Lewis Rattray – Australia’s Cyclocross Pioneer?

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In case you missed it, last night the pinnacle of the UCI Cyclocross season was raced with the World Championships in Belgium. I understand that not many Australians follow this too closely, but to the Belgians this is basically their AFL Grand Finals. Can you imagine if there was a fresh young Belgian kicking around the footie at the MCG? Well, this is the equivalent of what Australia’s own Lewis Rattray did just a few hours ago over in Koksijde, Belgium in front of 61,000 crazed spectators. I just got off the phone with Lewis who was still charged up after the thrill of his life. Here’s what he had to say…

So tell us about how the past 12 hours and how it’s been for you?

Oh my god, amazing! Easily one of the best things I’ve done in my life. In my first World Cup there were 10,00-15,000 people and that was amazing enough, and today there were 61,000 people. The atmosphere was unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of. To have actually been racing as well was something I’ll never forget.

The fans really get into it. On my practice lap the sand sections are really hard to ride. I haven’t ridden much in the sand so I stopped and re-did a few before the race. All the fans got into it and gave me slow claps and everything. They got right behind me during my practice laps and when I was racing so it was really cool.

What was your goal of this race?

I tried to keep my goals pretty realistic. I wanted to beat two finishers and I did that. I wanted to finish on the same lap as a few of the quicker guys and I didn’t quite get that – I was one lap off the guys who I wanted to finish with. There was a Canadian bloke and a Japanese bloke who I would have liked to finish with but I was 1 lap behind them.

Are there other guys like you out there having a crack and not necessarily competitive?

There’s a Norwegian guy, and American (he’d like 40 or something) but same kind of thing. They’re not in it to do particularly well, they just want to promote the sport in their home country and try to kick-start a bit of action back home. It was nice to meet others who were there in the same mindset without any pressure to perform. We were all out there just to enjoy it.

When I think about it, what you’re doing is not that different than Phil Anderson did with road racing when he rocked up to France back in 1979 looking for a bike race.

Phil Anderson went on to do some pretty amazing things. I’m not sure I’ll get that far but in terms of being one of the first Australians it’s pretty cool to be here.

Can you put into perspective how good are these guys are who you’re racing against?

It’s a whole other level. I’ve ridden a decently high level mountain biking (National Series) and I certainly have followed mountain biking for a while so I know where I stand. People like Jose Hermida came from a professional MTB background and was the World Champion and then today on the course he was well and truly off the pace. We were just watching the replay of our race tonight and I wouldn’t say the top guys make it look easy, but they certainly struggle through it a hell of a lot faster than everyone else. On some of the courses where I’ve gotten lapped and rode behind them briefly it’s quite amazing how they ride through the mud and sand. They’re generally able to say on their bike much longer where I’d be dismounting much earlier than they would.

Are you learning lots or just practicing and perfecting what you already knew?

No, I’m certainly learning lots of new stuff. It’s almost like learning how to mountain bike from scratch again. I’ve taken it back to the basics. Simple things like looking where you want to go and picking your line. Also things like tyre pressure is extremely important which I didn’t have any idea of. Also when to remount after you’ve dismounted. That was pretty important on the course today. If you remount too early and you don’t have enough speed you just stop. You need to remount when the track started to go downhill to give you a bit of momentum so you’re able to cut through the sand and mud better.

Have you gotten to know the higher level Cyclocross pros while over there?

With the very top level riders I generally try to keep out of the way because I don’t want to put them off right before their race. A lot of the middle level riders have been really cool. Some of the Japanese riders and a German bloke who has been really great to me. Not really the top guys though. I said G’day to Jeremy Powers and he’s a bit of a dude, but he was in the middle of something but politely said, “I’d love to chat but I gotta keep moving”.

Those top guys are all paid big money and each of the top 15 have their own little fan clubs with their favorite riders on jackets and caps and stuff. The top 5 are very well paid – definitely millionaires. They have their own merchandise and endorsements. You walk into the supermarket and Sven Nys has his own mineral water brand for example. These guys are rock stars.

How much prize money?

You’d have to double check but I think it’s about 15,000 Euro for a World Cup win. They pay all the way down to 50th which gets 300 Euro. I would have loved to have snuck into there but didn’t quite get there.

What brought on this Belgian adventure of yours?

I was working at a bike shop called St Kilda Cycles and a Belgian cyclist named Rolland just popped in one day during the cyclocross season in Melbourne in 2011. I had originally planned to go overseas and race but I didn’t necessarily intend on going to Belgium. The level would be way too far out of my league. I was tossing up Japan or America, or even England. I got chatting to this Rolland who was a really nice guy and convinced me to come to Belgium. He was moving back there with his Australian girlfriend and offered for me to stay with them and they’d help out anyway they could.

