Conclusion – Owning It | 2018 – 2019 CX #11

Rain on the start line in Lille


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.  

pre laps on a complex course

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.


fast is fun


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?

setting up for corners in Lille

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.

Racing through the edge of the lake with so many spectators

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.”

making the watts

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. 

surprises around every corner

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.

sand makes things interesting

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.

if they can build it we can race on it

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.  

punchy climbs in Hoogstraten

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. 

mud means running

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. 

heavy corners can take their toll

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. 

anything can be an off camber

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.     

slop on slop

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.

good thing these poles hold a riders weight and the course tape is not stretchy

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.

happy to be through that section

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. 

dramatic backgrounds in an epic Netherlands town turned island


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 the far side before going through the windmill

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. 

Oostmalle and short sleeves for the final race of the season

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. 

tired panda

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.  

Still always happy to be here





Mid season Europe | 2018-2019 CX #10

Up the long hill in Pontchateau


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.

World Cup racing in France


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.

Rucphen death spiral


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.”

Otegem: thanks for coming heres an appliance


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.   

Around the sea of course tape at Rucphen


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.  

Beautiful park backdrop in Maldegem


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.  

My host and speedy friend Gosse on a snowy day

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.  

Lining up at Pontchateau

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 A Team - Cyclocross customs with my bike in the pit


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.  

spin down after racing with the girls


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. 

exploring the local area castles


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. 


flyover fun in Rucphen

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. 

Scoping out the course early in Pontcheau

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.  

Start line vibes in Rucphen


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.

around the lake Rucphen

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.  

warm and dry after Sittard