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Three Rides Closer

A three-hour ride to, and participating in, a cyclocross race - and then riding home - might just do the trick.

Words by Jeff Lockwood / Photos by Rik Van Bruggen

A solid month of cramped economy class seating, poor eating habits, too much beer and a bad sleep schedule was barely 24 hours behind me, but its toll was already paid. I was feeling slightly hungover and dealing with a bit of lingering jet lag.

Things get complicated when living between two countries while wanting to be in only one, having family across the ocean, and working for an international company. Compounding all of this is the regret of having ridden quite a bit less in 2022 than in years past.

In an effort to break free from the funk and refill the self-preservation coffers from which I was already overdrawn, it was time to tick away some good kilometers, hang with a friend, challenge myself, and jam as much Belgium into one day as possible. I needed to stretch my legs and mind literally and figuratively - putting enough distance between myself and the mundanity and grinding of life’s hassles and worries, if only for several hours.

A three-hour ride to, and participating in, a cyclocross race (and then riding home) might just do the trick.

Rik was agreeable to my promise of free beer in exchange for him acting as wingman, navigator and soigneur for the day. He was at my door at 9:30, as planned, and patiently waited for me to complete a few more pre-race and -ride tasks and routines. At least my Swiss Cross sat prepared in the work stand just as I left it a few weeks ago in anticipation of this morning’s scurrying about – needing only some air in the tires and to cram the saddle and frame bags with the day’s needs.

Ritchey - Three Rides Closer

As we clicked away the kilometers, the day’s lovely autumn weather was a welcome variation from what would normally be expected for Belgian cyclocross conditions this time of year. While there is a certain romanticism in watching the pros slug it out in demoralizing mud and cold, I was very grateful for a dry and mostly windless ride with the warming sun making brighter the multi-colored leaves above.

Most of the 65-kilometer ride out to Ham (yes, the village is named Ham) was along the Albert Canal, which I’d normally avoid because of its unremarkable scenery and its usual brutal headwinds. But it’s car-free and the most direct route to the race venue, so east we rode.

Ritchey - Three Rides Closer

Upon arrival, I transformed the Swiss Cross from long-ride mule to kick-ass race whip by quickly pulling the bags, removing the lights, and bleeding some air from the tires. I pinned on my number, shed some layers and set out for a couple of laps to get the lay of the land.

It took a mere 100 meters to realize most of the energy departed my legs somewhere back in April. But my excitement and determination were burning brightly, stoking the fire of anticipation. Plus, my goal for the day was not to dominate the race, but to get lost in the effort and experience.

A humble circuit of about two-and-a-half kilometers, the course weaved around (and through) a soccer pitch and featured cobblestones, a couple stretches of lovely singletrack through the woods, a few hairpins, and a section with laughably low barriers set up in front of the café terrace. But missing were the thousands of drunken cyclocross fans lining the course tape so often associated with ‘cross races in Belgium. This is as local and low-key as a race series can get - racers are lucky if their significant others bother to come watch. Spectators numbered in the low teens.

Ritchey - Three Rides Closer - Cyclocross

After a surprisingly decent start from the last row, my heightened adrenaline levels quickly dropped to my now-familiar baseline fatigue. Within three laps, I found myself in that weird space where I was too beat to reach anyone in front of me, and all I had to do was stay upright and maintain my speed so that the person 100 meters back remained there.

Ritchey Cyclocross - Three Rides Closer

Rik, while peacefully consuming two delicious-looking Kasteel bruin beers, kept the motivation going with shouts of encouragement from at least three different spots on each lap. As I arrived 10th across the finish line, he was there with one of those blessed beers extended my way. If that wasn’t award enough, the crisp €5 prize money I earned ensured us another round.

With a chill quickly setting in, I got myself and my stuff together, crammed it all back on the bike, and we set out for home. Rik, being a responsible navigator and advisor, made the wise call that we ride 30km to Mol, enjoy some fritjes and cheap yellow beer, and catch a train back to Antwerp.

About 5km outside Mol, I started to bonk in a serious way. While it was a concern, I took some satisfaction and comfort in that blurry, weak, and cold feeling - a sensation with a genesis in deep effort, which has been missing from my life for a while. Though this was not the only ‘bonk’ of the day.

I fumbled deliriously with a life-saving granola bar gifted to me by Rik as he put about 150 meters on me along a bike path passing a shopping center. Through my distorted, slow-motion sense of reality, it seemed that Rik was picking himself off the ground, throwing things and cursing. My fog immediately evaporated when I realized what had just occurred. Thankfully, Rik foresaw the series of events and was almost at a standstill when the car slowly bonked into him. Fortunately, he was uninjured, and his three-week-old custom titanium bike suffered only bent bottle cages.

Once the insurance information was shared, we rolled on to a random frituur in Mol and tore through a couple Jupiler pilsners and large piles of greasy, hot, and salty fries before boarding a crowded one-hour train back to Antwerp.

Ritchey Cyclocross - Fritjes

My Belgian pilgrimage and desire to re-center turned into a bit more of an adventure than I anticipated. But after finishing the day with Rik and his wife Katleen graciously welcoming me into their home for a homemade traditional Belgian dinner of stoofvlees, fritjes and salad, I paused for a moment, drew a satisfactory breath and was finally at peace in Belgium – if only for a few hours more.

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