Having missed an awful lot of quality training over the course of a season that spanned an antibiotic allergy, food poisoning stemming from subsiding on less than ideal nutrition while trapped on busses for 48 hours in one weeks time, five weeks of a displaced rib, and two months of intense knee pain stemming from a poorly thought out switch to my cross training, I finished up with the later developing into no less than a few weeks of severe back spasms which left me struggling to even walk.
Being told “oops that training WAS a bad idea” by a new coach who muttered “trust me” more times than I was comfrotable with was likely as much of a confidence killer as my lack of fitness following all that had transcribed. It’s not that I couldn’t have regrouped and done what I could to salvage some semblance of my previous years performances but generally that begins with recovery and with my calendar already set I had already been attempting in vain to get low quality rest in the place of good training.
Still I had come up with the idea to travel to Belgium to experience the real deal and I was determined to see it through, even if mere days before my flight out for three months of athletic endeavors I was crying in the emergency room seeking relief to my seized back. After all how was I going to manage to haul two bike cases and luggage around an airport if I could barely walk?
By the time I got to Europe I knew my fitness was waning but with the countdown to the end of the season and the accumulated fatigue I amass from constant racing I couldn’t really motivate and conger up the determination to throw down and really train. Each race day was a fresh mystery of next level racing, picking the weekends to be tired from training didn’t seem so tangible as I knew nothing about any of the courses; what would suit me and where I would want to be fresh, much less if I was going to be comfortable enough with the new level of technical insanity served up in 50 minute sessions to compete rather than merely participate.
The semi constant state of shock I was in at the severity of what I was about to race my bike on each new venue was impressive. I had been warned and I consider myself a reasonable bike handler but still it was nothing like I was familiar with on a race course. In a rare and valuable weekend stateside there might be one obstacle on the full circuit that required added scrutiny and regard. My usual pre-ride patterns involve memorizing anything that fits into that context peppered with little reminders throughout the rest of the loop to “shift after the rock” or “lean harder through that corner.”
The European race courses render this technique near impossible. In many circumstances every blind corner (which was generally every corner) harbored a technical feature. Diegem and Loenout I could barely pick my jaw off the handlebar at the spectacle the fans presented. In Middlekerke, Hulst, and Bredene the severity of the descents and transitions left me hyperventilating after each successful section instead of charging forward. In Brussels, Baal, and Hoogstraaten I flat out ran things I was scared of…. And rode things that should have been run. Lille, Maldegem, and Oostmalle required hefty sand skills and flexibility with the lines changing as often as you rode them. And this was just half the season and race courses.
Belgians have a gift for determining the most severe angles that are indeed rideable, likely a product of a true spectator sport. The berms and banks are built into the cow pastures and edges of the football (soccer) pitch. Stretches of tarmac start line can be spotted under grazing sheep the other 364 days of the year. When the mud is present it forms nothing like any US mud I’ve been in except perhaps one event in Northampton Massachusetts, a climate featuring similarities to the damp, moss covered, never dry soil found in Belgium and the surrounding countries.
The courses can get saturated on a wet day but the dirt remains malleable, the bikes tires carving an easy path through the natural soils as the lack of rapid transition from rain to intense sunshine we so often experience in the US an uncommon occurrence. The results of consistent high humidity and sporadic sunshine rarely results in the claylike peanut butter our rapidly polarized weather systems like to produce.
Ruts are pervasive and terrifying when you are not familiar and deliciously fun when you are. Just because you CAN ride something doesn’t mean that you should. The brakes can be your worst enemy and your eye position and head angle can be your best friend. Traction is necessary but cloth covered metal grate flyover stairs render toe spikes probable tripping hindrances.
Other than my typical first race of the season I had never been so oblivious spotting the location and necessity of dismounting for barriers. I swear a few of them just jump out of the ground at you leaving me to wonder why they were so monotone in color… only to see the other side later on in the race video and realize the cameras head on view was much more important to highlight that the racers approach.
Off cambers are something I truly enjoy but the speed needed to hold traction on the slick ones makes stepping off a less desirable choice unless you plan to drag yourself and bike through that section purely by using the course tape. The poles are often a solid wood, 3 inches around, 6 feet tall and hammered into the ground with industrial grade equipment. The metal gated fences all have feet that stick into the course. Curbs aren’t padded by rule, rather by exception and they can be at the most awkward angles and locations while often featuring a smoothed and polished stone finish (read: ice like when wet). The scariest or most challenging sections of the track will likely have the most spectators.
