The Belgium Mountain Bike Challenge might only be 3 days but it’s impossible not to get wrapped up in it. Eat, race, eat, sleep, repeat. The post race depression quickly kicks in as reality strikes. No sooner had we finished the final 6 hour stage we were on the road driving the 8 hours back to catch our Eurotunnel booking. Just enough time to grab a recovery waffle. Why do we do it? Because racing is so addictive, especially when the event is as good as this one.
Over the last 4 weeks I’ve raced in 4 different countries with 3 rounds of the UCI World Marathon Series and a 3 day stage race, pretty crazy! Tiliment Bike Marathon in Italy had big snow capped mountains and many kilometres of technical singletrack. I remembered the 2014 Roc d’Ardenne Marathon in Belgium as a fast frantic sprint through the beautiful Ardennes, this year was a complete mud bath which turned the race into a war of attrition. Meda 100 Marathon in Portugal was like riding your bike in the shower for 5 hours with someone throwing sand in your face! A tough 3 weeks followed by one of the toughest stage races about.
BeMC pack many punches, one after the other with steep climb after steep climb, you’ll be using the biggest sprocket on your Sram XX1 cassette a lot! The climbs are split by steep rough descents giving little to no respite. If it had been muddy the race would have been torture but instead this year’s race will go down as a huge success.
Stage 1 was the shortest of the 3 days at just 67km but this just meant the pace was high from beginning to end. Race favourite Sally Bigham (Topeak Ergon) punctured after just 5km with a huge sidewall cut, a 15 minute repair left her with much time to make up and hundreds of riders to overtake. After limping to the tech zone for a new wheel Sally began the chase. Up front Jovana Crnogorac (Serbian National Team), race favourite Githa Michiels (Versluys MTB Team) and Alice Pirard (Merida – Wallonie) were riding towards a podium finish. In the mens race Tiaga Ferreira (Selecao Nacional Liberty), Hector Leonardo Paez (Olympia Polimedial) and Wout Alleman (Goeman Scott Cycling) filled the mens podium. Frans Claes (Loving Hut MTB Team) was a close 4th. All the travelling and racing caught up with me after Meda 100, I got ill and didn’t recover in time for stage 1 of BeMC. I lost a big chunk of time on Friday which left me miles off my target result.
Stage 2 was a different beast to the previous day with lots of fast sections which got the kilometres done providing you were able to ride in a group. Also the climbs were a little kinder, i.e. required less use of the granny gears. The trails on Saturday were also some of the best I’ve ridden, nothing too testing but just amazing flowy singletrack. On stage 2 Sally Bigham began her comeback, she had 20 minutes to make up but over Saturdays 98km she pulled back 8 minutes on the leader Jovana Crnogorac and took the days stage. Jovana finished second on stage 2 and Karen Brouwer (KMC Koga Mitsubishi Team) was third. Alice Pirard suffered a nasty crash which knocked her out of contention for the race overall. Tiaga Ferreira took another win opening up a lead in the general classification. Soren Nissen who had stomach issues on stage 1 overcame a puncture on stage 2 to finish 2nd. Wout Alleman finished 3rd. I felt much better on Saturday after a good night’s sleep and finished 11th place matching my number board, it was nice to feel like a I could race and not just ride around with burning legs whilst getting dropped by people on folding bikes with backpacks.
On stage 3 we raced 100km’s with 3100 meters of ascent, the route travelled from La Roche en Ardenne to the legendary World Cup town Houffalize, we even did a loop of the XC track, amazing! There were a lot more steep climbs again today but so many more trails, today you needed a full suspension bike as it was rough going. Sally Bigham continued the almost impossible task of closing down another 12 minutes. Sally isn’t multiple Europe and World Championship medallist for nothing, she won the final stage by a massive 17 minutes, enough to take the overall classification. Jovana was second on the day and 2nd overall. Stefanie Dohrn (Pschick Group Racing) finished 3rd on the stage which was enough to move here up to 3rd overall. In the men’s Tiago proved unstoppable winning 3rd stage and taking the overall with a comfortable 7 minute lead. 2nd on the day went to Wout Alleman and he secured 2nd overall. Robby de Bock (KMC Mitsubishi Koga) had a fantastic ride to finish 3rd. Frans Claes crashed damaging his bike, after a bit of trail side maintenance he still managed 5th place on the day which was enough to save 3rd place overall. Soren Nissan’s who won the previous edition of BeMC ran out of luck with the stomach issues and puncture on the previous stage, on stage 3 he broke his front wheel skewer miles from a tech zone. Several riders went off the front early, I held onto the chase group for as long as possible by letting them get a little gap over the top of the climbs and then using the superior downhill capabilities of my Turner Czar to catch the group on the descent. The biggest challenge of stage 3 turned out to be the huge river crossing, it was flowing at some speed, my little legs only just managed to make it to the other side. The icy cold water wasn’t the best preparation for the long steep climb on the other side! My strategy to hold onto the chase group lasted about 60kms before the elastic snapped, I then rode the rest of the distance with another rider who was a similar speed up and down the hills. We had great fun on the downhill’s making up lots of time which allowed us to catch quite a few riders in the last 10 km’s. I outsprinted my friend to finish 11th for a second day in a row.
Once again Belgium Mountain Bike Challenge exceeded all expectations. I heard nothing but praise for the event. Everything from the staff, event location, trails, signage, facilities, race hotel and feed zones were fantastic. It was just a shame we didn’t have much time after the race to enjoy the atmosphere, we only just had enough time to grab a recovery waffle from the finish zone before driving the 8 hours back to the UK. Hopefully we’ll be back next year to enjoy the magic of BeMC and the Ardennes once again.