Vardaros taking the muddy uphill turn at Flandriencross. © Danny Zelck

Vardaros taking the muddy uphill turn at Flandriencross. © Danny Zelck

by Christine Vardaros

Only five days before the UK Milton Keynes World Cup, I got the email that I should be able to race.  This meant that everything had to be planned well beyond the 11th hour.  A major snag was that my husband Jonas had to work that weekend which meant I also had to seek out transport as I do not drive.  Luckily help came at the last moment. I was able to hitch a ride with another team’s mobile home and my longtime friend Jessica Conner and her husband Tim booked me a hotel 7km from the race so I was set.

On Thursday afternoon I was collected at my Belgian home by the mobile home. We drove through to France to catch the train across the water. It was my first time riding such a thing. It was a strange experience to be in a long tunnel packed bumper-to-bumper with automobiles. Ahead of us were a few other teams on their way to the race while just behind was a bright yellow Schumacher Special Edition Ferrari to celebrate Schumacher’s 50th race win.  Naturally we had to check it out and get some selfie opps with it since chances are small I’d ever own one of those, especially considering I have yet to own any sort of four-wheeled vehicle.  Turns out the car was 900km old, the distance it took to drive it from the German showroom to the train on its way back to its final destination of the UK.  Two friends went halfsies on it.  They live 5km from each other so it is easy to share.  Checking out the engine, it looked mainly built of bike material – mostly carbon fiber. They said that by switching to carbon fiber, the car lost a few hundred pounds in weight, and that the cooling system needed for the carbon fiber costs 20,000€.  After a round of selfies – in and out of the car – and a bit of chat we were back on our way to Milton Keynes. It took a total of seven hours of travel to get there.

The next day we were out pre-riding the course. In the first round, all the technical bits were easily rideable for me but by the third round the course had changed considerably.  While I could still ride all the tricky bits, it took much more focus to nail it.  By tomorrow it was expected to be a full greasy mudpie of a course which meant the best mud tires money could buy, namely the Challenge Limus. Bikes would be changed at least once per lap…except for me as there was only room for one of my bikes.  My friend Jessica said she’d bring her bike as a backup, but knowing myself, I would do anything I could not to have to ride a strange bike, albeit a nice one, on such a tricky course.

Taking everything in stride, even the uncontrollable spills. © Florent Bouchat

Taking everything in stride, even the uncontrollable spills. © Florent Bouchat

But honestly I knew the limited bike situation would prove to be the least of my problems.  The real  limiting factor would be my asthma. For the last weeks, I haven’t been able to take a proper full breath.  It is as if there is a wall blocking half my lungs so I only have access to half, making all my breaths shallow. When there is not enough oxygen to the lungs then the power in the legs cut off.  This came about because I switched asthma medications a few weeks ago and am still waiting for the meds to kick in. The other factor that greatly contributes to it is stress.

This is something I’ve suffered from for many weeks now due to the UCI debacle in the new “top 50” ruling, stating that all riders ranked in the top 50 are allowed to attend the World Cups. But if your country already has many riders in the top 50, even if they choose not to attend a world cup, there cannot be substitutions for these riders.  Since, for instance, USA has 10 female riders in the top 50 and only 3 of them choose to go, which is what happened in the first World Cup in Valkenburg, Netherlands, no other USA females are allowed to attend. This meant I had to sit it out even though Team USA had only filled 3 of their allowable 8 spots. This also affected The Netherlands women where they only started with 6 of their allowable 8 spots since they too have many in the top 50, some of whom chose not to attend but were not allowed to be substituted.

When I was informed that this oversight may not be fixed until next season, I immediately went to work on doing all I could to correct it right away. It wasn’t just me who was challenged by this mistake but some other female riders including Hollanders who are very fast but outside of the top 50 as well as some Americans outside the top 50 who plan to come over for the Christmas period.

I had already contacted Helen Wyman who was on my side. Three days before the Kokside World Cup, the second of the series, I learned that Mike Plant was the actual head of the UCI Cyclocross Commission. Even though he is a very busy man, he promptly responded to my email, saying that if what I am writing is indeed accurate, then it needs to be resolved right away.  (On a side note, I was amazed this was the first he was hearing of this.)

Unfortunately it was too late for Koksijde but he kept his word to make miracles happen so that I and the other female racers from the Netherlands could race at the third round at Milton Keynes. During the pre-ride, one of the Netherlands women came up to me to thank me for my efforts. That made me feel like all the stress was worth it.  Unfortunately not everyone felt the way I did as I was accosted in the Team Managers room that afternoon while picking up my race numbers.  Someone didn’t appreciate that I went over his head.

While he may have felt better after verbally abusing me, the stress completely pushed my asthma over the edge, leaving me nothing for the race. All I could manage was not to be lapped by the end. All that effort was almost for nothing. I say “almost” because the enthusiasm alone of the crowds was enough to make the trip worthwhile. There must have been over a thousand cowbells out there clanking around the track, and at least another 20,000 cheers for every rider from first to last place.  Surprisingly, many called me not only by name but by my nickname of Peanut! The warmth emanating from the folks there was almost enough for me to forget I was in the middle of one of my worst races ever.

After the event, we headed back to Belgium, directly to the parking of the event to be held the next day.  We arrived well after midnight.  I was promptly collected by my host housing Marc de Bock who lived 100 meters away.  There I did my laundry, post-race routine like stretching and such, and finally tried to get some sleep.

The next morning Jonas arrived in between his night shifts to support me. Marc stuck around to assist Jonas in the pits while the soigneur of fellow racer Cindy Dierckx took my clothes at the start line.  Having let all my stress go from the World Cup debacle, I was ready to race! Fist pounding on the handlebar, I took off like a rocket when the light turned green. I was off to a good start. Unfortunately, for the first few minutes everyone is a hero so lots of accidents can happen when there are all sorts of levels duking it out for the first lap. Sadly I was the victim of one such incident. In a singletrack section, only wide enough for one bike, a rider came from behind and shoved me so hard out of the way I went flying off my bike, landing head first into the ground. All I remember is seeing an elbow and a flash of red.

It took me a couple minutes before I could stand up, and another couple minutes of walking before I could finally manage to balance enough to dare riding a bike. For the next few laps I  managed nothing more than low-moderate tempo as I couldn’t see straight. As much as I tried shaking my head and closing my eyes, nothing righted my blurry vision.  Trying to decide which of the lines in the dirt were the real lines was like a soft version of Russian roulette. I wouldn’t die if I chose the wrong one but I could find myself on the ground again.  Amusingly, by the end of the race, I made it to 20th place and was trailing only a few seconds behind the woman who desperately had to get in front of me on that singletrack at all costs. After crossing the finish line, all I could do was sit on the ground with my hands covering my face as the pain and disappointment kicked in.

Vardaros tackles the muddy run up at Milton Keynes. © Christopher Jobs

Vardaros tackles the muddy run up at Milton Keynes. © Christopher Jobb

That debacle left me with a concussion, a muscle tear and muscle pull in my neck, a sprained finger, swollen knee, bruised back and shin, and pulled quad and gluteus medius hip muscle.

This week I was supposed to train with my friend Ellen van Loy in her special forest, but that will have to wait as I am not yet sure when I can mount the bike again. My goal is to pick up racing this Sunday at the Druivencross in Overijse, Belgium, but this may be a bit ambitious. Then again, I am known to be a bit “koppig” (stubborn) like all of us cyclocross racers so chances are I’ll be at that start line ready for battle. And isn’t it, for situations like these, why they invented painkillers?