I've always had a very special relationship with the Belgium Ardennes. As a child I loves going there for hiking and camping and nowadays I just love the terrain for training.
One of the most feared sportives in August is the Velomediane Claudy Criqueilion. 170 kilometers and over 3300 altimeters. Everyone who ever took part in this event claim that this must be one of the toughest sportives. As a two time finisher of La Marmotte, I can only verify that.
Just like La Marmotte, there are set times for bronze, silver & gold medals for each age group.
The Velomediane is a special race to me, especially the one in 2015. Not performance wise, but because 2015 was the first year I had to deal with a serious heart related issue. And in finishing this sportive, and finishing strong, I trusted my body again. But before I tell you about that, here's a short trip down memory lane regarding this sportive.
In 2012 I did my first ever Velomediane. It turned out to be a brutal one. Severe cramps in my legs after just 75 kilometers gave me the knowledge that you need to have a solid state of fitness and strength to even finish this sportive. Let alone finish in gold, That year I barely made it to the finish to collect a bronze medal.
2013 was a different year. That year I did a full preparation for La Marmotte and after getting a gold time & medal there I still had a very good form at the end of august. So I was highly motivated and very determined to get a gold medal. Faith choose differently that day. A crash from a rider in front of me in the descent meant me and 50 other riders kissing the pavement. I was alright but my bike had a broken rear derailleur pad. Game over.
The year 2014 started with me not having ridden al that much. Mentally I was in a very bad place and could not motivate myself to go training. There are some athlete that perform better when angry, but i'm different, I need the peace in my head. Luckily one of my best friends decided to train for La Marmotte and he asked me to help him prepare for that sportive. With this new found motivation we started making progress. I was happy again on the bike. With him leaving for a final training camp in the Vosges mountains I was asked to ride the Velomediane again, as a last minute replacement team member. Without hesitating I said yes. I got the call on Friday afternoon. Packed my bags and bike and went on my way to La Roche. There we had a meeting with the team, and I was told what the objective was. My job was simple. Keeping our leader save until the second time in La Roche, after about 125 kilometer. From then on, It was my own race. That year I picked up my first gold medal after a very good race. The team leader went on to finish 21st.
In 2015, after having taken some sort of sabbatical. I was highly motivated and very happy on the bike. A new home, an amazing girlfriend and new training friends. The year went smooth and training was easy. But then, the first week in april, everything started going wrong.
It all started with a weird heart-rate reading during a training ride. Suddenly there was a terrible feeling of dizzyness and a heart-rate of 254 bpm. It lasted ten seconds and then everything went normal, and I felt good again. So I thought nothing was wrong, just a misreading and a coincidental bad feeling. But the next day it happened again, and this time twice. After consulting with my girlfriend I decided to get it checked out at the doctor's office. They did not doubt a second and send me straight through to the hospital for a complete heart diagnostic and stress test. The first part was basically a scan and echo. The second part was a threshold test on the bike. In reaching 340 watts and just a minor imperfection on the echo nothing seemed to be wrong. I was send home, in waiting for the definitive results.
But then the hard part started. Mentally I was just scared. Not so much of dying, but more of loosing everything I loved and worked for. Not being able to train, not being able to do my job. Just some of the thought that were going through my mind. That week, training went well, not perfect, but no troubles. On Friday I got the results and they were positive. A small imperfection but nothing serious. The doctor assured me, after telling me how bad triathlon is for the human body, that my heart was in great shape. I went home a happy man, but still in doubt. Funny how the mind controls every single emotion.
The following week the problems came back, and I got back to the doctor immediately. They decided to burn away the small imperfection. A very minor operation with no consequences. After doing so, I went home. And the weeks after that were difficult. I mean, every time I felt just a little twitch of pain, my mind immediately thought the worst things. But I decided to push through, convinced myself I could beat this.
After a beautiful holiday in Spain at the beginning of August I then asked for permission to start at the Velomdiane. Permission you ask? Yes, because, when you have had a heart related issue in the last 6 months, you have to ask permission to start. The permission was granted on Friday before the race. I booked a nice hotel for me and my girl, and we went on our way.
At 6 am, when my alarm rang, I was already up and so excited to race again. My girl and I had a little pep talk and I promised myself to most of all enjoy the ride. The race starts in La Roche, this beautiful town in the Ardennes.
After the race had started the feeling was great, overtook a lot of riders on the first 2 climbs and in the long descents. When I reached La Roche again after 95 kilometer, my girl was standing there with 2 fresh bidons and some food. A quick kiss and I went on my way again. After that everything just kept getting better and better. On the final flat bit of road before the Cote the Beffe I knew I was going to ride a great time. But then, unfortunately, a puncture. Luckily the mechanic post was close by. A quick fix and I was on my way again. Lost about 15 minutes maybe, but no matter. It was a beautiful sunny day and I was enjoying every single minute of this race so far.
"I was disappointed with the result, not about the performance."
On the final categorized climb, the Cote de Beffe, I gave it all to try and regain some time. At the finish line I missed the gold limit by a mere 9 minutes. Off course, I was disappointed with the result, not about the performance.
But you what the best thing was. My girl was there and the look on her face was priceless. She was so proud. That's just the best feeling ever. And something else changed that day. I hadn't thought one moment about my heart. This was a symbolic race, I needed this to regain my confidence.
Now you know, why this race will always have a reserved place in my heart.