Nikki Harris enjoying a clean bike. © Bart Hazen

Ever wondered what it’s like to race in European ’Cross? Let Pro rider Nikki Harris guide you through two grueling days, including the famous Koppenberg.

by Nikki Harris

After recovering well from Plzen and at the end of a week’s tough training, I was back on the grid again both Sunday and Monday. The first would be at Zonhoven (Super Prestige Series) and the following day The Koppenberg ’cross! (GVA series).

I woke up an hour later than planned on Saturday morning due to slight mishap with the clocks going back. Thankfully, I’m still keen as ever and had everything sorted the night before and was out the door in half an hour.

We arrived in Zonhoven pretty early (we being me and Matt, he would be mechanic/general run around for the next two days). The bikes were unloaded, I was changed and next for me was to go take a look at the course. One side of the course was in a quarry/sandpit. It went in and out the quarry twice in thick loose sand…if you were going to fall off down the descents it wasn’t going to hurt, but coming out the quarry each time would. There were two huge run-ups out of the quarry that stung the legs with every step. The other side of the course was fast, still sand-based but rideable. I liked the course and after a good warm up on the rollers it was time to go.

I had enough UCI points to start on the front row, which made a huge difference to my start. Instead of fighting to pass girls through the first 400m I was now fighting for a top three into the sandpit. I went down the first descent in third place, I could hear crashes behind me and it sounded like complete chaos, which I was happy to be out the way of. It went quick the first time out of the quarry and before I knew it I was on to the next descent. This time, it was me falling off as I got caught up with two other riders and went over the bars. I had to run, dragging my bike down the descent, clamber back up the other side out of the quarry, now fighting to stay with the top three girls. I made a few little mistakes over the second lap, which caused me to lose the front group of riders. After five laps I finished in sixth position; it was my best placing so far this season and after a week of heavy training I was pretty happy with my result. I rushed home in time to watch the  Men’s race and the Eastenders omnibus and spent the rest of the day with my feet up so I was as recovered and as fresh as possible for the next day’s race.

I’d heard a lot about the “Koppenberg cross” and had seen the men’s race on TV. People had said to me, “it’s a very heavy course, there’s a lot of mud, a lot of running.” I just thought, hmm, it can’t be that bad. My opinion soon changed and I realized all these rumors weren’t exaggerated.

I put my rhino tubes on and went out on the course. After going round a lap, I had came to a few different conclusions:

1. The Koppenberg climb was actually the easiest thing to deal with on the whole course!

2. By the time the race had finished I wouldn’t need to do any upper body work for a while (my bike became a weight-training device with the amount of mud stuck to it)

3. This race was probably going to feel like one of the longest 40 minute races I had ever done.

There was so much mud that your wheels eventually wouldn’t go round any more without you having to stop and wrench it out from your brakes and chain set. The start was fast down a road which was already splattered in mud from the races before ours. You then turned right on to some mud, then left up some road, up the Koppenberg and, then, the course really began. From there you made your way up to the top of the course, backward and forwards on a field thick with the stickiest, heaviest mud you’ve ever seen in your life…you had to constantly get on and off your bike, and your bike became heavier and heavier , the mud stuck to every piece of your bike. By the time you got to the top of the course you could only hope that you hadn’t picked up so much mud that your wheels could turn down the switch-back descent, which was unbelievably slippery. Again, it was more on/off work, running now with a bike around 10kg heavier than you normally would run, which tends to become quite difficult. At the end of the descent you went along some road, back on another field of mud and from there just a scoot into the finish on tarmac!

The course had two pit areas. Normally, in a cross the pits are together, but this course had one at the top of the course one at the bottom. You really needed three bikes, but I only had the option of two – this meant I had to do some quick decision making (not normally an area I’m great in). I had to decide if I needed Matt with my bike in the pit at the top of the course – meaning I could get a clean bike for coming down the descent and also having some brakes and clearance to get through that part of the circuit – or, option 2, I could change my bike at the bottom pit, which would mean I could have a bit of a lighter bike climbing up the course. After chatting with a few people I made my decision of going with the top pit, but a few minutes later I changed my mind and chose the bottom pit and eventually that’s what I was happy with doing.

I started on the second row but got another good start in the race – up until I had to get off my bike I was in third place. As soon as I hit the real mud and found my running skills taking over, I soon lost places and it was a fight not only to try and keep my wheels going round but also to find the best route to run up where I wouldn’t have the chance to loose my shoes in the mud. I was actually second two years in a row for cross country running at the county championships at school, but eight years had passed since then, and those running skills had well gone. I really struggled the first two laps and the only thought getting me through each lap was that I would get a clean light bike to put on my shoulder. On the third lap I started to find the best lines, where I needed to run – where I could ride and where I could stop to take some of the mud off my bike. I actually found that I had to run seventy percent of the course in order for me to pedal down the descent and not loose any time having to stop and pull mud from between my frame and wheels. I went from 13th to eighth position and on the last lap found a good rhythm and felt much better than the first lap. I held on to my eighth place and was happy to finish my first ever Koppenberg cross, even with all those feelings of hatred towards mud and running during the race. I will be looking forward to next years Koppenberg cross – just as soon as my bruises from this one have disappeared. Apparently this year’s course was quite tame … if it’s my thinking that this is just another rumor like I’d heard before the start, God help me!

My next race will be the European Championships in Frankfurt (Germany) next weekend! Thank you for all the support this weekend it really helped.