While this season has been uncharacteristically dry for Europe there is an adjustment to picking up and carrying on a very equipment and outdoor intensive activity in a very different location and climate. Showing up a few day after the winter solstice made sleeping in and recovering from jet lag a much less complex process as the night seemed to be more pervasive than even my sleep requirements.
My plan had been to dive right in to racing but the transition to a new country left me a bit more wide eyed and confused than I had anticipated and rather than risk pairing a weakened mental state with an intense physical race effort to chance an untimely bout of illness, I took a few days to spin out and absorb my surroundings.
Once I felt as though I had a grasp on it all I jumped in swinging. Well; mostly. There is a lot of routine to be had on race day within a very limited time frame. While always doable, sometimes the process of just getting to the start line familiar with a course, semi clean and mostly dry can detract heavily from the actual task at hand – being focused and ready to race. Throw in a large number of unknowns and you have yourself a recipe for either an epic bout of stress, or in my usual style, a nearly comical dose of “whatever happens, happens.”
It’s nice to take care of the small details such as airing tires or ensuring wheels are on snuggly on one’s own. However, when it comes to spending time seeking parking, discovering the mystery location of the infoscription, preriding in gobs of mud and slop and then making sure that numbers are pinned, two bikes and one pair of shoes are clean, all while the legs are warmed up and ready to go on the start line can require assistance. This can lead to a fair amount of relying on of anyone willing to step in and can be a high stress but entertaining way to make new friends.
Sometimes this venture into the unknown with all the surrounding pressures works into my favor. It is after all what a good bit of cross is all about. I did find the fire to really race a few times early into my trip to the motherland but ultimately I was left hanging, feeling exposed to my less than optimal preparation over the course of the year. For me bringing the fight is more than an extension of the previous races in the season, it’s a confidence that I have a leg to stand on and something to truly contribute.
I can pretend for a bit but ultimately in a vacuum such as European cross there is no room for doubt. Being competitive includes knowing that you brought at least your best effort at a similar baseline to the racers around you and that particular component had escaped me somewhere between getting multiple injuries, a few shuffles of who was directing my training, feeling over my head in the degree of technicality, and being in an environment where I didn’t feel I quite had the basics regularly covered, such as making sure my bikes were fully functioning and in place for the race.
There have been many races I’ve wheeled my own second bike to the pit but the nature of the European course complexities, the throngs of people, the parking situations, and general lack of reliability over a non-manned article of equipment not walking off make for this to be less of a feasible option.
Alternatives can include bringing a responsible individual from home under the guise of enjoying a probably gloomy European winter vacation alongside you, one that just happens to include standing ankle deep in mud twice a week for 50 minutes in the damp chill holding a bike while you ride circles around them. All while the promises of waffles, frites, and beer drinking tempt them into thinking that this is a truly enjoyable experience. The other option is just showing up with the no plan game plan and allowing fate to takeover.
The someone knows someone technique usually resolves all in a last-ditch effort and this subtlety can range the full spectrum of competency. In general those who are there and willing to help really know what they are doing and take a special pride in doing it. Bikes are returned from the pit spotless and air dried, fresh lube applied. Shoes are taken and washed clean, jackets are gathered at the start with a smile and then returned to you on the finish line held open for your arms.
Many of the folks that help out with these details are family and friends who love to be a part of the crazy that is Belgium cyclocross but the true beauty is in the warm reception and respect a foreign rider – even a currently super slow one gets from going out on a limb to play their hand at this sport with no support. Much in a manner that means the world to me, each race I would meet a new person who would remember my name, help me to park, take my bottle at the start or cheer for me during the race.
The giving nature of the people truly caught me by pleasant surprise. This sport IS hard and when the stakes and competition are the highest the appreciation for your willingness to put it all out there is not undervalued. The idea for coming to Europe stemmed from my Dutch roommate in China and her warm welcome, if I knew folk that were that friendly, even in a place so mysterious to me for sure working out the complexities of it all would be possible.
