After three and a half months of racing every weekend, with two per weekend once a month as well as the occasional mid-week race, I felt it time to have a bit of time off racing. I've been feeling good and still as excited about being here and racing my bike as when I first arrived, but now I can appreciate just how long a full season is. As I look towards February and the World Champs it made sense to take some to enjoy being in Europe and the ease of travel to cool places that it affords. I am very lucky to have family in both London and Paris, so it was an easy decision to spend a few days in both cities to catch up with my relatives and to have a look around. I was sad to leave my bikes behind, but my legs would still get a good work out from walking around for hours each day.
My last race before heading out had been the World Cup in Roubaix, which had gone well but for some knee-grazing antics on the first descent. Another highlight I neglected to mention from that day was taking a shower in the famous post-Paris-Roubaix changing room - there are about 50 showers all together in a huge room with a minute's worth of scalding hot water just a chain-pull away. It would have been luxury after the race, but for the fact that I couldn't really enjoy it because it was just too hot to handle for more than a second at a time. I installed myself at a booth named after the winner of Paris-Roubaix from 1983, Hennie Kuiper, who was also a successful cyclocross racer.
So after being away from Belgium and the racing for a week I returned to go on my first sub-zero ride with some new Canadian guests here at the Chain Stay. There were signs of snow about the place, frozen ponds, ice on the roads and general excitement to be had in these novel and slightly daunting conditions. It has been great to have company for rides, and although It has since warmed up and been wet, it's always easier to summon the will to battle on with others around. These conditions made for a muddy return to racing in Leuven on the 16th, and after a week or so of no riding, I didn't feel great but managed to give a pretty good effort and got through a bit over half of the race.
There was a section early on in the lap with three very short but steep banks up and down. I watched in the practice time as several riders went over the bars in front of me on the final one, so I had a go and in my attempt to get around the corner at the bottom I managed to crash and partially roll my front tyre. Whether that was the cause or the result of the crash I'm not sure, but luckily the landing was very soft and I just had a mildy sore shoulder as a result. I had to grab a spare wheel and rush to the pit to swap it just as the riders were being called up to the start line, but I managed it all in the nick of time. In the race we were literally standing waiting in a big queue at the ups and downs, looking on as riders ahead sped off gaining precious time while all we at the back could do was wait to fit through. There was energy-sapping bumpy muddy grass and plenty of plain mud, but thankfully plenty of supporters cheering from the sidelines too.
A few days later on the 19th I had a race in Sint Niklaas, just outside of Antwerp. This was a very scenic course, with a mixture of terrain from the athletics track through some narrow wooded trails, out around a lake over the sandy foreshore and back along grassy straights. There was a tall bank to run-up in the middle, but apart from that no altitude change to speak of. Despite plenty of rain leading up to the race it was fairly dry and apart from the sand very clean - my equipment and clothes finally getting a break from the usual scrubbing and rincing process they require every other time. I had a good race against Lewis the Aussie, to-ing and fro-ing around each other and generally going as hard as we possibly could to not only outride each other but together make the cut to the final lap. Unfortunately we didn't quite get to finish, as the 80% rule applies right until the bell goes - even though we had 30 seconds back to the leaders, by which time we would have been onto our final lap and over their finish. Nevertheless it was a full hour's racing and bodes well for the upcoming fortnight of races.
I made a mistake with my packing on the morning of the race, which led to me forgetting my team jersey but somehow including my Revolution Bicycles skinsuit. My team is currently undergoing a bit of a reshuffle, and I will technically be in a different team come January. It was great to slip into the suit again after so long, and I'm sure its sleek design made me faster. I've also been adjusting my position on the Focus bikes a bit lately and am feeling more comfortable as a result, which I'm sure made a difference in the race.
After having talked about the madness of the Christmas cross period, it's finally upon us. With the first two now out of the way, my upcoming race schedule is as follows:
Dec 23 Namur - World Cup Dec 26 Heusden-Zolder - World Cup Dec 29 Bredene - Sylvestercross Dec 30 Diegem - Superprestige Jan 1 Pétange, Luxembourg
It's apparently forecast to rain 5cm tonight, then continue over the next week - this should leave the Namur course in pretty exciting condition. It is famous for its tricky descents and relentless uphills, so along with pure survival my goals will once again be to get as close as I can to the last lap, if not finish, and make the top 45.
Tomorrow I will be joined by Genevieve Whitson, fellow Kiwi 'crosser over this side of the world. She is also racing the next two World Cups, so it'll be great to have someone else from home to cheer for and then hopefully join forces with in Louisville for the World Champs in February.