In the morning before the Elite races there was an amateur race for the local Chinese riders, who were mostly all on mountain bikes, to have a go on the course and get a taste of cyclocross racing. Yanxing, the main organiser of the event, was seeking half a dozen European riders to lead the first lap of the race. So myself, Australians Sarah and Katherine, mechanics Paul, Roeland and Rito, and young British lad Hugo headed off the mass start and put in a moderately hot lap in the morning sun.
None of us were sure what to expect, but we were told not to get too far ahead of the rest of the race. Sure enough, at the two short staircases early on in the lap a bottleneck formed and we were suddenly leagues ahead of all the riders lugging their mountain bikes up and down the narrow stretch, probably bumping handlebars and gouging out each other’s eyes as they squeezed through. Hugo was obviously keen to practice the course at more or less race pace, which further separated everyone out. In order to do as we were asked, occasionally the 7 of us called back to each other for reports on how far away the rest of the race was and when we should ease off a bit. As we approached the end of the lap Hugo and Paul gritted their teeth and put on a display of a sprint, turned the corner after the line, away from the spectators and TV cameras, and got off their bikes and gave each other lots of high fives.
Following interviews with Cyclocross Magazine’s Molly Hurford, we jumped back on our bikes and headed down the road back to the hotel in time for more fried delicacies and disconcertingly gelatinous soups. And now Cheerios too, product of a recent installment on the all day breakfast table alongside coffee, hot and ice milk and sweetbreads of various varieties to soothe the strained palate of the foreign riders in an unfamiliar culinary world. Although I’ve never had Cheerios at home, I found myself enjoying a bowl with most meals. Partly because it seemed easy to digest and unlikely to ever go bad, and evidently provided huge energy per volume due to an abundance of sugar within, I was able to enjoy breakfast and dessert at the same time at all dining occasions.
Having come from winter in New Zealand (technically spring, but it’s basically all the same here) with highs of 13ºC I was aware of and not especially looking forward to racing in the heat of the day amidst 30ºC. Having suffered some substantial dehydration from the previous few days of sickness, I was preparing my body for an expungement of hydrational worry by chugging back bottle after bottle of ice-water and electrolytes until like a sponge I was fleshy and moist to the touch. I maintained a calm and cool exterior with frozen bottles of water down my back, while other riders did the same through experience and confidence, as well as having traveled from other places in the northern hemisphere whence they were accustomed to such climes.
An hour or so before the Men’s race was the Elite Women’s start. The field of riders was significantly smaller than for us but was similarly well-represented for an international event. With almost a quarter of the field made up from Downunderesses, and having met many of the other riders in the days leading up to this point, I was particularly excited to follow the action. After last minute startline encouragement to Jenna and the others I moved into the shade of the team tents (each team was assigned a canopy under which to rest and store equipment) and from my vantage point I was able to see the start/finish straight and the first corner. Before long the first lap was done, and before I really knew what was happening I saw a flash of black and white fern fly through with the front bunch, in 2nd place!
Swedish champion Åsa was leading at a furious pace, and managed to stretch her lead out fractionally each lap until Danish champion Margriet caught back up and out-sprinted her on the line. Jenna came through seconds later in 4th, a spectacular finish in her first international CX foray. I sludged over like a sodden towel to congratulate her and offer her some congratulatory chilled water, but she was a bit busy being puffed. So I drank some of the congratulatory chilled water and wondered about getting ready to race myself.
For the first time ever I had both the option and the desire to run file tread tyres at this race. With minimal tread in the centre and moderate sized wedges on the edge they seemed ideal for this hard dry course. Paul had brought along a set of FMB Sprints so together with the intermediate SSC’s and Super Mud’s I had a provision for any occasion. After the leading lap earlier in the day I had decided on 22PSI in the front and 23 in the rear. A little bit drifty through corners they were, but smoother than Pic’s peanut butter and a sidewall greener than a Prius taxi made them a pleasure to ride.
