I had been forewarned that the Azencross course in Loenhout was a hard, heavy, muddy mess of a race. It did not disappoint. Sprinklings of rain throughout the day made conditions even more challenging.
I headed from my home base in Oudenaarde to Loenhout early Friday morning. Upon arrival, I immediately hopped on my bike to pre-ride. I actually only managed to get in one lap during my pre-ride because it took that long to make it around the course. It was immediately apparent that the race was going to controlled chaos at best.
The mud made the course. Think Portland mud meets New England mud and you might be able to picture what we faced. The mud was soupy in parts and thicker in others. There were rutted sections and sections where we were more than ankle deep in mud.
I had a decent start. The opening section was a long pavement straight. I took advice from Jonathan Page and ran the lowest tire pressure with which I felt comfortable. With only 17 psi in both my front and rear tires, it was hard to get up to speed in the sprint from the start line. I was probably somewhere around tenth place by the time we hit the mud and then all hell broke lose. Women were everywhere. It became a matter of being patient, of letting things settle before getting panicked.
I rode through the mud at first, and I felt like I was starting to get bogged down. I saw Katie Compton running, so I jumped off my bike and started running, too. I thought to myself that if Katie is running, there’s a good reason why, so I should, too.
Katie continued to run through the mud, and I continued to keep an eye out for her. She was running longer than I would have elected to run on my own, and eventually I found myself getting antsy wondering when we were going to get back on our bikes. I encouraged myself to be patient and follow Katie’s lead until a thought hit me: “What if Katie is running because she has a mechanical?!”
The thought knocked some sense into me and reminded me to ride my own race. As soon as I hit a spot where I could hop back on my bike, I did. I was able to start pedaling quickly enough. I got into a good rhythm as I found my legs and started passing people almost immediately. By the time the second lap had gotten underway, I was in eighth place – and that’s where I would stay for the rest of the race.
I handled the soupy sections on the course fairly easily. The thicker sections were deep and trickier. Although these sections proved more challenging, I let my bike go wherever it needed to go. If you force it too much, you end up worse off. I followed my bike’s lead and, as a result, ended up feeling completely comfortable moving around on my bike. It was like a tractor pull through the thick sections (Seriously, Jonathan Page told me before the start to look for the tractor wheel lines.) – just one pedal stroke at a time, humping the bike to sometimes keep momentum – and my power was my best friend.
The second most well-known element of the course is a section of whoops on the back side of the course. This section included ramps made out of concrete covered with Astroturf. I’m not typically great at whoops, but these particular whoops were super smooth and even. There’s no pedaling over whoops. Instead, the upper body is used to push down on the handlebars to keep speeds high. I found good flow and was able to handle this section well. Last night, when looking through race photos, I saw a series of photos of Marianne Vos catching too much air over a whoop and then coming down hard (into Katie Compton). Even the best of the best make mistakes!
I crashed once during the first lap. Other than the single crash, I rode a ‘clean’ race. It was hardly a clean race, but you know what I mean.
My eighth place finish represents my first European top ten. I’m happy with both the result and the effort. Cracking the top ten in a stacked field is a major milestone and finishing as second American is a huge confidence boast, too. Still, I always wonder what I could have done differently or better.
Of course, strength is always a consideration. While I had good power today, I can always get stronger. I also rode a bit conservatively today because of my low tire pressure.
Although low psi was the right choice for the conditions, coming off ramps, it means hitting the ground hard. I’m comfortable bottoming out and don’t mind hitting my rim, but this was more than hitting a rim. It’s ok to bottom out in soft mud or sand but this was smacking the ground with a carbon rim at the bottom of a ramp at high speeds. I was a little nervous that I’d crack a wheel, and I might have been going slower through a few sections than necessary because I was cautious. I completely trust my Zipp wheels, but one good whack and carbon will break. The last thing I wanted to contend with was another mechanical.
I write this while I’m eating dinner at 10PM. It’s been a long day. It’s amazing how much work goes into a 40 minute race. We arrived on course two hours before my start so I could pre-ride. Following the pre-ride, my mechanic, Johs, needed to have enough time to clean my muddy bike. The Americans at the race lack the set-up enjoyed by the Europeans. We’re not there with full staff, full team, tent, pressure washer and RV set-up. Instead, we’re packed into a small car with just the bare essentials on hand. This means having to ask for help, borrow tools and pump and if we’re lucky use someone’s pressure washer. We weren’t so lucky yesterday with the pressure washer so Johs had to trek through all the mud to the other side of the course just to get my bike clean.
I pre-ride in a full kit – and in this weather, that means rain pants, rain jacket and booties. Following the pre-ride, I continue my warm-up on a trainer, and I change into dry clothes for the second phase of my warm-up. Ahead of the race start, I change into race gear – clean socks, clean shoes and skin suit. When the temperature is warm enough, I choose not to wear gloves.
I did a bike change every lap, so both of my bikes were used heavily. This meant that both of my bikes needed to be cleaned post-race. All of the equipment needed to be sorted, organized and packed (shoved) back into the car. Once we got home, I had to take a hose and spray down all my clothes before I could even throw them in the wash. We’re lucky to have a washer in our apartment rental, but we don’t have a dryer – which means when the clothes come out of the washer, I drape them over lights, chairs, etc around the apartment to dry. It’s a pretty glamorous set-up, isn’t it?
I race again on Sunday – Superprestige Diegem. It’s the last race of 2012 – Dec 30. Now that I’ve tasted top ten glory, I intend to do everything I can to repeat the feat. I hear the course has a lot of road sections and a fair amount of elevation – should suit me well!