While the majority of cyclo-cross riders have been either riding their local cross race or indulging in a well deserved turkey sandwich or two over the Christmas period, a few hardy types ventured across the water and into Belgium for a week of sand, mud and thousands of cyclo-cross-crazy spectators. Current Under 16 girl National Trophy leader and British National Champion Abby Mae Parkinson (RST-Trigon) made a lasting impression on the Belgium race goers. Abby tells us about her experience.
"My first race was Leonhout Azencross, which is a province of Antwerp. It was clear from the start that this was a big race, the security to get onto the course just to sign on was something like passport control. Having registered as the only girl on the start line I was able to recce the course. Exceptionally muddy, wet sticky sandy areas which sucked you in, chicanes, bmx style humps and massive bridge constructions. It was something I have never encountered in a U.K cross race. I was down to ride the Nieuwelingen event, which is basically like the British Youth category and it turned out that there were 51 boys in the race. Having no “points” in the Belgium system meant I had to start from the back.
The boys started so fast, I was the last rider into the first corner, then straight onto the mud. I soon started to catch the boys up and it wasn’t long before I was picking them off. As it turned out almost as soon as I caught a boy they would retire from the race, the Belgium boys don’t like being caught by a girl! The crowds were amazing, there were lots of people shouting for me and as soon as they saw my GB National Skinsuit, they would cheer even louder. I felt I had ridden a good race and by the end I had mastered the tricky sections, although it was difficult to tell how I had done as I was the only girl riding! My lasting impression of this race were the crowds, I have never seen so many people supporting a cross race, it was an experience that I won't forget.
My next event was Bredene, which is situated in West Flanders and although this was a local race, the crowds were again huge. The race was run (as are many Belgian 'cross races) at the seaside, which meant strong winds and more sand. This course was laid out very much like a National Trophy course, however parts of the course were totally flooded, with some stretches water almost up to my knees! I actually had competition in this event, but once again the girls were mixed in with a field of 50 boys and again, I was the last one to be called to the line so again I had to ride hard and I was soon working my way through the field. By the third lap I was actually enjoying the race. I finished first girl overall which was very pleasing and because of the “lakes” of water on the course which had acted as a bike wash I was able to finish the race without a bike change.
New Year's celebrations were on hold for me because 1 January 2013 was race day at the GP Sven Nys. I was totally unprepared for anything remotely like this event, probably the hardest race I have ever done. This course had everything, including mud (thick and slippy), bridges, steps (so long that an escalator would have been more appropriate), hurdles (made from logs which I could hardly straddle), tricky downhill wooded sections, uphill climbs on slippery surfaces, tarmac, sharp corners, roots…everything you could actually build into a cross course. I only had time for one practice lap and by the time I had finished it I was thinking of going home. I was getting used to being last one to the line now, surrounded by boys, it was good to see that some girls had turned up to join me though. As soon as we pulled off the starting tarmac, a dip and sharp rise meant I was already unclipped and running, in fact a lot of this course was running for me . The girl in front of me was Eve Maria Palm and was proving difficult to catch, I would gain on the uphills but she would pull time back on the downhill sections. This course was energy sapping, but on the last lap I dug deep, caught the girl and ploughed on to finish the race first girl. I was glad it was over, but the sense of achievement was fantastic. Although I found this race the toughest of the three, it was probably my best result.
Belgian crowds all so welcoming and really keen to cheer you on. The Belgian's love a National Champion and I was proud to wear my British National Champions skinsuit. Will I go again? Just try to stop me! Belgian cyclo-cross is brilliant!