A pilgrimage according to the Cambridge dictionary is a visit to a place is considered special. Since 2010 I’ve visited the Ardennes most years for a bike race! This obsession started when I raced the final ever Houffalize round of the UCI World Cup Cross Country Series, then a few years later in 2014 I rode my first Belgian Mountainbike Challenge, 2016 was the first visit for Roc d’Ardenne and then last year I travelled to the area for Houffa Gravel which is a round of the UCI Gravel Series. This years BeMC would be my eleventh visit to the area and sixth time at the event. The Ardennes has become a special place to me, these days I enjoy not only racing here but also bringing coaching clients with me to the area so they can experience the beautiful location, great offroad riding and famous beer! I’ll never get bored of helping people enjoy new adventures.
This year we had a packed 6-bedroom house nestled below the towering ruins of the Château de La Roche-en-Ardenne and just above the babbling water of the Ourthe river. Ahead was four days of racing with a total distance of 250 kilometers and 8000 meters of climbing. I would be bike racer, coach, host, chef, cleaner and motivator! It was exhausting and utterly consuming but amazing fun to see everyone have such a fantastic time.
From my own racing perspective, I knew that this year I came into the event a little under prepared. With the focus on gravel racing I had only ridden my mountain bike a handful of times since my last mountain bike race in March! In the weeks before BeMC I tried to cram as much time riding the trails as possible, the spring weather didn’t help, intervals would be done on the road followed by very muddy offroad miles on the trails. This event requires skills and confidence for the descents and the ability to produce a lot of force for the super steep climbs, this all takes time to build. Despite my less-than-optimal preparation I knew that I needed a strong result, this event is one of only three events that will form my qualification bid for World Champs in Scotland this August. In previous years I had consistently finished between eleventh and sixteenth place at BeMC, what was possible in 2023?
On Thursday morning the tenth edition of BeMC began, the short 21-kilometer prologue was a small introduction to what was to come but with 750 meters of climbing it packed a punch! This year the prologue would start and each stage would finish in Berismenil, a few kilometres outside of La Roche. Here the event sprawled out in the countryside with spectators lining the track at the start finish line and out on course by some of the more challenging features like the famous Wall of Borzee. From the start line we would sprint down the start ramp, take a left turn and then a right before climbing out of the arena and then plummeting into the first trail of the race, a narrow twisting roller coaster that dropped you to the base of a tricky little rooty climb. After a two-minute descent you were already onto one of the toughest climbs of the race, the main part of Borzee is only 0.2 kilometres long but with an average gradient of 23.3% and the loose ground it’s one heck of a challenge! After winching your way up this monster in the granny gear you then make a quick descent before the next climb! The biggest climb of the day was much longer than Borzee taking around 15 minutes but still with a solid gradient of over 8%. This might sound too much to handle but if you remember to lift your chin off your stem to take in the views and aren’t too out of breath to enjoy the sensational descents then you’ll thoroughly enjoyed this race! After 18 kilometres you crest the last hill and freefall back towards the arena, the finish arch and the tasty post-race feed zone packed with sweets and pancakes!
I ripped my way round the prologue to finish eighth, a good position but expected time gaps to be smaller given the effort put in. Frans Claes in first and Simon Vitzthum in second were within two seconds but had a 45 second gap to third place! I was 1 minute 38 back in a 48-minute stage. A stark reminder that there were some super-fast athletes racing who get paid to ride their bikes full time. Simon Gregoire who was racing the open category last year, now racing the elites finished third. Haley Smith won the elite women’s prologue with a minute’s gap ahead of Bettina Janas and Amy Wakefield.
Every day I spend in the Ardennes this place amazes me, day two of the race was no different despite not having the best sensations. After feeling amazing during the prologue I rode like a diesel all of day two, I lacked the normal watts for some reason which meant I couldn’t move forwards on the first climb when needed and missed the front group/s when it split. Still, it was one heck of a fun day! A super tough route profile as per normal BeMC but wow some of the trails were amazing! I have the bike setup this year with 120mm travel on the fork from SR Suntour and a Magura Vyron dropper post which has completely transformed my riding on these trails, I have gone from fearing my life in previous years to grinning my way down the trails this year! This didn’t stop me collecting a huge tree we had to bunny hop on one of the descents, I lifted my front wheel over the tree successfully but was carrying too much speed. My back wheel whacked the tree with so much force I was amazed I hadn’t punctured or smashed my new wheels from Strada, thank goodness for a decent wheel build, rear suspension and tyre inserts!
