If you asked me in June of 2016 if I would have believed I would be racing World Cup cyclocross in 2018, I would say “lol what the hell is cyclocross and no.”
Two point five years later and thanks to a rule that allows 16 Americans to race the American World Cups, as well as some convenient absences of higher-ranked riders, I was sitting on the start line (four rows) behind the world leaders in a sport I had previously not known existed. And these race(r)s are legit.
Another convenience is that this new sport just so happens to include a sport I had been doing at a pretty elite level from 2008 to 2016. Although I had gained 10 pounds since 2016 all in my ass, I’m still a pretty good runner, especially when the run is under 5 minutes long which heaven forbid, all cyclocross run-ups should be or turnout would significantly decrease.
But despite an athletic base, cyclocross involves an intimate technical understanding of equipment, terrain, and bike handling that is – crazily enough – not something you need to run a fast 5k. Or maybe it is. Maybe that’s why I was never very good at the 5k. And maybe I shouldn’t have made fun of the dudes who ran in toe shoes. They were embracing the technical nature of the sport. At least until they all started breaking their feet.
But the whole thing I’m getting at is that it’s a bit harder to do well in cyclocross as a new(er) cyclist. The great thing though is that the American women are ranked second in the entire world at cyclocross, which means we’re pretty great. So I had a lot of people to creepily observe and learn from all of 2017 in my first UCI season. And I was able to gain juuuuuust enough UCI points to petition to race the American World Cups. And I firmly believe that cyclocross has really jumpstarted my cycling career by giving me valuable technical practice that absolutely translates to road and also keeps me safe.
So back to me being in the last row on the start line behind Sanne Cant and Eva Lechner and Katie Compton and Ellen Van Loy and Helen Wyman and Sophie de Boer and Marianne Vos and you get the point. Someone made a joke about letting damn roadies in the race and I looked around and pretended to try to find those roadies and then the race started!
I raced the World Cup at both Trek and Jingle Cross. I finished 25th and 27th respectively. Out of 40ish starters it isn’t the best but it definitely isn’t the worst. Trek was hard, dry, dusty, and fast. At Jingle the rain came down comically hard five minutes before the start and after the course might have just had enough traction for our race. There’s a great replay of me dismounting halfway down a descent because I couldn’t clip in and I had gone over my bars for that reason in the same spot last year. The girl behind me fell into the course tape (I’m really sorry btw) and I heard the wooden stake crack and the tape rip and approximately all of my friends sent me the video. It’s probably the only shot of me from the entire race.
Trek was more of just “ok will I survive?” Jingle I was actually pretty excited about. Given that I did survive Trek, I figured Jingle could only get better, and I had even taken 2nd in the C2 the night before and I felt good. I like the mud. There’s running, the speeds are slow, it’s pretty safe if you fall, and I’m not the worst at it. I went into the fence to avoid a crash on the first lap and my friend laughed and I laughed and all was good and then the race went downhill.
I thought I was real clever escaping the eight million falls I narrowly missed in the first lap, but I must have run into one of the falls with my shoe because my boa popped open and I was unable to get it back on with my freezing hands. By the way did I mention that Andrew and I failed to bring any and all warm clothes? Given that is was at least as hot as the surface of the sun at these two races last year, we thought light apparel would be appropriate but it wasn’t even remotely warm so that was pretty cool.
The rest of the race was one fall after another for me, and it’s always disappointing to see groups you know you can ride with just ride away from you. Imagine being in prime position to win the Joe Martin crit but you can’t corner so you get 6th. How frustrating would that be? (I did that). That being said, there are many more positives to take away from these races than disappointments. I finished within a closer time of the lap leaders in the World Cups than I finished within the lap leaders of some of the domestic cross races last year.
And if I look at my road season, I can say I made definitive, drastic improvements in handling over the course of the season this summer. I think that could happen during this cross season too if I stay diligent. In fact, at Trek Factory Hill in the 4s race two years ago, I didn’t make it down the hill a single time (the race was run in reverse). I bent my derailleur hanger and rode the final lap (of 3 laps lol) on a pit bike with flat pedals. And I crashed on the flyover. I also crashed on the flyover in the pre-ride this year and did one of those things where you’re trying to get out of falling position for about 45 seconds. Oh, I guess now that I think of it I also crashed on the flyover last year in the 1/2 race. So, I’m really good at bikes. But I actually felt alright technically in the World Cups, which is a bit higher than the cat 4 race from 2016. And in the descent where I broke my frame at Jingle last year, I actually rode it this year before it turned into a slip-n-slide (!). So if this doesn’t give you (and me) hope for handling improvement, nothing will.
The Trek World Cup was mostly an uneventful race, which is really a blessing in cross. No crashes, and I felt strong. Jingle I also felt strong, but if I wasn’t worried before about breaking my ankles in the mud, the shoe scenario sealed the deal. On the C1 the following day I literally taped my shoes on with electrical tape. The mud was like the quicksand of the Fire Swamp from the Princess Bride. Sven Nys was on the start line of the C1 and he was pointing at my shoes and I just tried my best to not make eye contact and pretend in my mind that he was telling his friend that I was pretty.
Overall, I am still in awe that we have two of the best races in the entire world right here in the U.S., the only non-European World Cups on the circuit. The ability to race these events is one of the highest honors, and while I may not have won, I am confident that I represented the country, my team, and my sponsors with a positive attitude. And racing in the midwest, we are close to – and get to interact with – many of our partners. We got to know Brad from Carborocket, Dan from SRAM, and a whole crew from Champion System. Being able to interact with people who care about cycling and who are excited to be there is what makes racing all worth it.
I believe that the experience of riding these World Cups will lay the foundation for another great season of learning. Not only in the literal sense of cornering, descending, and riding in the mud on a cross bike, but in remembering the intensity, focus, and attitude necessary to ride up a level. And a reminder that there is always ‘up a level.’ And once again, a constant reminder to be appreciative of the opportunities received and to be respectful of the competition and the sport.