Christine Vardaros has been living in Belgium the last 5 years now and while this NY raised cyclocross Pro has settled in nicely now, it hasn't always been easy. She is not in Louisville for Cross Worlds, but she won't be sad at home either.
Slowtwitch: Thank you for your time Christine.
Christine: My pleasure! Thanks for thinking of me!
Christine: Yeah, I got that nickname from my longtime coach Alex Albertus, a.k.a. Elmo. Back in 2000, during an exceptionally hard training ride on Mt. Tam where I was nearly dead, I turned to him and said, “But I am just a peanut”. Instead of letting up on me, he responded matter-of-factly, “You’re right. You are just a little fucking Peanut and don’t you ever fucking forget that.” After that day, slowly through word of mouth, people started calling me Peanut. It spread so far that I even started hearing my nickname called out to me at the races in Belgium…and from some of the most unlikely folks like Belgian National Cyclocross Team Coach Rudy De Bie.
ST: The CX Worlds in Louisville, KY are almost upon us, but you won’t be there. Are you bummed or is it not as much of a deal for you since you actually live in the cross mecca Belgium?
Christine: Sure I would have loved to have represented America at a World Championships held in my homeland for the first time but it isn’t meant to be. I started the season off with a solid fitness level – the best I’d had in years, but one problem after another knocked my fitness lower and lower. It started with overtraining syndrome, then hip bursitis and gluteus medius tendonitis that had me laid up on the couch for over a week – I couldn’t even sit properly in a chair. And in my first race back, I crashed..running up stairs of all things – how uncool is that! I managed to cut into my wrist and leg right down the bone, turn my whole right butt check deep blue and crack my helmet. At least my Stevens [bike] survived. I remember getting back to my feet and checking it. I knew something was amiss with my body but I didn’t bother giving it a once-over until the finish– as long as I could stand up and the wheels turned. Typical racer reflex I suppose.
As for Worlds, while I may not be last in the race if I took the start, there are definitely more deserving women out there for those spots. I am thankful to at least know what it feels like to wear the USA skinsuit at three World Championships as well as represent my country at over 30 World Cups. I also get to race the special classics every year like Koppenbergcross so I am not too sad.
ST: We assume you live in Belgium now because you are married to a Belgian man.
Christine: I have been mainly in Belgium for the last five years - since Jonas and I were married. When we met almost six years ago, I already had an apartment in Leuven so it was a relatively easy transition to live in Belgium. And job-wise it was more practical for me to stay in Belgium than for Jonas to move to America. His job is not too flexible while mine as cyclist and journalist/writer are easier…and more ideal…to maintain here in Belgium.
ST: I think Jonas speaks English quite well, so do you speak English or Flemish at home?
Christine: We started off with English – well, actually, I talked in English and he nodded a lot while smiling politely. He found me a bit overwhelming at first as Belgians tend to be more subdued. Of course I abused his shy nature by saying the most outlandish things on our first few dates to see how far I could go before breaking him. He was a tough one to crack but once I did, it was an instant match. It turned out he was just as zany as I.
It wasn’t until three years ago, though, that I finally made work of learning Dutch. We chose a weeklong holiday with his family as the starting point of my new Flemish-speaking life. Needless to say, I was quieter that week than I ever thought possible. By the last couple of days I finally mustered the courage to make mistakes and opened my mouth a few times. Eventually, I took a Dutch class for two months and now I talk almost exclusively in Flemish at the races. I cannot tell you how much speaking the language has deepened my experience here! I feel like I belong…almost. Seeing kind folks wearing “Christine “Peanut” Vardaros” supporter jackets the last couple of seasons at the races here certainly helps to make me feel wanted.
ST: What language do you curse in, or is that something you just don’t do?
Christine: When it comes to cursing, my friggin’ NYC roots shine bright. I’m originally from New York, where I’ve lived in Long Island, Brooklyn, and Manhattan – Upper West Side, Upper East Side, East Village, Sutton Place, Hell’s Kitchen. But before I moved to Belgium, I spent a few years in Mill Valley, just north of San Francisco, where I toned down my potty mouth. I moved there for my first Pro racing team that was based out of there – Team Breezer. Even though I’ve cleaned up my act a bit, my language still comes out at times of stress, like when I completely f*** up a section in a race. For the record, I always apologize to those who were within earshot of my obscenities. Oh, and my “slang” comes out strong at times when I am hanging out with my buddies from back home.