On day two I finished in twenty-first place, it was a blip amongst what would be three other strong days but at the time it felt like a big disappointment. I’ve learnt though that if you keep your head up and keep plugging away then good things can still happen. Simon Vitzthum won, one second ahead of Frans to keep their battle for the leaders jersey going. Andre L’Esperance from Canada finished third. Haley Smith took her second stage win of the race ahead of Janas Bettina and Amy Wakefield.
After a good nights sleep I felt transformed, sensations were so much better today. I was still not feeling 100% but felt like I was racing again, unlike day two’s diesel effort. I could just about get on the back of the lead group for the first twenty kilometres. I then got dispatched which I was fine with, the pace in our little second group was much more controlled. Day three was a real highlight of the race, once away from La Roche we raced over some rolling hills with some amazing trails. Then at halfway we reached the black diamond trails at Houffalize, last year I lost a chunk of time here but today I was flying! The second half of the stage included many more testing climbs but I felt good until about ten kilometres to go. The icy water through the long river crossing hike did nothing to refresh the legs. A few more BIG climbs and BIG descents took us to the finish. I finished eleventh with just fifteen seconds separating me from the top ten.
The front group split apart by the finish with South African Tristan Nortje taking the win ahead of Frans Claes and Andre L’Esperance. Simon Vitzthum suffered a mechanic whish lost him 8 and a half minutes on the general classification battle. Haley Smith yet again took the win, this time ahead of Bettina Janas and Joyce Vanderbeken.
Day four was the baby of the three marathons at just sixty kilometres but with over 2000 meters climbing it was going to be a huge battle! The opening climb at almost twenty minutes began proceedings, I gave my all to hang onto the lead group but again the pace was super punchy, by around a third distance I had been dispatched. There is some work needed to get that extra percent. The legs felt really strong but I could tell the battery was only half full. There were some absolutely amazing trails again today, some ridiculously steep ups and one massive smelly bog, all in a normal day at this race!
After being dispatched I rode alone for a while, the trails at this point in the stage were some of the highlights of the four days, I took my time to enjoy these kilometres before the racing went into full flight mode again on the next climb. This flowy rooty singletrack descent took us from feed zone two all the way to the base of the hills close to La Roche. As traditional for day four we completed two laps, lap two took a different route back up into the hills. This time taking on the most challenging climb of the race, as soon as we started heading in that direction I knew what was coming, I’ve descending that trail loads of times in previous years and it gets the brakes red hot. Climb it made your knees creak! Engage the smallest gear, keep the weight far enough forwards to stop the front wheel from rising, but make sure you maintain rear wheel traction on the loose rocks. Once you’d completed this wall there was just four more climbs to go but I’m sure this half a kilometre ascent with its average gradient of fourteen percent and peak gradient of over forty percent finished plenty of people off. The climb splintered our little group that had formed, from the top it was full gas to the finish, the rev limiter was off, we could smell the Chouffe beer at the end!
I raced hard to the line to finish thirteenth and secure ninth in the general classification. Andrew L’Esperance took the stage win ahead Tristan Nortje and Frans Claes. Haley Smith won four out of four stages, on day four Bettina Janas and Joyce Vanderbeken would fill the podium.
The top three men in the GC were Frans Claes, followed by Andre L’Esperance and Tristan Nortje. The top three ladies were Hanley Smith, Bettina Janas and Joyce Vanderbeken.
This is the first time I can remember doing this race with four days of sunshine, we have been waiting many years for a dry dusty BeMC. Years have gone by with wet muddy conditions and rain falling from the sky, a hard race made even tougher by the weather. We paid our dues in years gone by and this year we were finally paid back! Four days of racing around dry dusty trails within this beautiful region of Belgium, many lifelong memories made. In the evening after stage four we sat on the cobbled streets of La Roche en Ardenne eating pizza and ice cream, everyone with very tired legs but smiling and laughing about the adventures of the past four days. That evening and the next morning our little group, like the rest of the participants, dispersed back towards home. We travelled from Norway, Sweden and the UK, but there were others from places as faraway as the USA, Canada and South Africa. Will you be one of those travelling to BeMC in 2024?