Christine Vardaros racing at Steenokkerzzel. by Ria van Loovren

Christine Vardaros racing in Steenokkerzzel. by Ria van Loovren

Our European correspondent and pro-racer Christine Vardaros checks in for an off-season installment of her column on life as a Euro-racer-gal cyclocrosser.

My last road race was almost one full year ago so naturally I entered my first one back last weekend with much trepidation. After taking many months off of racing and hard riding for therapy and rehabilitation, I had no idea what to expect.

Sure, I’d done the work leading up to this race to be theoretically fit. They say that if you put in the work, results will follow. But does that always pertain to bike racing? Or is bike racing a whole different level of reality? What if you put in the work but you’re building on a shoddy “base” or pedaling many hours while seated in a poor bike position? I’d expect in those cases what you’d get is a whole lot of wasted time with no results.

I wish fitness buildup for bike racing was as clean and neat as a mathematical equation. Maybe that is why I’ve always been into science – and at first was pre-med at Columbia University. But then I espoused the career path of becoming a doctor so fully that even my own father couldn’t accept the fact that I’d given it all up to be a bike racer.

He finally let go after watching me in a cyclocross race in Southampton, NY. I sometimes wonder that if I didn’t win the event, if he would have written the bike racing off as a tiny hobby and continued pestering me about my former career path in medicine. I surely don’t miss the family reunions where all the little kids – and even the parents – would line up to ask me about their aches, pains and strange symptoms. Now they ask me if I know Lance.

But back to the road race, within a few minutes I realized that my months of hard work were thankfully not wasted. I rode easily with the peloton with fingers up my nose – as they say in Belgium – at average speeds of over 40kph and even as high as 57kph. It felt good to be comfortably elbow to elbow with the likes of superstars like Sanne Cant and Helen Wyman. The only time I was at my limit was when I tried to chase down my former Lotto-Belisol teammates Liesbet de Vocht (a familiar face on UCI podiums) with Kim Schoonbaert in tow. I suffered and failed. But I still enjoyed the moment so much that I started to laugh at myself to think I could bridge to one of the strongest racers in the world – and in my first bike race nonetheless.

The peloton catching Christine Vardaros after her break. by Alan Vitry.

The peloton catching Christine Vardaros after her break. by Alan Vitry

When the peloton finally whipped by me, it took a little fighting to get my body to lift and match the pace of the peloton. I would like to think nobody could physically see I was struggling since that look would not have gone well with my fancy white bike with matching outfit – white with silver trim.  Especially considering I had a lot of supporters in the crowd like Jonas, his mom, my friends, and guys from the “Old Mans Ride,” I wanted to look my best even if I wasn’t feeling very fresh at the moment.

With some laps to go, Helen Wyman jumped with one other gal. They stayed away until the end with Helen lifting her arms in glory!

I may have only placed 40th of 78 finishers (I’ve never been much of a sprinter), but I am truly satisfied – and of course immensely thankful – that it felt easier than I ever imagined it to feel based on previous experiences. For the last two years, it took many races before I could stay with the peloton until the end. And even then I suffered so badly the whole race!

I expect that some of the upcoming races will feel a lot worse than my first one, but I welcome the pain if that is what it takes to be the best cyclocross racer I can be this season!

My next race is scheduled for 15 July. I will again enter it with fingers crossed but also with a newfound confidence.