It's been a while since I last put an update here, and that time has seen the last of the mud in Belgium swiftly run to the refrigerator, find that not cold enough so hop out and slip into the freezer nextdoor. This has in turn been covered up by several inches of snow over more or less the whole country. The last two races I have done were both in sub-zero temperatures and accordingly very slippery. My final jaunts in the mud were Bredene, Belgium and Pétange, Luxembourg. Due to technical difficulties I have written about them but am not able to post it at this point, so they will be back in syncopated time. I encountered some interesting and novel surprises at each race, but for now suffice to say that they were muddy and wet, I got very muddy and wet but was feeling good and rode well enough to finish both of them just one lap down.
Otegem on Jan 14th was my first race back after a two-week break, with the intention of recovering a bit after the Christmas-bonanza that is cyclocross racing in Belgium. I had enjoyed not having the racing routine to have to abide by every couple of days, setting out instead on a few gentle scenic rides. Otegem was just down the road, very close to the canal that I ride along regularly, so I was fairly relaxed and happy to be able to leave at midday and still get there on time. It had snowed overnight, not especially heavily, but it was now mostly white and crispy so I took my wheels with intermediate tread tyres (Challenge Grifo and Dugast Typhoon) and hoped for the best.
I've never ridden on snow before, let alone ice. As I expected, snow is soft and makes a sandpapery sound when you ride on it. It is similar to sand in that it's much easier to progress when following a rut, but at the same time it is much more forgiving if you have to break new lines and doesn't tend to bring you to such an immediate and undignified halt. Ice on the other hand is infamous for its quite unpredictable, capricious nature and most of all the potential danger that it poses. There weren't any big sheets of it around, and the road sections were all dry but several sections of the course were thinly spread with the rigid, slimy material layered lightly over patches of rutted dirt. I rode a couple of laps in practice alongside Dutch professional Gerben de Knegt, who was able to advise me about ways to ride and tyre pressure to use. His help made a big difference, and left me feeling much more confident than I had been when riding by myself just prior.
The first lap of the race went well for me, I made an effort to ride smoothly and while careful not to overcook my speed on the corners, I was equally aware of how you can't get away with touching the brakes once you have started a turn, no matter what your speed. A couple of riders crashed doing this right in front of me, but kept sliding and were soon out of my way. In the second lap though I slipped on an innocuous-looking corner and landed heavily on my palms. Having only cotton gloves it didn't take long for the frosty mud I picked up to warm, defrost and start to paralyze my fingers. This was sort of the end of the race for me, as I had also bruised my thumbs quite badly. I couldn't hold the bars properly due to the combination of numbness and sore muscles, and it lead to me losing rhythm and confidence. I steadily dropped back, until the newly-crowned Belgian champion Klaas Vantornout lapped me with about 3 or 4 to go.
Thermal, waterproof gloves were the key ingredient that I was lacking, and so just under a week later - a week with constant snow falling - I was in Hoogerheide, the Netherlands for the final World Cup of the season with warm cosy hands. This was actually thanks to my fellow Kiwi cyclocrosser based in Copenhagen, Angus Edmond. He had come down the night before to do the race, only to find that due to some mistake by BikeNZ he hadn't been entered and now had a weekend holiday in Belgium and Holland with two bikes but no race to go in. Understandably he was very disappointed, but the worst part was that if we had got to the managers' meeting maybe 15 minutes earlier we might have been able to enter him. As racers we very rarely get to watch a race live, so while Angus did that I borrowed his toasty mitts.
The snow was falling all day, with a steady breeze blowing the flurries almost horizontal. I found a hot corridor to warm up in with Lewis the Australian, so was able to catch up with him on plans for the upcoming World Champs that we had both recently been confirmed entered in. We headed out into the blizzard together, and while I was wrapped up before and during the race, it wasn't until later that I noticed Lewis's lack of leggery becladding.
I was so excited about the prospect of riding in the snow. The novelty of it being white everywhere and the excitement of the crowd had me in one of the best frames of mind I've had all season. I'd sought advice from Lars van der Haar before the race, bumping into him when warming up. His suggestions were simple but effective, and I managed to follow them quite successfully - try and stay off your arse, be careful around the corners, put power down on the straight sections. I found myself finishing laps at exactly 1 minute off the leader's time, each time. I would love to be up closer, but at least being consistent is a good start as far as I am concerned. While I slid around unpredictably in a lot of places, I managed to stay more rather than less on my bike and made it to -4 laps when I was pulled off the course a few minutes before the leaders came through. I came 45th, completing 5 our of the total 9 laps at about 8:30 each, so about 42 minutes. I think this is my best World Cup result so far, which I am very pleased about.
The World Champs in Louisville, Kentucky are now only just over a week away so it bodes well for a good day there. While having a stellar day at the Worlds isn't something I'm burdening myself with heavily, it would be great to be able to round out the season well.
Before then though I have a race in Cincinnati, which I will be getting to via the Bob's Red Mill bus - a granola company who sponsor a cyclocross team! It's on tomorrow, Saturday 26th and being only an hour or two away, will be jam packed full of international riders who are here early for Worlds and keen to have a last blast of the lungs in preparation for the following weekend.