CXM's Christine Vardaros in the Tour of Cyprus leader's jersey. © Jonas Bruffaerts

CXM's Christine Vardaros in the Tour of Cyprus leader's jersey. © Jonas Bruffaerts

by Christine Vardaros

While most of the Belgian cyclocross racers are spending part of their first post-season month skiing or on some warm sunny beach sipping umbrella drinks by the seaside to unwind, I chose to spend mine suffering on the bike – but at least it’s under sunny skies with the most magnificent views imaginable.

I am checking in from sunny Cyprus, not quite from the side of a pool but from the road stage race Tour of Cyprus – a co-ed, four day mountainous stage race. The teams and individual riders came from places like Germany, Lebanon,  Great Britain, The Netherlands, Poland, New Zealand, Greece, Cyprus and of course Belgium. There were four of us from Belgium, so we registered as Team Belgium, although I wore my Zannata-Champion System clothing.

In the crowd of riders were many famous faces from their respective lands, including the Lebanese Time Trial champion Zaher El Hage and the strongest Israeli female Yarden Avidani.

The Tour started at Princess Beach resort in Larnaca, which was something out of a luxury magazine. I had never seen anything so beautiful. Jonas and I arrived one day before the event on Cyprus Airways, complete with free Cyprus wine, to take our brief moment of “holiday,” but within twenty-four hours’ time, those feelings of rest and relaxation were replaced with the worst pain imaginable. I was suffering literally from head to toe. I had a headache from sweating faster than I could replace the liquids and my feet weren’t used to my road shoes yet. Every single muscle in my body was freaked out. Towards the end of a 110km stage with over 2400 meters of climbing, my ass, hips, lower back, quads, triceps and calves felt like they were only one pedalstroke away from simultaneously cramping. It was a bike-racing rendition of a death march.

The stage ended in a mountain town called Agros located 1100 meters high, where we were all treated to some Cyprus specialties. My favorite was some sort of exotic candied fruit served in a syrup. I ate about ten servings of those and still didn’t feel like it was enough sugar to make me feel normal again.

We spent the night at Rodon Mount Hotel that overlooked the Cyprus valleys. I wish I could tell you more about the resort but all I really saw was the view from the hotel room. I could barely walk. In fact when the race was over I had to build up my courage to swing a leg over the bike to dismount for fear I’d go into full body cramping. I could see then why Cyprus is one of the best places for training. I expect after this tour I will be more fit than I was in ‘cross season.

That evening after dinner we had our awards ceremony. On the guys’ side, Gil Kivetz from Israel’s Team Focus took the lead, followed mainly by some of his own teammates and those from Team Malta – the two strongest teams of the race.  And as for the girls, your very own Cyclocross Magazine writer won the race. I knew I was the first gal to cross the finish line, but I didn’t realize it came with a trophy and more importantly a leader’s jersey attached!  Once I slipped into that Tour of Cyprus jersey, this event became more than just base training – I wanted to go for the win. My lead over second place Yarden Avidani of Israel was a mere two minutes, so it was going to take some real riding to do the job.

The next morning I had twice as much muesli for breakfast and took an extra gel on the bike for insurance. We had 102km with 1684m altitude to tackle. The race started on a long descent down the mountain. I knew that if I could stay with the frontrunners down the hill and over the first few bumps, I could do well. Keeping me on plan was one of my teammates, Quentin Finn, who paced me along the early rollers. On the long, tricky switchback descent riddled with gravel and sand, just before the last two kilometer climb averaging 12%, I bridged to my other teammate Phil Saussus. Or rather I bunny-hopped past him, because I reached him just in the middle of a sand-covered torn up gravely road. Once the climb started, he caught up to me to help pace me for a couple of minutes before riding at his own speed on my orders. It was lucky those guys were there for me since Jonas had a flat tire on one of the descents and couldn’t help me out. Thanks to a lending hand from the guys at AWOL (Adventure Without Limits) who handled the mechanical support for 120 riders (61 in our race group, and 59 in the cyclotourist group who trailed behind us), he was on his was fairly quickly.

By the finish, thanks to my teammies and a few others along the way, I gained an additional four minutes on Yarden. I was also 22nd overall on the day, which was pretty cool considering the sinewy climbers I had to compete with. As for the men’s side, Gil of Team Focus lost his jersey due to a flat tire on the final climb and lost 1m20s to new race leader Maurice Formosa from Team Malta. Gil would have lost even more time if he hadn’t been able to exchange bikes with a teammate as cars couldn’t really pass the riders easily on the narrow road. What I found amusing about the bike change was not that they did it, but that the third teammate who caught up to the guy with the flat tire’d bike went on to change bikes with him too, leaving the third guy with a bike two sizes too large. After the race, he told me that he had to stand the whole climb because he couldn’t reach the pedals otherwise. He went on to cartoonishly act out what he would have looked like on a descent with such a huge bike. Luckily for him it was all uphill to the finish.

