Last weekend I headed South of the border for my first cyclocross race outside of Belgium since I left New Zealand. Roubaix, France hosted the 4th round of the elite men’s World Cup, and my second in as many weeks. A very different course from Koksijde the week before – predominantly surmounting sand dunes – Roubaix is typically a mud-monster’s delight, with riders resembling coal miners as they push and run alongside their mechanical steeds. It’s dead flat but for a couple of short and very steep downhill ramps with 90˚ turns at the bottom. Also of note is the use of the velodrome made famous by its historic use as the finish line of the spring road classic Paris-Roubaix. Despite patchy rain during the preceding week and night before, it was about as dry as it could possibly be on race day, and with no juniors or U23 men to churn up the grassy sections all morning it remained that way through both the elite women’s and men’s races.
Over the course of the last few months I’ve grown much more experienced and refined in my pre-race routine. Previously in New Zealand I would basically just show up at a race, maybe cruise around the course for a lap or two and then get stuck into it. As beneficial as it may be to have a relaxed approach, I’ve found that paying more attention to being ready on time and having everything prepared early (spare kit for practice lap, trainer and road wheel for warming up etc.) makes it a lot easier to focus on riding as well as possible during the actual race. I also have had people offer very kindly to help me out on race day, so I’ve found it necessary to organise myself properly in order to not waste their time as well.
Shortly after arriving at Roubaix on Sunday, one of my friendly mechanical helpers discovered that his car had gone lock-jaw on us with all my clothes and food inside – along with, most importantly, the keys to the car. My bikes and wheels were out and unscathed, and I figured we would be able to get it open easily enough so didn’t get too concerned. After an hour or so of hunting around asking team mechanics, auto mechanics and police for any tools that might be helpful in extricating the essentials of my shoes, helmet and race kit, we now had a greasy spoke, a hacksaw blade and still not a clue.
Time was ticking away, the “official training” period was almost over, and still no luck with the car – although the front passenger window and door were now completely without rubber seal and starting to show signs of maltreatment. I was offered some gear to use in the meantime by Helen Wyman and Hugo Robinson, respective UK champions in elite women and U23 men. As honoured as I would be to wear their national champion’s kit, I would also feel like a bit of a cheapskate. And you never know with the UCI, I’m sure they’d find a reason to fine me 10,000 Swiss francs. I put on a different top of Hugo’s for a pre-ride of the course, hoping my disguise would enable me to pass through incognito. Unfortunately my moustache is a bit of a giveaway and I was captured by photographic evidence riding the short sandpit like the proverbial cross wolf in sheep’s cycle clothing.
I managed to get in two laps of the course just before the women’s race began, and by the time I got back to the car my friend Andy had managed to break into the car by literally removing the lock from the side door with a screwdriver. Steven, the owner of the car, had been about to smash a window as a last resort so in the scheme of things he was quite happy. I had a bit of time to eat and drink, then got onto the trainer and began warming up in the cold air and pale, watery early afternoon winter sun.
We started the race in the velodrome, reaching terminal velocity more or less immediately. A guy crashed right in front of me as we rounded the corner, I don’t know how it happened but as we were still on the velodrome’s smoothish concrete surface he kept sliding for long enough for me to be able to take evasive action. I still managed a pretty good start, and as usual set about just trying to hang on to the next wheels in front for as long as possible. When we got to the two descents, I was faced with the dilemma of running or riding. I was comfortable riding them both – the first was off-camber and a bit rutted, the second straight down but longer and with a sharper turn at the bottom. People were getting off further ahead, but nobody was right in front of me so I stayed onboard to try my luck in the ruts. Of course, riding down a muddy off-camber slope means you can’t really expect to brake effectively without your wheels sliding out. And although there hadn’t been anyone very close in front of me at the top, I soon found myself catching up very fast to a rider in red who was on foot. With nowhere to go I watched with a mixture of dread and intrigue as my front wheel very neatly bisected his legs, shortly followed by my handlebars meeting then nestling snugly around his butt cheeks. I then found myself crashing onto my knees on the ground, not a situation I had hope to be in during this race. Once again an early crash upset my rhythm, but I put my head down and tried to make up as much as I could of the lost ground.
As we were leaving the velodrome at the end of the first lap I found Lewis Rattray, the world’s friendliest Australian international cyclocross racer, coming past me calling out words of motivation and determination. I tried unsuccessfully to latch onto his wheel, instead finding myself drifting alone for the next lap or two. The course was obviously very fast, and at the pace of the leaders scheduled to be 12 laps in the hour. We were already almost a minute behind, so were only able to lose just over 2 minutes more in order to stay in the race. I forced myself to stick closer to Lewis, and after gaining a little bit of time on the descents, we managed to catch back up to the rider in front. We yo-yo’d our positions for another lap or two, so although the photo below has me in front, there are many floating around on the Facebook planet of us the other way around.
I managed to get a gap ahead of Lewis and although I knew the end for us was nigh, continued to do my best to keep my race going. A slip-up in the sandpit on our last lap and subsequently my sand-filled cleats not clipping in cost me a place, which I wasn’t able to get back before we were pulled off the course. It was the difference between 48 and 49, so not especially significant in the grand scheme of things, but reinforces how important it is to minimise the incidence of even the smallest of mistakes. They add up over the course of the race and make a significant difference. After coming in behind him in Koksijde, I managed to finish ahead of Lewis on this occasion, and am looking forward to the next month or so of races together as we seem to be very evenly matched. We made it through 7 out of 12 laps, and once again both slipped into the top-50.
With the Christmas season coming up that means one thing in Belgium. Cyclocross races, and shitloads of them. I’m about to formalise my programme, as there are so many to choose from but probably too many for someone of my experience to survive through if I do them all. The temperature has gone below zero more and more often recently – snow has fallen and melted, so it’s looking like being an exciting month.