Sat here now it feels like it was a long season, which left me both physically and mentally drained but, on the other hand, it doesn’t seem all that long ago I was sat at the top of a French mountain at the end of two week training camp itching to get on the plane to America to start racing another cyclo-cross season.
That two week camp really set me up well for the first half of the season. I got off to a flying start in the US, picking up much-needed UCI points and, maybe more importantly, I picked up the craft of being able to win a bike race again. I managed to win two UCI races there and also a mid-week night cross, while my worst result was actually one of my best, with a third place finish in the higher category C1 race at the final weekend in Gloucester, which bagged me a load of points for the return to Europe.
Having returned to the Continent, it was back to reality and straight in at the deep end with the first round of the Superprestige series. In hindsight I actually did a pretty good ride here all things considered, but at the time I was really disappointed with 22nd. I was expecting to struggle with the first few races as jet lag and a bit of fatigue from the extra training kicked in, which I was doing to make to I carried form further into the season this year after being held back slightly in previous years. However, by the second round of the World Cup series in the Czech Republic I was starting to feel good and should have bagged myself a top 25 position, but I lacked that killer instinct when I needed it.
A goal of mine most years is the Koppenberg Cross. It’s close to my house in Belgium and on the right day the course suits me down to the ground. Ever since I first rode it three seasons ago I have always thought I could do well here. It’s one of the toughest ‘cross races on the calendar and involves a good amount of climbing, plus technical skills are needed for the infamous zig-zag descent. This season’s conditions were perfect for me; fast but a little slippy to make it a bit more technical on the descent. I had built it up in my head and was ready come race day. It was one of those days where it felt like I was playing a computer game; if I wanted to accelerate round someone then I did, it just felt easy. I was in 12th, moving forward with Bart Wellens, who had suffered a bad start, and I held his wheel all the way up the climb after 40 minutes of racing. Then on the descent I slid out on a corner and, when it gripped again, BAM! My tub had rolled. It’s the first time I have ever rolled a tub. I was more than gutted; it hurt so bad walking back to the van knowing I was pretty much guaranteed a top 12 finish at the legendary race.
I had to move on quickly and looked forward to my next goal, which was the Koksijde round of the World Cup. It was a dress rehearsal for the World Championships – same course. same riders and hopefully a really good opportunity to get everything dialled in for the big day in late January. It went really well and I got my best World Cup result of the year, with a 22nd place finish. I felt super-strong and technically really good on the course. It meant I could go away to Spain for two weeks at the beginning of December in a positive mood knowing I was at a good level to move forward from for the final part of the season, where my main goal for the year was the British Championships.
The two weeks in Spain went really well and I couldn’t have done any more training even if I had wanted to. They were really tough roads; long, steep climbs and perfect tarmac made the five-hour rides hard but enjoyable.
I came straight back to racing in Belgium, which is when my back issue first arose. I had obviously pushed my body hard at the training camp then, on a super-tough course at Namen just a few days later, it was just too much and my back packed up for the first time during the World Cup. From this point on my season was always on a knife edge between having form and having a bad back. I struggled through the Christmas period of racing and got some speed into my legs and technical skills back up to speed just perfect for the nationals.
The championship races are always a strange one. In the past I have always got it wrong, with so much pressure put on myself by no-one else but myself. Whether it be getting ill at the wrong time, organisers moving the race due to a bit of snow or simply getting it wrong on the day with tactics and managing nerves, I had never even been on the senior podium. According to some this made me an outsider and I found this pretty disrespectful but I went about the race like any other this season, to try and keep things as normal as possible. I was so relaxed compared to previous years and managed to somehow get through the weekend in the right frame of mind and I finally got the senior title I had wanted for sooooooo long.
Having based my whole season from November onwards around the British Championships, even the next day I found it hard to get motivated even with the new jersey on my shoulders at a race in Belgium. This was almost the story of the rest of my season; having worked so hard for something for so long I was drained for the remainder of the season. I dug in to pull something out of the bag at the final round of the World Cup, and the final round of the Superprestige went well, but apart from that there really wasn’t much to talk about apart from the UCI ruining my World Championships.
Fair enough, I wasn’t having a great ride in 36th place but I was pulled on the 80% rule, when I was one minute, thirty seconds off being at 80% and just off the back of a group of six I had been catching. It seems at some races in Belgium the organisers don’t care about anyone outside of the top 10 – and to be denied racing for a top 30 position at the World Championships due to maths error by a commissaire meant I was hacked off to say the least.
With the season now behind me I’m glad to be sat here with a free weekend. Getting up and not having to think about going out on my bike if I don’t want to is a nice feeling. I know it won’t last as I will be itching to get out training hard again long before my scheduled break is up! I have so many things to work on for next season to make that next step forward towards being a regular top 10-15 rider – but I can’t wait for the challenge. I will go into next season a refreshed rider and will wear the national champion’s jersey with pride at every race.
Finally, a massive thank you to Hargroves Cycles, Specialized, Shimano, Pro, Next, Trant, Elliotts, MD Flooring, Abacus, Chapmans, Kalas and Warwick Martel for their support this season.