Lewis Rattray Cyclocross Diaries :: Back in Belgium

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Many of you living in Australia will know about the cyclocross phenomina that we’re witnessing right now and Lewis Rattray is leading the way. He spent last season in Europe racing the cyclocross scene and even made the World Championships. He recently made his way back to Belgium and has completed his first two races. We’ll be following Lewis’ CX diaries throughout the season and I’m pleased to bring you his first.

I was under the impression that last season was going to be my only opportunity to race the cyclocross World Cup Series. I had originally planned on competing in the US this season, however my generous host from last year; Roeland, offered to have me stay again. It was too good an opportunity to refuse.

The Australian cyclocross scene is gaining popularity exponentially, and racers were lucky enough to be able to compete in an inaugural national series this year. The Champ Sys/Sram NCXS was brought about through a collaboration of 4 local cyclocross series’ to create 3 double rounds in Victoria, NSW and SA. My aim was to be competitive with the front runners, and hopefully come away with a win. Whilst I wasn’t able to win a round, I was content with the level of fitness I had brought about (largely thanks to the work of Mark Compton-Legg – Coach and husband of women’s world #1, Katie), being able to mix it up with guys who would absolutely smoke me in a MTB or road race. I came away with 2nd in the series, with my best results being two 3rds and two 4ths. The pinnacle of my local season came about in the State Championships and Rapha Supercross events, where I won against NCXS quality fields. I had some great battles with ex National Road Champ Allen Iacuone, and top MTBer Adrian Jackson, amongst many other top level riders.

Following the end of the local CX season, I knuckled down to ensure I passed my uni subjects, and competed in local road crits a few times a week, on my TCX with road tyres. My form has been improving gradually since August, and I’m noticeably stronger than last year, however I am under no impression that I will be mixing it up with the middle of the pack, let alone the front. The aim for this year is to be competitive with the riders in the bottom third of the results table, and hopefully manage to finish on the lead lap in a UCI ranked race. Most of all, I’m simply happy to be able to have such an amazing opportunity all over again.

My tentative race schedule is:

24/12 – Koksijde WC
03/12 – Roubaix WC
08/12 – Fidea Scheldecross Antwerp C1
20/12 – GP De Ster Sint Niklaas C2
24/12 – WC Namur
26/12 – WC Heusden Zolder
30/12 – Superprestige Diegem C1
14/01 – Otegem C2
20/01 – WC Hoogerheide
03/02 – World Championships Louisville
10/02 – Tokyo CX

I’ll fill in blank weekends with B category races (the highest category races besides UCI or A category races) and some club races. The bigger races are an amazing experience, but I’m looking forward to competing in some of the lower level competitions, where I’ll have the chance to mix it up in the front of the field for a change.

Just a few days after arriving in a wet and wintery Brussels, I was out riding on the same sand dunes where I rode in front of 60,000 spectators earlier in the year. The courses in Belgium are incredibly technical when compared to the courses at home, and there is no greater example than Koksijde. I’d estimate that 40% of the course is in sand about 30cm deep. It requires a riding technique that is different from riding on any other surface. I’m not complaining, it would hardly entice beginners into the sport if you threw them onto a World Cup level CX course, but it’s worth noting. Apparently the US is similar, and I support this system, the sport needs to grow from the grassroots up, but it makes it difficult to effectively prepare for the world stage. We need more mud and more sand dunes, but that will come in time.

Sven Nys rides up the sand dunes to win in Koksijde while everyone chased.

Lining up in Koksijde were the usual faces from last year, but I was also joined by two Kiwi’s, Angus Edmond, who’s been racing in Denmark and Alex Revell, who has been racing in Belgium since the start of the season in September. Alex has gained notoriety for his impressive moustache, but he can ride exceptionally well and is a genuinely lovely bloke. The gun went off, and I did my best to keep up with the other riders. Niels, Sven and the rest of the peloton stretched out like a rubber band in front of us. I was riding with the two Kiwi’s keeping a few Luxembourgian and Spanish riders within sight about 20m ahead before Alex crashed on a slippery section. I managed to avoid him, and continued on my way in pursuit of the others. There was a solid turnout, around 10,000, but it did seem a little quiet compared to my World Championships experience. I really enjoyed it though; I was 4 laps down and in 45th place, with 20 secs to 44th. An improvement from last year, but still a way behind! On the positive side, I achieved valuable UCI points which will help me to qualify for the World Championships in Louisville and a decent amount of prize money, which is paid down to 50th place.

Undertaking any World Cup round is an exhausting operation, particularly for a privateer. Aside from the racing itself, there are a million things to do. The day prior to the race involves driving the 1-1.5hrs to the course, practising the track, attending the team meeting/rider registration, packing the car and driving home. You’ve then got to clean and lube the bikes, eat dinner and pack for the next day. On the morning of the race, you have to load up the cars to be there at least 4 hrs before race start to ensure you have a parking space near the course. At the course you’ll ride a few laps prior to the women’s race, get back to the car, get dry and stay warm until an hour before the race, then hop on the trainer for 40mins for a warm up, change into a dry skin suit, pin your race numbers and put on embrocation, a warm jacket and zip off pants. You then ride the start finish straight to keep warm until rider call up, where you dump all the excess gear. I race, then cool down on the trainer or an open area, pack everything up and head home. Usually all the gear is wet and covered in mud. This needs to be soaked, washed and dried, and the bikes need to be looked after ASAP to prevent any rust in the cables or on the chain. I need to make sure my shoes are dry for the next day’s training, and that I have enough bike gear to brave the cold on Monday or Tuesday. I don’t usually sleep well after a race, you get so pumped up from it all that I just stare at the ceiling until around 2am. I’m generally wrecked on the Monday anyway, and it takes until Tuesday to recover enough to hurt myself on the bike again. I’m lucky to have the support of Roeland, his girlfriend, friends and family, who make up “Team Rattray” during the race season.  They have been invaluable in ensuring that I can compete in all the races whilst over here. On race day, I’ll need at least 3 other people with me, someone at the start to take my warm gear, and two people in the pits to take and pass my bike. Roeland also happens to be an excellent mechanic who’s fluent in Flemish, French and English, which is ideal for UCI meetings (usually in spoken in French). I’m exceptionally grateful for his help; the trip would be impossible without him.

