I finished off the season with one last start line in France. Of the races I've done in France they are the most American like: straightforward courses with few manmade features and the potential for moisture playing the biggest roll in challenge. Like all the World Cup courses Nommay was especially power centric, strength playing the largest roll in a successful race. While the course was somewhat disenchanting with it's basic grassy stretches, the warm damp weather cleared out overnight as the fog and a hard freeze to welcome race day with an icy but sunny morning.
The course progressed through all stages of slippery and after the pavement start stretch and immediate stairs, it was for all intent and purposes a dirt ice skating rink. My progression of injuries over this season was quite thorough, first the shoulder dislocation, then my back, then the other shoulder, then the first shoulder again, and finally I fell on some stairs and I suffered a torn ankle ligament that remains visibly swollen months later. The extent of this all is ridiculous, as I type this is more so reinforced but alas, I'm here and I don't want to throw a whole season away because you are never guaranteed another one.
There comes a point where the best bet is to step back and address rest and healing, reset, and start over. I arrived at this point in the UK after the visible end of the season came into focus. While I try not to let such things dictate my metal game, this the final straw and I emotionally threw in the towel. I was prepared to throw down at Nommay, I feel my best sense of accomplishment when I try my hardest, but I knew my back and core strength is at a low point and the repeated punchy climbs so prolific in World Cup courses really limit what fitness I can fake.
Replaying the race video from Nommay it's easy to see my lack of focus, as I talk and laugh my way around the course. I don't actually want to be that person, I do have the drive to be serious but the pieces need to be in place for that and they weren't for this one.
The biggest difference this year is found in the broadened scope of events I attended by traveling to other countries for new start lines. For sure Belgium is the heart of the racing with the most robust courses and spectators galore, but I’m an adventurer and the opportunity to explore always wins out my intrigue.
Looking back it’s remarkable that it goes so fast. When I traveled to Europe last year it was after a full season of domestic cross. The season overall felt longer being that I covered a lot more ground – metaphorical as well as literal, with a larger variety of races and a full six months. This season isn’t shorter by much, really just about three weekends worth. The late December and January races I was able to see for a second time were not the system shock that they presented last year, and the lower degree of mental stress from a second time experience made for a lesser degree of drama. Still, living from start line to start line can make the time fly past in its own way.
There were a few February races that I cherished last year and am in turn sad to miss out on. Regardless I definitely feel as though I got my fill this year, covering new terrain always lends to a more enlightening journey. When you do the same thing in repetition you expect to see progressive results or some form of growth. While frequently that trends true there will also inevitably be a downswing. There is much to learn from that downswing as well, if you maintain an open mind about it. I believe one of the most courageous tasks an athlete has is facing that drop in performance and maintaining a confidence that you can return and return stronger.
To keep hacking at the same set of limitations doesn’t always allow you to learn as much about yourself, when you aren’t explicitly pursuing the top step variety can be the best justification for the journey. I develop some bad habits as a result of constantly racing in the back of the pack, while racing a full season in Belgium might teach me bike handling I could never experience in the US, the routine of pushing off the start line into a wall of overly excited girls has taught me a less aggressive start can give me more of an advantage when it thins out. This is counterintuitive to cyclocross where the winning move can be made in the first few minutes. I might have this habit work in my favor one in every ten races, it is not reliable or ideal.
The increase in travel helped to counter these bad habits, smaller fields and better start positions require the opposite tactics, more along the thought process that allow you to win races in cyclocross rather that be a mere participant. I find it easier to evaluate myself in these more sparsely attended environments and it was fascinating to also catch on to why Belgium is generally referred to as the motherland, aside from the spectator base, the broadly different styles of courses and conditions I found suited the local soils of Italy and Spain.
I loved every minute of those experiences and it helps to reinforce how important the ability to race your own race, unhampered by the presence of large fields and personal consideration fro others in the crazy conditions of Belgian cross. If you want results you have to be less willing to share the space, more determined to own your presence. Ultimately this brings up the realization that aside from fitness, my battles aren’t as much with the conditions and handling as they are with my perception of my place in the race.