The Houffalize course © Christine Vardaros

The Houffalize cross country course © Jonas Bruffaerts

Christine Vardaros continues to deliver cyclocross reports straight from Europe. Here she tracks the cyclocrossers’ impressive performances in the recent Houffalize MTB World Cup and gets exclusive interviews and updates along the way. If you missed her last article about her stage race win in Cyprus, check it out here.

by Christine Vardaros

“What the hell am I doing here, on the start line, standing next to Mary McConneloug … in front of the blinding lights from TV cameras and photo flashes,” I thought to myself as I stood in the second row surrounded by lycra-clad women at Houffalize Mountain Bike World Cup last Sunday. To make matters worse, I was standing there without a bike, feeling totally naked.

I was there to collect Mary’s jacket, not flashbacks from cyclocross season. But there I was – standing there with pre-race jitters. I’ve never been good at spectating, especially races where I could theoretically participate. Theoretically is the key word, since the last time I entered a mountain bike race was seven years ago. Back then I raced everything from local California events like Fairfax’s Tamarancho to World Cups. But with only ten rides on the mountain bike in the last seven years, this race would have been a bit heavy for my renewed neophytic status.

Katerina Nash (Luna Chix) ready to explode off the line © Christine Vardaros

Katerina Nash (Luna Chix) ready to explode off the line © Jonas Bruffaerts

Cyclocrossers Prove Their Salt
While I may have been sitting this one out, there were many ‘crossers on the line representing – all with solid showings. In fact, three of the four cross country winners that weekend are cyclocrossers.

Winning the Women’s Elite category was Italian Eva Lechner (Colnago Arreghini Sudtirol), who placed fifth in last season’s Cyclocross World Championships, proving that she is easily one to watch in both disciplines.

Snagging the Men’s Elite victory was Spaniard Jose Antonio Hermida (Multivan Merida). On the last lap, he caught and passed German Manuel Fumic (Cannondale) who had been leading the whole race. Last season, Hermida was spotted on the ‘cross scene a bit more often than usual – even making an appearance in Belgium, to the delight of the spectators. I must admit, however, that he looked like a pure mountain biker on a ‘cross bike –easy to spot on the course.

In the Junior Men’s division, Netherlander Michiel van der Heijden took the gold. Last ‘cross season, he placed tenth int the World Championships and won over the Belgian crowds with his victory at the infamous Koppenbergcross. When this ‘cross star was asked to compare mountain biking to ‘cross, he said, “I love the variation and the technical aspects of the mountain bike courses, but I also like the mud of the winter cyclocross races. For now I’ll keep on combining them, but don’t know which way I’ll go in the future.”

Although the Junior Women’s category was not won by a ‘cross racer, its runner-up was kid sensation Pauline Ferrand Prevot of France. At last season’s World Championships, she was 8th in the Elite Women’s category – very impressive for an 18 year-old. Look out Sanne Cant!

As for the gals in the Elite Women’s race, there were many familiar faces from the cyclocross scene scattered throughout the top end of the results.

The gals were Katerina Nash (Luna) 9th , Georgia Gould (Luna) 14th , Mary McConneloug (Kenda-Seven-No Tubes) 23rd and Mikal Dyck (Trek Toronto) 34th.

Katerina Nash Keeps the Results Rolling
Directly after the race, I caught up with a few of these gals. Nash, who is Czech but a US resident, was the first one I grabbed. She gushed, “I had two top tens, which is exciting but unexpected after such a long cyclocross season. I’m focusing on World Championships and individual races. Cyclocross [for next season] is up in the air, I’m just trying to figure out how to do it all. It’s not so easy. But I had so much fun so I hope to be back.”

A back-on-form Georgia Gould © Christine Vardaros

A back-on-form Georgia Gould © Jonas Bruffaerts

Georgia Gould Back on Track
Next was Gould. After a podium placing at last week’s opening round of the World Cup Series held in Dalby Forest, England, she was not terribly thrilled with her performance. Wrong tire choice and slick conditions accounted for much of her time lost at Houffalize. “I ride conservatively, so it takes me a few laps to get into a rhythm – which is a little too long when the races are only a few laps long,” explained Gould. She added that she went for a really aggressive [AKA slow] tire because, “I don’t ride very well when I am terrified, and I’m terrified a lot at some of these World Cups.” She can always be counted on to voice what many of the other riders keep to themselves, keeping it real for her fans.

