The turn-around from Nationals to Europe was short – after a good showing (or a bad showing, I don’t remember) at the after party, the Kona Crew packed up and shipped out Monday morning to be in Belgium by Tuesday afternoon. I wasn’t planning to race until Namur on Sunday, but given the choice between a paid AirBnb and a later Belgie arrival or an early morning post race and getting settled sooner, I chose getting settled. And though I was there earlier, as was my choice last year, I sat out of racing Waaslandcross on the Saturday before Namur, where Kerry did race. Waaslandcross is a C2 race that kicks off the Belgian Kerstperiode, but to me I read it as another drop in a really ass-kicking bucket. So, instead of racing I rented a car to drive to Namur to preride the notoriously technical course.
Namur is the only course I have encountered two years in a row that gave me butterflies even the second time. This was the third time I have raced Namur, but this year presented a few changes: some of the course was reversed and whereas this didn’t affect many parts, the iconic (not as iconic as the off-camber but…) 180 degree run up, immediate hop on, ride down was reversed. At first, I thought removing the hard turn at the bottom and having a straight run-out would remove all of the jitteriness from this element, but I was wrong. I am not sure if it is the natural shape of the hill, or the fact that we were working against years of previous foot-holds and run lines, but the drop ended up being off-camber into the fenceline. A lot of riders stood at the top on preride, starting, intimidated. A lot of riders crashed. I was among them. There were a few line choices, the two major being one that looked easier to ride down but harder to exit (you needed to really commit to turning away from the fence without falling down) and one that had a clean exit but was … intimidatingly steep and rooted. I was unable to ride either more often than crashing. So, I committed to running down this hill. It’s a little disappointing to find yourself unable to ride an element, but it only takes one crash to take you out of a race. I remember this from last year, where I tried to push the pace in a seemingly easy section, crashed, broke a lot of stuff on my bike, then was so frazzled I kept crashing and eventually DNFed. You know what they say: DFL before DNF, so I put finishing potential over my pride.
That night, we had an Airbnb in Namur and Kerry, Spencer, Emily and Kerm headed there straight after their race in Sint-Niklaas. However, we were locked out for hours because the host didn’t send the entry code, and then, there was no hot water so we couldn’t even shower. It was the worst.
So, still dirty from the preride the day before, we show up to race. I was nervous. I had to start in the 4th row because World Cups grid by World Cup standing and after missing two events I was far down the list. The start of the race has been notoriously bad for me as it goes straight up a hill and then there is bottleneck after bottleneck. But, somehow, miraculously, from the 4th row (24-32 riders potentially ahead of me), I don’t go further backward. You thought I was going to come out in front, right? No chance. But not going backwards is a big deal here. There is a lot of shuffling, and I tend to end up on the sad face end of the deck, but not this time! I burn a few matches pushing the pace earlier than my body likes to, but it was worth it to come out ahead of a few groups. The first time through the finish, a half a lap in, I was 28th. After the next lap I was 11th. I was thinking to myself at every climbing section, “Just keep pushing the pace. Don’t let up. One gear harder.” At every downhill I thought “Slower at the top, less brake by the bottom, relax and eyes up”. By the next lap I was 7th. Holy crap. The excitement got the better of me and I did crash once. But I kept battling for position. I was 8th. By the last lap, I passed Katie Compton for 7th again. Wow, I was really doing it! After the final climb, in 7th, my only goal was to not botch this. Compton, the seasoned veteran, was not aiming to just finish, and passed me with apparent ease in the final corner to take 7th and leave me with 8th.
I got 8th place at Namur World Cup. Not only is this a top 10 in a Euro world cup, but the most technical and one of the hardest races on the entire circuit. I let this set the tone for everything moving forward.
The next race on tap was the World Cup Zolder the day after Christmas. Set on a car race track, this course is ripping fast. Last year after getting caught behind a 1st lap crash I chased the whole race and only ended up with 51st. The start is imperative here as there is a 90 degree turn, a 180, another 90, and another 180 immediately after the start straight. Luckily, this year, I got a GREAT start. Unluckily, I rode straight to the heart of the biggest bottleneck on course and stood still, getting passed by dozens of riders. Then it happened again. I felt the pressure for another standout result melt away and went into salvage mode. I went from 13th at the start to 31st at the end of the 1st lap, after I was passed and after I did a lot of passing back. The best I could manage on the day was a 25th. Considering how last year 25th in a Euro world cup was a standard result, I am pleased if this is the worst I can do here. And Kerry did well, being the last finisher on the lead lap! On a hugely fast course like this, that isn’t too shabby a result. Spencer was apparently not thrilled to be the last mechanic in the pits, but it’s better than the first one to leave.
With not much rest we head into Loenhout and Bredene, a C1 and C2 respectively. In Loenhout I made a good push for a 5th place finish, but made a lot of judgement errors trying to ride sections I should have been running and ended up 10th in a tight group of riders.
