If I had one Christmas wish it would be that every cyclocross fan could see an event held at the Zolder venue. It is really something special. The event is held on a Formula 1 race track and there are always no less than 30,000 spectators covering the whole venue like a thick blanket, even throughout the tiered hillside.
The Formula 1 track is used as the start/finish straight. The rest of the course snakes up and down the sandy hill alongside the track, offering the riders technical switchbacks on frozen sand as it was hovering around 0°C. This was also where the death drop was located – a steep chute made of rutted ice with a left hander at the bottom that was so intimidating that it had elite males, pre-riding the course, stopping at the top for a second look before dropping down. The rest of the course weaved in and out of the neighboring woods for some rock, dirt and root riding. It was easily the most fun course I’ve ridden in a while.
This Zolder venue had a special meaning for me as I was 1st alternate on the 2002 U.S. Worlds Team (USA decided they only wanted to take 4 instead of 5 riders due to lack of hotel space) when the World Championships were held there. It was an honor I took so seriously that I even took the train to the race, pre-rode the course, and stood nearby just in case I was needed at the last moment. It came close when Head Coach Juri Manius opened the door to a porta-potty simultaneously as one of the US riders was passing. I was so optimistic that by the time the door hit her, my warmup pants were already half down while my mind was wondering if her USA skinsuit would fit me. But she survived and I watched the race from the sidelines, swearing to myself that one day I too will get to race this course. And my dream came true. Albeit my result this time around was not as good as it would have been back then! Even so, I still managed to have a blast.
My start in the race was yet another dud. But at least I was not last going onto the dirt since there was a sole woman many meters back from the rest of us. It turns out that a good start was not entirely important since there was a pileup in each of the first three turns once we hit the dirt. The next stall we hit was at the icy death drop. We all came to a trackstand, queuing up for our turn to drop down the chute, two at a time. Running it was not a viable option as it was more dangerous on foot.
My next couple of descents down the chute were creative. I hit a deep groove that swiped my front wheel causing me to put a leg out in the air for balance. The next time down was the most amusing of all. I hit another one of those grooves that put me on the outside of the course near the bottom. Luckily the course was lined with blowup cushions so I rode the rest of the descent with one shoulder on the cushion for balance, hoping there were no wood poles buried within.
Just as I was about to drop down for the last of seven times down, I saw Loes Sels, Belgian National Champion, and bike sprawled across the bottom of the chute writhing in pain. The girl in front of me was within striking distance but there was only enough room for my skinny wheels to pass Loes without running over her head. In a split second decision I hopped off my bike and ran it. Thankfully Vicki Thomas of Canada told me before the race that the best side to run down is on the left, so I took my chances and stayed upright. It really is much harder – and slower – to run. Anyway, I didn’t catch the girl in front but I did avoid the possibility of looking like a real ass by running over a fellow competitor’s head. My final placing was 30th out of about 45 starters.
Even though I am a huge fan of Marianne Vos and so incredibly happy for her win, I nominate fellow American Sue Butler as hero of the day. On the first lap, shortly after the chute, I passed Sue while she was running her bike. It looked like her chain broke. She couldn’t have been farther from the pit. Instead of dropping out, she stayed strong and ran it, even passing some of the riders back. Incredible.
After the race, Jonas, our friend David, and I watched the men’s race. By the first lap, a group of five were off the front and containing none of the pre-race favorites. The favorites were trailing behind by twenty seconds; and instead of racing, they were staring at each other. As the laps passed, the gap held between twenty to thirty seconds. Breakout rider, Thijs Al of Holland took the win – his second win in a week and his finest win ever. His holeshot habit is really paying off.
Thanks for reading!