Five, short days ago I was in the Netherlands, having just competed in my fifth cyclocross World Championships. Now I am sitting on a plane headed to Florida for my traditional post-cross season break. Really, I should say, it stamps the beginning of my retirement from professional racing. More on that to come…
The Thursday before Worlds, most of the riders of the US National Team took to pre-riding the course in Hoogerheide. Although, we were still two days out from the elite women’s race, I wanted to get a firsthand look at the track to familiarize myself with its ebbs and flows. Prior to Worlds, I had raced three World Cups in Hoogerheide, so I was familiar with the layout of the venue, but I knew that for the World Championships the course would not be identical to what I had experienced previously. I wasn’t out there to study lines or to retrace my steps in tricky sections, but rather I wanted to feel the flow of the course, to know what to expect.
The forecast for the weekend was calling for rain on Saturday. Studying precise lines during pre-rides would be an exercise in futility, especially because during pre-ride on both Thursday and Friday the course was relatively dry. There was thick mud in places, but the sections were short – maybe 30-40 meters long at most. Mainly, the track was fast and entirely rideable.
Sure enough, true to predictions, the rain started Friday night and continued into Saturday morning. Yes indeed, the course had become entirely different to what we had ridden during the previous two days. Pre-rain, the course was already heavy – it was taxing in a way that felt like your wheels were getting sucked into the ground. Post-rain, it was heavy times ten. The mud was like Velcro that didn’t want to let your wheels go. The already existing mud sections had become soupier, deeper and more slippery. Previously dry sections were now slick and unrideable. In addition to the one natural run-up, there were now several sections that required us to dismount and ‘run’. And there were few places to catch your breath during the almost ten minute laps.
Two hours before the elite women’s start, the course opened for inspection. I completed two laps and already felt like I had warmed-up more than I needed to – it was that hard. The race would be about perseverance and limiting mistakes.
On the start line I was mostly calm. My most immediate fear was the crack in the middle of the pavement on the start stretch that took out a large portion of the Juniors field right off the bat. I was lined up behind Katie Compton again. The light turned green. Katie missed her pedal. No big worry as the start was long enough to make up some places and the course hard enough that patience was an advantage.
I managed to hit the hole shot in decent position but failed to hold it very long. In typical fashion, a swarm of riders went by and I found myself farther back than I wanted to be. I reminded myself that patience was a virtue.
Marianne Vos (Holland) took off with Eva Lechner (Italy) in tow. The two of them quickly opened a sizeable gap with Helen Wyman (Great Britain) and Sanne Cant (Belgium) taking up the bulk of the chase. Katie had been caught up in a crash and was slowly making her way forward after an agonizingly sluggish start.
Well behind the leaders I was starting to make up some ground. At some point during lap two, I had worked my way up to 12th place. Then, during lap three something in my body switched off and I started to go backwards. Quickly. I had gone into the second pit and several people blew past while I was exchanging bikes. From that point on I was never able to overtake anyone again. In fact, only more people would pass me.
(photo credit: Tom Prenen)
I can’t put my finger on why but my body was empty. My legs were ok running but they couldn’t pedal – not fast enough through that muck anyway. In the days leading up to the race, my nutrition had been good, my sleep had been ok, my training had gone well so I have no good explanation for why my body decided not to show up for the big race.
As an elite athlete, I control the variables that are within my power to prepare myself to the best of my ability. After I have poured every ounce of energy into my training, wisely chosen my nutrition at every meal and counted the hours of solid sleep, I can only hope that on ‘game day’ the body that I have trained so meticulously is the one that shows up. I wish that just because I did everything right, that would mean only my best legs would arrive on the start line. Unfortunately, I was not so lucky on race day.
I ended up 24th. My goal was top ten. To say that I was disappointed does not even come close to summarizing my defeated emotions. I would have been frustrated under any circumstances with this result, but knowing that that might have been my last ‘cross race as a professional makes it even harder to swallow.
Now that some of the upset has subsided, I can look back at the positives. I was proud to pull on the stars and stripes and to ride for Amy D. I can still hear my name being shouted all the way around the course from voices I recognized and from many I didn’t. That is still a thrill. Having my fiancé, Johs and my coach, Neal Henderson there to support and encourage me was a true blessing. Saying goodbye to my European friends that I’ve made over the years was hard, but it’s also heartening to know that I have friends around the world who will remain my friends regardless of my professional status.
As to what my cycling future holds, it’s impossible for me to predict right now. After my vacation, I start working for ORICA-GreenEDGE writing content for the website, building relationships with sponsors and doing a multitude of other tasks.
As I settle into a groove and get a better sense of what my next career looks like, I can make a decision on whether I will or will not race ‘cross. Racing at the local level is highly likely. Racing at the national level might even be possible. Racing at the world level is much more in doubt. Whatever happens, stepping away completely is highly unlikely.
I have heard from many former pros that the first year away from competition is hard. At the moment, not having any professional obligation to racing feels good. It’s the first time in 12 years that I have not had a training program. I feel free. Now I have the freedom to ride my bike when I want, where I want and to ride whichever bike I chose. I am not leaving cycling behind. I’m simply approaching the sport under different circumstances.
My stories aren’t over yet so don’t stray too far away!
Great story. Have sent a couple aspiring female bike racers to your recent podcast and blog. You are a talented cyclist, sportswoman, writer, etc. Keep fighting that good fight. Welcome to Florida! See you on the road.
Meredith you rock!!! You are truly an inspiration! Thank you for sharing your story. You’re such a cool woman and you are so friendly!
With all sincerity, I say having watched your career develop and ultimately flourish in all of the years we’ve known one another has been one of my great pleasures. I’m so proud of all of your accomplishments, and I look forward to seeing what develops in the future. No matter what, you’ll be a success and will always bring a smile to the face of those around you. For now, find a hammock, and a tub of margarita. You’ve earned it.