I came here to finish these races. I didn’t know how well I would do beyond that, but I did not want, as I had done the last time I was here in Belgium, to get pulled at all of my races. I needed to know that there were tangible benefits being made in my fitness, in my ability to race these big races. I needed to know that I wasn’t just tilting at windmills. When I got pulled at the first race in Namur, it was definitely a blow to my confidence, but I managed, in that way that bike racers seemingly always do, to rationalize myself into a better mental place about it. It was, after all, the first race. And it was ridiculously muddy, and come one, had you seen the course? You couldn’t get much different than your typical US course if you tried. So clearly, this was just an adjustment to being outside the “comfort zone” and better things would surely come as the week went by.
Sure enough, I managed to make that mindset a self-fulfilling prophecy at the World-Cup in Zolder. Thirty-sixth might not sound like a great finish, and if I am honest with myself I can admit that I had hoped for a little better than that, but to have murdered myself with two laps to go just so that I could hear the sound of that bell ringing was something that I have long dreamed about the possibility of.
Buoyed by that result, I faced my next race day at Loenhout with nervous apprehension. Everything I remembered about this race was bad. I had visions of never-ending mud bogs, of not being able to stop – brakes caked in mud, and fans so rowdy and drunk that my ineptitude was nothing but hilarious entertainment. When the rain moved in the night before the race, my thoughts hung about as low and heavy as the cloud cover over the Belgian farm fields. This was going to be a tractor pull at best, and maybe a really painful running race at worst. I spent the night trying to steel my resolve.
Come the next day, the rain was a little more intermittent, but save that, there was little to be surprised about on course. It was pretty much how I remembered it, with painfully long and slow mud bogs and thousands of rowdy fans. But the thing was, in the midst of this flash-back come true, I was feeling better about the race. I had reached a level of disconnected self-preservation – all I could do was race my bike as hard as possible. If that wasn’t good enough, then nothing I could do stressing about it would save me in the hour before the race. Now if that sounds like one of those overly self-aware athletic expressions, all I can say in my defense is that I often struggle to not be overly intimidated at big races, so this was a distinct improvement.
In the start, things seemed to happen with an almost surreal calm. I moved into gaps and up through the field with none of my normal hysteria. I sliced through the first mud pit cleanly and gained spots in the process. I was staring at the backs of fast people; this was going to be good. And then, just like that, the dream ended. The pile of bodies in front of me cascaded from the right to the left side of the course and cut off all the likely exits. I catapulted over a bike and started to try and run only to find my foot stuck through someone’s wheel in some sort of twisted joke. You know those ring puzzle magic tricks your cruel relative gives you when you’re a kid and you can never figure out?
What, that was just me?
Well, in any case, it was a lot like that as we tried to figure out how to get my foot separated from his wheel. When we finally got going it was a good 40 seconds later and I was literally the last person on course … from good to gone in the blink of an eye. I thought about giving up, just pulling the plug and getting a head-start on traffic, but I knew that would just reaffirm the negativity I was feeling about the race and about the conditions this morning. I decided to have fun, and it was liberating. I was still killing myself, snotting all over the place, and trying to pick people off as best I could, but it was obvious that the result would be lackluster at best. It became me proving something to myself, something you can lose sight of if you race too much, and especially over here, if you get beat down too often.
I needed to remember that riding through the mud, two wheel drifting around turns, or even slamming through some god-forsaken cow-pasture turned mud pit, is fun and that I love that feeling. I love the moments when you string together good turns, or when you turn over one gear harder than you thought you could. Last time I was here I was too scared to have that kind of moment. Too caught up in the self-imposed pressure to remember that I can actually do these things. Not this time. Ultimately, I had a blast right up until I got pulled – failing to make the lead lap by less than 15 seconds. That’s how small the margin for error is over here, that incident at the start had sealed my chances at making the lead lap, even if I did manage to have a really solid race afterwards. The takeaway though was a level of confidence heading into the rest of these races that maybe I didn’t have before. I had made it through the half-way point of the camp and my own worst memories from the last time, and come out the other side.