4 January 2009 | Race Reports
Frustration. Frustration. A Little Redemption.
Yes, frustration was the name of the game at the next 2 races I raced in Europe. First up was the World Cup in Zolder. It was cold and the ground was totally frozen. I went out to pre-ride before the race and was surprised by a couple steep downhills. One in particular was steep, rutted and a little off camber. It was pretty scary, definitely not something you would ever see on a course in the US. Overall, the course was pretty technical with a lot of short, punchy climbs, but it was super fast because of how frozen the ground was.
I got a second row call-up and lined up right behind Katie, so no excuses about bad start position. The start was very fast, and by the 3rd corner I found myself all the way in the back of the field going “what just happened?” At this point, I should have known enough to just get off my bike and run EVERYTHING and try to pass as many people as possible. I tried to ride some of the climbs and had to get off anyway when people in front of my couldn’t make it up. I lost a lot of time on that first lap, and the leaders were long gone by the time I came back out on the pavement. For the rest of the race, I slowly picked people off one by one. Every time down the start-finish I would pin it, because all the women I was catching would sit up and look at each other when they got to the pavement. Nobody wanted to work, so I would just put my head down and grind it out.
My legs were ok, not great. I was having one of those days where every gear is the wrong gear, where if you are spinning it’s too easy and if you shift, you feel like you are pushing a monster gear.
Heading into the last lap, I could see Wendy up ahead, which gave me a good carrot to chase. I caught up to her towards the end of the lap and passed her on the one short run-up. Then I proceeded to go over the bars a couple corners later and Wendy passed me back, as I was picking myself up. I ended up 10th, not exactly what I was hoping for. I also got the added bonus of having to pee in a cup after the race- I was a random for doping control. In doping control, I chatted a bit with Marianne Vos, the race winner. She was very friendly and informed me that the Worlds course would be good for the Americans because “it is hard.” Ok, good to know.
I was frustrated with my race, because I felt like I lost so much time because of a little hesitation at the start. I’m not that comfortable riding balls-out in a pack of people, and you have to be to make that front-group selection.
“Ok,” I thought, “I’ve got to be more aggressive at the starts.” My next race wasn’t until a few days later, so I had plenty of time to stew about all the things I would have done differently.
The next race was Azencross in Louenhout, Belgium. Even though it wasn’t a World Cup, it is one of the most popular races, so all of the top racers were there, and there were thousands of spectators. I pre-rode the course and really liked it. It was dead flat except for a few flyover bridges and some tiny rollers. There was also one section of whoops which were a little weird- they were really steep and close together, so I never wanted to go into them too fast- if you caught even a little air off the first one, it could be bad. The course was frozen and really really fast, although there were plenty of chicanes to keep it interesting.
I got a second-row call up again, and was determined that I wouldn’t waste it. I started well, and was with the leaders by the first corner, however as I braked a little for the corner (like the people in front of me) women were passing me on either side (yes, I was again getting “swarmed”), and I soon found myself back in the 20s. Dang it! I always figure that if I crash I will lose way more time than if a lose a few seconds being cautious, but I’m learning you have to be extra aggressive at those starts.
The course was so fast that it was difficult to move up, but by the end of the first lap I had moved into the top 15. Once again, every time we hit the pavement, women would sit up and look behind them. I was not interested in racing for 15th place- I wanted to catch the leaders! I would put in huge efforts on the pavement and everyone would sit on my wheel. I didn’t care, I would have gladly pulled them all around the course. Problem was, these ladies were too busy racing each other. They would sit on my wheel, then come around me on one of the short straightaways and ride slow- not intentionally slow, but it was just clear that they were more concerned with being 11th instead of 12th, and less concerned with catching up to the leaders. Finally, I started getting the hang of it- I started blocking. I would see one of the women trying to come around and I would move over in front of them, or I would chop them in corners. No mercy. If only I had started riding like a jerk at the start- I probably would have made that first group…
I was so frustrated because I had good legs, and I know I could have stayed with the front group. On the last lap, I put in a huge effort on the pavement and rode the whole lap a few bike lengths off the front of the group. When I came out onto the pavement, I looked back, saw I had a little gap and just tried to drill it to the finish. One of the girls (I think she was 16 years old) put in a pretty amazing sprint to catch me and pip me on the line. Awesome.
I was frustrated. So frustrated. To have a small mistake in the first minute of the race determine the rest of my race. Two races in a row. I started to wonder if maybe Nommay was a fluke, maybe I was just slower than everyone else. I didn’t want to think that, but, you know, those thoughts creep in.
Because I was only doing 4 races, I felt like I didn’t have enough time to work on the stuff I needed to work on. I resolved that in my next race, I was going to ride like a maniac at the start, and do whatever it took- no matter how terrifying I found it- to get to the front early.
Dusty agreed to make the 3 hour drive down to Petange, Luxembourg with me as Ryan, Jeremy and Jamie were sitting this one out. It was like old times- me and Dusty and a bunch of racing stuff- except instead of a van we were in a VW golf. When we showed up at the registration, they didn’t have the numbers yet- those would be available 1 hour before the start. We got to the course and ran into Wendy and Sue Butler, who had already ridden the course. Wendy was saying there was a ton of climbing, and she wished she had an easier gear- she had a 38 as her small front chainring. I have a single 42. I had a short moment of dread, but then thought that a harder gear would just force me to go faster and that I should just grow a mustache and suck it up.
I headed out to see the course, and sure enough, there was a ton of climbing. After a paved climb, there was a run-up, then some more paved climbing and then some false flat climbing on trails. At the top of the course, there was one short steep climb before you started the descent. Which really was a “descent”- I think it took a few minutes. The trails were covered in wet leaves, and the ground was starting to thaw. It was getting greasy but there were still some frozen ruts to keep you on your toes.
I was a little bummed at first- just when I thought I was going to nail it at another fast start, I get to a race that isn’t going to have a fast start. Because of the length of the climb, I decided on a little more conservative start (no need to get to the front and blow up, there was plenty of passing on the climb). The women’s field was pretty small, but had a few heavy hitters: Marianne Vos, Pavla Havlikova, Wendy, Sue and Natasha Elliot were all there.
We were also starting with the junior men, although there were only 5 of them. The start was pretty fast considering what was up ahead, but I didn’t panic (ok, maybe I panicked a little bit and thought “not again!”). Even though I was probably in 10th by the run-up, I moved into 3rd by the end of the paved climb, and I passed Marianne before the top of the climb. I was still behind one of the juniors, but he rode the downhill pretty fast. By the bottom of the downhill I had a few seconds, with Marianne, Wendy and Pavla not far behind. I rode hard on the climbs (passed that junior), and stayed focused on the downhill and stretched the gap out every lap. My legs felt great- I felt like I could get on top of any gear, and I was descending faster every lap. I ended up winning the race 48 seconds in front of Marianne. Pavla finished another 30 secs behind her. I was pumped.
Yes, it was a tiny race, and no, it wasn’t a huge win, but I still felt relieved. I felt comfortable the whole time, didn’t have to worry about any tactics and could just focus on riding hard. Ok, so the course was more of a mountain bike course- but hey, it was still a ‘cross race. Some of the courses favor roadies, some favor mountain bikers- right. I just need to get so that I can excel at either one, and I’ve got a month to get ready!
Overall, I am so glad I went and raced in Europe. I had a blast. It was great to finally see what the races are like- the types of courses, how the racers race, how many spectators there are, all of that stuff. Despite some frustration, I think the trip was a success, and I now know what I need to work on to be more consistent at the World Cups.