Of everything she said, what surprised me most was to learn that her “lackluster” (as she calls it) cyclocross results last season were due to Epstein Barr virus, which was only diagnosed after she decided to cut the season short in early December. After her victory at Sea Otter and a top five last week at the World Cup season opener, it appears that her two months completely off the bike was a blessing of sorts.

“I had to cut my ‘cross season a little short last year because I was having a terrible time. I was feeling really bad in all my trainings and was worried that it would impact my mountain bike season if I kept it going. So, I decided to not go the last USGP and not do Nationals, which was hard. But then I got some blood work done and found I had Epstein Barr virus, and I was like – oh, that’s nice to know why I felt flat on the bike.” Further explaining her sensations, she added, “I had a good steady pace on the bike, but I didn’t have the next gear. Even if I took five easy days in a row, I would still feel un-recovered. It was really frustrating for ‘cross season. I couldn’t really train, but I was mad at myself for the results.”

In searching for a solution, Georgia said, “I focused on just having fun for a few races and gave myself a pass on the results, but it got to the point where I wondered if I should just cut the season short, instead of saying, ‘Oh, I’ll just ride around at Nationals.’ I don’t want to do that. It’s fine for a few races, but if I’m going to Nationals and people are out there cheering for me, I don’t want to be like, ‘Oh, I wasn’t really racing … I was just riding around.’ After the race in Southhampton, I decided to call my season. Didn’t put on my bike shoes until maybe February. I was diagnosed after I decided to stop. Before I was tested, I thought I was just burnt out – physically or mentally. I was thinking, ‘Did my legs just run out of fastness?’ I’d go training and think, ‘Did going hard always feel this hard?’”

Coming back to racing was a shock in many ways for Gould. “I said to myself, ‘Oh my God, this is why I don’t take time off. A one-hour ride and I’m exhausted!’” quipped Gould. “For the first races, I was not expecting to be so competitive.”

Moving forward to ‘cross season, Gould surmised, “I’m thinking because the [Mountain Bike] World Cup has two fewer races this year and there are only the five national series events, I’ll be a little more fresh going into ‘cross season.” As for making cyclocross her focus, Gould explained, “Definitely I love cyclocross, and it’s something I want to do every year, but mountain biking is my and the team’s focus for right now. But if I’m riding well and still feeling good, and there’s a way to work it out, I’d like to do some World Cups and maybe even Worlds.” On a side note, Gould’s mom is an avid reader of Cyclocross Magazine.

McConneloug after a solid race © Christine Vardaros

McConneloug after a solid race © Jonas Bruffaerts

Mary McConneloug Weathers a Smash-Up
The next ‘cross racer to come through the line was McConneloug, who had a tough start to the race when she fell off her bike on a descent and a gal t-boned her bike, flying head first into a pole. After McConneloug hung around for a few seconds to make sure the crash victim was OK – while a stream of racers whizzed by – she had a tough time getting back into her groove, still clearly shaken up by the run-in. As for ‘cross season, she plans to stick with her usual approach of making a decision once the season arrives. Last year, she had such a great time at her first ‘cross race of the season that she decided on the spot to compete in the full New England Championship Series. Let’s hope the ‘cross bug hits her again.

Non-US Women Worth a Note
Canadian Mikal Dyck who often competes in the Northeast events was surprised by her results after spending two of the last three weeks either in bed or on the toilet thanks to a virus she caught after the Pan American games, where she placed 3rd. As for her future, she plans to continue to use cyclocross for training but promises she’ll turn to ‘cross after she’s done traveling the world for mountain biking.

A few non-American notable mentions are ‘cross racers Katrin Leumann of Switzerland (8th ), Frenchwoman Caroline Mani (33rd) and Brit Annie Last (43rd).

Todd Wells says he has the form for a top ten, needs some luck © Christine Vardaros

Todd Wells says he has the form for a top ten, needs some luck © Jonas Bruffaerts

Wells Leads the North American Contingent
As for the Elite Men, we got to see a few ‘crossers doing their thing on big wheels. Among them were Todd Wells of Specialized (26th), Canadian Geoff Kabush of Maxxis-Rocky Mountain (34th), Italian Marco Fontana of Cannondale (41st), Jeremy Horgen-Kobelski of Subaru-Gary Fisher (63rd), Mike Broderick of Kenda-Seven-No Tubes (109th) and Ethan Gilmour (146th).

