The nightmare that is a race ending injury: it could be worse, it could be the end of the season or even a career. There’s a good chance this incident could or should have been the end of my Europe campaign but there is only me to make those decisions and my thought process placed it at a painful but merely inconvenient blip.
After Bern we somewhat spontaneously opted to spend a little time in north Spain for a weekend of racing. Mild temperatures countered the country wide complete and utter lack of anywhere to park a car while the courses were both right up my ally. It was a good confidence building exercise where I finished not only in the money but also in the points. Truly loving and being excited about a course pretty reliably guarantees me a respectable result.
I was ready to get the bulk of the racing underway in Belgium and as if I had brought it with me from Spain, it was a mild sunny day when I touched down in Amsterdam. I had arranged to borrow a car for the duration of my stay and was met by a friend to help get me rolling. I wandered around in the airport looking for the designated exit to the parking garage... bike cases, trainer, and winter wardrobe in tow for longer than I care to admit. Jelle (pronounced yeh-la) eventually came to find me, traditional footwear and all.
My first België start line was the Koppenberg in Oudenaarde, a brutal if not classy way to begin my Belgian season. The cobbles are as slick as they are hyped up to be and the way down even more so.
The climb required as much finesse as power, woe to the racer who spun out and had to awkwardly run the rest of the way up on those unforgiving stones. The farm fields we descended were treacherous, even the spectators were sliding about between the cow patties.
Ruts weren't a thing but the top layer of soil was like ice, the finish line at the apex of the cobbles. I went to work, picking off the girls in front of me, loosing a few places here and there when I wasn’t aggressive enough and it was a good feeling to roll up under the arch for the final time, finishing on the lead lap in my first start of the motherland.
A few days later was Rudervoorde, a pancake flat course set in the neighborhood fields bordering a soccer club who’s grass served as parking for all the race vehicles (#neverinamerica). To make the course interesting long mounds of dirt were at some point installed on the fields creating a few huge climbs and rideable but challenging off cambers. We were set up next to the reserved parking for world champ MVP and the TV cameras, fake shrubbery pots, and lighting was all in a bustle for his arrival.
The course was saturated in spots but provided good traction in others and as we were warming up the rain began in earnest. Conditions deteriorated and game plans and tire pressures rapidly changed.
Ready to focus on settling in and getting used to the crazy, I absorbed the chaos of the start stretch - including the disconcerting wobbly brick footing - and worked to stay strong, focused, and move through the field. My confidence was holding steady and I worked through my process goals of staying smooth, maintaining speed, and looking forward.
I came in hot to an off camber on the back side of the course, executed a dismount I was proud of into a full run and then felt my feet slip out from under me. I glanced down at them in annoyance which quickly turned to horror as my right arm resting on my saddle was forced to twist up and back. I fell to my knees in pain and to support my now much longer arm as the girls began to pass by in a blur around me.
My initial thought was to keep going, I'm not really one to attract unwanted attention and quitting in the middle of a race is pretty low on my list of options. this one wasn't really negotiable, I was stuck in the haze of pain wishing I knew how to yank the arm back into position.
Some spectators came over to help, calling a course medic and helping me over the tape as the leaders came through for their final lap. It crossed my mind that repeating "put it back in" was lost amongst the people around me, surely they had an idea of what I was saying but the language barrier is still obvious.
The dismay at potentially loosing a whole summer of training when the racing had just begum led me to experimentally hop on the bike the next day. Surprisingly I felt fine, the injury was on the back of my shoulder so pressure on the handlebars was a moot point.
There was a seven day break before the next start line in Neil, I wasn't entirely comfortable but I also wasn't ready to give up. I taped everything, ran through a few practice laps taking note of things NOT to do with my right arm and called it good. There’s a degree to which you hold back when you have that worry in the back of your mind, no matter how buried you try to secure it. Still I raced okay, handled my bike well, learned a few things, experienced a new to me course, and was happy to be out there.
The following weekend was a World Cup in Tabor, Czech Republic. I road tripped with my Irish friend David across the expanse of Germany to marvel at the subtle but significant differences between the different locations. We arrived to sunny skies and thankfully mild temps.
Like all World Cup courses this one was hard. The need for skill and balance was there but subtly, overshadowed by the necessity for pure power. A few mud bogs kept it interesting but the real test was a series of ascents up the mid venue bank where your fitness was put through the ringer in quick succession.
I have a history of low back issues including a few years of tolerating a partial rupture that kept me in a fog of pain for five years. I feel as though I have conquered this issue for the most part but there are occasions where the injury rears its ugly head and reminds me that I'm not the spry chicken that I once was. This course was physically high stress in that regard; digging deep on a climb usually leaves me pretty achy and this course featured around nine of these sections per lap.
I held on, floating around the back of the field and with presumably one to go for me before I hit the 80% mark and was pulled, I took a tumble over the bars on the back side of the course. Whether that was the catalyst or the accumulation is in the end, irrelevant, I finished up in a world of hurt.
We had planned to head to Switzerland the following day to pick up another race and we did indeed drive there. I even went so far as to pick up a bib number but upon closer inspection of the course and the awkward attempt to install myself into stretchy clothing I started leaning towards a DNS.
The cold was bone chilling, the rain steady, the mud extreme, power washers non-existent, pit crew lacking, and I couldn't really walk much less pedal my bike. We called it, sticking around to watch the chaos and then pointed the car northward, sans post race fatigue, endorphins, piles of muddy clothes, and thrashed bikes.
I had one week to get myself "unstuck" before the next World Cup in Koksijde and I spend a considerable amount of time on the floor with the foam roller. I felt "delicate," not as bad as I started out but not particularly fluid either. I was very nervous preriding the monster sand dunes on the seaside course, the usual movements that allow you to compensate for the bikes path in the sand revolves solidly around spinal movements and using your core.
But I persevered, lined up, and pedaled through the race. It's a bit of a buzz kill to be more scared of yourself than determined to go hard but I'm still glad I was given the opportunity and took it. I now know what to expect, have identified a few cyclocross skills I have never even attempted before and I'm mentally prepared to get back out there, knowing how absolutely hard it is and having a game plan to tackle it.
So what do I learn from all this? I'm a fighter, I'm here to do something even if I don't do it well. If I were to merely quit and go home I'm missing the opportunities to learn and set myself up for future gains, if not in results then at least in growth. I love to be out there and performing below my ability is fuel to try harder.