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Barbarella: The Barbara Howe diary

Just as Barbarella bumps through the universe, comically oblivious to the dangers and threats being thrust at her, Barbara Howe has had a few misadventures of her own. But with a stable team and strong results in recent years, the 29 year-old Velo Bella rider looks set to navigate her way to the top of the US 'cross tree, where she hopes to be crowned 'Queen of the 'cross Galaxy'.

Follow the fortunes of this free-spirited individual here on Cyclingnews.

Tielt Winge, Belgium, January 25, 2006

Lievin, Hoogerheide and beyond

Part I

I did my first World Cup (Lievin, France) of the year and things are looking good.

Helen and I only missed one exit on the way and didn't even get lost following signs through a maze to the venue. We met with Helen's husband Stefan and went a few rounds on the course.

The course is very straightforward with several steep ups and downs and plenty of flat grass. Small groups of people were out practicing some of the steep up hills when the French arrived. Immaculately attired in matching French national teams kits, a swarm of twenty took to the course. I think it is some sort of intimidation factor for all of them to show up together and ride one lap as a large group of red, white, and blue. The Dutch team showed up next matching nearly as well in their ubiquitous orange kits.

All of my planning skills have gone out the window on this trip. Normally I have hotels and cars booked several weeks in advance and know exactly where everything is when everything happens. When I arrived in Belgium the only thing planned was my residence and ride from the airport. The fact that I had no hotel booked in Lievin could have been a big mistake because so many Belgians are expected to be spectating; Lievin is only 20k (12 miles) over the border from Belgium but since folks from Flanders might have a drive of more than an two hours (almost an eternity) they come the night before.

Most of the surrounding hotels were booked up but I got lucky and ran into my Velo Bella teammate Christine (Vardaros) who had a double room booked and was on her own. The room is one of the smallest I have ever stayed in. In fact, I've been in hotel rooms (and you know my taste in hotel rooms, check out the trip to Portland) with larger closets. No big deal though, travel is about adventure and new experiences.

The next experience was not quite as fun, no hot water in the shower. Shaving with cold water was a really bad idea and I'm now sporting a sweet rosacia of razor burn. I couldn't bring myself to actually shower and decided to try again after dinner. This was a good decision because the French team ate dinner after us and was not in the shower using all of the hot water.

Race day dawned with perfectly clear skies and frost on the ground. The course was wetter than the previous day from the juniors racing on it while frosty. I rode a few laps on my new Dugast mud tires then decided to race on the normal tires. Stefan had driven over from England with trainers, bike stand and tools. Two Belgian helpers Christophe and Sergio provided hot water, pit help, and moral support in the form of cheering.

The start was really, really long and it caught me off guard. When the gun went off I wasn't even holding onto the bars, but being three rows back it didn't matter too much; the first two turns on slippery dirt brought the expected pileups. I missed the first one and got caught behind the second one. Three Italian women piled up in front of me and I had to jump off and run watching everyone else ride away up the first steep hills. Things got better when I got back on the bike and was able to do some pedaling.

"I bobbled a slick little uphill and cursing in three languages broke out behind me"

- Howe on the race action at the Lieven World Cup

This course consisted of going up and down steep terraces, then riding around on completely flat grass. My legs felt great and I picked women off one by one. On the second lap I bobbled a slick little uphill and cursing in three languages broke out behind me. Sorry ladies! Three women caught up at on the last lap, we went back and forth for a while with two of them getting ahead. This race was hard on the back, many of the men were sitting up on the pavement and stretching.

Ann Knapp, Mo Bruno Roy, and Wendy Simms are now here bringing the North American contingency up to seven (the others are Christine, Stacey Spencer, Lynn Bessette, and myself). Wendy arrived on Saturday but her bikes didn't show up until Sunday morning. She had to drive to Paris early in the morning, pick up the bikes, drive back to Lievin, put the bikes together then race.

Before warming up I was swarmed with bike fans. They come in groups of two and three and all ask for your “photo” aka trading cards. Last year I was unprepared and didn't have trading cards. This year I brought about 200 and passed out 50 or so in the space of an hour!

Sunday evening's treat was a beer. The weakest one in the fridge was 8.5% (you gotta love the beer here). Monday morning was bike-detailing time and I used some degreaser purchased at a local shop to clean my chain. I'm not sure exactly what is in the degreaser but it is potent; potent enough that when it gets on your skin you can taste it. I'm planning on using it very sparingly from now on.

After bike cleaning was a visit the library in Aarschot to use the Internet. The library here in Tielt is closed on Monday's. In order to use the library I had to get a card, the application cost 2.5 euros, it should arrive in three weeks.

One last thought; in the grocery store today I saw cheese called chamois d'or, if my limited French is correct it translates as chamois of gold. How can a cyclist resist a chamois of gold?

