For the past year I have been dying to make the trip over to the cycling holy land of Belgium to race. Having raced the European junior cycling Tour in Assen for the past four years I was desperate for more international trips. In January this year I really started looking into it all. I couldn’t find very much online, hence the reason for writing this guide with the aim to encourage more girls to go and experience the racing that Belgium has to offer.
The first and really the only thing I knew about racing in Belgium is that you need a letter of authority from British Cycling, as well as a calendar card which they get from Cycling Flanders for you. In Belgium you can only race a maximum amount of three races per week. In order to police this you have calendars cards which are quite simply an A4 piece of card with a calendar on it. I ordered my calendar card in early February and it arrived a month later. Bear that time delay in mind! Now we enter the big unknown world of finding races. This is where I was slightly frustrated with the lack of information I could find. Google translate became my life saver at this point! We discovered that Junior and Neuligan girls (u16) mostly race together in 1.16 category races. If there is no 1.16 race then you can either ride down with the Neuligan (youth) boys or ride in an elite women’s race. We found a 1.16 race which was the support race to the De Brabantse Pjil pro race in the April holidays so decided to give it a go.
Arriving in Leuvern, Belgium (where we were staying) the day before the race, my dad and I decided to go and check the course out. I am very glad we did this. As we turned onto the course, which was a major road though the town, not only was I questioning that a major road was going to be closed off, but also the fact that it featured a very, very large hill. We checked again and it was definitely the course. We drove up to the top of the hill where they were setting everything up for the finish of the pro race. After the hill I saw a tight left hander into a residential street which was quite a contrast to the two lane road the hill was on. The residential street featured vast amounts of traffic calming road furniture which was going to really line the race out. You took a slight right hand bend into another road, again featuring traffic calming, however it was the start of the crazy decent. You went straight down though two trees designed to slow the traffic down then round a not very tight bend and then straight down and into a really tight left hander which you also then turned immediately left out of. The decent was noticeably a poorer surface, especially on the tight bends. I assumed these would be taken slowly!
The rest of the course was again on the big wide roads back to the bottom of the hill, so nothing too difficult apart from two bends in the town centre which were very town centre crit like. We drove it a few times and then headed back to the hotel to grab some food and a good nights sleep.
Race day came and although I was extremely nervous, I was also really excited. After arriving early to avoid the road closure for both my own race and the pro mens, I went to find sign on. For those who don’t know me well, I am not at all confident and very shy, so trying to find sign on wasn’t exactly my dream. Luckily the organisers were really nice and helpful, and pointed me in the right direction. However they also asked me which nation I was from and named practically all the countries in Western Europe. All that went though my head was “Dad you said this was a regional level race”. Unlike the UK, where you can see the pre entrants online, you can’t in Belgium. I joined the queue for what I thought was sign on, but it turned out to be just to see the start list. When I made it to the sheet I noticed the large amount of teams which clearly weren’t from Belgium. Now feeling very scared, I joined the actual sign on queue. When I eventually made the front of it, I signed in the box for my number, 21, paid my entry and also made my payment to Flemish Cycling, which you are required to do on your first race. I wandered out past all the other girls wondering why I was here, as they all looked like they where going to be good ,and they weren’t even on bikes!
After getting ready and a quick warm up, I went over to the line 15 minutes before the start as indicated in the race notes. I was on the third row with about 7 rows behind me. I launched my warm up kit at my dad and had a gel whilst trying to use my best Dutch and work out what the commissaire was saying. I worked out the start was neutralised until the start of the decent and decided that was all I really needed to know.
The count down was shown above and before I knew it we were off, behind the commissaire’s car. The Belgium idea of neutralised was not exactly the same as mine. We were flying on a flat road with a head wind at 25mph. I was sat middle of the bunch, but killing myself to hold wheels. The traffic calming wasn’t too bad as everyone was communicating really well. At the top of the hill the car accelerated away. We shot down the decent so fast. The road surface wasn’t, as I expected, great so to say it was scary was an understatement. I was so filled with adrenaline I didn’t think twice. I looked down at my Garmin briefly before the tight bend and we were at well over 40mph as breaks slam on as we come into the two tight bends. Out of the bends we flew, going at a crazy fast pace back though the town where large crowds were gathering. We came into the bottom of hill mostly still together, but minus some local girls who had already dropped off the back. We went flying up the hill and I remember thinking how out of my league I was, but I was determined to make the trip worth while. I made it to the top of the huge hill comfortably in the bunch which was rather a shocker looking at the riders who had been dropped. Round we went again, flying back down the hill and round on the lovely Belgium roads. Second time up the hill and I was still hanging in the bunch. Third time up the hill I suspected the pace would ease off. Oh how wrong was I! I had worked out which girls to watch. Basically everyone left in the bunch!
Suddenly one of them jumped across to the other side of the road. I tried to follow her which I did, but as three more came across I couldn’t hold the pace so settled for the main bunch as they went flying up the road. I suspected we could get the four of them back and although we closed them right in later on, we never got them. The race continued with the four riders away out front. With the bunch going as fast as it was, I seemed to be getting stronger on the climb the more the race went on. With three laps to go there was about 25 or so of us in the bunch which was really small in comparison to the large amount of girls on the start line. I was so shocked with myself for making it this far. By this point the crowds around the course where amazing. Your classic drunken Belgian running up the extremely steep part of hill was just brilliant. With two laps to go another four girls attacked and got away. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I suspect I wasn’t strong enough to go with them any way. The last lap was so fast given that we had been racing for over an hour and a half. I moved from the middle of the bunch to second wheel. As the climb flattened out a bit there was crazy sprint for the line for 8th position and down. The crowds at this point didn’t disappoint and I couldn’t stop smiling as I came up to the line. I somehow managed to get 14th Junior, which I was unaware at that point had landed me a nice little cash envelope! I was so happy as before the start my expectation was that I would be happy to still be in the bunch at the bottom of the hill on the first lap.
Once I had semi-recovered and was able to speak, yet still hardly able to walk from all the climbing, I went to see if I needed to hand my number back in. I asked the organiser who said “no”, however he thought the British girl had prize money to collect. I was shocked as I collected my envelope as we never have this sort of prize money for a junior girls race in the UK. Belgian racing really was a massive eye opener to me. Not only did I get to experience some of the best racing in my age group in the world, but I also got to see how my riding style suits Belgium races much more than it does at home.
On top of all of this, I saw how important Junior girls races are in Belgium. Something that hopefully in the next decade we might be able to say about the UK. If anyone out there ever as any questions about racing abroad feel free to contact myself or the Liv AWOL team on social media.