The series is timed to match the seasons as it begins with duathlons from February to May. As the water warms around mid-May, triathlons start up and as the temperatures drop again in the fall, the series culminates with duathlons. XTERRA Belgium is one of the off road triathlons included in this series.
It kicked off in February and the athletes actually embraced the fact that conditions got nasty at times. The unpredictable weather added to the unique experience of racing in Belgium and despite the relatively small size of the country, each of the races is totally unique.
Rookie American pro Barret Fishner currently lives in the town of Mons, Belgium with his wife and their dog Brutus, and he shared an inside look at the first three of the races in the series.
A Style All Their Own
The courses here in Belgium are drastically different than the States. Back home we have nice groomed trails and the courses are typically sealed off from any outside interference. Here in Belgium it’s more like anything goes and because it’s a small country geographically, with little public lands, race directors make the best with what they have and get rather creative with their courses. The bike and run routes regularly combine iconic Belgium aspects of cobble roads, urban streets, urban trail or paths, tractor roads, and single track. The atmosphere of these events is not what I’m used to back home either. Some much more relaxed, others much more hyped up.
So far there have been three races on the circuit, including the Belgium Off Road Duathlon National Championships. I’ll give you the inside scoop of what each course was like and the atmosphere of the events to give you a picture of what racing is like here.
Anything Goes: Race #1 – Mons
Mons, a city of suburban sprawl, on the Belgium/French border is relatively flat, but has some gradual rolling terrain. The race venue was located at a police academy that has it’s own cross country running course.
The first run treated athletes to quiet, isolated trails in the woods that had a gradual descent and then climbed back up during each of the 2 laps on the 1.5km loop. Using the cross country course, this run was rather tame (by Belgian standards), but once you got to the bike, that’s where the craziness started.
The 6km bike loop kicked off with a bit of trail straight out of transition, but within 50 meters, you hopped off the dirt and onto a golf course. The course zigged and zagged across open fairways that were not closed. In typical Belgian fashion of anything goes, we were left to hope that we didn’t catch a golf ball to the cranium. The golfers would not back from their shot either if they saw you coming. I had several look at me, then whiz one right over my head!
After dodging high speed golf balls, riders returned to the woods as they dove onto swampy double track. You got the opportunity to practice your cyclocross skills as you hurdled over two knee high logs. Cobbled roads through villages and legit single track finished up the lap. It was a great spot for spectators as we flew by transition and started a second lap.
The second run was the same as the first. Nice, secluded, wooded trail, but this time around, only one loop of 1.5km to finish. It made for an incredibly fast run to the finish line.
At the end of the race, everyone gathered for beer and hot dogs. These hot dogs are not like what you find in America. They are long and very skinny in a baguette. Many people were here socializing and waiting for the podium which didn’t start for 3-4 hours after we finished. Why so long you ask? Because we were in Wallonie (French region) and that’s just how they do things here.
Racing on Top of Each Other: Race #2 – Epion
The lakeside village of Epion is at the edge of the Ardennes region and is a pleasant escape from the nearby urban sprawl. This area is filled with rolling steep hills, lush country side, dense forest, winding rivers and is also home to the famous beers Chimay (Chimay) and Leffe (Dinaut).
The venue for this race was at a brand new bike park. A true mountain bikers playground with pump tracks, slaloms, downhill, and trials courses along with a freshly (and I mean freshly) cut cross country single track. It is a first rate, fat tire facility with a bar/restaurant, locker rooms, showers, and bike wash.
Unlike the simple, rather peaceful run in Mons, Epion was the brain child of a mad man. It started with a fast weaving descent through the trees that had a momentary reprieve as you crossed a paved road, but then plunged down an even steeper trail that quickly got very sloppy. As soon as you hit the bottom, it was an abrupt pitch uphill with tight switch backs. At the top, we hopped onto pavement again, but there was no reprieve this time as the paved road descended sharply and was wet and slippery. In trail shoes it was very slick and I could feel my shoes unable to get a solid grip. At the bottom of that treacherous road, another sharp turn led us onto a 1km single track climb back to transition.
As if the beginning of the run course wasn’t hectic enough on it’s own, it also served as the start of the bike as well, so the quicker elites on the bike had to dodge the amateurs still trying to complete the first run.
After the bike and run course separated, the challenges didn’t stop. Freshly cut trail twisted through the woods and was super sloppy as it had been raining all week. A brief flat section along the shoreline lead riders back to that slick paved descent and twisty climb that was the end of the run course. On the 1st lap of 3, we ran into more people still running.
If it sounds like there was a lot of overlap, it’s because there was. After we completed the bike, we had 1 more lap of the same run course. At the end of the lap, as the single track climb to transition/finish, we started catching and running past people still on their bike leg. The organizers really did pack in as much racing as they could in the limited space there was at the bike park.
Afterwards, it was much the same as Mons. Beer, coffee, hot dogs, and a 4 hour social until the podium occurred. The attitude was to go fast in the race, but take things very slow afterwards.
Race #3 – Belgium Off Road Duathlon National Championships
The third race in the series was distinctly different than the first two, in both course and atmosphere. The venue was in the town of Geel, in the Flanders region which is typically pancake flat and sandy. This course was… pancake flat and sandy. Land in this region is more sparse, so it was a very tight and twisty course. The attitude is generally more competitive in Flanders, and add that it was a national championship, and the laid back approach from the previous races was no where to be found. The atmosphere was electric and there was a good crowd around the entire course. From the PA you could hear the announcer shouting the race action ecstatically along with bumping techno music.
Everyone’s nerves were on edge at the start. Guys late to the lane would just line up in the front row and a lot of pushing and fighting for position was occurring before the gun sounded. The crowd hovered the starting row.
The gun went off and we sprinted out through the sea of spectators and cameras. Almost immediately, we hit sloppy mud and were pushing and shoving, while several runners lost a shoe in the muck. The trail quickly lead to packed sand and racers whizzed though the trees on a straight, flat trail to start the next lap. Unlike the other races, the pace was blistering here. It only took 20 minutes for us to complete a 6 kilometer run.
Straight out of transition, that same sloppy mud hole that was eating peoples shoes in the run, had riders sliding all over. With just a short half kilometer section of pavement on the other side of the bog, you had to throw down all the power you had before diving back into the park.
The organizers used the cyclocross course in the park that twisted and turned relentlessly in loose sand. It was a fiesta of compact, 180 degree turns every 25 to 50 meters that were lined with people.
It folded back on itself numerous times, providing spectators ample opportunity to watch the action up close and cheer directly in the faces of the athletes.
Two brief straightaways broke the endless turns before leading riders to an embankment that they snaked up and down repeatedly. The final obstacle was four more 180 degree, tight, sloppy mud, off camber turns. Phew! Ok… only 2 more laps to go.
The course dried enough that the second run turned out to be even quicker and the crowd packed the finish area awaiting the victor.
Afterwards it was more like an American style race. The athletes stayed gathered in the finish shoot. Camera men and reports interviewed athletes. The spectators and families watched on. The award ceremony happened very promptly (we are in Flanders now, not Wallonie like the 2 previous). And then everyone went home.
Racing here in Belgium is a unique experience in every aspect. You get so many different experiences with all the variation in courses and atmospheres in such a small geographical area. It may be out of the norm compared to what I’m used to, but it’s really fun.
Until next time, Grip N Rip!
If you want to get more of the inside view from this elite American off road athlete living in Europe, you can follow Barret on Instagram