After I had gathered my wits about me, waking at about 4 or 5am after a few hours’ sleep, I was able to think about the race that lay ahead in Gosciécin. I had seen some footage from the previous year which featured riders clapping heavily gloved hands together and blowing hot air into them in a desperate bid to escape the chill, as snow fell all around them in what appeared to be conditions substantially below zero. Looking out the window I couldn’t see anything. It was still dark. While it makes no sense by any common logic, at least that meant I couldn’t see any snow, and as the day dawned it stayed that way – above freezing and while not balmy, it was no worse than what I was expecting to receive in Belgium the next week.
With my Nichelson Campus bike having arrived separately to Jan’s shop a few days earlier, I just had to assemble a few bits of it and could then get straight into some riding on the course before the race the following day. Daniel and Gina took me out in their tiny, embattled by the harshest winters but nonetheless serviceable Peugeot and I was pleasantly surprised with how I felt after being cooped up in a plane for so long. My body was rejoicing in movement, able to stretch its withering sinews at long last. But this is quite another thing from racing. Anyway I enjoyed looking about the course and while there was nothing difficult in its nature, it was full of corners and short straights, with a number of climbs included as it meandered its way along the hillside of some sort of orchard.
I met a Polish rider, Pawel, who recognised me from my escapades in Belgium the previous season. He seemed astounded that I should be here, in the middle of nowhere, racing at this time of year. This was to be a common sentiment, I found. But I also found that the hosts of the race were the friendliest bunch of people-bemused-at-seeing-a-kiwi-in-this-neck-of-the-woods I had come across. After I had ridden a few laps I was treated to a vast array of completely unrecogniseable food items, mostly meaty in nature. From large sausage-type affairs, to a stew with carrot strips and more anonymous fleshy objects, it was a hearty way to end the afternoon. It also helped to counteract the chill coming through the open window – seemingly a common joke in Poland that when it’s cold inside you open the window to let some warm air in from outside. The guy had a smile on his face as he did it, but he still left it open for a good half hour or so.
The following day I worked out my tyre pressures and set about warming up by riding around some of the nearby roads. I was aware of not having too much time before the start, but was surprised to find that the call-up had been partially made when I got back to the startline. It turned out I had been first on the grid, so I weaseled my way up into the second row, the best I could expect after my late arrival. However, it wasn’t to be an issue – for some reason or other they had to do it all again so we went back and I was able to take my place at the front for the start. I had no idea of the depth of the field, but lining up alongside the Polish champ and Slovakian runner-up, with several other Czech riders sure to be quick, I knew I would be doing well to hold on to the pace near the front.
As it turned out I got caught behind a rider who failed to make the first turn, bucking his back wheel into the air as he came to a complete halt against course fence. As riders streamed past I found myself at ease, and happy to work my way through the race as best I could. It quickly became evident though, that my body’s positive sensations of the day before were not prepared to put on a repeat performance in the race. My strength seemed to have vanished, and it was all I could do to shuffle down through the gears and spin my legs into a frenzy to make it up any of the hills, as others scooted past me with ease. At least I was able to take the corners smoothly, and at the one high-speed descent of the lap that stood out with its off-camber bumps and the slightly precarious feelings it induced in my stomach, I made up time on some riders by committing myself to its whims. It ended up being a very long race, and as I saw Robert Gavenda coming up behind me on the last lap (with a substantial lead on 2nd place) I just did everything I could to stay away and make it to the final lap. So at about 1 hour 10 minutes, it’s the longest one I’ve done for a while.
This ended up netting me 19th place, and inside the prize money curtain. While initially I had hoped to do slightly better by my place, I think given the circumstances it was not a bad day at all. As Daniel reminded me, everyone else here is at the peak of their season and I haven’t race for a number of months, and hardly was able to ride in the previous few weeks. So I took my 100 Zloty and enjoyed an evening seated at a long table, inside an old wooden chapel like something out of a Polish King Arthur story, doing my best to communicate with the locals in the two or three phrases I knew. In the end consuming beverages seemed to be the main occupation, to the point where any communication became substantially more difficult. Daniel had prepared some “photo cards” in the Belgian tradition, so as I sat signing greetings, eating soup and trying my best to sing along to their raucous chorus of Sto Lat, I felt privileged to be a part of something that, while so foreign, felt familiar and was so welcoming due to its local and community base, yet is older than a number of races in Belgium – the Bryksy cross turned 21 this year – as the Belgians looked out their windows (most of them in Spain) and called it a crossless weekend.