That night we were put up in Hotel Phaethon, which was right on the Mediterranean Sea. It was a similar four-star quality like the others but had so many different things to do. There were a few pool areas – one with umbrella drinks, I’m sure – entertainment halls with live shows in each of them all night, and even a game room. But again my legs were so trashed that I didn’t get to enjoy any of it. Bugger. I did get to sit with the race motorcycle escorts for a drink on the patio though. There were nine Harley escorts and one BMW escort who did a fabulous job of keeping us safe the whole day.

The next morning we were all expecting a semi-easier day – only 107km and 1500m altitude – but the way the hills were laid out along the course, within the first few minutes the peloton was shredded to pieces, leaving most of us to ride it solo. But with GC ranking on everyone’s mind, many international partnerships were made along route. For instance, Jonas paced a British guy built for flatland riding up the hills, and in return Jonas was paced on the flats. My other teammate Phil had the Lebanese time trialist on his wheel up the hills and, like the British guy, the favor was  returned on the flats.

I had a bit of help early on in the race. My goal was to increase my lead over Yarden in this stage, so even if I have a flat tire in the fourth and final stage I’d still be safe for the overall GC. As soon as the start flag was waved from the convertible, I buried myself to stay at the front. Within a few minutes, the strong guys left us behind. Thankfully I was picked up by Cypriot Marios Ioannou, who paced me for a bit before Rodrick De Munnik from The Netherlands gave me a lift up the hill so we could connect with another four guys. Part of me thinks I got the help thanks to our common language (that is, as soon as I am fluent in Dutch), but I think it was because he’s just a really nice guy – as have been many guys during the race who have lent their wheels. As soon as we bridged, Rodrick went to the front and worked the pace. I sat on wheels since it was a bit over my level. On the first descent I was caught off guard by a grinding sound. Within a second I recognized that sound as a stuck cassette. Shoot. That meant no freewheeling today. Even so I didn’t let it get to me as I clung onto the mini pack.

At one point, our group almost reached the head peloton, but no such luck. On the next hard climb, the attacks came and we remained in no-mans land. A few minutes later, the speed of our peloton shot up a few km’s per hour and my eyes rolled to the back of my head and my wheezing started. Just when I was ready to say goodbye to my riding partners, I lifted my head to find we were drafting off one of the Volkswagen convertibles with the video camera guy standing in the back seat.  Knowing that the car can’t stay there forever I put my head back down, bit my lip and drove the pedals.  Seconds later the car was gone and I could breathe again.

I stayed with my little group until a short steep climb. It was just a dinky little thing, but enough to break me off. I rode the rest on my own, keeping an eye on my heart rate to remind myself to keep the effort high. Again, I was the first girl, making an additional five minutes on Yarden for a total of over eleven minutes in the GC. On the guy’s side, while the Maltans and Israelis stared at each other, German Daniel Schlegel took advantage of the situation with an attack and won with a gap of almost two minutes. In the overall, Gil’s fourth place was enough for him to take back the leader’s jersey. But with a gap of only one second going into the last stage, I expect there to be bloodshed at the front of the race with legs falling off along the way.

Aside from the most beautiful roads and views, and of course the local people, support in the race and the food, the most exciting part of my trip thus far has to be the friendships I’ve made in such a short period of time. Off all the races I’ve done so far in my life, this is easily the most social one. Everyone is just so open and friendly.  This is not to say there’s no real competitive spirit going on! Aside from the fight for GC, there are lots of little competitions played out. Last night I was approached by a Greek guy named Hector Bardakos who was thirty seconds behind me in the GC. He asked me if I’d like to do a trade the following day of thirty seconds for some Cadbury chocolate. Then there’s Marios who wants to be the highest placed guy from Cyprus.

I’ve also heard a lot of smack talk going around – of course all in jest, with just a little bit of sincerity mixed in. I was even the recipient of some of it. At last night’s meeting, two British gals jokingly said in front of me, “Yeah, that girl – always in the leader’s jersey. Let’s team up tomorrow and take her down.” Then they turned to me and gave me a cynical grin. As for the chocolate guy, he lost way more than his thirty seconds today after stopping for a teammate with a flat tire. But I am sure by tomorrow morning there will be many more mini-competitions to replace that one.

Tomorrow is the last day and they say it’s the easiest of them all. Fingers crossed, I avert all forms of disaster to win the overall. By the way, did I tell you I did my first mountain bike race last weekend? It was a low profile 55km event, and I finished first in that too! I got a trophy, champagne, chocolates and some other electronic thing I have yet to figure out. What was especially cool about that is it was the third time I had been on a mountain bike in about seven years.  Now if I could only be this successful in ‘cross – well, there’s always next season.