by Christine Vardaros
Looking ahead to the race, I had expected to stand at the start line, head filled with optimistic thoughts of taking down my opponents for my own inner peace. I was basing this on the speeds and sensations I had during my pre-ride the day before the race. But later that night, my optimism took an immediate turn for the worse when my hand spontaneously cramped into a tight fist delivering paralyzing and extreme jolts of pain. The hand cramp was most likely a pinched nerve caused by smacking my hand on the bar during the pre-ride. It was exacerbated that evening when I spun on the trainer as the cramp kicked in moments after I dismounted.
Within minutes my eyes welled up and tears began falling, leaving dark splotches on my light pink pajamas. The cramping and pain remained throughout the night, eased only slightly for the race with the help of heavy painkillers and numbing spray.
Now standing at the start line, I considered myself both lucky and stupid. The aggressive thoughts I had planned on for inspiration were gone; now I was willing my cramped hand to hold the bars firmly enough to prevent carnage.
Anyway, as you can imagine, the start was pretty bad. I lost my nerve to bump handlebars with the other riders and came off the infamous Paris-Roubaix track, where the start was held, towards the back. Considering it was a highly technical course with lots of deep mud and tricky turns, complete with deep groves that steal your front wheel with less than a moment’s notice, I had no option but to ride defensively.
Even so, I was able to enjoy the course. It had lots of muddy twists and turns where you had to actually think about how to take them. For instance, if I take the left side of the course, it may be faster but how much time will I lose if I slip into a pole? If I ride this uphill but fall off, how much time will I lose from sliding back down? If I take the outside line around the bend, it is much longer but the probability is smaller that I will slide out since the grass is a little less greasy. But acing math and physics wasn’t enough to crack this course; you needed luck on your side as well.
Although I was thankful to successfully hold onto the handlebars and stay upright throughout the race, that sort of riding doesn’t win one a medal, or even a reputable spot in the results. But at least I had the opportunity to race on a track where I’ve watched the magic of numerous Paris-Roubaix events being contested.
After the race, I headed promptly over to the showers. I stepped in with all my clothing, so I could save the step of spraying them down when I got home. My shoes were the last to come off. Not because I was nervous about being barefoot in a swampy shower (the drainage system was not equipped for forty heavily soiled cyclists) but because I couldn’t get them off! The buckle was jammed with mud and grass. It took almost twenty minutes of effort to pry them open. It probably would have taken less time if I didn’t have to stand up every five seconds to pull the shower chain to keep the hot water coming. Even after the shoes were off and all body parts thawed (oddly enough, my butt took the longest to thaw), I didn’t want to leave. The water felt so good. As I looked around at the other heads sticking out above the concrete barriers, I realized I was not alone in my thoughts. We all stood there under the showers with nothing left to do but procrastinate.
After I pried myself out of the showers, Jonas and I headed out to watch the men. I was curious to see if they would run the same sections I had. Watching them do exactly what I did during my race made me feel a bit better. Now all I have to do is work on my speed and keep myself injury-free – easy enough, right?
My favorite part of watching the race was cheering for Lars Boom. When I asked him during a recent interview for Cyclocross Magazine what he wants his fans to yell at him during a race, he emphatically said “Ride like hell, man!” Today was the first time I remembered, and as he passed I yelled at the top of my lungs. He turned to me with the most genuine smile I’d ever seen on a bike racer during an event. That look on his face was worth all the strange stares I received from confused spectators for the next twenty minutes.
On the last lap, we headed over to the track to catch the finish. It was odd to see cyclocross racers sprinting on the track. As opposed to the road racers who take advantage of the embankment, only a few of the crossers opted for the high road with most just sticking to the blue flat inner strip. Even so, it was magical to watch.
The last round of the World Cups is next week. It takes place in Milan. I am sorry to say that I will be unable to post a report on the event as I will not be there. It simply costs too much in travel expenses. But if you want to read more of my writing, get the latest edition of Cyclocross Magazine [in the mail]. It includes my regular column as well as an exclusive in-depth interview of current World Champion Lars “Ride Like Hell” Boom.
Thanks for reading and thanks for all your supportive emails! I really appreciate it!