A crazy day on the bike
Alleycat race in Belgium
Story by Jochen Cloetens
Saturday morning, mid-December, 5:30AM, minus 2°C. Today promised to be a crazy day out there, born from the crazy idea to compete in a 200km alleycat race around Signal de Botrange, the highest point in Belgium, during winter.
Last year’s stories and photo reports dragged me into this endurance gravel ride game, a true revelation of the beauty of cycling. Going off the beaten track but still keeping pace, being far away but still so close to civilization; total freedom. The race, the adventure, the suffering and the friendship intrigued me. I myself would never have thought to sign up for such a challenging race 12 months ago, but the quest for adventure was stronger than my fear of failure.
With the race approaching fast, the weather forecasts for the area were getting worse day by day -predicting snow, hail and all day freezing temperatures- I had to map out alternative routes more than once. I had to find warm and waterproof clothes to keep me going for all the hours on the bike, and the right tires to battle my way through a frozen unknown and mixed terrain. I finally ended up with a modest 36mm all-round gravel tire with the hope to get enough grip on the slippery roads, strong enough to stand gravel backroads, and fast enough to keep me going on the hilly tarmac. After a lot of thought, doubt and comparison, I chose GripGrab Winter Waterproof gloves and various clothing layers to protect my body against the harsh conditions.
8AM, still dark, all roads covered with snow, minus 5°C. I arrived late at the start with my partner in crime Jeremy, and I soon realized that I had lost/forgotten my through-axle. I tried to fit one from the organizer’s MTB (who was not riding), without success, so I, unfortunately, missed the start. I jumped in the car and drove 15kms down the road to a bike shop in Malmedy, bought myself a fitting through axle, returned to Signal de Botrange, set up our bikes and started our Botreycat challenge more than 2 hours late.
Only 5km into the race we had to give up reaching CP1 (Wesertalsperre).
Our route crossing the Hautes Fagnes via gravel roads had transformed into cross-country ski slopes. We lost another hour slipping and tumbling before we could navigate to a cleared tarmac road. Despite the false start, I still felt dry, warm, and pumped to move on, so we moved on to plan B, which was riding straight to CP3 (Perlenbachtalsperre), visit Monschau (compulsory stop in the race) ride on to the furthest point at CP4 (Oleftalsperre) and back to Signal de Botrange to tackle at least 1 loop. Then take the shortest loop to CP5 (Butgenbach) and CP6 (Robertville).
We finally got into a decent cycling rhythm, met fellow Botreycatters along the way, successfully reached CP3 and Monschau, then headed to CP4 when once again a bad route stopped us from going any further. Riding 10km through 15cm deep snowy terrain proved to be excellent skill training but slowed us down seriously. Back on the road again we raced downhill to Olefstalsperre (CP4) where we bumped into two other Botreycatters. We all decided to ride back together to Signal de Botrange, so we got the pedals turning and with the nice, new company we were still determined to catch CP5 and CP6. That was until darkness, ice cold hailstorms, heavy snowfall and cars rushing by only inches next to us, made it really dangerous to stay out there.
We safely reached Signal de Botrange after only 94km, with body and legs still strong enough, fingers and toes still warm enough, for another few dozen km, but weather conditions became even worse by the minute.
The temperature kept dropping while it went totally dark by then. Afterwards, I heard only one person made it to all checkpoints (211km) and no one from the participants rode out anymore by the time we arrived back at Signal de Botrange. Scratching from the race was a decision of the head, not the heart but the only right one to take.
I´m happy to have been part of this adventure and grateful for having picked GripGrab which proved to be the right choice to get me through the harsh conditions. Time for some rest now, mapping new routes for next year.
Photo credits: Jochen Cloetens, Instagram @JC1978, and Jeremy Leduc.
If you´re into gravel biking, these blog posts might be of interest:
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