The first guy I caught after the finish was Wells. He was held up by two crashes on the start lap, one of which was one meter off the line. Immediately reflecting on his race, he said, “I feel like the fitness is there for a top ten – I just need some good luck.” His secret to keeping his motivation high during the race may be explained by his team’s mantra of the day, which was, “Whatever happens at the race, at least we’re going to La Chouffe Brewery tonight.” Regarding his ‘cross plans, Wells surmised, “It will probably be an abbreviated season like last year, but not quite as short. After going full throttle at these races all summer and traveling so much, it’s nice to have a chance to be home for a little bit.”

JHK seems happy with the effort, but not his tire selection © Christine Vardaros

JHK seems happy with the effort, but not his tire selection © Jonas Bruffaerts

JHK Gets a Taste of Slippery Belgium
Horgan-Kobelski was also held up by start-lap crashes, and his tire choice worked against him in making up spots. With the ever-changing Belgian weather, the early rain turned to sun and back to rain all during the race, which wreaked havoc on the course and left many in his predicament of unideal tire choice. “I ended up running some really aggressive tires and felt like I was riding on ice. I was passing people on all those steep climbs but flailing on the descents,” said Horgan-Kobelski. Adding, “Today was the quintessential Belgian race – muddy, nasty, hard-fought and with tons of spectators.” Sounds just like the ‘cross scene in Belgium. As for his cyclocross plans, “I did the Boulder Cups last season – got to mix it up with the guys a bit. Every year I say I will race ‘cross, but then September rolls around and I need a break. We’ll see … ”

Michael Broderick Hangs Tough
Like the others, Broderick’s race got off to a stop-and-go start due to crashes on the start lap, but he held his place the whole race, finishing on the same lap as the leaders – which is a goal for many. As for his ‘cross season plans, they are the same as his longtime partner Mary McConneloug: they are taking the wait-and-see approach.

Inside Scoop: Ethan Gilmour to Focus on Cyclocross
Gilmour gave Cyclocross Magazine an exclusive when he confessed he may be hanging up the MTB in favor of the skinny-wheeled off road machine. “I’ve been taking the last couple of falls easy in cyclocross to get ready for mountain biking. Mountain biking is such a long season. Instead, having the whole summer to get fit and then start racing in the fall just works better for me, so I think that’s the way I’m going to start doing it. A domestic season for starters would be good for ‘cross – having more fun with it at first,” explained Gilmour.

USA Cycling Development Team with Gully supervising © Christine Vardaros

USA Cycling Development Team with Gully supervising © Jonas Bruffaerts

American U23 Program
In total there were six U-23 guys in the Elite Men’s event, under the guidance of former cyclocross star Marc Gullickson. This is the second year that USA Cycling is supporting mountain bikers to contest European events. Based out of USA Cycling’s European XC Development Camp headquarters in Germany, Gullickson is coaching these guys for four weeks, through to the next World Cup in Offenburg, Germany. Once they’re gone, there are three more groups to come, although these next groups are only partly funded for the trip. According to Gullickson, the same support is scheduled to follow for cyclocross. But with limited funds, he can only do so much. Even so, he’s really made it happen for these young guys, who all seem extremely appreciative of the opportunity.

Catching up with 'cross friends © Christine Vardaros

Catching up with 'cross friends © Jonas Bruffaerts

Yours Truly
As for me, I had an absolute blast! Jonas and I went for 60km rides on beautifully marked trails in the mornings and watched the races in the afternoons. For us, the entertainment continued well into the evenings. We camped out on the course with our friend Jo Croonenberghs. On one side of us was a café that served beer and fries, and on the other was 4X superstar Joey van Veghel and his family. Every evening we sat around indulging in beers and fries while watching van Veghel get dressed and undressed every couple of hours for all his endless qualifier rounds – a strange sport. He ended up missing out on a top placing after falling victim to a mid-run “bump” with another rider.

While I may not have raced that weekend, a few spectators cheered me on as I ran along the side of the course in search of prime viewing spots. There were even a few requests for my trading cards and some photos snapped of me. At first I found it strange that people would recognize me – a little peanut. But, once I gave it a second’s thought, I realized that ‘cross fans need something to do in the off season to help time pass. This event is as close as they’ll come to a summer ‘cross race in Belgium.

Houffalize Photo Gallery: