross scene. He travelled with Matt Denby, bronze medal winner in the Veterans' race at this year's national championships.
Jack Clarkson, left, and Matt Denby
"We set off on the Friday before the race and stayed overnight in Waterloo with Matt's cousin. Next morning we visited the Butte de Lion, the memorial for the battle of Waterloo, before travelling on to the race venue, Neerpelt, to pre-ride the course of the following day's race.
When we arrived, the conditions were warm and dry with lots of sun. It all looked very promising and the course was very fast. As we rode the course, they were setting up the TV equipment, the first of many differences to UK racing we were to experience.
As we pre-rode the course to get the lines, we encountered the next big difference, sand! Sand was one of the things I'd really wanted to experience and practice on the trip. The sand section was approximately 20 metres in length, with a hairpin on grass and then 20m back again. The first decision was whether to ride it or run it. I timed myself and it took 15.4 seconds to ride and 14.7 to run it, including remounting. So we came to the decision to run as it was quicker and also had the bonus of not getting the bike clogged with sand.
Video of Jack's Race
The rest of the course took you through woods, which were very technical with a very slippery banking, sand steps, sand descents and tree roots. We left for the evening feeling we had all the lines and the course dialled for the race.
However, this is ‘Cross racing and overnight the heavens opened, leaving the ground very wet. It continued to rain through the morning, so we did another practice lap: all Saturday's preparations had gone out of the window, including tyre choices and pressures.
But, come 1 o'clock - junior race start time - I was lined up and ready to go. The traffic light start was the next big difference to UK racing I encountered. I was gridded on the second row. The lights turned to green and off we went up a tarmac road, then sharp left ninety degrees and down another tarmac section before entering the woodlands, where the fun began.
The start felt like a video game. I was being passed and then passing people constantly, but eventually the race settled down. On a few the first run ups I was having to use a firm hand to make my way through the field. There were also a number of big crashes in the first lap, taking down about 3-4 riders each time.
I felt very strong and looking back, I feel I could have gained a few extra places. But throughout the whole race I just wanted to concentrate on riding smoothly, so I let myself drop back slightly from the group ahead of me.
I was particularly pleased to find my sand-pit preparation paying off as I was passing people by running as they were attempting to ride, but being forced to dismount half way through. The race seemed to be over in no time at all and I came home in a very happy 14th out of 29 riders.
I then had to dash for the pits to help Matt who was riding the elite race, which had a very strong field including Sven Nys and Rob Peters. Unfortunately Matt suffered a puncture in the first half a lap and I couldn't get to the pits in time for him to change bikes, so he had to do another full lap with a flat front Dugast, before he swapped bikes. That held him up a lot, but he still managed another two or three laps before he was pulled out when Sven Nys lapped him.
And so, my first experience of continental racing was over. It had flown by, but there was so much to take in and learn from. In fact, it wasn't until we got back to Calais that I remembered I hadn't collected my prize money!
I'd like to thank Matt for all his support over the weekend. I'd also like to say a big thank you to the Membership team at British Cycling for sorting out letters of authority and calendar cards at short notice. And also a thank you to all the organisers of the fantastic event for making us feel very welcome - the race was incredibly well organized! And, finally, to Mark at Pedalsport for all his support.
For those of you who are interested, the event's website is: http://www.fideacyclocrossclassics.be/