One of the fringe benefits to spending a season racing in Belgium (with or without a moustache or some other hirsute fascination) is the UCI points that you can get from entering World Cups. Myself, Lewis Rattray and Mark McConnell, with whom I have enjoyed various cyclocross escapades over the last year, were all given very good positions on the start grid – quite likely to be better than our result would reflect. I was called up 9th, slotting into the 2nd row just next to and behind favourites Arnaud Jouffroy and Thijs Al, with Lewis beside me and Mark a bit further along. It was always going to be a tough ask to hold our places through the race, but at least it’s definitely easier to hold on to a position than it is to gain places by overtaking others. I divested myself of the chilled water that was lurking down my back and felt myself shiver a little. Perhaps I had been somewhat overzealous in my attempts to stay cool, but short of waxing my moustache, getting a crisp new haircut and some dress pants, I didn’t think my measures too drastic. After a short pause so that an American in the front row could tell a joke several times to someone who probably wasn’t listening further along, we got the whistle to signal go.
The general cyclocross racing symptoms were all present and correct fairly well immediately: shortness of breath, highly increased heart rate, pain in legs and metallic taste in mouth. We were squeezed through the narrow section of staircases and shortly after into the smooth but not especially wide trail that made up a large part of the course. I had no major malfunctions or misappropriations early on, which had me riding in the top 15 or so for the first lap or two. Sure enough though, speedsters crept past from time to time until I was in the 20’s and found myself sporting a fedora and smoking a pipe. I had to pinch myself back into reality and knuckle down to stick with other riders around me and just keep up with the relentless pace that we had set out at. The second half of the lap was like a Presidents of the USA song, the bumpiness of the ground sending lumps through my head so much that I thought she might be dead. I could have done with some peaches, but probably couldn’t have kept them down.
As the race wore on I found myself in increasing discomfort and misery, to a greater extent than I had experienced for some time. My body was interjecting every thought with commands to stop, and after about 3 laps I was considering it. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep and dehydration from the preceding days, or that this is standard protocol for an international standard race and I hadn’t experienced it since the previous season, but I was feeling terrible – yet holding my own quite well as I did so. Consciously I stopped thinking about how long there was to go, or how uncomfortable it was, and concentrated on riding strongly and smoothly. A few laps later I had arrived at 3 laps to go, and the seemingly never-ending seemed to be ending. While everyone was much more spread out now, I found myself briefly with a small group of riders. Mentally this was of at least a small amount of comfort, and physically it meant someone to draft for the brief sections where it was of benefit. This didn’t last long, and while I don’t remember whether it just split apart or whether I dropped from them, I was once again alone.
“Feeding” had been allowed as the temperature was high, and I realised that I hadn’t taken advantage of this until now. I remembered, incorrectly as it turned out, that there was no feeding during the last lap so I made a point of getting what I could while I could. Paul had nice cold water for me, so after I tried to get some in my mouth I ended up upending most of it over my face and neck. This had a positive effect, so next time around I came seeking more of the clear, non-sticky nectar. Unfortunately it was the last two laps, not one, in which feeding was no longer permitted. So I had to perform the awkward and frustrating jump off your bike, run a few steps in the pit zone then remount, in order to avoid being struck from the race. I was thirsty and annoyed that I hadn’t made the most of Paul’s presence earlier, but now I only had a lap and a half to go and could start thinking about getting it done. I caught up with the Optum rider Mitchell Hoke early on in the final lap and we rode together for a while, trying to keep ahead of a duo of Molly Cameron and Nico Brüngger close behind. After a while I wasn’t quite able to keep his pace, and as we approached the last section of the lap I watched as they caught up and slipped past, finishing a few seconds ahead.
But I had finished, and while I’d lost some 20 places from my starting rank I was very happy mainly to have survived and stuck through it on a course that I didn’t feel was to my advantage, and with less than ideal preparation. Feeling tight chested and quite short of breath I thought again about the fact that I was in China and couldn’t help but feel a smile creep across my face. Little did I know there was much more to come...