This past weekend, the World Cup returned to Roubaix. Roubaix is particularly special, not only as it is held around the famous velodrome, but it was also the site of my first exposure to cyclocross in 2009, when I caught the train from Paris to watch Erwin Vervecken win in the muddiest bike race I’d ever seen. I knew after seeing that race, that this was the sport for me.

Lewis Rattray at the Roubaix World Cup

We arrived on Saturday for race practice and were greeted with a few clouds, and a slippery but not exceptionally technical course. The lap included almost all the surface types you can expect to encounter in a ‘cross race; the velodrome, a few short sections through sand, some off-camber grassy corners, a staircase, and two short steep descents with sharp right hand corners at the bottom. I was happy with the course until the rain started pouring down during the team meeting. The next day, during the pre race practice lap, I managed to crash on both descents on two separate laps. I was able to jump up and ride them again, but decided to run them during the race, to avoid risking any injury (there were some nasty crashes in the women’s race). This time, I was joined at the back of the peloton by Alex the Kiwi, and David; the Norwegian I’d raced against last year. We rode the first few laps together, before Alex and I caught a Danish rider. Alex had a nasty crash on the first lap, but to his credit, rode the descents on every subsequent lap, a very ballsy effort. I was losing time on the descents, but catching up on the rest of the course. We rode 5 laps, being pulled at the end of our sixth. I finished up 10 seconds behind Alex and the Dane, 6 laps down on the leaders.

I finished in 50th place, again securing more UCI points and just scraping into the prizemoney. The race was an amazing experience, and one of the highlights was showering in the renowned shower block after the race. I didn’t quite grasp the significance of what I was doing at the time, and the history that was in that building until I was reflecting on it all on the drive home. I popped in, and there were cameramen and a few other riders, I took a quick photo, trying to make sure there were no naked bodies in the background, and made my way to the shower ensuring I covered up (the photographers didn’t seem to mind taking photos of all of us naked, and it was bloody cold!). The showers use a simple chain, and you have to pull it every minute or so. There’s no adjustment in the temperature; it was scalding hot, but refreshing and a nice change to hopping in the car all sweaty and dirty. My cubicle was named after Antonio Bevilacqua, and Italian who won Paris-Roubaix in 1951. He was a World Pursuit Champion, and has a number of Road Race World Championship Medals. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_Bevilacqua

The infamous Roubaix showers

On paper, my results don’t seem to be any great improvement, but I’m happy with the realistic progress I’ve made. Rather than being spat out the back and riding alone from the second lap onwards, I’m mixing it with the other riders for the majority of the race. My aim for the trip is to finish on the same lap as the leaders in a UCI category race. Aside from my own abilities to keep up, this will come down to a number of factors outside of my control falling my way, such as course length, conditions, tactics at the front of the race. My second aim will be to improve on my result at the World Championships, which will be held for the first time outside Europe. Last year I beat 3 riders and finished 7 laps down. This year I’m hoping to beat 6 riders. I’m trying to keep my aims realistic but achievable.

I am extremely lucky to have continued support from Giant Bicycles, who were generous enough to provide me with a second TCX Advanced to add to my stable. These guys also help substitute the cost of my trip, which is a huge help, considering I needed to manage training, study and income in the lead up to leaving. I am also equipped with some of the finest components, clothing and accessories available, thanks to support from a number of other companies, who I’m proud to be associated with. I’ll be riding Sram Red on both bikes, my ‘A’ bike will be rolling on Zipp 303s, Champion Systems have kitted me out in custom cycling kit, 4Shaw have supplied me with socks, Adidas Eyewear with sunnies, Creux Velowear with clothes for off the bike, Qoleum with embrocation (vital when I’m training in 0 degrees) and chamois cream, Sports2 with all my nutrition needs and the Australian FMB distributor has looked after me with Super Mud tubular tyres.  All the pros have supporter cards and what better way to represent my sponsors than making one of my own. These are purely tongue in cheek, everyone else’s cards are very serious, and so I figured I have to stand out somehow. We had the cards blown up into car magnets and posters, to give our transport a slightly more professional feel.

I’d also like to thank all the clubs and personnel involved in the creation and operation of this year’s NCXS. This is a major step towards lifting the standard of cyclocross in Australia and I am confident it will continue to grow in the right direction, supporting cyclocross from a grassroots level and up. Most importantly, the races are fun, and that’s the main appeal of cyclocross for me, it’s just an awesome way to race your bike. You can see, even when I’m on the absolute rivet, more often than not I have a massive smile on my face.This all began with the Dirty Deeds cyclocross crew, who took it upon themselves to create Australia’s first cyclocross series. I wouldn’t be here without the work of this team, and they certainly don’t do it for the money, so thank you!

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