My love affair with the Belgian Ardennes continues, it hasn't always been a kind relationship, so many times this place has inspired and then demolished dreams. Each May we make our pilgrimage to the area to battle around these beautiful hills, it’s a trip I've been making for around six years for marathon races and in the years before I rode the mountain bike cross country world cup here on several occasions.
With much sadness covid scuppered this year’s trip for the Ben Thomas Race Camp. Here in October though as racing restarts and autumn arrives I'm in La Roche-en-Ardenne for the Belgian Mountainbike Challenge marathon. A huge thank you goes to the organisers who had to cancel their stage race earlier in the year but pulled together to run their one-day race which this year would also host the Belgian Marathon Championships. In these tough times any race organiser hosting an event deserves some recognition and respect from participants, local authorities and sporting bodies. Sadly, some of these parties aren’t providing the support to BeMC which threatens the future of both the marathon and stage race. For the good of the sport I hope a solution can be found as both events are a highlight on the calendar. The 400 places available for this race sold out in 48 hours, a testament to the demand for such an event and the quality of the organisation.
With a two-week quarantine following international travel friends and clients were reluctant to make the trip. Road trip for one! Friday morning, engage cruise control, roll down to the Eurotunnel, short push of the accelerator pedal and I'm in the Ardennes in time for a cheeky recover spin to shake out the legs.
Saturday morning, race day! The 10am start left me a little confused how to fill the time! With 7am, 8am and 9am starts we dream of a later start but after a 7am breakfast I wasted time faffing and trying to avoid the pre-race nerves. I'd woken to the pitter patter of rain on the bedroom window, classic Belgian weather for the 86 kilometres and 2750 meters of climbing laid out ahead.
After O-Tour Bike Marathon and Velo Vert Festival I felt like my legs had found the racing rhythm. Today there was little to lose so why not put everything on the line, a podium was the aim but a win in the Ardennes has always been a dream. After more uncharacteristic faffing I was on the bike for my warm up routine and on the start line ready for battle. With the Belgian stripes shining in most of my competitors’ eyes everyone looked super focused. The intense smell of heat embrocation was certainly enough to sharpen the senses!
BANG!! This battle is on! We launch like rockets into the first hill. From my start row I ride around the group and onto the front. Oh look there’s a TV motorbike, that’s very cool! Smile! We don't get TV coverage at the UK nationals! The legs are on fire, I'm dancing on the pedals, this feels super easy. I lead for a few kilometres before dropping back a few places but position myself comfortably in the lead group of seven as we pass through the finish arch to conclude the start loop and begin the first of three 27-kilometre laps.
The track is absolutely filthy, the ground sodden from the downpour, fun singletrack trails turn into muddy rivers and the steep testing climbs become an even greater challenge. Water sprays up from the back wheels of my competitors. I'm dressed in Kalas Shark softshell waterproofs which are keeping me toasty warm in these difficult conditions. There's not much time to get cold, the pace is HOT, this is serious business. I feel like a pig in mud loving every second!
We approach the legendary Borzee climb for the first time, this steep torturous effort is synonymous with the BeMC stage race, I’m scared from the thought we might have to summit this hill on three occasions! Fortunately today we turn left a third of the way up. A couple of riders have a few bike lengths gap, I'm sitting happy sparing energy with the rest of the group in third to seventh. As we turn onto the flat my bike protests, whether it’s not enjoying the conditions or has had enough of these watts it’s decided not to play anymore. A reoccurring bike issue which would limit me to 2 or 3 gears forced me to dismount at the top of each hill to fix the issue. I spent the rest of lap one repeatedly chasing back to third, then lap two repeatedly chasing back to fourth and fifth. All this energy I was wasting I could have used to bridge to the front. Perhaps five times a lap I'd repeat this process, frustrating but actually I was still having a lot of fun. The legs still felt good, it was that special one day a year where you feel like you can do anything.
The descents were getting sketchy, with 400 participants rotating around this lap the trails were getting pretty cut up. On plenty of occasions grip was nearing that of an ice skating rink! I'm glad of the tyre treads I’d chosen from Schwalbe, a Racing Ray front and Racing Ralph rear at 22 and 23psi were just enough. There was plenty of foot out flat out action going on.
By lap 3 I'd expended too much energy repeatedly chasing and I was falling out of the game. Up front Wout Alleman and Frans Claes had the early lead before Wout opened over a minute’s lead. Young 21-year-old Timo Kielich joined Frans in the chase. A badly timed mechanical for Wout halted his progress bringing him back to the chase duo. The race for the Belgium title was back on for these three. On the Mur de Borzee Timo opens a gap, he goes for gold. Frans has chain issues; these conditions are causing havoc with bikes. Timo storms ahead to win the Belgium Marathon Championships opening a 6-minute lead over Wout in second and Frans in third. Timo adds the Belgian Marathon title to under 23 cross country and under 23 cycle cross titles.
I finish exhausted in 9th place, it's not the podium I'd hoped for but I the reward was a great mud facial and 4 fun hours riding lots of the classic BeMC routes which include some of my favourite trails. As always, it’s great to visit and race here in the Ardennes, a spectacular location for a bike racer or a tourist wanting to explore the history of the area including that of the towns medieval castle and the occupancy of German and Allied forces in World War II.
Let’s hope that this isn’t the last visit to La Roche en Ardenne and the final edition of BeMC. I’ll be one of the first to sign up to May 2021’s event, top level bike racing rewarded with Belgium waffles and beer. What’s not to like!?