BeMC – hardest mountain bike race in the Benelux

On June 25, 2015 by Alan

BeMC is a three day stage race in the Ardennes, Belgium from the 15th to 17th May, in it’s 4th year. I know what your thinking, Belgium is flat right? Think again, the Ardennes may only rise to 600 metres, but the climbs are steep and plentiful.

The region also offers superb, and sometimes challenging single track under the cover of beautiful forests. Included on the UCI international calendar as a XCS S2 contest, it’s a popular race attracting 350+ competitors from many countries. BeMC organisers say the race distinguishes itself from the other multi-day events in the Benelux by its difficulty level and the quality of the participants. Here’s the race stats:

  • 262km – Distance
  • 3 – Days
  • 7700m+ Altimeters

The run up

After a broken wrist in September, followed by an operation to fit plates, I needed a challenge to get through recovery. I could just about get myself in shape for BeMC in May, for what would be my second ever stage race.

Getting back on the horseThe run up to the race was hectic, with races and long training sessions were at a minimum. Luckily, I had trained hard over the Winter. I’d head out every Saturday mornings under the tutelage of Elite riders Llewellyn Holmes and Joe Griffiths. We would hit the Mendips hills, near Bristol with increasing purpose, aiming to do 6 to 8 hard ones. It was painful keeping with Llew and Joe, but these efforts were great preparation for the BeMC’s hills.

My only full marathon distance was done as a ‘kitchen sink ride’ six days before BeMC, as five laps of the Cafall trail in Cwmcarn, Wales. Five hours plus of Welsh hills, on a wet and cold day really hurt. I felt unprepared mentally for BeMC. Adding to my worry was my wrist. I had yet to recover full use and feeling in my index finger and thumb on my right hand. Changing gears up was hard and became increasingly sore the longer I rode. I’d end up using my palm to change gears, which I don’t recommend at speed. With BeMC in six days, I was worried.

I traveled to BeMC with elite rider Tim Dunford, who’d I’d not had the pleasure of meeting before and Scott Cornish, who I’d raced my first stage race, The Andalusia Bike Race the previous year with. Their vast experience, which they willingly shared, proved invaluable. The night before the race, after an eight hour drive by Tim, we settled in and got out for a pre-race warm up. I’ve found a lengthy session before a marathon is essential. At the European Marathon Champs the previous year, I’d gone out for two and a half hours the day before and was flying on the day. We did an hour of increasing speed. This is where I first become aware of how beautiful and incredibly hilly the Ardennes are. Then it was early to bed. None of us slept well that night. The rain was torrential and loud. The first day was going to be messy in the woods.


Stage 1


La Roche-en-Ardenne to La Roche-en-Ardenne

67km – 2225 m+

Stage 1 took place in and around the beautiful host town of La Roche-en-Ardenne. As I warmed up, I spotted the only other Irish racer. He wasn’t difficult to see given that he was sporting the Irish National Marathon Champ jersey. I went and had a chat with Ryan Sherlock who was in good spirits. Ryan was hoping to ride into form, which it turned out he did.

Blurry in the woods

The start was in the centre of La Roche surrounded by spectators. It made a change from a field in the middle of nowhere, like most marathon events. As the clock ticked down, I thought of the people who had got me to the start-line, and how far I’d come since my road traffic accident in 2011. If that was not enough to spur me on, there were the kind donated to WaterAid, the charity I’d designated to cycle for. You can still donate.

With 500 metres of climbing within the first 9km, the race started as it meant to go on. The over night rain made it sketchy, but once I found my confidence in the conditions, I started passing on the slippery descents as well as the climbs. My biggest struggle in getting to this race has been my confidence. It had been knocked by two big falls last year. I wasn’t sure I’d get my mountain bike mojo back, and was worried about my wrist is particular. But everything felt good. In fact, I felt great. I was loving the racing. My legs felt strong. I was flowing and passing with a huge smile on my face. The smile lasted until the infamous ‘Wall of Borzee’. With an average climbing percentage of 17% over 300 metres, it was leg sapping, but I made it up, the first time that day anyway.

Overall, the stage was not too technical, particularly as the trails dried out, which they did surprisingly quickly. I was tentative on this first stage, wanting to keep some powder dry for the next two, longer days. As it turned out, I should have been less conservative, I had plenty in my legs. I’d found my mountain bike mojo and was truly enjoying it.

The stage averaged 33 vertical metres of climbing per kilometre. It was the climbers stage and I’m a climber, so I knew it would suit me. I rolled home  9th in category. I was amazed, happy, and confident for the next day. Tim in the elites didn’t have such a good day, with three punchers. Scott was doing better with a third in my category.

Once finished, it was quickly into the stage race routine of bike washing, eating, showering, more eating, then organising for tomorrow, before eating again and then bed early. Although we did have an ice-cream in the town square, which was a nice treat.

