The journey to get to the French World Cup in Lignieres-en-Berry has been quite an adventure. I spent a good portion of the Monday after Nationals making travel arrangements at our hotel in Asheville. What transpired in the next 48 hours was very taxing on my body. Monday night was spent mostly on the floor of the bathroom in serious pain from food poisoning or some sort of stomach virus. Something had triggered my stomach into a full system reboot.
When I could finally get out of bed on Tuesday, I packed up all our belongings while Sheek bagged three of our bikes and boxed one to be sent home. We scrambled to run some last-minute errands necessary for international travel and settled in to rest for an early start the next day. We drove from Asheville to the Atlanta airport, flew to Newark airport, got some work done, and then hopped across the pond on United to the Paris airport. My stomach turned the whole way and all the while I was questioning how the race on Sunday would even play out for me. There’s nothing like your body refusing to function properly to make you start having anxiety about international travel and racing.
We got our rental car from Charles de Gaulle airport and drove a few hours south to Châteauroux, France. This town sits about a thirty-minute drive west of Lignières where the race was to take place. Thursday involved sleep, a run to Carrefour (the Walmart of Europe?), and more sleep. Ideally I would’ve liked to ride my bike on Thursday but it wasn’t happening and I just needed to get my body back to normal. I was finally feeling like myself again on Friday, so we put all the bikes together and went for a nice ride through town and out on some country farm roads. My inner Tour de France fan was giddy. I breathed a sigh of relief and got mentally back in the game to race on Sunday.
The day before the World Cup events is for “Course Inspection” and “Official Training.” We arrived mid-day, parked with the Team USA compound, and got bikes ready to inspect the course. There are only four categories that race a World Cup event, so without amateur categories to account for, they’re pretty lax when it comes to jumping on course to pre-ride. Needless to say, David got his bike together and we both got on course like a couple of overly-excited kids to inspect lines and test tires. I would liken it to the times I’d jump in pools that have been used for Olympic Trials or other high-level swim meets.
An hour later I had the course down pretty well and memorized the turns as best I could. The conditions would certainly change significantly in the next 24 hours and make a few of the tricky sections a bit more difficult. One thing nice about this trip was having Kathryn Cumming (Cyclocross Magazine Racing) making the trek over to race as well with her husband, Andrew Reimann. They came out to race Koksijde in October, so I leaned on them for help and suggestions on how to approach the weekend in regards to scheduling. Kate and I went to pick up our numbers, parking pass, and pit passes from the rider sign-in and we were all set to race the following day.
I like having routines and my race weekend routines this season have been pretty regimented. I knew coming over here I’d have to make adaptations to my usual plans, but my stomach issues added another layer of complexity as well. The evening before the race, I prepared nutrition and hydration as best I could, made our schedule, and got rest. The plan was to get there early on Sunday to avoid any issues in the team/rider parking areas.
Back in Asheville, I met with Katie Macarelli of Feedback Sports to ask her about possibly buying a work stand and one of the new Omnium trainers off of their hands after the weekend of racing ended. Sheek and I both knew that although we’d pay for it in extra weight, having a trainer and work stand would make life much easier in Europe. Katie graciously reserved these two tools for us and I bought them off her hands at the end of my race on Sunday. Needless to say, it was so nice to be able to warm up on a trainer and for Sheek to be able to properly work on bikes. Thank you, Feedback!
An assumption I made was that the course wouldn’t be open in between the morning categories. I got on the trainer for a quick spin in the early morning when we got there and then later just before the open course inspection. However, it seemed as though many of the women get on the course before the Men’s U23 race to view it then instead of during the Elite inspection time as it takes place the hour before the Women’s start time. This was similar to the schedule in Asheville where the official course inspection time sits at just enough of an awkward time before the race that only a handful of women end up utilizing the time. I wanted to see at least a lap of the course before my race so I got off the trainer, on my B-bike for a full lap, then changed one last time and back on the trainer until it was time to head to the line. Sven Nys, Jeremy Powers, Lukas Flückiger, and Lars van der Haar all rode by me at some point during that pre-ride lap on the course and it was freaking awesome.
Off to the starting grid we went. All the women were rolling back and forth on the pavement just as we would in America. For some reason I couldn’t get myself to roll up and down the pavement with everyone else, so I stayed off to the side of the course and practiced getting clipped in a few times instead. Anyone who’s ever experienced the first race when you move up in a category knows the feeling I’m having at this point. You’re wondering if you belong there, rolling around with powerhouses who have experience well above your comprehension.
I said an enthusiastic hello to Mical Dyck, waved to Elle Anderson, said good luck to Kate, and having these few familiar faces nearby gave me a little piece of home to put me at ease before the announcer called my name in a thick, French accent. I rolled up to what I’m assuming was the 4th row but in reality was just a partially open slot in a mass of women overlapping bikes as ridiculously as you could imagine. I made sure my bike was in the right gear, threw my jacket off to the side, and focused on the red lights glaring at us. The red lights shut off for a split second before turning green and in that instant everyone lunged forward and we were off!
The next few minutes were total chaos. My lingering anxiety about being in the middle of a bunched, mass start took over and I wasn’t as aggressive as I could have been when I got clipped in. My fear of crashing and wasting money took over my desire to take any risks at the start and I told myself to keep moving forward no matter where I ended up after the first few turns. Sure enough, I came to a stop at the first sharp corner and the back half of the field was pretty much running from that corner, over the stairs, through the sand, and over the steep bump at the end of the sandy mud section. Admittedly, I was panicking because it felt like I was dead last in the back of the field. But Elle Anderson was right in front of me, which kept me sane because I knew we started near each other and were both going through the same frustrations of the starting scrum.
The pace of that first lap was maddening as I spent more time navigating the mistakes of riders in front of me than driving my bike on the course. By the time we reached the only long, straightaway power section on the course I could finally get out of the saddle and pass a handful of people. The pavement and that straightaway were probably the only two long, wide sections to make passes. Wheel-chopping, side-swiping, and running faster were your only other options to make passes. At the end of his race, Mathieu van der Poel said he was frustrated on lap one because he couldn’t ride the lines he wanted when there were people in front of him. That’s how I felt the entire race. It was such a twisty, turny course with many off-cambers and several obstacles that forced you off your bike. Keeping a cool head became my focus and my goal was to pass as many riders as I could.
I made my way up to 27th on the last lap, but Juliette Labous (France) got around me before the last few turns and I finished 28th. I later learned that Labous’ racing age is just 18 and she was one of ten U23 women who beat me on the day. That’s some promising rising talent! Makes one wonder how a separate U23 category for women could change the dynamics of World Cup racing in the future. And, when, or if ever, it will be embraced.
This is a write-up I wasn’t expecting to put together when Bill pitched “Panda’s POV” to me at the beginning of the season. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to race “la coupe du monde de cyclo cross de Lignières en Berry” and will continue on to race the World Cup in Hoogerheide this weekend. The financial implications of my decision to race in Europe will hit me when I pay off my credit cards in the next couple months… but for now I want to thank Alex Harisiadis, Sean Roach, Stuart Gregg, and David Crippen for donating United miles to help with our plane tickets home from Brussels. I truly hope our sacrifices to get me to this level will eventually pay off in the seasons to come. I don’t like mixing personal matters with my race reports, but one can only race for glory for so long before their savings account runs dry.
In 2014 I was fixated on the Nys-Stybar battle unfolding on my computer screen in Hoogerheide and I can’t even wrap my head around racing in the Netherlands yet. But I’m here and I’m going to give it my all this weekend for the final hurrah of the season… dank je!