Cyclocross season is in full swing now. The road season seems like a distant past. I’m eight races into the ‘cross season in just a little over a month, and I’ve already got a trip to Europe stamped in my passport.
Several days after racing right in my backyard in Ft Collins at the USGP New Belgium Cup, I boarded a plane for the Czech Republic where the first two rounds of the World Cup series were held. Round one was in Plzen, home of the Pilsner Urquell brewery. Round two was in Tabor, home of the 2010 Cyclocross World Championships.
My Cal Giant/Specialized team mechanic, Jordi, and I flew into Prague a couple days ahead of the race to get acclimatized to the new time zone, get the bikes unpacked, built and running smooth and to pre-ride the course. Flying through London Heathrow can always be a little ‘iffy’ when it comes to delays and getting all your luggage, but lo and behold everything arrived in Prague on time and without a scratch. The only hitch to the trip was finding a non-smoking restaurant, of which there are very few, for dinner. Otherwise, we were very happy to be in such a beautiful city ready to embark on a week of cycling adventures.
Our first full day in Czech was low key – I slept until 10 (and missed breakfast, of course), went for a spin along the Vltava River, had a delicious dinner in a less smoky restaurant, and fell asleep sometime around 1am. Easy.
We had a rather leisurely Saturday morning in Prague before packing up the van and heading to Plzen for a pre-race ride. At the race venue in Plzen team managers and mechanics were staking out their spots in the team parking area, setting up camp and getting the riders ready to roll. Unlike the Europeans who roll in style in their big camper vans/RV’s that have the rider’s or team’s name, picture and accolades plastered to the side, we travel in a rental van and work out of the back. It’s not “luxurious”, but it gets the job done.
Traveling with Jordi has many advantages. One of them is that he races, too, and is a solid technical rider. He rode the course with me suggesting different lines and doling out tips along the way, making me feel more confident each lap. Riding four or five laps of the course was enough to leave with a good feeling. There was no doubt it was going to be a hard race – the course had a couple hard, steep pitches and a run-up with brutally steep stairs right before the finish – but I felt good about it.
Race day. There’s one thing about ‘cross races that continues to amaze me – the amount of time, energy and equipment that goes into a single, 40-min race is easily double that of a road race or even a stage race. We were at the venue three hours early to pre-ride and warm-up, get both bikes dialed (each rider has at least two bikes), choose the right tires and pressure (each rider has multiple wheels to choose from each with different tires best suited for the conditions) and mentally prepare. It’s not unusual for the conditions to change overnight or the lines to change after previous races on the course, so riders get there early to inspect any changes and make last minute tire choices to adapt to the new conditions. After several laps on the course again, I like to finish my warm-up on a trainer or rollers to do the final warm-up efforts.
In the staging area riders anxiously wait until their number is called to the start grid. We line up in rows of 8. A rider’s start position is dependent on her UCI ranking. In Plzen I was called up number 15 – I was the second to last rider to slot into the second row. Not a bad start in Europe. At one minute to go our eyes are focused on the stoplight, our game faces are on and bodies are in position to accelerate hard off the line – once that light turns from red to green it is game on.
My start in Plzen wasn’t great – I missed my pedal off the line. That meant I had to work harder to get myself into a good position near the front. Unfortunately, that never quite happened. I didn’t have the legs to make the passes to get me near the front where I felt I belonged. I rode the course clean and relatively smooth, but I couldn’t go fast enough. Whatever the reason was, I didn’t have “it” that day. My result was less than satisfying – 13th. I was hoping for a top ten where I know I belong. It didn’t happen and that was frustrating, but there was another World Cup, and another opportunity, the following weekend.
During the week in between the two races, Jordi and I stayed with Katerina Nash, a Czech rider who lives in the US and tirelessly smashes us with her speed and skill, and her family at their summer home in a small village called Zablati. It was by far the most relaxing, stress free week I’ve ever had in Europe. Katerina and her family were such gracious hosts. They bent over backwards to make sure we were comfortable, well fed (her mom made us the most delicious meals) and relaxed. Riding in the area was fantastic. The Czech countryside is beautiful and the roads newly paved. We couldn’t have asked for a better place to stay or for a more knowledgeable tour guide.
There was one day that was particularly busy. We drove two hours into Prague to attend a Tabor World Cup press conference featuring select people who were part of the race. Katerina and I were the only riders in attendance, and I was the only non-Czech person. It was quite an honor to be there alongside her and the other official delegates of the race organization. I had been invited to talk about my “Pretty in Pink” campaign. People wanted to know why I was wearing pink and what all the chatter about the “Pretty in Mud” t-shirts was about. It was pretty cool to be given the platform to speak about my breast cancer fundraising efforts and to talk about the tees that StomachOfAnger had designed for the campaign.
After a week of living like royalty, it was sad to leave the summerhouse behind, but finally it was time to head to Tabor for the next World Cup. The logistics for the weekend were pretty much the same as the previous one – pre-ride the course, check-in to hotel, eat a good dinner, get a good night’s sleep, eat a nutritious breakfast on race day, go to the venue three hours early, ride several laps of the course, finish warm-up on the trainer, wait for start, ride fast.
The unique thing about this course is that it was home of the 2010 World Championships, in which I had participated. The conditions that year were insane – the course was covered in a sheet of ice and the mercury was hovering around 25 F. It was nuts. I was scared to death. But, somehow I finished 12th (the highest placed American) in my first ever Cyclocross World Championships.
This year as I pre-rode the course I had flashbacks to 2010 of certain corners where everyone struggled to stay upright on the ice. I chuckled to myself a few times as I remembered myself eating it in this corner or that one.
The conditions this year were far from those in 2010. Although it was cold, but not as cold, it was mostly dry and fast. There were a few tricky turns but none to be overly concerned about. It was more or less a straight forward, power course. Anyone who had good legs would, or could, do well.
Warm-up was complete. I was called up number ten. Light turned green. I had a great start off the line. Then I got swarmed in the first corner and was pushed back farther than I should have been. I wasn’t worried because I was feeling good and knew I could make up spots on the uphill sections where I could use my power. Well, things don’t always go as planned. As I navigated a steep drop-in, I lost sight of my line, veered off too far to the left, hit the fencing and went ass over tea kettle into a ditch. It was the first lap and I had already crashed. What had I just done? Luckily neither my bike nor I was hurt, so I brushed it off and got back on my bike determined to not let my spectacular crash end my race.
Lap after lap I rode through riders in front of me. I was able to ride back up to 14th place. It wasn’t top ten. I was frustrated once again. However, I was also ‘happy’ with the fact that I didn’t let the crash shake me up. Finishing 14th after a crash that pushed me back to the high 20’s confirmed in my mind that I am a top ten rider at a World Cup. Now all I have to do is make it happen….
Originally written for Light and Motion