Baby Steps and Springtime in Europe

This past month I had the incredible opportunity to travel to Europe to race some of the Spring Classics with the Canadian National Team. Led by Denise Kelly (National Women’s Road Coach) and Craig Griffin (National Track Endurance Coach), and supported by Dan Peters (Mechanic extraordinaire) and Michel D’Hoest (soigneur and comedian), we were in good hands. A development project, the goals were simple: “Load” (i.e. a big training stimulus) and “Learn” (i.e. get experience in the European peloton). The first part took care of itself, with sixteen races, and the latter… well, you’ve got to learn fast over here and I tried to soak up everything that I possibly could in each race.

The first race of the season is always a bit of a nail-biter – you’ve trained all winter and now you get to see where your fitness stands. It’s even more nerve-wracking to jump into the season with 7 races in 7 days! Pancake flat, skinny roads, a plethora of roundabouts and road furniture, and EPIC WIND were on the menu for the Energiewacht Tour, a 5-day, 6-stage race in Holland. And there were 190 girls racing (a.k.a. fighting for position… POSITIONING IS EVERYTHING in these types of races!). During the neutral starts each day, there were points when there were riders leaning on me on both the left and right side, with nothing that I possibly could do other than keep riding in a straight line and pray to some higher being that the other two girls keep riding too. My heart-rate was sky high out of shear fear! (Luckily we had practiced some bike handling at our Stevens South Carolina Team Camp in March!)

The lessons learned in Holland can be summarized by two words: WIND and POSITIONING. I’m pretty sure I didn’t truly understand the concept of “riding in the gutter” until Energiewacht… I spent a lot of time in those gutters. On the final stage, people were being blown off the road into the ditch on the crosswind sections because the wind gusts were so strong! My positioning still has loads of room for improvement. Baby steps.

Flèche Wallonne marked my first world cup experience. With all of the heavy hitters in attendance (Marianne Vos, Lizzie Armistead, Evelyn Stevens, Emma Pooley, Emma Johanssen, among others), it was sure to be an exciting race. The course itself made sure that it would be a tough one, with 6 QOMs each lap (2 laps of a 62 km circuit) with the finish on the renown “Mur de Huy” that goes up to 26% on one of the corners! (Note: You’ve got to take that turn REALLY wide!). I managed to make it to the front of the race (finally) but my day ended early, unfortunately, when my group was pulled after falling 6 min behind the leaders.

In week 3, I got to race the Van Borsele TT. A twisty course with some wind (it’s Holland, you’ve got to have wind!), this marked my first Individual Time Trial of the year and my first race on my awesome Stevens TT Bike – what fun! With a top 30 finish just under 2 min of the World Champion, Ellen Van Dijk, I’m excited to keep building on my TT fitness and technical abilities for Gatineau and Nationals later in the season.

Near the end of the trip, we had the choice of taking part in one of Kermesses in the area. I jumped at the opportunity to get some more experience. Catherine (previous Stevens Team member, 2013) and I worked well together to be in every major move of the 88 km race. I was in the final breakaway of the day, leading to a 4th place finish on the back of a poorly executed finishing sprint (room for improvement). After a series of “survival” races, it was fun to really animate and PLAY in the Kermesse.

We finished off the trip with a final stage race: the Festival Luxembourgeois du Cyclisme Féminin Elsy Jacobs in Luxembourg. Some climbing and beautiful, wider roads were a welcome change from the Dutch races. It was a great way to finish off the block of races! Some highlights include riding on Marianne Vos’ wheel and riding around Ellen Van Dijk when she left a gap open! All in all, I’m coming home with some pretty exhausted legs.

My motto for this past month has been “baby steps”. It’s sometimes hard to remember that just one year ago, I was overwhelmingly nervous about racing local races in Ontario. It’s all about being patient (something I’m still working on), soaking up and learning from every bit of experience (both positive and negative), and never giving up in the tough parts. The racing has been challenging… VERY challenging… and some DNFs have been a tough pill to swallow (the commissaires are pretty strict about pulling riders who fall behind more than 8% of the leaders’ time). But as the National Team coaches, Craig and Denise, reminded me: I’m basically a junior over here. These girls who we are racing have grown up riding in big pelotons, on narrow roads and cobbles in Europe. This is normal for them.

So, what an unbelievable opportunity it is to race the very best in the world, day after day. Tough racing aside, this is exactly where I need to be, and exactly what I need to be doing to get stronger and to really learn the intricacies of bike racing. I’m coming home determined, motivated and VERY excited to race with the rest of the Stevens Team! It’s been exciting to get race reports from back home – it looks like a great start to 2014! Here’s to many more adventures in the near future!