Belgian Mountainbike Challenge has become a yearly highlight for me and many other enthusiastic racers. The Ardennes are undeniably beautiful, a rolling range of green wooded hills hold a plethora of rooty and rocky descents. Whilst spectacular it can be a cruel place for a bike race with super steep climbs, the worst being the Wall of Borzee which the race ascends 4 times over the final 3 days. The trails can be rough going and this year super muddy.
The last 3 years I've travelled with coaching clients to BeMC. It's a great to be able to show clients a new location, offer them pro race support and see their delight each day after a successful stage. The logistics of this 4 days race are pretty simple with each day starting and finishing in La Roche en Ardenne. Riders have various accommodation options including the official race hotel where the race is based with registration, bike wash, massage, etc and where half the stages start and finish. Alternatively, you could stay in the nearby Floreal campsite or rent one of many holiday homes like we opt to do each year. It was great to see a large contingent of Brit’s making the journey, with a short 3 hour 30 drive from Calais it’s one of the easiest stage races to attend. Reaching La Roche en Ardenne is simple by car with a short distance to drive from the motorway. If you want to fly to the race Luxemburg airport is an hours drive away.
A late entry to this year’s race was former winner Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus) chasing points from this UCI S1 race and tuning up before the opening round of the UCI XC World Cup Series. Other favourites include Hans Becking (DMT racing team by Marconi), Wout Alleman (Elios Code factory team), Sebastien Carabin (Merida-Wallonie mtb team), Frans Claes (Square Group MTB Team), and Konny Looser (BiXS Pro Team). Another outsider to watch was cyclocross rider Quinten Hermans (Telenet Fidea lions). Favourites for the women’s UCI race include Ariane Luthi (Kross Racing Team, Cemile Trommer (Focus Rapiro Racing) and Ceylin Del Carmen Alvarado (Corendon-Circus).
Day one was a short 18-kilometre prologue with 600 metres of climbing. The course was made up of fast tarmac and gravel sections broken up with rocky flowing trails which allowed good overtaking opportunities. Conditions were muddy after the recent cold wet weather which made those rocky trails pretty treacherous in places, it could be easy to end your race with a silly crash or a mechanical this early. Van der Poel used his skills, power and fitness to take victory ahead of Becking, Hermans, Claes and myself in 5th. In the women’s UCI race Luthi took the first leaders jersey ahead of Geerte Hoeke (Cycling Team Limberg) and Trommer.
The prologue was a warm up for the real BeMC, the race really began on day 2 with an 80 kilometre stage. With its saw-like route profile climbing 2300 metres it was going to shake up the race. The top 3 from day 1 got a gap early in the stage with Becking driving the pace, behind a group of 10 to 15 formed including myself. That big group stayed together to feed zone 3 at 52 kilometres. Before that Claes punctured, a strong effort pulled him back to our group, he sat on the group for about 15km before splitting the group to pieces up the Wall of Borzee with 10 kilometres to go. I was the next person behind him but he had 10 seconds gap as we reach the final descent, taking some risks on the descent to open a gap Claes punctured again. With no spares to fix the wheel he had to ride to the finish on a flat losing almost 2 minutes to Looser who finished 4th, Carabin 5th and myself 6th. The front 3 were the same as the previous day with Van der Poel taking the win, Becking 2nd and Hermans 3rd. In the ladies Bettina Janas took a commanding win by 3 minutes 29 seconds ahead of Hoeke and Trommer.
Day 3 was the queen stage of this year’s race, torrential rain from early evening the day before all the way through the night left riders wincing as they opened the hotel curtains Saturday morning. The organisers took the sensible option shortening the stage to 83 kilometres, reducing the climbing to 2200 metres and most importantly removing the river crossing which would have been impassable. Waterproofs ready the race started nervously at 10am as planned. Heading into the hills Becking drove the pace and the race looked to be taking a familiar pattern, the dire conditions would break even the strongest though with third place GC rider Hermans dropping out of the race complaining it was too cold, I guess an intense 1 hour cyclocross race is easier to stay warm than a 4 hour muddy marathon. From the start I was off the pace, I just couldn’t go the speed of the riders I’d been racing the previous days. Was I getting ill? Had I not recovered? Something was wrong. I wasn’t sure if I’d actually make the finishing line. I slipped back through the race losing more and more time. I went through the emotion’s mid-way through the stage when the realisation hit me that the top 5 GC result I’d focused on over the winter was now gone, it was one of my big objectives for the year. Other victims on this cruel day included Carabin whose gear lever stopped working, he was only able to shift into an easier gear, I caught him on a tarmac descent at 15 kilometres to go whilst he was stuck in a gear at the top of his cassette. With both of us just trying to get to the finish, I gave him a push for a while, a friendly gesture on a tough day, maybe both of us could recover for a good race result on the final stage. Back at the front of the race Van der Poel has soloed away to take victory, Becking took another 2nd place and Timo Kielich (Iko biobank) took 3rd. A resurgent Frans Claes had bounced back after the previous days issues to take 5th on the day 3 and move up to 3rd overall, a strong performance from this talented rider. The women’s race results were far more unpredictable with Trommer taking victory today and moving into the leaders jersey, Luthi finishing 2nd and Hoeke in 3rd. The previous days winner Janas lost 14 minutes. Riders finished looking they’d just completed a hard day in the coal mines, coated head to toe in thick wet mud. We discovered after the stage that a wheel issue causing resistance was what slowed me down, it was the equivalent to riding with the brakes on all day, mechanicals suck and even more so when you’re racing for a podium result in a such a big race.
Miraculously the sun rose after stage 2 finished, blue skies appeared and the trails began to dry. Day 4 was a mere 62 kilometres but with 2200 metres climbing it could be the hardest day of the race. It was still pretty muddy out there in places but the majority of the trails were dry, this stage was what BeMC is all about, riders smiles gleamed from ear to ear. Becking once again drove the pace early taking 2 riders away with him, Van der Poel and Alleman. Behind a group of 4 formed including Claes and myself. Claes was riding a smart race looking to safely secure his 3rd place overall, no risks today. I was looking to go for a stage result after yesterdays issues but at the midway mark my chain started jumping and came off the bottom jockey wheel, the chain lodged itself between the jockey wheel and rear derailleur cage. By the time I’d stopped, got the multitool out and fixed the issue the group had long gone. We had a such a big gap over the next big group that I rode alone for about 15 kilometres before being swept up. I rode towards the finish with that group until it split on the second ascent of the Wall of Borzee, I raced to the line with Icelandic rider Ingvar Omarsson (Novator-Orninn). Van der Poel took a 4th straight stage victory and securing the overall win. Becking finished 2nd on the day and overall, a strong performance each day, he’ll be one to watch for the rest of the season. Alleman took 3rd on the day. Claes finished safely to take a well deserved 3rd place overall. In the ladies race Janas took another victory but it wasn’t enough to claim back the overall lead. Hoeke finished 2nd on day 4 and 2nd overall. Trommer finished 3rd which was enough to take the overall win in a tight race.