Stage 2


La Roche-en-Ardenne – Sainte-Ode – La Roche-en-Ardenne 95km – 2350 m+

Here’s the tricky bit about stage racing. Having only done two stage races, I’ve always struggled to sleep. From what I’ve seen, it’s a common problem. With your mind and body over tired from racing, sleep doesn’t come easy, just when you need it. I’ve learned not to stress about it, because for me, poor sleep does not mean a poor days racing the next day. However, getting stressed about not sleeping does.

Through the woods

I feared the second stage for two reasons. Firstly, were I to finish, it would be a PB for me, as the longest distance I’d ever done on a mountain bike. Secondly, this was the strong mans stage, and that I was not.

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The first 20km were uphill and hard, but I found I was easily passing riders on uphill section, especially as it got steeper. Once on top of the hills, I learned quickly to get into a group on high and exposed sections of road. This is where I struggled more than any other part of the race. Weighing in at 65kgs, I’m not build for speed, power or a strong gust of wind. I worked really hard to tag onto groups and stay in them for all I was worth.

The trails were great, but again not too technical. There was a good mixture of climbs, descents, flat section following a river and exposed sections on top of the hills. I was getting into my stride and relishing the racing. It’s such a privilege just being there and racing, not just there to finish.

I finished stage 2 in 4 hours and 58 minutes and in 8th place in category. Again, not too shabby, but I now wanted a top 5 on the final day.

Stage 3


La Roche-en-Ardenne – Houffalize – La Roche-en-Ardenne

99km – 3000 m+

Saving the best until last, this was the hardest stage. It was the longest and the highest. By day three, I was flying. My nutrition strategy was working. The lack of sleep wasn’t holding me back. Starting as previous days with a long, but this time not so steep climb, I was straight into picking off places and felt really competitive. This time we descended the infamous Wall of Borzee, which was far less painful. There were many rocky sections, which became puncher alley, if care wasn’t taken. After two injuries the year before, I was riding within my safe zone, which was good for me and my bike.

Fun in the woods

It was all going well until a wrong turn, up a steep hill, following a group of Dutch riders cost time, places and valuable energy. It was demotivating to come back into the field in the company of riders, who I had passed a long time ago. The race organisers had made the last 30km very hard, with steep climb after steep climb, I thought the end would never come, but I knew once it did, I’d be sad it was over. Then it was on to Houffalize, the former World cup circuit, which was a change from the forest trails. Finally, we headed back to La Roche, through wooded trails.

In the end I came home in 6th place in category, again an improvement. I was still very pleased and even more surprised by how good my legs felt. I wanted another day. Overall after the three days I finished 8th in category, which earned me some prize money.


Stage racing is glimpse into what it must be like to be a pro, without all the perks that is. The lack of sleep and constant eating, I’m not keen on. Without sponsorship it’s an expensive game, both in terms of money and time. You just can’t arrive at a stage race with anything on your bike that’s a bit worn. However, if you can make it work, it’s an amazing experience. I know I’ll be aiming to do another next year.

What stage races prove to me is that the old Leadville moto stands true – ‘You are better that you think you are and you can do more than you think you can’. Whilst you may think you’ll really struggle on day 2, 3 or 4, you’ll be surprised at how you will rise to the occasion and find what’s needed, and sometimes even more. It’s all about eating, hydrating and resting. Get that right and anything is possible. If like me, your lucky enough to travel with experienced riders, then it saves on a lot of rookie mistakes.

What I’ve learned:

  1. Do a kitchen sink ride (5 hours +) 5 to 6 days before
  2. A good, long warm up the day before makes the legs feel good on the startline
  3. Spin lower gears on the first day, so as not to burn out your legs
  4. You won’t win on the downhills, but you could loose it
  5. Learn from people who’ve done it before
  6. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, so don’t panic
  7. Eat, eat and eat again, especially during the race
  8. Get the legs up after each stage
  9. Don’t stress if you can’t sleep, just rest
  10. Enjoy it!


My Scott Scale 710 was the perfect bike for the course and my Maxxis Ikon tires made light work of all terrain.


Being a coeliac, racing abroad involves planning ahead. I take what I’ll need in terms of energy bars, gels, drinks and of course porridge. I stuck with what I had tried and knew to be gluten free. I used SIS gels, and High Five 4:1 energy powder. For solids I had Eat Natural Bars and Battle Oats, which were ace. I also had Beet it juice with breakfast. The feed stations, which we only used when really needed, had everything you could need, including walnuts, bananas, dates, water, energy drink and Coke. As we were self catering, we could prepare our own food, which worked perfectly for a good gluten free breakfast and dinner.

Thanks to:

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BeMC After Movie from on Vimeo.

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