Creativity is valued in course design, aside from the World Cup in Pontchâteau France, not a single race featured a course that was comfortable after a single lap. In fact, often my first lap was more successful than my second, with the adrenalin rush that comes from a new location cajoling you through the unknown, a consequent look had me expecting the worst, second guessing how I managed to survive it the first pass, and allowing the anticipation build for what I now knew was coming. Despite this often the courses were so busy or intensive that there wasn't long to anticipate a feature. Many times I would be facing an area on the course I knew something technical was in, only to get busy with five other challenges before hitting that spot.
These things make for fun exciting racing and my secondary goal to take it all in became primary. I decided without a hard reset my fitness was a lost cause and I began to just enjoy myself, albeit with a tinge of disappointment as my finishing spots dropped further and further back in the field with each progressing weekend of racing.
Through this lens of disappointment came a few strong realizations. Chiefly that I had forgotten how to push myself and find enjoyment in that challenge. I stopped checking my results, I stopped analyzing my lap times. I became less concerned with how much air was or wasn’t in my tires and if the bike was still shifting reliably. On days when the course features would intimidate me, I realized I was letting them. When the mud was pervasive I left the course to chance rather than dial in another brake pad/bearings/cable crushing lap. Because I wasn’t there for the fight I became only there to survive and come out the other side in one piece. I wasn’t racing the girls I was fighting the course, breathing relief on the far side of a particular drop I had just stayed rubber side down on instead of charging with every centimeter of available space.
Racing obstacle to obstacle is considerable slower than looking for spots to make up time and consequently a small bobble somewhere over the course of the race inspires fear rather than drive to make up lost seconds. The resulting impact of that bobble can lead to holding back more speed in consequent laps and the slowness snowballs until you are pulled from the race, withholding the reward of crossing under the finish line by a remaining lap or two.
Knowing my fitness was poor I was self-selecting. Even though my handling was better than a significant percentage of the riders I was racing around I could never make gains stick and allowed myself the worst possible thought process in a contest of time; feeling as though I was in the way. I wouldn’t be aggressive to make up the seconds cornering or by using my skill set because it was my own fault I was so obviously not fit. This in itself was a contradiction. I was here to learn to handle better and be more aggressive and I was blowing all the opportunities letting them slide by in a wave of guilt that I hadn’t prepared properly. I was truly and properly ready for a reset.
So what were the takeaways? As always I should train more and race less. As I believe I’ve reached the point where enough repeat participation in each US based weekend has proved to me which events I have the motivation to return to and which ones I may be less inclined to get excited about, I may actually be ready to embrace missing race weekends and training instead.
Around seven years ago my focused switched from summer mountain bike racing to fall with cross. As I like to race each weekend, I initially idealized cross as a way to extend the fun of the summer. The main difference being that the summer racing keeps you at a higher degree of fitness with the need to race longer than 50 minutes. With my main focus now being on cross I still finish off each winter season with my eye on how much I love the west and what fun trips to temperate climates the mountain bike will take me.
For a few years now it had been suggested and I had been accepting that racing the full year was detrimental to my fitness and ability to race fast in the fall. Indeed mid-season when the novelty of spring and fatter tires wears off, I tend to fall into a lull of fatigue and low drive to improve. Somehow though this had mutated into a concept that I wasn’t fully aware of ….until I was…. that I had stopped trying to go hard ever. Subconsciously I was equating pushing hard in the summer to a reduction of ability for the fall and I spend an entire summer in avoidance of suffering.
So the conclusion of 47 cyclocross races in six months, ten states, five countries, and three continents was that the 2019-2020 season starts now with time off and a warrior mentality. I have it, there’s no doubt but I know what puts me in that mental space better than anyone else. While that doesn’t mean I need to race to find it I will not enter races without the intent to really throw down and leave it all out there, I will seek out and embrace more challenge regardless of the stigma of being dropped off the back time and time again, and I will not shy away from my own self-inflicted fears. After all what self-improvement are we making if we don’t insist that failure is the turning point.