Rapencross in Lokeren. It was up there with the hardest courses I’ve raced: filthy muddy, filled with tricky technical bits, and had a field of pretty top notch competitors to boot. And it wasn’t even a UCI race. Technically it’s classified as a Belgian ‘B’ race which basically means it’s the highest level of amateur racing in the country. Not to diminish all the great UCI racing we have in North America, but in Belgian the amateur racing is on par with anything that we’d see in all but the best produced C1 races on our side of the ocean.
On a normal weekend the field of a ‘B’ race is filled with top level amateurs who, for whatever reason, weren’t able to secure a start contract from the UCI race that weekend. To give you some idea of the quality of these riders, the race this past weekend had three riders from Marlux - Napoleon Games, three from ERA - Circus, another couple from Crelan - Vastgoedservice, plus a smattering of other big amateur teams. Basically the rules state that you can’t race a ‘B’ race if your are a professional or ranked inside the UCI top-50. Since in Belgium to be a professional you have to earn something like 30k per year in the sport, that leaves a lot of good riders who are out there who qualify.
For me, doing a ‘B’ race meant I got to practice all those Belgian specific cyclocross skills, blow out my legs after travel, and boost my confidence by doing it against a filed I’m actually competitive with. At the end of the day, that was more of less what I was able to accomplish. After a last row call-up because I’m not nationally ranked in Belgium, I managed to pass 45 other riders and end up in tenth. While It was far from a perfect race for me - I found myself on the ground a couple of times, found myself nearly submerged in a knew deep puddle once, and made a few more mistakes that I would have liked - but ultimately I was reminded that yes, I can race against the Belgians and yes, I do belong here. That concept of belonging in Belgium is something I talked at length about in blog from last year, but an idea I’ve recently read in Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath has given a little more academic rigour to what I has been thinking.
In David and Goliath Gladwell uses the example of selecting which University you should attend to demonstrate the merit of choosing, at least occasionally, to be the big fish in a small pond rather than the little fish in a big pond. On option, he explains, is that you could choose to go to the best university you could possibly get into; the Harvard, MIT, or the Stanford, and be a middling or even poor student there. You could be a little fish in a big pond.
Alternatively, you could choose to be a big fish in a much smaller pond. That would be akin to selecting something like a State University where you could be one of the top students and, he argues, find more success later on in life because of that. The idea which, as with everything Gladwell writes, is backed up by a number of facts and figures, is that by attending that smaller university you have more attention from your professors, get better references, become more confident in your abilities, and, subsequently take those advantages with you into the workplace. To further that point, Gladwell demonstrates that top students from smaller universities consistently outperform the middling students from Harvard, MIT, and Stanford despite that fact that though those middling student from the big universities may actually be more academically gifted than the top students from small universities.
That idea isn’t a perfect crossover our sport, but it’s provided the philosophy behind my decision to stay in Belgium this weekend. While my longterm goal is to be competitive in the big pond, taking a step back and racing a smaller race against a weaker field was a step towards that goal, not away from it. I’m headed to Hoogeheide this weekend confident in my skills, ready to race for over an hour, and well rested. After watching the footage, I’m not sure that I would have been any of those things had I decided to race in Fiuggi World Cup this past weekend.
Now, that’s a lot easier to say now that I’m looking back at the slippery and treacherous Fiuggi course and feeling rather smug about my decision to stay in Belgium. Of course, Fiuggi could have turned out very differently. People I regularly compete with could have had great results and I could have been left wondering what could have been if I had just taken the risk and headed there. But even if that had been the case I think I’d still be happy with my decision because it is a part of a long term process I believe in.
To be clear, it’s not that I think the way other people are doing it is wrong. There were lots of great reasons to travel to Italy including actually getting a top result like Courtney McFadden and Ellen Noble did, gaining European World Cup experience like Kerry Werner did, and pleasing your sponsors that want to see you compete agains the World’s best. But those weren’t my reasons and, after sitting on the fence for a long time, I decided to race in Belgium, had a great time doing so, and would encourage any North American friends to ease themselves into Belgian racing by doing ‘B’ event before they jump into the biggest cyclocross pond out there.