ST: Amy Dombroski mentioned that you helped her quite a bit getting settled there, but who helped you when you got started?
Christine: I did have help here and there but for the most part I was on my own. This is why I was happy to help Amy as I know what it feels like to do what she’s done. The first time I came to Belgium, or even Europe for that matter, was in 2002 to race a couple of World Cups. That season, USA Cycling decided to fill only four of their five spots for World Championships so I was 1st alternate. Just in case I had the chance to replace one of the riders, I took my alternate duties seriously. On race day, I had done my pre-ride, set the tire pressure just right and waited around for someone to break a leg – or even an arm would do. For a brief second there, I thought my moment had come. Gina Hall was riding by a porta-potty just as the team coach was swinging the door open. It took me less than a nanosecond to jump to my feet, bike in hand. Unfortunately for me, it was merely a close call.
On this first trip, I stayed with a guy from Boston named Mark Abramson who offered to rent his spare bedroom to me for my two-week stay, until hebroke the news to me that I had one day to leave his apartment because his mom was coming to visit and needed my bedroom. Great, I thought - in Europe for the first time, in a non-English-speaking country, with a stick shift car, limited funds, and now homeless.
My only option was to contact the one person I knew in Belgium through an online cycling forum in hopes that a miracle would come of it. He was a teacher at the Leuven University. I snuck into the school library and sent him an email. A few hours later, I was the proud renter of a dormitory room at the University of Leuven. Yep, bathroom on one end of the hall, kitchen on the other.
Luckily I was able to manage the stress of being homeless enough to again place top 10 in the second World Cup that weekend held in Holland. Lots of credit for that race success also goes to Jonathan and Cori Page. The night before the race they invited me to have dinner with them and Charles Pelkey of VeloNews. I showed up to dinner two hours late. It took me that much time to drive a full 10 kilometers. When I finally showed, I looked like a wet rat with my bloodshot eyes from crying so much – damn stick shift and lack of street signs. The next morning, Cori showed up at my hotel and drove me to the race. Meanwhile, Jonathan got his spare bike set up for me to use in the pit as I only traveled with one bike those days. On my last day in the dorm room in Leuven, I received my acceptance letter for the University.
The following year, I finally nailed my dream of racing in the World Championships. Since then, I've traveled to Belgium almost every winter. Once I got the taste of cross racing here, I found myself doing whatever it took – like a crack addict - to come back for more, and more and more.
Until I met Jonas, every trip to Belgium reminded me of my days as a carny where there was always a steady flow of turbulence. The worst was possibly the 2006-07 season when I raced for Belgium’s Lotto-Belisol womens team. The chaos started from the moment I landed in Brussels Airport. After three hours of waiting for my friend to arrive, I finally realized that I had been stood up. The guy I counted on for housing, travel to the races as well as mechanical support, apparently changed his mind at the very last second about helping me and clearly forgot to tell me. It turned out he met a woman who was the jealous type.
Word of my unfortunate situation quickly spread through the cyclocross community as well as through my apartment building. Within no time, I was getting offers for help from everywhere. Neighbors offered rides to races and to motorpace me with their little commuter mopeds, while my cyclo-cross supporters offered up whatever help they could to make the racing easier. I was even given cars to borrow for races.
Halfway into my stay that season I was homeless once again. My artsy roommates decided that I was too clean for them – they didn’t appreciate that I cleaned up their messes in the kitchen. It ruined their ambiance. Luckily this time around, finding a place was easier as there was a free apartment two floors down, albeit with shared toilet and shower down the hall. I ended up keeping this apartment until I moved in with Jonas.
ST: Woah, that is quite a story. On a somewhat related note, although it is getting easier and easier to get stuff from anywhere in the world - is there something particular you miss from the USA?
Christine: Until just recently, I wasn’t easily able to get Ziploc bags, peanut butter or band-aids. For the band-aids, you’d have to go to a pharmacy where they’d charge you five times the normal price. Pharmacies here in Belgium also have the stronghold on vitamin C. They treat it like a controlled substance where the largest size you can buy is 500mg and each pill is individually packaged. What I probably miss most is being able to pick up a take-out burrito on the way home from a ride. Things like that simply don’t exist here. They do have Chinese take-out but it is totally Belgianized, which means completely bland. They barely even use salt and pepper in their cooking here.
