Last weekend a Banbridge CC team comprising of riders James Curry, Gareth McKee and Lindsay Watson, with support provided by Simon Curry, travelled to Belgium to compete in the Benelux cup in Erezée, a UCI Cat 2 mountain bike race. Having been invited to the event it was a great opportunity to use the race to gain valuable experience and evaluate the racing standard in Europe.
The team arrived in Belgium late Friday night before taking delivery of a brand new Mercedes hire van, the drive to the accommodation was eventful with the only instructions being that the back door will be open and a corresponding address. After an unsuccessful search Lindsay decided to try speak a little French to some locals and after a lot of deliberation among themselves they finally worked out exactly what he was trying to say and pointed the Banbridge travellers in the right direction. There was food left out for our arrival which all were very glad to see after a long days travel.
On Saturday morning the team woke up and had been made breakfast by the team’s host’s mum, which was amazing. Once finished everyone headed to the course where they were able to get in two practice laps; the course was very good with lots of technical descending and steep climbs. The team was in good spirits, looking forward to the race as the course was going to suit us. The only thing they were worried about was the grid positioning they would receive.
The race schedule for Sunday was Junior men starting at 10.15am and the Elite men starting at 3pm. This meant it was an early start to get to the course and signed on; from the start list it was clear that the race was not going to be easy with James starting 43rd out of 55 on the grid, against friends made at the Europeans Championships a few years ago - Niels Derveaux and Andries Baert. It was going to be a tough task to try and get past those in front, especially with no start loop on the curcuit. Straight into a fast rocky fire road descent there was no room for error or overtaking, however gaps formed and James made his move to gain a few positions before the forest singletrack.
Once into the forest it was very congested and the only way to gain ground was to dismount and run past riders to get to the front of the race. James slowly worked his way through the field finishing his first lap in 28th position. On the 2nd lap he continued to make progress, crossing the line in 18th place. There was some confusion with the race distance, Juniors started out set to complete 4 laps however it was cut short mid race. James went into the last lap and was getting stronger as the race went on, finishing in 14th position having paced the race to last the longer distance; this was a fantastic result for James.
Representing the team in the Elite race was Gareth McKee and Lindsay Watson, however like James they were at the back of the grid in 57th and 61st positions. The start was all about keeping out of trouble and making up as many positions as possible before the bottleneck. After watching James in the earlier race, Gareth and Lindsay adopted his tactics and ran past as many competitors as they could to get a clear run at the downhill section. After the first lap Gareth had made his way into 25th with Lindsay just behind in 35th. With such a long race at 6 laps in length it was all about pacing it correctly. Gareth suffered a mechanical however, wrapping his chain around the crank, loosing valuable minutes as he tried to get it released whilst watching the race go by. With a never say die attitude and a newly bent chain it was a case of damage limitation for the Moneyslane man.
Lindsay had moved up into 30th position, steadily passing riders who had went too hard at the start and were now starting to tire. Gareth was now in 34th, working his way through the field. With a clear track it was now possible to get clean laps in. Lindsay and Gareth crossed the line together on the 4th lap and they continued to work their way through the field finishing 22nd and 30th respectively.
This was a great experience for the three riders racing at this international level, also meeting new friends along the way - Christopher and Lomas Wefing from Rutland CC in Sheffield who helped in the pits and gave the riders support. Huge thanks must go to Simon Curry who looked after and supported the Banbridge team over the weekend and during the event. A special mention also to Simon Gueuning, the team host, and his mother who invited the team to the event, giving them a place to stay and provided them with food for the weekend. All of the team are hopeful to visit again next year!