I slowly took in the area, coming from the US with no European experience I figured it would all just be one people, a language I didn’t understand, and one general area. But even Belgium speaks half Dutch and half French. In the Netherlands they speak Dutch and Danish and even more dialects further north. I ended up staying in the far east side of Netherlands on the border of Germany for the majority of my visit where English is even less common. It’s amazing that a space so small it would fit well inside the area of my home country has so many borders featuring such strong culturally rooted differences.
As I spent more time among the local people I started to pick up on the pride and values each separate culture had. Besides the one on one interactions I experienced, there were flavors to just being present in each area. Drivers are far more aggressive in Belgium, the houses are more compact, waffles are a staple. In the Netherlands vast amounts of open space and grazing sheep give way to compact cities and some of the most complex traffic patterns I have ever experienced. Red painted bike lanes literally take over half the roads leaving only a single lane down the center for cars. Chocolate sprinkles are a food group. In Germany the houses are more sprawling, the roads wider and more open. Gas and toiletries are cheaper, grocery stores are closed on Sundays. Farms are in abundance and neatly tucked into unsuspecting urban corners. French public bathrooms are super clean and free, rest stops feature gourmet meals, croissants and bread are a main food group, the kids at races non-stop ask for your sunglasses or your water bottles or the race numbers off your arms. The rural communities are protectively built around plots of farm land, the speeding ticket cameras and tolls are vicious.
As I settled into the second half of my time racing the big leagues and everyday life with my impromptu host in the far west corner of Germany, I was taken by the generosity of the offer of a place to stay, the help I had at the races, the friendly faces of people happy to share their small part of the big world with me. Certainly, I had come over here in a performance context but what is living if you don’t absorb the larger picture, your surroundings, and how it impacts your reality? Exploring by bike became more appealing than training, and my fitness continued to wane.
When you settle down for the final stretch of a long season of travel, a magnitude of start lines and never ending max efforts it’s not difficult to lose the full impact of your determination somewhere along the way. Much of the US based excitement tapered down after our Nationals, a little bit was left to those who went the extra 5000 miles to travel over the pond, a few more rallied for World Championships, and then a few special soles hunkered down to see the season through to its finale.
For a few weeks, the gloom of the weather and then the intense cold caught up to me and I wistfully scanned the usual media channels for those playing amongst the saguaros and palm trees, already finishing up their rest periods and beginning training for the upcoming summer season of road or mountain bikes in earnest. At no point did I want to trade places, after all I was living a different kind of dream. I had hightailed it south, west, or both for the short sleeves and mild winter breezes on many occasions but this was a whole new world of dedication and reason to stay submerged.
I was ripe for a reset however; as the weeks progressed I could see the girls I was consistently in front of catching up and then surpassing me with each consecutive race. Without the proper rest and solid training there was little I could do to fight back. It’s humbling to not be in the actual fight but of all the choices I had, sitting out wasn’t really on my radar. I harbored a fair amount of guilt standing in line for the call ups or sitting on the trainers surrounded by my American compadres, I wasn't playing the same game as them and I didn't want to detract or distract them from their focus. I didn't feel satisfied or really happy with where I was but I was at peace with it, theres less to be gained from fighting what is than just accepting.
Still there were lessons to be learned and skills to be honed, race after race, weekend after weekend I thought for sure I'd seen it all and yet it continued to surprise me. The courses are obviously built to entertain the spectators, the racers that aren't winning are surviving. Regardless of the weeks passing the marvel never lessened, the spectators continued to wow with their masses, the dedication to the riders only building as the season progressed.
The photographers stalking out the riders on social media or getting in your face in weird moments like when you are changing normalized, the harmless superfans who were always around became friendly, I began to have actual conversations with people who seemed genuinely nice and even developed solid friendships with other women on my start lines.
One of my all time favorites about racing is the people I meet and it's amazing to have the whole world light up with possibilities as you become friends with individuals that span not just a country but the world. Even if my performance isn't proving to be impressive this year the excitement to prepare properly and return is more of an incentive to race and be competitive than ever.