Despite the popularity of mountain bike racing in Belgium, there were no stage races. So, two riders, Koenraad Vanschoren and Thomas Vercaemst, got together to organise a three-day event over the long 2012 Pentecote holiday weekend. The Belgian Mountain Bike Challenge.
With a number of years’ worth of experience in organising other MTB events and racing on the national and international circuit, both Koenraad and Thomas had the credentials for putting on a top event. In their words, they wanted to “organise the hardest mountain bike tour in the Benelux with an overall high standard for food-stations, tracks, signs, accommodation and racing experience. In the future, the BeMC hopes to become the standard in mountain biking stage races in the Benelux.” With that, the three-day Belgian Mountain Bike Challenge was born. As if to prove that Belgian riders had wanted such an event, the BeMC sold out within 42 days as word got around. The number of riders was capped at 250, but rose to 275 on the start line as riders just wanted to be part of this inaugural event.
Unlike many other stage races, the BeMC was organised by a small team in their spare time, by people passionate about their sport in Belgium. They spent hours putting together a tough but captivating course around the forests of the Ardennes, linking together some of the area’s best trails. Come race time, some 40 volunteers made the race happen, manning feed stations and road junctions, offering medical and mechanical support. Jon Shergold and I were two of those 275 riders lining up on the start line under glorious sunshine in the town square of La Roche en Ardenne.
Belgium was not somewhere which I had thought of as a mountain biking destination. I associated it more with the classics, Paris Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders and its infamous cobbled, sharp climbs of the Muur and Koppenberg amongst others. Having met a number of Belgian riders over the past 12 months at events in Europe, they talked of a new MTB three-day stage race in the forests of the Ardennes, in the southernmost area of the country. Despite the lack of big hills the daily numbers stacked up to a tough few days, between 70-90km with around 2,300m of climbing per day: far from flat. As a good chance to catch up with Belgian friends and discover some new trails along with good friend and stage race newbie Jon Shergold, it was destination: Belgium.
At the end of May when the sun was shining and it felt like summer was on its way, Jon and I set off in the car. Travelling down from the UK, this is probably the best way to get to La Roche en Ardenne with two or more people as the nearest train station to La Roche is an hour away. We opted for the Dover to Calais ferry crossing as the cheapest option. The channel tunnel may be that bit quicker, but is that bit more expensive unless booked well in advance. From Calais it was a straightforward drive, taking around three-and-a-half hours. It took us longer on the way down, stopping for baguette and cheese, the remnants of which Jon left in the car, in the sun, over the weekend. Now that was ripe brie.
On arrival we found the whole set up to be beyond our expectations. We had expected a fairly low key race; what we got was something else. The hotel base of Mont des Pins was superb, situated on the edge of Bomal sur Ourthe, some 30km from the start in La Roche, surrounded by countryside. For the price of 90€ for the two nights’ accommodation in a shared room, two dinners and three breakfasts, it was good value. To make the most of the trail network out here, the race was a mixture of point-to-point and out-and-back routes. Stage 1 was from La Roche back to the hotel. Stage 2 started and ended at the hotel with stage 3 ending back at La Roche. Race HQ and sign-on was in La Roche with the option of signing in Friday evening or on the morning of the race start. With a start time of 10:30 AM for stage 1, there was plenty of time.
All the logistics of the race start and hotel being some kilometres away were well organised. Plenty of parking was available at race HQ in La Roche where cars could be left until our return at the end of stage 3. When we picked up our entry package with numbers, inside was a glossy booklet with information about the race and photos of likely contenders for the podium spots. This was a bit more serious of a race than anticipated, but with the level of rider in Belgium this was to be expected.
This being a very Belgian race, we were the token outsiders, but we were very much welcomed. Being in the southern part of the country I figured that I would be using my French as I didn’t speak Dutch, but as soon riders learnt that we were from the UK many spoke in almost faultless English. The division out here is very much in the favour of Dutch and local Flemish dialect speakers with French, German and Flemish being the minority. Friendly conversation flowed easily with other riders and new friends were made over the course of the long weekend.
The race start was in the centre square of La Roche en Ardenne, typical of European towns, an open area flush with the day’s sunshine, surrounded by bars and restaurants, all with outside seating. In three days’ time we would be enjoying a celebratory beer in one of those very seats. With the late start, the atmosphere was a casual one, riders enjoying the sunny weather and taking their time to warm up the legs.
The tarmac sections were far from boring however, cutting through picturesque villages and along small country roads. The rest was a mixture of forest trails and choice singletrack, none of it overly technical, but it had us grinning.
On returning the timing chip all riders were handed two drinks tickets. These could be exchanged for two drinks of choice in the town square just around the corner. How good was that!? After a bit of socialising, Jon and I headed to a bar for a well-deserved cold beer in the glorious sunshine. Served in the Euro-style, a civilized-sized glass, this was a well-deserved cold beer. Even though I am not an overt beer drinker, this actually went down really well. The friendliness of the race didn’t stop as the Belgians we sat opposite happily chatted to us in English. Having to catch the ferry back that same evening, we afforded ourselves an hour in the sunshine, but then it was back to the car, pack and say our goodbyes to those we had met over the weekend.
The logistics of this race were spot on. The unusual heat made the going tougher, but with three feed stations each day, keeping hydrated wasn’t a problem and plenty of food was on offer too, from energy bars to jaffer cakes. A favourite were the sweetened, dried strawberries. Helpers at each station were super efficient and friendly, no matter how many of us turned up at once demanding bottles to be filled. Every road section along the route was well controlled, stopping traffic, allowing us to simply ride across at speed. Entry cost is low at 140€ (roughly $178.00 U.S.) if you enter early, plus the accommodation costs. The organisation offers a couple of options, in the Mont des Pins hotel or in bunk rooms for 90 or 65€ respectively. The food is typical of stage races with plenty of good coffee on offer. There was even a proper coffee maker in the rooms for that early morning boost. Being English, we missed having cereal, so if you want a bowl for breakfast, you will need to bring your own as the start to the day is more continental.
The Hotel Mont des Pins was a really nice and relaxing place to be. If there are a few of you then there is the option of renting a holiday home locally for the long weekend, but book early as this is a bank holiday weekend for Belgium.
Getting there was a straightforward drive and having a car makes getting to and from La Roche easier. Unless you can arrange with someone else out there, you will need a car to get to the start if you stay in Bomal sur Ourthe. Koenraad and his wife who organise the race are really nice and are on hand to make sure that all riders have a great race. It would be worth contacting them if travelling alone as they may be able to arrange a lift to the start. The Eurostar from London gets you directly to Brussels and from there it’s a local train, but the nearest train station is an hour away from Bomal. Get a few friends together and make a road trip out of it. It’s well worth the effort. Check out the race for next year at www.bemc.be/dl. Just make sure that you enter early as it will no doubt fill up quicker for next year.XXC contributor Scott Cornish races for Niner/Stan’s/Ergon UK with Loco Tuning.