I headed to Diegem for my fourth race in eight days. I had heard that this particular Superprestige course featured a lot of pavement and a lot of elevation — which sounds like my kind of course!
I also knew that a handful of the top women would not be racing today. Apparently the Superprestige race promoters aren’t too keen on women’s races. This is evidenced by our early start time – we’re the first race of the day! – and the lack of start money. Riders who normally receive start money don’t get any here, so some of them elected not to race.
With the slightly smaller field and a course that sounded as if it played to my strengths, I had hopes for my first European top five.
Because we were the first race of the day, we didn’t have to worry about getting onto the course for a pre-ride between races. Johs and I arrived about two hours ahead of the start to give me a chance to pre-ride and him with sufficient time to clean the equipment ahead of the race start.
Upon pre-ride, I discovered a ton of pavement as promised. Most of the pavement was uphill on one side of the course and a really fast downhill on the other side of the course. Between the pavement there was mud, sand, stairs and more mud. The muddy sections didn’t overwhelm the course, but they were thick, deep and swamp-like. Later in the day, when I was walking around watching the men’s race, my boots almost got suctioned off my feet a couple times.
(photo credit: Tom Prenen)
During the pre-ride, I rode the sand section with ease, so I elected to stay on my bike during that section on lap one. I noticed that the women that chose to run were able to run just as fast if not faster, so for the next three laps, I ended up running the sand sections.
The course was huge – so huge that it featured two pits. There was a pit on the top of the course that went largely unused and a pit on the bottom of the course that was heavily used. The pits were pure choas with mechanics contending with knee deep mud as they washed our bikes during the race (the pits would only become more chaotic for the subsequent races due to intermittent rain showers).
The course today went through the middle of the city. The pavement sections I referenced earlier were all city streets. We even rode on a path between houses to connect the upper section of the course to the lower section. It gave the course a totally different feel than riding out in the middle of a field away from the epicenter of a town.
I was pleasantly surprised at the number of spectators that were out for the women’s race since we were the first race of the day. By the time the men raced, fans were lined four deep around the entire course. It was insane! The number of spectators ranks as one of the largest I’ve seen at any race. This was especially impressive because it was pouring rain just before the men raced. In the US, those types of conditions don’t generally encourage a huge fan turn out.
Still, with all those spectators hardly a cheer would be heard unless Sven Nys, Belgium’s King of Cross, was riding past. For a few laps Johs and I were standing about 4 people back from the course while watching the race unfold on the big screen. Had it not been for the live TV coverage I would not have realized that the riders were going right past us – the crowd was that quiet. Niels Albert, the World Champion, was leading the race by a large margin but you could almost hear a pin drop when he went past (apparently he’s not well liked, but still). Several riders later when Sven would come roaring past the crowd would get a little rowdy. It still continues to amaze me how many Europeans have one rider they cheer for and no one else.
Back to my race – I had a decent enough start on the pavement. As soon as we hit the mud, things started to get bogged down. The first riders made it through the mud okay, but it got congested after that. I was left to run a section that the front group had ridden.
The front group of five riders separated early as I was still making my way through the riders ahead of me. Fairly quickly, I became part of a group chasing the leaders. Whenever my group would hit a pavement section, I would come to the front in an attempt to whittle down the group and (ideally) bridge across to the front five.
(photo credit: Tom Prenen)
I did my first bike exchange during the second lap of the race. With only one mechanic, I had to rely on Johs to catch one bike as he handed me another. I hadn’t been paying attention to the other riders as they went in/out of the pit, so when I entered the pit and saw Johs holding up my bike, I thought he was doing something wrong. I didn’t realize that he was holding my bike up so that I could shoulder it out of the pit. It was so muddy in the pit that it made more sense to run out with the bike and spare it some mud than hop on and slog through the swampy mess. It wasn’t until after the race that Johs and I had a chance to discuss that tactic. I felt like a complete rookie for not knowing what to do! He knew exactly what he was doing and I completely missed it. Live and learn!
Sometime during the second lap, I ended up in a group with Gabby Day, Amy Dombroski and Joyce Vandrbeken. With two laps to go, Gabby and I were able to open up a gap on Amy and Joyce. The two of us headed into the final lap together.
I was tired today. I never made any big mistakes, but I consistently made small ones. I choose the wrong line or I lacked the power to slug through a particular element the way I normally can. As the race came to a close, I sat on Gabby’s wheel and began to think about how I would outsprint her for sixth. I remember thinking that I had one more section ahead of the finish when all of a sudden, we hit the stairs.
The finish line sat 100 meters past the top of the stairs – and the stair section had come up on me more quickly than I had expected. I knew if Gabby hit the top of the stairs first, she’d outsprint me – and that’s exactly what happened. The lack of focus (or whatever it was that I was lacking in that moment) cost me sixth place. I settled for seventh.
Of course, seventh is one place higher than my eighth place finish in Loenhout on Friday – and it’s my highest European finish. In some ways, I’m content with the result. Still, as I spelled out earlier, I had hopped for a top five, so seventh in Diegem is not quite as exciting as eighth in Loenhout was.
Katerina Nash scored her first European win of the season today. I’m super stoked for her about that. She’s been riding well over here since the start of her trip, and it was great to finally see her take the win.
I have one final race in Belgium before I head back to the States to prepare for Nationals. I have been told that Baal is harder and muddier than Loenhout. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around how that’s even possible. Here’s to hoping the legs recover and I get some rest between now and New Year’s Day when I ring in the start of a new year with lots of mud.