Christine with Joyce and Pavla before her derailleur broke © Florent-Bouchat

Christine with Joyce and Pavla before her derailleur broke © Florent-Bouchat

by Christine Vardaros

GAVERE, BELGIUM – Passing through the start/finish pavement going into the second lap of five, I was on the wheel of Pavla Havlikova and Belgian National Champ Joyce Vanderbeken (who eventually finished 7th and 10th, respectively).  My first thought was, “Holy Toledo. I’m racing my bike!”  The next thought, as I held onto their wheels was, “I CAN DO THIS!”  Two thirds of the way into the second lap, at the base of a sloppy mud-riddled extended power climb I heard an eerie snap. I got off the bike and saw the rear derailleur tucked nicely between the wheel spokes. Shouldering the bike, I started the trek up the climb while watching the girls ride out of sight.

By the time I got my second bike I was winded from the extended run and a bit demotivated.  Even so, I pressed on for 14th, the last of the 32 racers not to be lapped by Katie Compton.  It may not be a stellar result but considering what I had to do to hold onto my finishing spot, I easily look back on it as a mini-miracle.  With only one bike to finish the race, I figured I was screwed.  Competing in that kind of mud that collects everywhere on the bike is tricky.

In no time, the shifting was shot, the brakes compromised, the tires layered in an extra wide blanket of greasy mud,  and a collection of sticks, mud and leaves rubbed against the tire.  Knowing that this bike was my only chance to finish the race, I babied it. By running all muddy sections where real force against the pedals was needed, I minimized the chances of a faulty derailleur repeat.  All descents were still completely rideable on the bike – even the one where Niels Albert crashed last year.

Christine grits her teeth and pushes on. © Mario Yskout

Grin and bear it! © Mario Yskout

The last lap was a disaster.  The bike was almost useless due to the thick mud, causing me to swerve every which way.  To make matters worse, I was the last woman on the course which meant I was trailed by a peloton of thirty guys pre-riding the track.  Every time I came to a section where I had to get off and run to baby the bike, all thirty guys track-stood behind me. As my natural inclination is to move out of the way for riders who are clearly stronger than me, I found myself apologizing to them for being so slow.

A couple of guys finally passed me and the others patiently waited, telling me “doe maar” figuratively meaning “go ahead.”  I didn’t know I was the last woman on the track so in addition to losing handfuls of time to the gals in front, I kept looking behind into the swarm of men to see if there were any women catching up to me.  I realized only after the race that the rest of them must have been lapped; otherwise the men wouldn’t have been on the course.  But in a race situation, it’s sometimes not so easy to think clearly.

Through it all, the cheering crowds kept my spirits high.  There were lots of American voices as well. To name a few, I heard Karen Tourian and her husband Rolf Windh who came up from Paris, Cyclocross Magazine‘s Dan Seaton and his wife Mindi Wisman and U-23 racing stud Brandon Mart.  I also heard an overwhelming collection of Flemish-accented cheers for me, which is always exciting considering I am only semi-Belgian. I earn the “semi” through my permanent residency here in Belgium.

Muddy post-race legs © Christine Vardaros

Muddy post-race legs © Christine Vardaros

After the race, I talked to Linda van Rijen (NED) about her race.  She said she crashed once, “in a straight line, can you believe it?”  I can.  She loves courses like this one and finished an impressive 6th.  I also had an amusing conversation with Sanne Van Passen (NED) before the race. She, Linda and I were chatting while we waited to get on the starting grid when I noticed the tread on Sanne’s front wheel was mounted backwards.  I asked her if it helps in courses like these.  Based on her answer, Linda and I were ready to put our wheels on backwards too.  But instead of responding, she grinned, reached down to her wheel, unlatched the skewer and put it back in the other direction.  When her mechanic approached us, she relayed the story. I wonder if he was the one to do it.

Later that evening, while watching the television coverage of the race, Jonas and I saw the winning “Oh, no! Did that really happen?” clip of the day.  It wasn’t any of the multitudes of endos or even when Klaas Vantornout’s  rear wheel randomly fell out of his bike as he shouldered it up the hill.   What they showed was a gal blatantly cutting the course.  She got off her bike, lifted the course tapes, walked a couple of meters to another section of the track, and jumped on as if nothing were amiss. Unlucky for her, the TV camera caught the whole thing.  Oddly, her name didn’t make it on the results list but based on photos from the race it looked like she may have miscalculated her maneuver and ended up on the wheel of Daphny Van den Brand.

With my great legs and newfound mental edge, I’m champing at the bit.  But my next big race isn’t until the Koksijde World Cup in two weeks.  One of the many benefits of living in Belgium is that I won’t have to wait that long to compete.  There are always races to be had, even mid-week, as long as you’re okay with competing with the boys. Bring ‘em on!

Thanks for your support!

See also: CXM’s coverage of the Men’s race (with highlight video) and Women’s race