In Bredene I was also on the losing end of a battle, but it was a battle for 2nd and I ended up 3rd. I made it onto a European UCI podium with the world champ Sanne Cant and rock star Anna Kay! My start was a bit slow, but when Sanne came around I knew we were okay. She quickly motored to the front, and I was in 3rd. I passed Anna and rode in 2nd for a while, but made a few tiny mistakes that had huge time penalties as I was getting caught in the ropes (literally) and had to be still or move backwards to untangle. Eventually Anna passed me back and I decided a solid third was better than a risky 2nd or 4th.
The courses in Europe are much different than those in the US – the ground is somehow always slick, some parts of the course can get muddier during a race while others heavier, and each element seems abrupt. Instead of choking turns being a feature, the features are punching up, down and across steep humps. There are numerous surface changes. The riders ride different, too. Smoother and punchier at the same time. When battling at the front, or somewhere with more experienced riders, I find myself making more errors than when I am at the back. It is taking me a while to find their rhythm of speed and flow: I am putting power down at the wrong times and making dumb mistakes. I am getting too close to the course ropes, not judging my own angle of leaning. Apparently in an interview after Bredene, Sanne Cant mentioned my apparent lack of technique. And I would agree, right now on these courses I am riding more like I was in the US last year: throwing fitness at a skill problem. Brute force. I learned last year that doesn’t work, but when you’re in the snake pit you don’t exactly have your critical thinking cap on.
To ring in the new year we raced a UCI C2 race in Pentange, Luxembourg. This race is a right-of-passage sort of thing. Each generation (at least of men and now some women) of great racers seems to have cut their teeth on this New Year’s Day race. This is our second time racing, thanks to the good start money offered. The course is either up, or down. More of a mountain bike race than a cyclocross one.
I had a slow start, and was okay with me as I was managing fatigue for the races yet ahead. On the first lap I climb to 4th but had a bad crash on a descent, head-butting a tree and cracking my helmet. I took the next lap a little easy trying to make sure my head was okay – it was a really scary sound and crash. After 2 laps I didn’t see a lap card. Sometimes that happens if the officials are still calculating, but usually that is with a shorter course. We were only 20 minutes in and I assumed we had 3 more laps. The first lap card I saw was 1 to go. Well, this is less than ideal. I was in second with 1st in sight. I put in a good effort on that last lap, but the best I could do was close the gap to 1st but not quite catch her. I ended up in 2nd, but a 2nd bouquet and Euro podium!
A couple of days rest and on to the next race weekend of Gullegem and University Brussels. Gullegem is a fun course, even if a little awkward. Not associated with any major series, it still brought a strong contingent of riders. I had an amazing start and ended up in 3rd by the second turn of the race. I stayed in 3rd for a couple of laps before being passed by the same rider who beat me in Petange. I made a few mistakes, but still managed to bridge back and pass to be in the final podium spot again. However, she was reinvigorated by the chase and managed to pass me and keep a gap into the final lap, eking me out of a third podium for the week. I finished in 4th, but with a lot of TV time.
Moving on to the 7th and final race in my 2-week block, I have a new contingent of Belgian fans! The University Brussels race is a technical and slippery course. I had a bad start and the best I could do was manage the bobbles in the slippery conditions and enjoy the cheers around me. I ended up 13th in the DVV series race, not a bad result in the field given my extremely fatigued condition!!
I think what I am most proud of is how I rode the slick off-camber – never crashing on it during the race and passing people on most laps. I struggled in pre-ride, but I saw Compton go flat out, eyes up, embracing the drift, and I tried my best to emulate her. I was slower, more awkward, but it was effective. Hopefully I didn’t do anything too poorly to let down the new supporters. But if they are Belgian, I guess they can’t be fair weather fans.
I feel bad for the people that come here without the great extended that I have. This interesting group of people: Kerry, Spencer, Kerm, Emily and the others that flow in and out make all of this travel a little less lonely, a bit more functional, and a lot more hilarious. I get a bit homesick from time to time, but soon enough they remind me that home is where you park it.
Currently we are in Spain, putting in about two weeks of recovery and training before the Nommay World Cup. This is one of three rest blocks of the season for me, and where my rest has not been as long as others’, I have been able to race at a high end. I just hope that this fitness can last another month! I have shown consistency all season, maybe even to a higher degree than years previous. I want to capitalize on this, prove that my 8th place was not a fluke, that my Belgian podium was not a one-off, and to set the tone for next year when hopefully I can race a little less and turn a constant stream of good results to a few really stellar ones. Maybe racing less in the future would leave my mind more clear. Maybe having fewer chances would drive my fight to be stronger. Or, maybe racing less would break my little heart. But why am I talking about racing less when we still have EIGHT races left!?