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UCI 4X Round 2, Houffalize, Belgium
by Jim Norton on 1st June 2009
Jim Norton clipped in and headed over to Houffalize, Belgium, to bang bars with the best multi-man riders in the world for the 2nd Round of the UCI 4X. Here's how he got on...
30th April-3rd May.
Houffalize is a strange place in respect to the way it feels like you are in the Alps, yet, only three and a half hours from Calais; a small town tucked away in a junction of three valleys with chalets dotting the slopes, all rather quaint and nice, with very friendly locals and on this occasion, 4 days of glorious sunshine!
I was joined on this trip by another Sheffield local, Jordan Gould (Dialled Bikes/Guak). It's always good to have a travel buddy when away to make the experience more enjoyable and prevent you from heading into the central reservation on some exceptionally straight and well surfaced bit of Belgian motorway; they all drive so politely, there really is nothing to become entertained by and thus keep you awake!
After a 7 hour drive and a P and O ferry paddle, we got checked into the hotel and pretty much got straight on our bikes and down to practise. The track was enjoyable to ride, flowing with a some good braking points which any good 4X should have, a couple of technical corners and plenty of line choice. There were no big jumps, so a pretty simple track to get to grips with, but the technicality came from hitting these smaller jumps at high speeds and trying to stay on the ground.
Thursday is just about getting comfortable with the course, picking your qualifying line and perhaps trying a few race lines also. After practise we rode into Houffalize to grab some food, and bumped into all the usual suspects and racers, and even my Dutch mate Oli hanging out with the Hope guys as he's now the importer to Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. The last time I saw him was 3000 meters up at the start of last years Megavalanche event, were he was helping the organisers out with announcements in many different languages; a good guy for Hope to have onboard. We hung out, then rolled back to the hotel for a descent nights sleep after a long day.
Friday morning we were greeted to a awesome breakfast at our hotel, I recommend it - www.evolutionlogique.com - five minutes from the 4X track and ten from the centre of Houffalize – we were made to feel most welcome and nothing was too much trouble. With practise and qualification not starting until 16:45, we went to register, which took an extraordinary 3 hours! The UCI were feeling particularly efficient I think, and we were stood in a queue of only 30 people, yet I have no idea what was taking them so long as once we got to the front it took only a few moments to collect our numbers..? Jordan had a few issues as he entered late, and Roger at British Cycling forget to forward his entry to the UCI. After a few phone calls and some pleading he was in, but only just.
With a bit more of the day left to waste, we headed to check out the mini downhill race being held with €10,000 prize money. Due to the short course nature it wasn't a UCI sanctioned event, and the track wasn't all that difficult or long, but a good event was put on as a side show to the main 4X and XC events the next day. Bryn Atkinson took the win, followed by a local pinner and Guido Tschugg on his hardtail. A few of the 4X boys were kicking themselves they didn't enter as it was €300 for tenth place; a nice little prize!
We also spotted the XC juniors out for practise, and unless we missed them on their laps and the start sheet, we only saw 1 junior female riding, which is pretty surprising considering the locality of the race to England; surely we have more junior talent than this and the funding to help them out? That said, the girl we did see (Ruby Miller I think), showed up her coach by riding one technical section, and her coach nearly going down hard. The Belgians love cycling, and the town and viewing spots of the track ere busy all weekend, and this provided a good giggle for them.
Practise rolled round, and all went well, straight up to speed, and gates felt ok considering I've only had the chance to do fifteen or so gates on a 'UCI random gate' since Schladming world cup round last year. I was feeling confident and fast in practise, and wasn't at all nervous about qualifying despite it being a very high standard of competition, and 104 riders battling for 64 places. I was aiming for a top 32 qualifying place, and this is perhaps where I came unstuck.
After not hitting my qualification lines in practise at full speed to conserve energy in the heat, I came unstuck in the 4th corner, popping myself nicely over the bars before I even realised what was going on; all this after negotiating the hardest corner on the track which caused many riders problems all weekend flat out! Partly I think this was the problem, I hit the previous corner so well I carried a lot more speed into the next and didn't think to scrub a little speed, with the atmosphere and crowd cheering I wasn't quite concentrating enough perhaps. I picked up my bike, waved to the crowd and rolled down pulling a bit of style; I knew as soon as I crashed I wouldn't qualify as the top 64 riders were split by only 4 seconds, and crashing then getting back up to speed would of lost 6-7 seconds.
So, no racing for me the next day, but I've learnt from it, and will practise at closer to race speed in future to pick braking points as required. Joost Wichman and team mate Jurg Meijer both congratulated me on the way I took the technical 3rd corner on my corners in my qualification run, which means a lot coming from riders of their calibre, and perked me up a bit after not qualifying.
Jordan just scraped into qualifying in 60th place, with most of the other Brits qualifying too, though the third corner took one, and the 4th as well as taking me took Dave Wardell. More food in town with the usual suspects of Will 'the will power' Evans and Duncan Ferris who qualified really well in 21st, then back for another solid nights sleep.
For most of Saturday I helped UCI track builder Phil Saxena make some final adjustments to the track, sweeping berms and shifting flags etc; quite good too see how he tries to make the tracks interesting for both riders, spectators and television, as well as all the other aspects he has to deal with such as liaising with local services, a busy man!
Saturday was race day, and I became what is called 'pit-bitch' for most of the UK riders, collecting race plates when the UCI made a cock up and they weren't ready at the start of practise, spotting lines, fitting plates, changing tires and handing round drinks bottles and I even changed a tire for a Yeti Europe female rider moments before her race as her mechanic had disappeared, she was hot too, it's good to make new friends!
It's strange how there is no neutral support at 4x races, for privateers especially it's pretty hard to race when your worried about your kit bag getting pinched from the top of the track, perhaps an idea to incorporate in the future, even if it's just a secure pen to store your spares.
I didn't see much of the racing with helping people out and the huge crowds lining the track, but watching it back on www.freecaster.tv the racing was action packed and once of the better races I've seen as the track was really open to passing manoeuvres, and not simply a 'first straight pull' procession.
Australian Jared Graves took his second win of the year so far, after his 1st place in South Africa, followed by Brit Dan Atherton and Joost Wichman of Germany. Other Brits of note included Gee Atherton, the current UCI DH World Champion, proving he's lost none of his speed by getting into the B-final, Will Evans pulling some good clean moves leading to an unlikely early exit for Scott Beaumont, and Will Longden working his was comfortably through the first few rounds.
In the girls, it was a win for American Jill Kintner who seems at home doing her own thing this year, Czech rider Jana Horakova and Anneke Beerten for Holland. The girls are looking fast right now, Jill and Anneke both would of just qualified for the mens event in 61st and 63rd respectively, but how will they react to Shanaze Reade entering the 4X arena at Fort William in June?
An enjoyable few days which included in promptly getting lost in Brussels on the return to Calais, roll on Fort Bill!
No photos from Jim but as usual, there are some amazing shots on Littermag, so why not head over there and check out the goods from Gary 'Flipper' Perkin:
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