After what seems like months but is actually years of preparation, we are finally back at Belgian Mountainbike Challenge. After much of the world shut down due to the pandemic this was one event we’ve been eagerly anticipating. Once again I would tread the start line and host a merry crew of coaching clients who’d come to the event as part of the yearly Ben Thomas Coaching race camp. Here's my diary of the four day event.
Just like in 2019 today was biblically wet with crazy weather! A sense of deja vu very much existed as we waited for today’s timetrial stage one to begin. There were differences though, 2019 it was cold and constant rain. This morning we practiced the course in dry dusty conditions and sweat dripped off our foreheads. It clearly hadn't rained here for several weeks, the conditions were as good as I've ever seen them and I've visited this part of the world a lot of times! The forecast for the afternoon though looked menacing, temperatures were meant to rise to high 20 degrees centigrade before thunderstorms would roll in half way through the afternoon. The weather gods were cruel, very cruel. The starters in the first two hours had scorching sunshine, heat stroke was a genuine worry. Then suddenly it went very very dark and very windy, hail stones fell, then torrential rain turning dry trails into rivers. An hour later the sun was back out but the trails were a little damp! We had two clients who lucked out, one who got the worst of the weather, then another guest and me had start times after the skies cleared. It was madness!
I have been training for this week for a long time, BeMC is always one of my big goals for the year. It's a race I've fallen in love with and despite it being pretty tough on me over the years I'm always back on the start line for the next edition.
It's been a lot of work and stress organizing the race camp where we bring clients over and look after them so it was almost a relief to be on the start line pedalling the bike.
Today’s timetrial was 21km with 750m ascent. The result was good but not spectacular finishing up in 10th. I lost 1 to 2.5 minutes to the people I was with at the marathon here 2 weeks ago so that’s a bit disappointing. I was SUPER fast on the climbs but too cautious on the descents. Look at the riders ahead of me though, not many with full-time jobs, most being paid to ride their bikes. Pretty good when you think of it that way. Hans Becking took the yellow jersey on day one, ahead of Laurens Sweeck and Wout Alleman. In the women’s UCI race Monica Calderon Martinez opened up an early advantage ahead of Stefanie Dohrn and Bettina Janas.
One day done, quarter of the way through!!? On the calendar yes but not in terms of distance. First proper marathon tomorrow with 2580m ascent in 85km.
What a day, well until around 50km distance! This race again proving to be so beautiful but so so cruel. After yesterday's brutal weather we spent the time between stages refreshing weather forecasts hoping for a change to what looked like another hideous bashing from the skies. We lucked out for the most part through. After another warm up on the Wahoo KICKr in the basement of our plush holiday rental house we lined up for the race under scorching sunshine. I told the clients to race without a base layer, these climbs are so steep that there’s zero cooling from any airflow. I didn't listen to my own advice and quickly regretted it!
Off the start the pace was hot, there were plenty of shots being fired, I tried to keep things smooth and not burn too many matches as we climbed out of the valley where La Roche en Ardenne is located. Different riders were trying to launch from the group and things got a bit too tasty for me, I was off the back and chasing. Chase I did! By the top of the first big hill I was back on the front group, I was surprised I'd made it and felt super strong. The group then settled into a constant tempo, I could live with this, we were ticking of the kilometers very quickly.
This stayed the same until the race leader punctured and the other GC contenders looked to maximize the time gaps. The pace went bonkers and the lead group was shredded to bits. When this all settled down two riders were up in the lead and I found myself in a group of four in positions three to six. It all looked good until 50km remaining where we missed a turn, it took too long for us to realize and by then we could see groups of riders passing us on the other side of the river. We backtracked and re-joined the right route. The four-man group split to bits, I tried to chase but on the next climb things went from bad to really bad. A puncture left me stopped at the side of the trail. Luckily, I could fix the hole with a tubeless plug and a gas can but the group and momentum was gone. I'd dropped from third to around 15th.
I wasn't the only one having a tough day, plenty of others were either blowing in the heat or suffering mechanical issues. I got back into it and caught a couple of riders as the weather turned with heavy thunder storms closing in. I would cross the finish in 12th. Tomorrow is a new day, please be kind.
The CX racers came to the fore today with Laurens Sweeck and Jens Adams taking the top two steps ahead of Hans Becking. Laurens was on a mission today with a 3 minute gap to second place and with that took over the race leaders jersey! Bettina Janas stepped up to the top step and slid into the leaders jersey, on the day Irena Lutzelschwab was second and Monica Calderon Martinez was third.
Day 3 and 4.
