“It’s the best opportunity you’ll have all year to ‘learn how to race your bike’.”
Christmas Cross has been a top drawer experience. The trip is based around a 10-day, 5-race schedule in Belgium. All the races are within driving distance, two are World Cups, and the others are all C1’s – but are basically the exact same fields and fanbase following them. This year, we’re a team of 12 athletes and 5 staff, which I believe is a record for the trip!
The snow that fell at Nationals stayed right through November and into December when I flew over on the 17th. There were a few days where roads were dry enough that I could rides, but for the most part it was a regular winter routine of skiing, running, and trainer intervals. I was a little nervous about showing up flat or forgetting how to ride but after a few days on the bike it all came back fairly quick.
The first World Cup was at the Citadel of Namur. For the skiers reading, cyclocross in Belgium is like cross country skiing in Norway; and Namur is like Drammen or Holmenkollen – in terms of location, gnarly-ness and fanbase. It was insane, and insanely cool. The course here was wild. During pre-ride the mud was thick and heavy, but steady rain on race day actually helped dilute the mud, making it easier to cut through and get grip on solid ground – the tradeoff, however, was insane mud spray. After a sighting lap I went from heavy mud tire to a lighter mud tread and they were pretty mint.
Starting from the 8th row (64/84 riders) on a very technical course, I told myself to be calm. The initial battle would be against traffic, then against the course as the race progressed and we all got tired. Without being complacent, I took the start pretty easy, focussing on staying clear of sketchy situations and maintaining my position in the pack – as opposed to fighting to get as far forward as possible, as fast as possible, like I did at PanAms. Through the lap one I was in 48th, then 45th, 35th, and at the end of lap 5 finished my first World Cup in 33rd – with my last three lap times solidly in the mid-20’s!
I don’t know if I’d say I was excited about the result, the race and the riding definitely got me fired up, but I think I was more just proud and relieved. Proud that I had a solid plan for the race, one that took patience to carry out, and relieved that I had the legs and the mindset to stick with and follow through on it. I think having an idea (albeit vague) of what I wanted to accomplish here, but not letting it amount to expectation or pressure to meet certain standards. Big races are pressure cookers, and finding a place I can be focussed on the right things and detached from the distracting things is often difficult. I think knowing I invested a lot to come over here for this trip has also made me take the experience and opportunity seriously (not like in a stern way though, if that makes sense), while keeping in mind that it was still a choice.
After the mudbath, several loads of laundry, and two days off, we were back racing at the Zolder Circuit (a racecar track). It was a completely contrasting course to what we saw in Namur – here it was dry, sandy, and flat. Instead of steep chutes, off-cambers, janky curb hops, and mud, we had sandy descents and banks with harsh frozen braking bumps, a mind and leg-numbingly long start-finish straight, and aggressive punchy uphill corners.
From watching previous editions of the Zolder World Cup and listening to wisdom’s from veteran team members, we knew establishing position early would be very important because once groups formed that would be more or less where you’d expect to finish. Lining up near the back of the bus again again (62/87, 8th row) I had a bit of a ninja start, moving up and avoiding a few early crashes, running around some jammed corners, and came through the first lap in 32nd.
I picked off a couple people and then partway through lap 3/6 was caught by a small group being towed along by Jolanda Neff. I was a little confused, but quickly figured she must’ve been in one of the early tangles, and grabbed the wheel. Riding the last few laps together was super cool, initially I saw it as an opportunity to just take a half lap ride, or however long I could hold on for, but as we worked our way around I found some extra confidence, traded leads a few times, and did some real racing. Then I cracked on the last lap, but the only thing that bummed me about there was that the junior Neff and I had caught with one-lap-to-go roasted me too. uhg, juniors… jokes aside, it’s pretty wild to compete in such diverse field – think, a World Champion, a 16 year old, and me (some skier-gone cycling), just out there mixing it up.
I finished the day in 28th, and the top Canadian. Really happy to put together two strong races with contrasting courses, conditions, and tactics – and at World Cups no less. I know I’m not rewriting the books by finishing 30th, but it’s super cool to see where solid legs and a clear head can put me in the world. Definitely carrying some inspiration and determination to keep with it from here.
Yes, so these cyclocross World Cup experience’s and results were above what I had hoped for (if I had hoped for anything). Compared to how things have gone at cross country ski and mountain bike World Cups in the past, this has been profoundly more positive. No doubt, the accumulation of all the experience I’ve had in sport is benefitting me more now. It’s nice to feel and see things come together, it gives me a little more to believe in. There are also elements I feel far more at peace with going in to big races now than I did even last summer; knowing what matters most and what I can ignore saves a lot of energy and anxiety.
Another adjustment I’ve made and really want to acknowledge is being better at embracing support and help from others. To a fault, I want to be independent; take care of myself and be self-sufficient. It’s a flaw in my approach to sports, and honestly the outpouring of positive feedback, encouragement, and support I’ve had (especially this fall during cyclocross season) has really made me take stock of what it means to me as a person and for me as an athlete. At the very least, it makes me smile.
There are three more races on our calendar after Namur and Zolder, all UCI C1’s that are extremely well-attended. I will try and get another post up after those finish and I’m on my way home. A little nervous to see how they’ll go, but I already have a couple big check-marks on the ones that mattered most, so there’s room to experiment and nothing to lose! Thank you for being here, stay tuned.