Report: GP de Sven Nijs GVA (C2) and GP de Ster (C2):

It just wouldn’t be a Euro ‘cross camp without learning some lessons the hard way. Well, on Sunday I paid the price for being too greedy and overconfident. But first, let me offer some background info. This year I came to camp focused on the first 4 races because they would effect team selection for Worlds. Basically, results from World Cups and any C1-level races before the end of the calender year determine discretionary picks (or, at least, that’s our understanding of the situation), and three of us are competing for the last two spots. Of course, we–Jeremy Powers, Jonathon Baker, and I–have a shot only because riders like Wells, Craig, Johnson, and McCormack have passed on Worlds, so we all, I think, are humble in our the quest!

That said, I performed well in these important races and had a strong, late-season domestic schedule record, so I feel confident in my chances. (I’ve also learned to expect the unexpected and that logic doesn’t always win the day.) In particular, I’m proud that I didn’t totally screw up either of the 2 WC’s this time. (At the previous camps, I pooched the WC in Belgium each time–hard lesson learned, indeed.) In fact, I promised myself before the camp that if I made it through the first 4 races with relative success, then I would “treat” myself to an extra, otherwise unscheduled race–the GP de Sven Nijs GVA C2 in Baal, the day after the Hooglede-Gits WC and the day before the scheduled GP de Ster C2 in Sint-Niklaas. That would make 3 in a row and 6 in 10 days, and there would still be another on Wednesday. I’ve raced such a schedule here in Europe before and held up fine, so I didn’t think twice about it this time….Big mistake!

This year I came to camp sick and raced the first 3 still sick, never feeling good, or like myself, ya know. Then, Hooglede was simply the harshest ‘cross I’ve done. In hindsight, I went to Baal not at all recovered, not at all prepared. The previous night I struggled to sleep because my heart rate would not come down, and my body was so sore from all the running at the WC. My equipment was no better because the mechanics were also torched: one bike alone had broken housing, a crooked stem and loose headset, a tubular with its casing split, etc. The staff was beat: we got to the race late, which is exceedingly rare with our crew. I didn’t pre-ride a full lap; I forgot to sign in; and I spent what little prep-time I had frantically fixing what I could on my bike in the start chute. I started the race dismally (but that’s been my M.O., so…) and quickly struggled on the relatively short (well under 7min. lap), slow, hilly, terribly technical, sticky-mud soaked course.

Actually, that sounds nice, and it is: I think Baal is the course here that most favors my strengths, and that’s also part of why I wanted to go. But on this given Sunday, I sucked and wouldn’t have been able to ride around a parking lot. On the 4th lap I at least started to get into it, dropping a couple of dudes and catching a few, one being Van Den Bergh, who had led early on and then imploded. But I was just in the top-40 and way off the pace. I had to pit due to the conditions, so I hopped on my new bike and learned that the rear tire–this one a clincher–was nearly flat due to a slow leak. Yeah! I rode it for a lap but lost contact with the others when I had to pit. After that, I was really sunk and just rode around until I got caught, which was with 2 to go. Baker, who also rode, had even worse form and luck, lasting for maybe 30min. I’m glad he came with–we were of like mind before and after the race! Yup, we would have done well to not race, rest the bodies and minds, repair our equipment, and try for a good race the next day. You just don’t “wing it” at a GVA, Super Prestige, or World Cup….

As a racer, you have to always first find the positive in every race: you live for and with the good things, the successes. Then, you must study and learn from your failures but otherwise quickly forget them. I, however, admit on Monday morning I was having a real hard time putting it behind me and thinking positively. I was way down, dwelling on it. I’m an amateur bike racer, and I race, really, for self-improvement. I set short- and long-term goals, try to achieve them, and then set some new ones–I just want to see how far I can honestly go with this whole “professional” bike racing thing as an amateur. My primary goal of this season–and last year’s goal was the same–was to ride well at ‘cross camp, which means to ride better at camp each year. So, I was down because I felt it slipping away. I was so tired. Even though my legs felt a bit better, a bit looser, my “engine”, if you will, felt like my station wagon’s must feel like when I forget to shift and drive on the freeway in 3rd gear.

Anyway, I figured I was done and should maybe go home a few days early. I knew I had traded a great chance at a good result in Sint-Niklaas for a disaster in Baal followed by a sub-par outing at Sint-Niklaas. And that’s what happened! I of course decided to suck-it-up, stick-it-out, and all that, and I’m so glad I did because the race really cleared my head. I also feel like my body has been partially unearthed from a shallow grave, in a good way….We took the whole crew to Sint-Niklaas, a C2 with a combined elite and espoir field. There were 12 of us total (5 elite and 7 “beloften”), but Adam and Jesse chose not to ride, so 10 started the race. Also, the field was way better than expected, with 5 or 6 more “big guys” here than the last 2 years, including Nijs, Groenendaal, etc. The field was also large at over 75, but this race usually has more chaff than usual.

The “GP de Ster” is a very short and fast course that basically circles a lake. For a flat circuit, it’s quite varied. In this order, the course, in but 5min., manages to feature the following: a long, fast brick staightaway; twisty forest single-track; a set of double barriers with a beer tent; a greasy off-camber or 2; a short run-up and quick descent; a very fast, hard-packed dirt trail; a beach ride and run; a mud pit followed by a sand pit; and, finally, back to the bricks. Since the course is so fast, groups often form, and that’s not so good for me. (I remember last year I caught and dropped two guys on the last lap, only to have them catch me at the line in a crazy, 3-up wheel-throw for 18th.) On the other hand, I do like the course, and I love the venue and the race.

The GP de Ster is, after all, the home of my Belgian fan club–it’s hard to believe, but it’s true. I guess that’s a topic for another journal….I broke tradition and started well, putting my good start position to use. I stayed well in the top-20 early, trying to bridge to Wicks. At the end of the 2nd lap I could already feel the hard effort, and the group I was towing slowly pulled around me. Powers was in there with some Belgian and Dutch guys. Laps later, I was eventually gapped off and then 3 others caught me, all riders I usually beat, including Greg Reign from Canada. But then, these guys had not raced the last 2 toughies, so I was philosophical about it, swallowed my pride, and kept going. As those 3 pulled away from me, Troy Wells caught up and, after a lap with him, I felt a bit better. At the time, we were in the mid-20’s, but I knew we could move back up. I told him with 3 to go that we could get those guys, and so I chased hard. Unfortunately, Troy fell off the pace before 2 to go. (He rode great for 50min., and that’s all he’ll have to do at World’s. All his other races during camp have been U-23 only, and he’s consistently placed well. He may be able to go top-15 or better at World’s.)

On the next lap I caught ‘em on the off-camber section. At the time, I was on my second bike with the less favorable tires, and I knew I was taking a chance. (It’s a bike race, so I really wanted to beat ‘em. I also wanted to stay on the lead lap, and it was tight, but I had a minute’s buffer with just over a half lap to go for Nijs.) That’s when I crashed hard on said off-camber. My bars turned 45^ one way, my right STI lever turned 45^ the other way, my chain off the chainrings and the cassette–it was quite a sight. By the time I fixed my bike, Troy and 2 others passed me.

I quickly caught back up to them but so, too, did Nijs. I rode in behind Troy, the other 2, and Nijs, but I’m not sure where I was classified or if it is was even done accurately. I don’t care about that when I’m lapped–I just want to finish on the lead lap. And I would have, too, and that’s what sucks. At the first ‘cross camp 2 years ago, I started 7 races, finishing 2 on the lead lap, getting lapped by mere seconds in 2, getting lap with two laps to go in 2, and dropping out of 1.

Last year, I finished 9 of my 10 European ‘crosses on the lead lap. I’m proud that I’m a decent enough rider this year and last so that I can even have a bad day on a short course and, usually, not get lapped. But when a big crash or mechanical is added to the bad day stew, anything can happen….I assume the 3 I was chasing made it, unless they sat up. I know that Powers was the next guy in front of them, and he, I think, finished 21st. Trebon and Wicks finished 16th and 17th, but Ryan spent a lot of time in the top-10. They were relatively fresh because they didn’t make it far at Hooglede, but they were also banged up from their crashes that day. Page finished 5th! He also won some C2 in Luxembourg the day before, but I heard him say it wasn’t much of a race. After all, eveybody was at Baal. He skipped Hooglede because he hurt his foot at a race last Thursday. Baker had a tough day, still not recovered from the previous days’ efforts, lasting only a couple of laps. But he’ll bounce back, I’m sure….One reason why I like the Sint-Niklaas race so much is that it was there, 2 years ago, that I really became fond of Powers. The camp had been tough for him–it was sink or swim, and he had nearly drowned. But he wouldn’t give up. We went to Sint-Niklaas, and before the race he told me this: “Tonkin, I just want you to know that it is my goal today to beat you. It’s nothing personal.” I took it as a compliment because I was sure that before camp, Jeremy had never set a goal that had anything to do with me. I was also impressed with his humility. My response was this: “I’d like that very much.” That day, with just 2 to go, I ran by him in the sand, ending his effort. He was lapped with 2 to go, and I was lapped with 1 to go, less than a minute from the line. However, the next day we raced in Hoogerheide (which was last year and is this year the World Cup before World’s), and we both finished on the lead lap, and Jeremy beat me. I don’t mind at all when Powers gets me….Well, that’s it for that. I’ll write one more report after our last race on Wednesday, and maybe I’ll discuss some general ‘cross camp notes as well. Thanks to those of you who are reading these reports. I understand that Stu has posted them on his website and that response has been good. I’m thinking about making this a habit–what’s one more, ya know. I might write a weekly column of sorts and post it on my shop’s web-page, or Stu’s if he’ll let me, or whatever. What do you think?

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Erik Tonkin

Erik is co-owner of Sellwood Cycle Repair, a veteran cyclocross racer for Team Kona and a local hero to his many adoring fans. Last year, he was named to the U.S. World Championships Team along with his wife and top cyclocross racer Rhonda Mazza. Erik will be sharing race reports and cyclocross training tips and insights all season long.

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