After the Melbourne CX season I had a fair bit of success but I certainly didn’t have high expectations. I decided that I should just come to Belgium and have a crack. You tend to rely quite a bit on other people. You need to get to the races, have a mechanic in the pits, have someone to take your jacket at the start line, etc. So Rolland’s offer was a good opportunity to make the most of it. The fact that the UCI is trying to globalise the sport would mean that being an Australian I’d be able to get entries into a fair few races. So I shot off some emails to race organisers, I contacted Cycling Australia and MTB Australia and presented to them my intentions and explained that I don’t expect any support – all I want to do is get an entry into a World Cup. I’d do anything to make that happen. I spoke to them for a while had to speak to the High Performance center in SA. They asked me a few questions just to make sure I was serious about this and it wasn’t some sort of joke. After speaking with them they confirmed that I could wear the Australian colors during the races.

Lewis tearing up the local Melbourne CX scene last winter. Thanks to the hard work and passion of the guys behind Dirty Deeds CX we look forward to a thriving cyclocross scene in Australia's future. Photo courtesy of brianmangano.com

I had some UCI points for finishing the World Cups so from there getting into the World Championships was smooth sailing. I stayed in contact with the people at CA and they put my entry through. It was all good! I’ve been extremely lucky. Everything has just fallen my way with this trip.

What about the Superprestige and GVA Trophy races?

That’s very high up on my list of things to do. I’ve raced pretty much every weekend and I managed to squeeze in a GVA trophy but haven’t managed to race a Superprestige yet. There is one next weekend but I’ll see how I go. I might try to find a smaller race to do. I wouldn’t mind getting a result!

What type of support have you had while over there?

Giant bikes came on board for me during the CX seasons in Australia. I had one of their bikes already and was lucky enough to be given a top of the line carbon TCX which has been fantastic. It wouldn’t have been possible without having 2 bikes. Every rider in every race has 2 bikes and most have quite a few spare wheels.

Rolland, the guy who I met in St Kilda Cycles, is a pretty handy mechanic. He’s worked at the Crocodile Trophy and in bike shops as a mechanic and he’s done a bit of my pit work. His friends and his brother have also helped out. We’d always need to people in the transition area – one to take the bike and one to pass the clean one onto me. Their main job is to hose it down, get all the mud off the drivetrain, lube the chain, and keep it rolling. Rolland’s girlfriend was often at the start/finish line for me to take my jacket and give me my ventolin inhaler (I have asthma), because often you have to wait around in the cold at the startline before you set off.

You rely on a lot of people and it’s something I hadn’t really realised before I went over and was planning on just winging it.

Has there been any time you thought it was just too hard?

Ha! No. There have been a couple times I kinda tough that but I snap out of it pretty quickly because I realise how lucky I am to be over here and have all these people supporting me. It’s really only when I have to get up early and it’s freezing cold and 20-30cm of thick muddy on the course and I thought “F$%^, I don’t want to be here”. But once the gun goes it’s completely different and you get in the zone and I enjoy every minute of it.

The highlight?

It has to be today in the big sand pits where all the fans were going just nuts. That was amazing! Really really special…

What’s next?

I’d like to go overseas again and race cross. If I do it’ll probably be Japan or America. In the meantime I’ll be back in Australia racing on the road and obviously as many cyclocross races as I can during the winter in Melbourne and even interstate. I’ll probably focus a bit more on the road than mountain biking this winter. It’s weird. I don’t really enjoy mountain biking in the mud at all, but I love cyclocross in it. So I’ll do some MTB races while it’s still dry and then switch over to CX and the road later on.

Out of all the things you’re successful at, why the love for cyclocross?

The atmosphere at the races, even in Melbourne, was heaps of fun. The fact that you can see the entire course from one standing position, people are there and everyone is happy and a bit drunk cheering you on. I’ve been racing bikes for a while but usually I would never really ask family or friends to come and watch one of my races – it can be a little bit boring. For CX races though they’re a heap of fun and I don’t even have to ask my friends anymore – they’re all pretty keen to come down. It’s great to have people you know there cheering you on.

To go from an already great atmosphere in Melbourne to 61,000 screaming fans in Koksijde was amazing.

I come back in a couple weeks and foolishly signed up for the MTB nationals a couple weeks after that. It’ll be a bit different to what I’ve gotten used to here!

Check out Lewis’ blog to get more photos and write-up on his inspiring journey.

As a side note, last year there was a gentleman named Ray Rhodes who lives in Gipplsand, Victoria who left a comment on a cyclocross post saying:

How long before it get really serious with a national championship? 

In 1970 or was it 1971? I was the first Aussie to ride the worlds, I almost said raced but to be honest it was a course that was way too technical for me. The riding and running was Ok but there were guys ‘bunny hopping’ one meter piles of railway sleepers and at one section we rode down a three metre wall. Seriously I was petrified.

I may be still the only guy (stupid) enough to try his hand at the worlds.

I briefly spoke with Ray over email about lining up an interview about his experience at the ‘1970/71 Cyclocross World Championships but I got distracted and we never ended up chatting. The race would have either been held in Apeldorn, Netherlands or Prague, Czechoslovakia. This is the only other Aussie I’ve ever heard of who has competed at this level of cyclocross and I look forward to getting the story from Ray very soon!

UPDATE: Apparently Luke Stockwell also represented Australia in the Cyclocross World Championships in the early 2000’s.

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