“Belgium for the Holidays” by Crystal Anthony

As a full-time teacher and a ‘cross racer, I’m used to an often frenetic schedule of working, training, traveling, racing, and working again. My coworkers laugh when they ask about my weekend, knowing I’ll probably say something like “Oh, I was in Oregon” or maybe Europe. Likewise, my racing friends laugh when they ask when I’ve flown in for the race, as I’ve usually said something like “last night around midnight.” I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy the rewards of two careers, though sometimes it takes a concerted effort to manage the tricky balance.

One really nice way the two meld is during Kerstperiod — the Belgian Christmas week of cyclocross —since it corresponds to school vacation. Repeating my trip last year, this year I planned to race the Namur and Zolder World Cup races as well as two C1 races in Loenhout and Diegem, in a seven-day period. Leading up to Christmas vacation, I had worked a full week and had scheduled an overnight flight for Friday that landed Saturday morning in Brussels, at which point my gracious host Tatjana Jonckheere would pick me up and we’d go straightaway to the World Cup course in Namur for the afternoon pre-ride. After work Friday afternoon, my dear friend Jordan Dubé not only gave me a ride to Logan Airport in awful rush hour traffic, but also surprised me with personally designed rider cards for the Belgian fans! Things seemed pretty great up until about 4:30 p.m. when the first leg of my flight got delayed due to congested traffic in Montreal resulting from winter storms all day. “Don’t worry your connections will be delayed too,” the attendant reassured.

Montreal Airport - delayed!

Once in Montreal, however, the screens confirmed that the Brussels flight had already departed — on time. Any energy and patience on that last day of school before vacation had expired around 10:00 a.m. when my student Carlos decided to steal Rafael’s pen and then click it repeatedly on his desk like a metronome — and now all of Canada had just started clicking pens. After waiting in immigration and retrieving my 140lbs of luggage, I hauled myself to re-ticketing.  The line was so long that agents were handing out pamphlets with phone numbers to call while in line because the two agents still working were only going to deal with hotel vouchers. I waited on hold for forty-five minutes before a very cheerful women announced that she had two really great options for me: Fly the next day to Chicago, then London, then Munich, then to Brussels arriving Sunday afternoon. Or fly out Sunday night on the same direct flight to Brussels I’d just missed. Both of these really great options meant missing the Namur World Cup altogether, not only my favorite of the four races I’d planned, but also a valuable source of UCI points. With no other choice however, I opted to take the direct flight on Sunday night and the agent suggested coming back tomorrow to get on standby on the Saturday night flight, since it was currently full but there might be some no-shows.

Around 11:00 p.m. I finally got my vouchers and headed to catch the shuttle to the hotel. I had texted Jordan so that she could message Tatjana since I had no Internet access. She also started searching for other flight options and found several but none that would get me to Namur. So, I had one shot: getting on standby the next night. Forty-five minutes later the shuttle pulled up, and I stepped from whipping icy winds outside the YUL airport into a warm shuttle blaring Latin dance music: I was so delirious I started to giggle. The fiesta-happy shuttle driver assisted me in getting my plethora of luggage off the vehicle and wondered what I could possibly be carrying. When I explained, and explained my situation, he seemed amenable to getting some passengers lost on the way to the airport so that I could get a seat on Saturday’s flight, which was kindly of him. In hindsight, getting a great night of sleep in a comfortable bed, waking up at my leisure, getting in a”ride”with openers on the stationary bike in the gym, and putting my feet up all day probably wasn’t the worst way to spend Saturday!

Incidentally, when I went to ride the bike in the gym, BBC was airing a show about Syria and the horrific effects of the violence there: a solid dose of perspective while I worried about making a flight! I believe in putting my all into whatever I do and think that I’ve that effort that makes it worthwhile. But, safe to say that was a reminder of the blessings of safety, comfort, and relative continuity in our daily lives.

That afternoon, I became increasingly antsy sitting and waiting, and I’d already called the pamphlet hotline six times throughout the day in the hopes of getting good news, to no avail. Finally, I left for the airport at 3:30 p.m. This shuttle driver also tuned in to a Latin merengue song. Was I really in Montreal? In line at the re-ticketing counter, I chatted with an older man who was spending his first Christmas away from home in what appeared to be about sixty-five years. “I’m supposed to be wiggling my toes in the sand in the Canary Islands,” he said, somewhat sadly. “I’ve been in this line four times since yesterday.” We stood without moving for forty minutes as two couples had the two agents calling and pecking away at keyboards to their continued dissatisfaction. The agents laughed and strolled about with no sense of urgency. One couple paced back and forth while the other proceeded to break out a picnic basket full of drinks and sandwiches and the woman sat down on the baggage scale and broke open a soda. The man in front of us turned toward us and raised his eyebrows. I shrugged and shook my head. Meanwhile the Priority boarding line had dwindled down and one agent was free. Ditching my cart, I ducked under two sets of lane ropes and cut over to the open agent.

