The second week of my time in Kentucky saw the arrival of the rest of the Australasian, and so too the entire southern hemisphere, cyclocross contingent. This consisted of 7 people, with five nationalities represented – Genevieve Whitson, Kiwi racer based in Scotland and her American mechanic Ryan; Lewis Rattray the Australian with his entourage of Jeroen, Belgian coach/manager/logistical expert, and his Czech mechanic Vaclav with his girlfriend Beth. My friend and master of all things bicycle Paul Larkin also came over from his new home across the ditch to help me out with logistical and mechanical duties, as well as to experience from the inside the spectacle that is an international cyclocross race.
David Klein played a most spectacular role as host for the lot of us, and his friend Kim who happened to be in town while we gatecrashed the place. Lewis and I went out for a ride the day after he arrived, basking in the tropical sensations due to a sudden rise of temperature. A day or two earlier it was below zero and all the moisture was locked up as solid ice, but on this day it got up to 20 degrees so we were riding in short sleeves and for the first time in ages I got to see the skin on my legs, and just how pale they had become after a long winter of riding.
It didn’t take long for the weather to turn again and by the next night it was back down to a mighty -17 degrees Celsius. It rained, blew, froze and snew so we had the full gamut of climatic experiences – including tornado warnings at 4am that woke me up and caused me to hobble about nervously in the dark with my heart beating faster than it does in these races. The snow stayed on the ground for the next few days and as the worlds approached there was to be yet another “act of God” to stir the pot of nerves for the world’s cyclocross riders. The swarthy Ohio river ambles its way between Kentucky and Indiana, acting as the border between the states. It is also what gave the venue for this year’s worlds course its technically demanding aspect – the main stop bank. Due to the combination of snow melt and bouts of heavy rain the river was expected to rise quite significantly on the weekend of the races. So much so that engineers predicted the course would be flooded on Sunday 3rd, the day of Elite Women and Men. So, to the initial chagrin of many finely tuned athletes it was decided that those races would be run a day earlier, making it a four-race day (including U19 and U23 Men). This was on the Thursday before, so it was a bit of a rush for everyone, but particularly the organisers, to get ready on time. Despite some early protestations and a reluctance to admit it, I think most people quickly realised that the disruption to preparations would affect everyone the same.
And so on Saturday February 2 we arrived at Eva Bandman park and took our place in the specially provided, nationally allocated, small but most of all heated prefab buildings. Of course New Zealand shared with Australia, and Luxembourg, while on either side Belgium turned theirs into a tardus to fit their huge squad, and the Czech Republic team created a barricade of sorts to gain a little extra shelter from the icy wind, and presumably also to ward off any revolutionaries.
Gen raced in the late morning, on a still-firm and snowy course. The women’s lap times were to be very similar, if not slightly faster than the men’s later that day. As the day progressed it became slightly warmer, and combined with the races slicing up the course the snow continued to fade away and in its place the mud emerged and thickened up until some sections were becoming real bogs. The mud had quite a peanut-buttery consistency to it, and combined with a sandy base it gathered quickly all over the bike and necessitated regular changes and spray washes.
Lining up at the start I had a motley mixture of clothing due to various reasons, from broken zips to broken communications and general unavailability. It was great to see all the other countries represented, including a few other small-time nations such as Hungary and Ukraine. Off the start it was typically super fast, and I pushed as much as I could to gain a few places as we made our way around the first lap. I settled in with a bunch of riders who are typically a fair way ahead of me, so was planning on just doing my best to hang with them. This plan came unstuck, just as I did, on a very slippery off-camber crest very near the end of the lap. I slid out and down, down, down at such a dull speed as to be very aware of people passing me and the time I was losing. When I eventually came to a halt I was at the bottom of a large trough and thus had no momentum with which to ride up and out the other side, so lost more time pushing my bike. Despite the immense frustration at this incident I was determined to just race as well as I could and set about catching back up as much as possible. This was helped by the fantastic crowd in attendance, and their support all around the course for every rider regardless of position or perceived worthiness. This is the main difference I noticed between the races in Europe and the States, and I think all riders agreed unanimously on this. Some of the most memorable calls I heard were with regard to Lewis and our rivalry, and as we found out after talking later we had both been regaled with various cries such as “you can’t let that Aussie beat you!” and “you’ve gotta stay ahead of that Kiwi!”
I had my man Paul helping me in the pit, and although it was actually his first time playing this role it was a flawless performance, especially considering we hadn’t even discussed how often I would change bikes during the race. I found a rythym as the race went on, and managed to gain back a few places including Lewis and a Japanese rider. As (almost) always though, there came a time when I was pulled from the course, after about 42 minutes when I had 4 laps remaining. Sven Nys and Klaas Vantornout came around for their 3rd to last lap about a minute and a half later, while my chest began to seize up from the cold air and lack of movement.
I was really happy with how things had gone, and while my early slip-up had cost me a significant amount of time I was able to ride consistently after that and got back to roughly where I had hoped to finish anyway. The crowd support was magnificent and it just felt like a really special, historic occasion all round.
We finished the trip with a foam-less foam party in a bar in downtown Louisville, and the next night a powercut-riddled Superbowl party, replete with mysterious cuts of barbequed meat and the requisite local cuisine classic of fried chicken. My arteries would need several days to recover, and so I boarded my plane back to Belgium a couple of days later still full and heading to my final week of racing for the season.