Tom Portsmouth is one of nine riders keeping a journal for The British Continental in 2021. A second-year under-23 rider, Tom is supported by the Rayner Foundation and rides for the new Carbonbike Discar Academy team in Belgium this season. In his fourth installment, Tom describes the thrill of his long-awaited return to racing in Belgium…
Racing is glorious in Belgium. It took a year out from racing for me to appreciate how fundamentally important the racing is out here to a rider’s development, racecraft, and speed.
I’ve missed racing, but more specifically I’ve missed Belgian racing. It had been a long 22 months since I had last raced here as a junior rider. I was fortunate enough to have got a win at my last race in Belgium that year.
I was nervous to see how I would fare against the kings of kermesses
Now a senior, I finally moved back over or Belgium with a little trepidation. I’d heard so many stories about how difficult the racing was at the elite level out here, told by so many people I look up to, I was nervous to see how I would fare against the kings of kermesses. I knew I had done some great work with my coaches at trainSharp, but I hadn’t ridden a race as long as a Belgian kermesse in nearly two years. There were a lot of unknowns to contend with.
Turning up at the first one, I experienced a strange cocktail of stress, adrenaline and excitement. Here I was, on the start line of an actual kermesse, ready to test myself. I’m glad to say I hit the ground running, featuring at the front in several moves, rubbing shoulders with riders I had been dying to race against for years.
As a rider with a foreign racing licence, negotiating my race programme is a very stressful business. There is a maximum of 175 riders allowed to start any one kermesse, and riders with foreign licences are only allowed to enter a race three days in advance, at which point the waiting list already overflowing. With a midnight cut-off point for cancelling a race entry to avoid a fine for being a non-starter, it’s often not until just before you go to bed that a place on the startlist becomes available. It all makes for a very ‘on edge’ experience, having to plan for all outcomes and be prepared to switch up at the very last minute. Mix that in with the solo return drive to the race itself and it can be a very draining experience.
Nevertheless, it is a learning curve that I am enjoying and relishing. I am enjoying being up at the front end of races more than ever. As I said, I had a really good start to my Belgian season, finishing 22nd despite being caught behind a high-speed pileup, converting this result into 6th place on my second outing against some of the best amateur riders Belgium has to offer. I’m really feeling the progress already, the confidence is building.
Just the other night the whole town came out to watch us pelt around a short quick course on a Friday night, as if every race is a town centre crit night in England
Racing on the continent just ticks so many boxes and is so different compared with England. It’s safe, controlled, enjoyable and the whole community gets involved. Just the other night the whole town came out to watch us pelt around a short quick course on a Friday night, as if every race is a town centre crit night in England. They manage to shut the roads when we need them, meaning we get to use the whole road, without any worries about oncoming cars or where the white lines are. I know this is difficult and expensive in England, but why should it be any different? I believe it starts with getting the whole community on your side, doing the race when the times aren’t as awkward for the residents or the police. As a rider, you can literally park anywhere on race night and, so long as you aren’t blocking a driveway, no one would come out and pound your window in or report the vehicle to the police. In Belgium, if there is a car on the course, and there rarely is, then the police will find the owner and who will move the car without question within a few laps.
This is the reason I came to Belgium. It’s representative, pure, fast racing, very similar to what you would get at the professional level, which is why it has been the playground for Brits, young and old, to race and train for generations. This is applicable not just in Belgium, but in France and Spain as well. And this is why it is so sad we are now restricted in our time and ability to train and race in Europe; it is fundamental to the progress of riders, simply because you can reliably race a safe, long race day in day out. It is unrivalled anywhere else in the world. This is why I love Belgium, this is why I love coming here. There is nowhere else I’d rather be.
I just hope I can find a way to enjoy European culture for more months of the year, be that training in Spain over the winter, racing in Belgium, small training blocks in France. I want to spend holiday time with the family too because at the end of the day, racing is not the most important thing in the world. We all need balance, and there’s so much more to experience in Europe beyond the cycling world.
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