Part II

We ran the last race of the season before World's this past weekend and I'm still nursing a bit of sickness. It's not nearly as bad as earlier this week, just swollen glands and under motivation.

Mike, the junior national champion from Canada has joined us at the Tielt Winge house. He took three flights, four trains (including one to remedy getting lost), and 28 hours to arrive in nearby Leuven. After two nights sleep he was ready to race. His race started at 10am, which meant we had to leave Tielt Winge at the ungodly hour of 6:30 am. This might not seem early to many of you, but living the life of a pro 'crosser I make it a habit not to wake up before the sun. It's often hard to distinguish when the sun comes up here, between the thick cloud cover and high latitude (further north than Maine), some days move seamlessly from dawn to dusk with nothing in between.

We arrived in hamlet of Hoogerheide before sunrise and it was really cold 0º C 32º F. For World Cups, numbers have to picked up by your team manager the night before. This minor detail was circumvented in an international when Stefan (Great Britain's manager) brought all the racing licenses to Hoogerheide and Norm from Canada delivered them to us in the morning. Mike raced just after sunrise and found racing in Europe to be exhilarating and difficult. Juniors have less ability to feel the cold, they all ride around for several minutes before their race without leg coverings. All other groups of racers wait until the very last second to remove their protective shells.

My race started two hours later and I had a hard time getting warm even on the trainer (see picture). Eventually I broke down and sat in the kleedkamers (well heated dressing rooms) for a few minutes to get the blood back into my feet. Everything started fine; I wasn't going backwards on the four miles long paved start (not four miles but it seemed like it), it was when we hit the dirt that I started losing positions.

Women at home are very polite and rarely cut each other off or lean on one another in corners. Ladies, we need to start playing rougher being nice doesn't pay off in Europe. After the first few turns, I slipped from about twentieth to one hundred and fourth. The ladies are very assertive when it comes to corners and they keep pushing me out of the way. I must think more about hockey in the start - elbows, hips and aggression are good.

Anyway, as the race went on I moved forward a bit then tipped over and my little group rode away. Curses. The downhill mud patch filled with slippery yet sticky mud, acted as a wall towards my forward progress. Everyone I passed on the uphill mud run whizzed past on the downhill mud patch. Usually I was capable of catching them on the four miles of uphill pavement but sometimes they got away. Upon finishing the race I was met by Monique, mother of Sergio, with my warm jacket. Sergio is my Belgian pit man. He pitted for me in Lievin and I saw him each lap ready with my bike cheering and yelling. I feel like I should take a bike change at some point just to make full use of Sergio's capabilities; he's out there cheering and waiting to clean a dirty bike. Sergio met me before I even exited the course with my clean unused bike and took my dirty bike away to clean.

Have I mentioned that I love this place?

One of my admirer's offered me a chocolate while warming up, being an elite cyclist preparing for a race, I declined. Later, while Greg and I were sitting in the truck trying to stay warm, he came by and gave me the entire bag of truffles. They made a great treat for the whole house in the evening. Greg's race was exciting. Bart Wellens took an early lead but lost it at the end with Erwin Vervecken taking the win, the seemingly unbeatable current world champion, world cup leader and indisputable king of ‘cross, Sven Nys, finished 8th.

Joscelin, the Lady of Teilt Winge, hired out her large furniture moving van as transportation to and from the race. Due to insurance and the fact that the van is right hand drive we aren't allowed to drive it ourselves. Being the good sport she is, Joscelin graciously woke before in the dark and drove us around. She was at the start to help with excess clothing, cheered, took pictures, and made everyone head to the shower before they got cold. She spectated with me and we both tried to get pictures of people we know with digital cameras - much harder than it sounds (several of my photos are just rear wheels and mud).

Joscelin is also a master of the VIP lounge. The VIP lounge, as I was to learn, is a well-heated, well-stocked zone of free booze, free food and important people. I learned the barge/scrum technique of getting into the VIP lounge, taking notes on how this applies to healthy aggression in women's bike racing. Basically you wait until a critical mass of Belgians and Dutch are pushing desperately to enter the lounge and you jump in line. When the door man asks for your ticket, quickly flash your pit pass and allow the flow of humanity to deposit you in the room.

VIP area rules: Within seconds of a successful barge I was offered free beer, wine, soda, and fizzy water. Jos and I watched a sumptuous buffet laid out with fresh fruit, chafing dishes full of various veggies and meats, exotic loaves of bread and even a few bowls of guacamole. We had spots on the front of the grid, perfect start positions for the buffet line. Guilt got the better of us as we waited and waited for the buffet to open. Greg and Mike were waiting outside in the cold as the day moved rapidly towards night. Joseclin and I bailed on the VIP buffet to find Mike shivering in the cold and Greg nowhere to be found. Greg finally appeared and we all went home with visions of grand buffets dancing in our heads.

Take care,