I also miss training with my coach as they have nothing quite like him here. And of course I miss some of my closest friends like Ronnie Pires, whom I visit in New Jersey once a year. He lives just over the George Washington Bridge so every day we take a spin into NYC to grab a burrito, ride around Central Park or visit my longtime friends and role models Ruth and Bill Stein who are almost 90 and 95 years old and incredibly happily married. They still work fulltime out of their Upper East Side apartment and go to their country house on the weekends so it is great when they can fit in a few visits the week that I come over.
ST: The Belgian team arrived in the USA a few days ago. Do you think they will be in for a bit of a culture shock?
Christine: As for the language shock, most of the riders speak English but fast talkers with heavy dialects may periodically throw some of them off. As for the other aspects of potential culture shock, I doubt there will be a problem. They’ve all seen a wide collection of TV shows and American films from “Sex in the City” to “Deliverance.”
ST: You have been dealing with injuries recently and that has prevented you from racing at full throttle. How is that going?
Christine: My injuries are now completely healed but it’s been a frustratingly slow process back to top form! I have seven races to go so I am still training hard in hopes that I can put something together for those events. The last of those races is Cyclocross Masters Waregem which is more of a spectacle than an actual race where they run various events like time trials and “battles of the sexes” that are held on a manmade course set up in the city center. They will have us do crazy things like jump off ramps and taking on random piles of sand plopped onto the ground by a dump truck.
The last few years, this end-of-season event was held in the Hasselt Indoor Arena where they had us run up a painfully long red-carpeted staircase, ride past the VIP section and descend the red-carpeted step-style ramp that dumps the riders into a long deep sand strip. Last year, on the last lap, just when I started to have thoughts of that glass of cava waiting for me in the riders VIP section after the race, I found myself upside down with a mouthful of sand – head buried like a flamingo.
ST: So you still race –through your injuries and even now when you are unsure of your fitness level.
Christine: Yeah, I’m a dumbass. I even raced at Druivencross Overijse, the day after my crash in BPost Trofee Azencross. Midway through that race I popped some stitches on my leg, so by the end my waterproof sealed bandages were overflowing with blood. But I just hate the idea of a party going on without me. That and if I don’t race, then I lose money. And as a female racer, I can’t afford to lose even the tiniest bit of income.
ST: Baboco is your current team. What other sponsorship do you have?
Christine: I have a few other sponsors that I had the privilege of handpicking. STEVENS bikes, Challenge tires, HempAge for casual clothing, 3T, Tam Bikes, Tifosi Optics, PROBAR Energy Bars, Zen Republic Energy Drink and Specialized for helmet, shoes, gloves .
ST: Is there anything else we should know?
Christine: It is indeed possible to compete at the highest level on plants alone! I have been doing it as a vegan for 12 years now. I’ve also been vegetarian for 22. As a staunch vegan, I am a spokesperson for a couple of international animal rights organizations such as In Defense of Animals (IDA) and Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). I give talks on a vegan diet for active lives all over the world from San Francisco to Paris at events such as International Animal Rights Conference that was recently held in Luxembourg last September. In addition, I’m an ambassador for Bike Pure, an organization for riders, teams and supporters, working to improve the integrity of professional cycling.
I am also an expert dessert maker, cookies are my favorite. I’ve been perfecting my recipes over the last fifteen years – all vegan of course. Every year I give an end-of-season party at the Oostmalle race and bake about eight sorts of cookies for my supporters and fellow racers. Based on the feedback from everyone including discerning partygoers like Marianne Vos, Daphny Van Den Brand, the Page family, Helen Wyman and many others, I am now toying with the idea to start a mail-order cookie company.
Before cycling, I was a fencer for years– mostly foil and epee, and a good one too. I started at 15 years old and fenced all through university at Columbia where we never placed lower than 2nd in the NCAA’s in my four years there.
And I never smoked pot…yet.
ST: Oh yes, one more thing. Can we get podium predictions for the Elite race?
Christine: Top 5? I assume since Worlds is held in USA it’ll be run American style with 5 on a podium. My picks are Marianne Vos, Katie Compton, Sanne van Paassen, Katerina Nash, and fifth spot between Georgia Gould/Helen Wyman/Sanne Cant –can’t decide between the three.
As for the men, Kevin Pauwels, Niels Albert, Sven Nys, Thijs van Amerongen/Lars van der Haar, Klaas Vantournout. Sixth will go to either Rob Peeters or Bart Aernouts I think. Do note that this is not my wish list.