Beer and trails at Belgian Mountainbike Challenge

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With its sawtooth route profile Belgian Mountainbike Challenge (BeMC) is known as one of the toughest events on the calendar. The UCI S1 stage race over 3 days takes place in the beautiful Ardennes region starting in the host town of La Roche en Ardenne. The event attracts many top mountain bike pro’s and lots of cyclocross riders looking for some summer entertainment.

BeMC has become one of my favourite events on the calendar despite its tough nature. Stage 1 takes place over 84km and 2450m ascent, stage 2 over 100km and 3050m ascent, and stage 3 over 67km and 2300m ascent. The numbers only tell half the story, these trails are steep and rough and with strong competition the pace is high. It’s hard work but a lot of fun, lots of climbing means lots of descents and there’s some real gems to put a smile on your face and bring misery to your overheating brake pads!

This would be my fourth time racing the event and it’s an amazing experience each year. The event always offers fantastic trails, a great atmosphere, stunning scenery and local beer. Ben Thomas Coaching was running its first Race Camp offering clients the opportunity to experience life as a pro and tread the start line with some of the very best mountain bike racers in the world. The client’s experience began early Thursday morning when we loaded up the van and headed for the Eurotunnel. 7 hours later we were in La Roche en Ardenne, the host town of BeMC. It was great to see so many other Brit’s had made the journey including new mum Sally Bigham who was making her racing comeback.

Racers crowd into La Roche en Ardenne town centre

Stage 1 starts from the town centre in La Roche en Ardenne. BeMC isn’t the only battle these cobbled streets have seen with the town suffering severe damage during World War 2. From the start line the race took a 90 degree right to reach the bottom of the first steep ascent of the day, a long tarmac section perfect for stretching out the mass of keen racers before turning offroad. Quickly a large group peeled away including favourites Wout Alleman, Soren Nissen, Frans Claes and Christoph Soukup. I’d also made it into the lead group along with a large contingent of cyclocross racers. The terrain was undulating and the pace was just as erratic, one minute we’d power along at maximal cross country pace and the next minute we’d be soft pedalling. By the fourth and final feed zone there was still 12 of us together, on the next singletrack descent Frans Claes went to the front to launch an attack, the pace finally caused the group to split. I was caught too far back in the group and was stuck behind racers showing a little less confidence on the tricky trails. The group stretched and the riders at the front had a gap. Once the trails opened up we had one more climb before the finish, I was feeling strong and was floating past rider by rider. Plummeting safely down the descent to the finish at the Floreal hotel I crossed the line to take an amazing fourth place behind Soren Nissen, Robbert de Niks and Frans Claes. I was beaming but did wonder if a podium could have been possible if I’d been more confident to be further forward in the group and not have missed the split on that descent. In the women’s race Ariane Luthi took a dominant victory ahead of Christina Kollmann-Forstner and Jovana Crnogorac.

Happy racers

Day 2, the longest day of the race saw a tough pace at the front of the race once again, attacks were happening left right and centre as the strong men tried to split the group. It felt pretty insane to be racing a 100km stage like this, it wasn’t an XC race! I would have been happy to let a small lead group escape which would have allowed the pace to ease but each time the group split one of the favourites was left behind meaning the chase group would have to go flat out to catch the leaders again. I could only manage this for about 40km before my legs got angry, I rode alone for about 20km before being caught by the next group which I cruised home with to finish 11th, a tougher day but still a good result. At the front Austrian muscle Christoph Soukup from Team Texpa Simplon has been smashing everyone to bits all day, he proved unstoppable taking the win ahead of Soren Nissen and Robber de Nijs. Frans Claes and Wout Alleman lost some time and probably their opportunity to win the overall. Soren Nissen extended his lead. Ariane Luthi took another victory but with Jovana Crnogorac and Christina Kollmann-Forstner close behind.

After 2 days of sunshine the rain had moved in, on the start line it was pouring with rain. Winter gear on, this is going to be epic! Despite the conditions you could still tell there was going to be fireworks at the front of the race. The great thing about these trails is that despite the biblical rain the ground is so rocky that it doesn’t get too muddy, everything remains rideable, a bit of sliding is necessary but that’s all part of the fun. Stage 3 includes the famous Wall of Borzee climb not once but twice, a 20% gradient effort which requires force only a few can manage, it’s a climb that would split the race apart.

Lining up for the start of another stage with your MarathonMTB editor Ben Thomas front row

My legs felt recovered and ready to smash this final stage. I was sitting comfortably in the lead group until I hit a rock about 17kms in, vision was tricky with the spray from wheels in front. The tyre deflated immediately, the sealant just ran out the tyre, a CO2 gas can had no effect, my chance of a decent result disappearing in seconds. The hole too big to fit a tubeless repair worm and the wheel too muddy to fit a tube I began the slow 3km ride to the tech zone for a new wheel trying to ignore the sound of the carbon fibre rim bouncing over the rocky ground. Adam was there waiting with a new wheel. I chased hard for about 25km but was all out of puff by 50km. It was a useless chase, once you’re out of that lead group you aren’t getting back.

Soren Nissen took another stage win and a well-deserved overall victory. Soren wasn’t the quickest on the descents, possibly due to bike setup, but any weakness shown on the descent was far outweighed by the superior strength he showed on the climbs all weekend. Frans Claes finished second on the stage and second overall, Weitse Bosmans third on the stage, Robbert de Nijs did enough on the stage to finish third overall. In the ladies Jovana Crunogorac broke Ariane Luthi’s dominance to take a stage victory and secure second overall. Ariane finished second on the day and took the overall win. Christina Kollman took another third place to secure third overall, a solid comeback after recent illness.

A beautiful location for a bike race

Once again a fantastic 3 days of racing in the Ardennes. It was great to be able to share this experience with the 4 coaching clients who joined us for the Race Camp, they’d trained many hours for this event and their performance is a result of all the hard work they put in. Ben Thomas Coaching will be back at BeMC next year. Running the Race Camp was a lot of work, starting at 7am and finishing at 8pm but it was worthwhile to see the smile on the guests faces when they successfully finished each stage. Thanks to Adam for all his help running the weekend’s trip, without his assistance it wouldn’t have been such a success and I definitely wouldn’t have been able to race.

Stage 1 has given me a lot of confidence and reminded me that opportunities have to be taken. Don’t miss your opportunity to race Belgian Mountainbike Challenge next year.

Race winner Nissen Soren 

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