The woman heard me out, but upon checking her computer, said no, I couldn’t get on standby, the flight was overbooked. Having done my research throughout the day, I mentioned that there was only one overbooking and so that would only take two cancelations. She said she’d ask her manager. He said no, I had bags and therefore he couldn’t put me on standby and risk my not going with my bags. I then teared up, and vaguely remember explaining something about the World Cup and the points and the Worlds team. “Ok, ok, we’ll do this for you.” It took about 30 minutes to produce a boarding pass, and the two women consulting at the counter were chatting in French about how they couldn’t do that sort of override on any itinerary connected to the US, as Homeland Security wants to know where all Americans are at all times. “Just delete that…and that… yes and that too. Get rid of anything American on there…” the more experienced agent prompted. Apparently, I was going off the grid.

The Canary Islands traveler had extracted my enormous cart from the ticket line for me, and I felt a little bad that I’d just cut lines in front of him. I wished him good luck and then had to take my bike case over and deposit it at oversized baggage, a small room with an x-ray machine located down a dim alley around a left-hand corner. The two guys manning the machine told me to hoist my case onto the pad, then asked if I was sure it was just a bike inside. I panicked, worried they’d ping me for two bikes! When I paused, the agent prodded:

“you’re sure you’re not bringing guns or assault weapons?”

“Um, no.”

“Well, we’ll see about that.”

Perhaps it was just a slow day at the office and they desperately wanted to make a big catch.

“Ok, it is ok, put it on the conveyor.”

I purchased a grilled chicken and feta salad with lots of great veggies, a coconut water, and Odwalla drink for my $30 Canadian vouchers. Then I had to eat the salad “chopstick” style because I realized I’d grabbed two knives rather than a fork and knife. Time to wait again. I sat watching a family with twin boys who were also sitting at the gate, and the father was lying on the airport floor counting and playing with them with the airport-provided toys. The two 5-year-olds eventually found something else to interest them elsewhere, and it took a few minutes for the weary father to register that he was prostate on the carpet, alone, and he suddenly snapped to and got up sheepishly. Another observation of note: Canadians use red to accent every outfit: red pants and orange jacket, red scarf with blue jacket, red shirt and yellow sweater, red shoes and purse and green pants.

Finally, boarding commenced on time, and I began to have a glimmer of hope. The glimmer flickered dangerously as we then sat on the tarmac for thirty minutes, then at de-icing for thirty more minutes. We were an hour late! A stiff tailwind helped us make up some time, and in Brussels, fortunately all my bags made it and Tatjana and her boyfriend Glenn Gleenens my mechanic were waiting for me! We hustled to the van and drove to Namur, got lost for about thirty minutes, but then found USA Cycling to retrieve my numbers, and started building bikes. It was a flurry of tightening, pinning, zipping, and pumping, but I got on the trainer for a bit and then onto the course for two laps. Fortunately, I’d raced the course the year before so it was familiar to me. I got on the trainer again and then to the start, just like any old cross race. There’s nothing like being holed up in hotels and sitting planes for motivation to ride the heck out of a race! I wanted to make it all count after the ordeal getting there and that adrenaline helped compensate for any travel fatigue. I’d never been so appreciative of being at a start line!

Race start line

 

While I did sort of zone out in a fog at the start line for a second, once the light went green I just got into the zone. The thing about European racing is that it’s just hard, quality racing even though there’s not much loud pomp and circumstance. Aside from announcing Katie Compton as the current World Cup leader, no grand and embellished call-ups, not even a gun at the start, just the quiet red to green light. Even the paying crowds, in the dozens of thousands, are oddly subdued. The courses are challenging enough that you’re focused more on racing the features of the course rather than the other riders. Also the European races tend to have a few major, trademark features, while US courses have a smorgasbord of smaller features. Namur has long steep climbs and terrifying descents with right turns at the bottom!

Mud

 

Uphill

 

 

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