Hope Factory Racing sent two of their riders, National Champion Paul Oldham and Under-23 Jack Clarkson, to Belgium last weekend to compete in two big European Cyclo-Cross races.
Jack Clarkson writes ... The initial plan for the weekend was to send Paul and Dave Collins but due to Dave having other commitments, Paul rang me Thursday evening asking me if I could go instead! Following a bit of hesitation – I’d have my own work commitments to sort out – I gave him the word and the following morning Hope was on the road.
Friday was essentially a long drive down to Belgium, broken by a stop-off for some food at a traditional steak house – before we ended up at our Belgian host’s house. Looking after us was Peter, who spends the summer months as Belgian rider Tom Meeusen’s mountain bike mechanic and the winter ones as ours! Peter gave us a real insight into a mountain bike mechanic’s world.
Our accommodation was near Gent, which meant a three hour drive to the first race, the GP Hasselt. Heavy traffic held us up, but Paul and I did get a few laps in before the under-23 race. Due to a dire shortage of UCI Ranking points, I was gridded on the back row and had approximately 60 riders in front of me. The continental traffic light starts are a completely different thing to the UK system: you learn the first of your pedal strokes has to be gentle, just to get your foot in to your pedal, before the sprinting begins.
The Hasselt course is pretty flat and fast, with two big sandpits, a cobbled section and a set of logs/hurdles. My first lap was all about keeping it smooth and making the most of every place I could to run past people through the sand pits and moving up through groups on the straights. I struggled to get any sort of rhythm during the first half to three quarters of the race but after I got over this and I began to make up more places. I was in a group of three riders for most of the race and finally managed to break away from them to catch the next rider as the race was finishing.
After a swift turn around, it was time for Paul to line up on his snazzy Hope bike, the only one in the race with disc brakes. Actually, the Hope bikes attracted a lot of attention around the team van (we were parked at the side of the Stybar team). Paul had better gridding than myself and had a good first few laps but admitted later that he struggled for the majority of the race with his breathing. I finally finished in 48th place and Paul in 35th place. A swift get away, good tea and early to bed left us well prepared for the second day’s racing in Gavere.
The Hope van may have been overshadowed, but Paul Oldham’s Hope bike certainly attracted some attention.
Gavere was hosting the fourth round of the Superprestige series and we were faced with a completely different course – a shorter, more technical lap with a lot of climbing and no real dismounts, all on the edge of a big lake and army training base.
Another poor grid position meant I had to fight to make my way towards the front on the start. Adding to the confusion, I was caught up behind a big crash of at least 10 – 15 riders. I rapidly skidded to a halt before dismounting, running over and round the fallen riders. However, the leaders had by then gone and I had to chase for the remainder of the race. I had a bit of a battle with fellow Brit Andy Hargroves (Hargroves Cycles) before he crashed, getting some good TV coverage in the process!
With three laps to go, I was finally pulled from the race due to the 80% rule. Paul was the next rider up riding the senior race and he also had some first lap issues, having to avoid a rider on the floor and in the process rolling his tub (interestingly, carcass from base tape, not base tape from rim), forcing him to change bikes.
However, he kept focused and strong trying to chase on to the back of the third group and he was rewarded with a 30th place finish. As ever with European visits, there was no time to relax and put our feet up – we had to swiftly exit the race venue and were soon heading on the road back to the channel tunnel and home.
These weekends are an amazing learning experience and this one in particular was an insight in to what Under 23 international bike races are like. Big thanks goes to my new team, Hope Technology, Paul Oldham for the invite, Peter for his hospitality over the weekend and finally to Jon Hopkinson who acted as our pit chief.