A few days late writing these diary entries, it all got a bit much the last two days. BeMC is challenging everyone this year once again. The extreme weather the first two days and the difficult course make it a monster undertaking. Add in the extra work of running the race camp, looking after 4 guests and I'm on my limit. Definitely missing having that extra member of staff with us like previous years. Plus I have the normal daily coaching work to keep on top of when time allows. So much going in! Being on the race track almost feels like the easy part. The coaching clients have been doing great, they trained well for this and came here with confidence, it's been great seeing them flourish in this environment and enjoying this new experience so much. I'm so happy Ben Thomas Coaching can help create the lifelong memories the clients will gain from this event.
Day 3 I felt like I was lacking that top end. I went all in on days one and two putting myself in a position to fight for a podium until that evaporated with the issues on day two. I hadn't recovered so decided not to give chase when the lead group split, I knew I couldn't follow the fireworks. I decided to surf the groups, keep my nose out of the wind and do as little work on the front as possible. The long stage racing all the way from La Roche en Ardenne to Houffalize and back was ideal for group racing. I still felt like I was too cautious on the techier descents and would often find myself gapped and having to close down the riders in front on the next climb which would burn matches unnecessarily. There were some insanely good trails on this stage, from technical steep bum behind the saddle descents to fast flowing smile inducing one's, and everything in between. This stage was definitely the highlight of the race. The huge river crossing towards the end of the stage and the tough final 10km with steep climb after steep climb including the Wall of Borzee are some of the classic sectors of this event, you have to ride it to know. Everyone was on a high by the end of the stage.
Wout Alleman took the top spot today, a great recovery after a bad day in the heat yesterday. Hans Becking retook the lead in the overall after finishing second 3 minutes ahead of Laurens Sweeck in third. Bettina Janas kept hold of the leaders jersey after taking another stage win 6 minutes ahead of Monica Calderon Martinez in second and Irena Lutzelschwab in third. I finished up in thirteenth place on the stage.
Day four, two big stages ahead, first on the bike with the final race stage consisting of 2150 meters climbing over 63 kilometers and then an epic drive home that afternoon and evening! I was excited for the stage but not for the pack up and journey home! Per kilometer this stage has the most amount of climbing but the lure of the finish line at the Floreal hotel where Belgium beer awaits you is enough to motivate everyone.
The stage is a bit of blur writing this several days later but with the route staying close to La Roche and doing two laps it takes in some of the best trails in the area at least once, sometimes twice. Everyone I’ve spoken too since who’d raced the event in previous years agrees that this year’s stage four route was the best ever. It was hugely challenging with some monster steep climbs but the trails and scenery were absolutely spectacular. BeMC delivers every day, every year and today was an absolutely fantastic conclusion to four days of brilliant racing through the Ardennes.
The last stage finishes down the same descent as the stage one prologue, a new trail for this year’s addition. A rocky slap which you zigzag down the hillside on before being fired out of the trees onto the tarmac for the last sprint along to the hotel and through the hotel grounds. Coming into the arena, along the finish chute, past the tv cameras and over the line. The BeMC racing is over but the experience is not, the pasta party and Belgium beer continued for many more hours. I was sad we couldn’t stay to experience the after party, after thanking Physio Athletics GmBH for their help handing me bottles at feed zones and providing treatment to tired coaching clients and saying good bye to all our friends from the race it was time to pack the van and head home.
Wout Alleman took another stage win, 2 minutes up on Hans Becking the overall winner and Laurens Sweeck in third. Bettina Janas won a third stage and the overall, ahead on the day of Monica Calderon Martinez in second and Irena Lutzelschwab in third. I finished the last stage in 11th putting me 11th overall after four days, one place better than my previous best. It wasn't the big result I'd dreamt off, a podium on a stage and a top 5 overall but the level of competition this year was super high and luck didn't go my way when I needed it. 11th place is still pretty good and i'll take it! All the clients finished with a smile on their faces, an even greater success than my own result.
It’s tough to summarize why this race and this area of Belgium creates so many amazing memories each time I visit but when you’re on the race track winching your way to the top of one of the hugely challenging climbs and successful summit without dabbing a foot, see the beautiful view from the top, or when you fly down one of so many sensational descents, these are all moments you remember. The race takes over the town of La Roche en Ardenne which is overlooked by the medieval castle and surrounding Ardenne hills. The spectacular surroundings add to the drama of the race and buzz around the town during race week. The perfect organisation, amazing race routes and inspiring location should be something any aspiring marathon racer should experience and is why I’ll be back for many years with coaching clients.