In mid-January, six riders, their bikes and a skeleton support crew made the long journey from Australia to the Netherlands in a landmark trip for Australian cycling.
These six riders were the first Australian team in two decades to attend the cyclocross world championships. Of course, sending a team to the Worlds doesn’t guarantee success, especially when it involves a cycling discipline which, until recently, was barely acknowledged in Australia.
Mud, glorious mud
The first challenge the team faced was the weather. Adjusting to the wet and cold conditions of the Northern European winter was never going to be easy off the back of an Australian summer. But the difference this made to racing was still a surprise, especially when it came to the mud.
The thick slop that the team encountered – both in the Hoogerheide world championships and warm-up races – meant that the races bore almost no resemblance to the typically dry, fast races that characterise Australian cyclocross.
“There was more mud in the first patch of the Worlds course than we had in all the Australian races combined last season. It’s clay-like, boggy mud that drags on your wheels,” says Lisa Jacobs, current Australian cyclocross national champion and one of two entrants in the elite women’s race.
“Fifty per cent of the course in the first Belgian race I did was running because it was so boggy. You’re running through this churned-up mess, sinking up to your ankles,” she adds. “You can do all the prep in the world and be as fit as you like, but there’s nothing that replicates going over there and racing in those conditions.”
The courses themselves were also subtly different, and the quality of riding much higher.
“One of the really interesting things about Hoogerheide was that there were no man-made features other than the flyovers,” says Under-23 racer Tom Chapman. “The Europeans don’t like barriers because they believe they can make it hard with what they’ve got. They use the natural features to make it technical.”
“Over there, the quality all the way through the pack is top-level, even in club races,” adds Chapman. “In Australia, we’ve got quality racers so it is fast, but technical abilities vary. In Northern Europe, everyone has grown up riding a cyclocross bike and have their technical skills down to a tee.”
Europe at short notice
The team also faced logistical challenges. The decision to send a team to the Worlds was made late in the day, meaning that accommodation, travel arrangements and equipment all had to be sourced extremely quickly.
That inevitably meant compromises. For accommodation, it meant that the bulk of the team were split across two locations, with junior rider Nick Smith staying with the family of Australian-based Belgian Roelands Suys. For 16-year-old Nick, that was more of a blessing than a curse, given it was his first trip abroad.
“It was a stress-free environment that allowed me to concentrate on riding,” says Smith. “Roeland knew the area and the language, and he was able to guide me on training rides. He also introduced me to embrocation oil, which definitely didn’t go to waste!”
On-the-ground support relied on a few key individuals – team manager Greg Meyland, Simon Chapman, Paul Larkin, Peter Young, and Roeland and Jeroen Suys – to keep the train running and the riders focused on racing. Equipment was also limited to what the team could bring from Australia themselves or the generosity of sponsors, friends and even spectators during their stay in Europe.
“Trainers or rollers to warm up on, tents to shelter in and the camper van we had during Worlds were all donated by our awesome Belgian support crew,” says Elite Men’s entrant Nick Both. “My spare bike came from a very generous Focus Germany via a Focus Australia request. I’ve never had support like that from a bike company before.”
This reliance on others extended even to the races themselves. When Nick Smith damaged his primary bike’s rear wheel after being caught up in a first-lap crash, a replacement came from a surprising source – an American family watching the race.
Without that donation, Smith would almost certainly have had to retire from the race. Instead, he became the first Australian to finish a junior cyclocross world championship.
The learning curve
In the end, the Australian team didn’t set the results sheet alight in Hoogerheide (see links below). Crashes, mechanical problems, the brief acclimatisation to conditions and European racing, and the sheer fact that the riders started at the back of the grid due to a lack of UCI points all played a role in dashing hopes of high finishing positions.
But that was never the point for 2014 – this year was always earmarked as a learning experience. Simply being at Worlds has already taught the racers an innumerable number of lessons in racecraft and tactics – lessons that they’re already planning to factor into their training.
Chapman also hopes that the riders can use their experience to make Australian cyclocross courses a little more ‘European’, to better prepare riders for racing on the other side of the world.
Something all the riders were united on is to capitalise on the momentum of this year’s campaign and start planning earlier for 2015.
“The team faced some challenges just because the announcement of the team was so close to Worlds,” says Jacobs. “Knowing now that Australia has the potential to do well, we can get our house in order earlier. It also means we can utilise some of the resources that Cycling Australia and Mountain Biking Australia already have in Europe.”
Nick Both highlights that being able to decamp to Europe more than a few weeks before Worlds will also help riders acclimatise to conditions and get solid race experience against the people they’ll race against in Worlds.
Racing a full World Cup season from this September would be ideal, he remarks, but could require a separate selection criteria for those riders (for 2014, selection was based on performance in the Australian National Championships).
“If they’re willing to put the time in then they must be considered for national selection,” he says. “Anyone who comes here to race will learn a lot; while not an instant selection, it should make them highly considered.”
Even the Australian-based selection criteria could be extended, suggests Smith, adding an extra edge to domestic racing.
“Perhaps the top five riders in the National Series could be eligible for Worlds selection,” he says. That would give those racing domestically something to aim for.”
The pride and the passion
Even so, the pride and the enthusiasm of the riders who were a part of this inaugural campaign is undeniable.
“To be a part of the Australian team was special. The list of firsts we’ve ticked is endless,” says Both.
“The support back home was amazing – we definitely weren’t forgotten about when we were over there,” adds Chapman. “It’s only going to make cyclocross bigger in Australia, and make some riders very hungry knowing there’s the option of competing on a global stage out there.”
“The whole time we were over there, there was a great spirit of optimism and excitement within the team,” says Jacobs. “That’s a rare quality in a World Championships national team. Usually there are performance expectations, pressure, and people worrying about their own results. But we were just excited to be there.
“Sending a team across was a great show of support by Cycling Australia, and it was incredible to be part of a historic moment in Australian cycling,” she continues. “If we keep doing what we’re doing, we’ll have riders in the top 20 in the next five years.”