AKA. Maria Stinks Up Vegas
It's very difficult to put into words the whole experience of my first World Cup race. As I sat on the toilet (lid closed) in my hotel room talking to Robin Amer of the Chicago Reader, it struck me that I was really there, really doing it, and having the same experiences as a professional athlete at a major bike race. Robin wrote a really nice piece explaining how I got to where I am today, and the challenges and successes I've faced on my way to racing Cross Vegas, you can read it; here.
Daphne and I arrived Monday night, bike box and multiple bags in tow. The race was to be Wednesday night, and we arrived two days early with what we thought would be a comfortable amount of time to get ourselves situated. Daphne was determined to give me the full experience and was taking her role as Soigneur very seriously.
Mia, my trusty mechanic and acting manager for the UCI, arrived the next morning. Despite waking up very early, a few key things set our schedules back. I was using Daphne's bike box which allowed for a very simple set up and minimal bike building if you have the right tools with you. Unfortunately I had neglected to pack a multi-tool that would make our lives easier, Mia thinking I had brought all of the tools required, also did not have one, so we were in a bit of a pickle. My preride was scheduled for 2-4pm so we began scrambling to find out who was staying in our hotel, and who could help us out. Thankfully there was a bike shop not too far off, so after an (interesting) cab ride, my trusted staffers got what we needed and Mia built up my brand new Kona Super Jake.
The recommended race hotel was located in the center of the Las Vegas strip, about 8 miles from the race location. I had not anticipated that the Las Vegas strip would be so car-centric, and a pretty inhospitable place to ride your bike. While out grabbing some food I ran into Lars Van Der Haar (on his bike) at a stop light, I realized very quickly I would be riding out to the race solo and I should probably hurry up as I was going to be late. With my bike together I threw on my Chicago Cuttin Crew kit, and practically ran out the door of the hotel room. Literally riding my bike out of the casino. I got turned around a few times on the large streets on the way to the race venue, almost ending up on a highway a couple of times, this was not the ideal build up to what I thought would be calm cool collected pre-riding.
When I eventually got to the Dessert Breeze Soccer Complex I was beginning to feel overwhelmed by the whole experience. The stressful couple of hours before the preride meant that I was not in a good head space, and feeling very low confidence in my ability to ride, I felt like an impostor. I was also low on energy as I had rushed my lunch in order to get to the course more quickly. There were rows of staff from the Telenet-Fidea and Sunweb teams standing at all the most difficult sections of the course, not to mention all of my cyclocross heros sharing the course with me, everywhere I turned I felt like I was being judged, and being found wanting. I very rarely struggle with anxiety, at least the sort of anxiety that can lead to a panic attack, but I was being to feel like that was what was about to happen. I was being to doubt I could even do a proper remount in front of all these people. My breathing was getting fast and shallow and my chest was beginning to tighten, not good, not good at all.
Right at the moment when I thought I was finally going to actually have a nervous breakdown, I ran into Helen Wyman. I can easily say that talking to her and her husband Stef made my day. She was so relaxed and open, she stopped and chatted with me, complimented my Kona bike, we were riding the same type, and introduced me to the two other British riders that she was travelling with, Amira Mellor and Hannah Peyton, both super nice ladies, as well as the Australian National Champion Lisa Jacobs. It's amazing the difference a friendly face and a kind word can make to a nervous and overwhelmed Irish woman. I decided that I had to relax, I'm here because I earned my spot, just like everyone else. Despite what I initially thought, the other professional riders were just humans, humans who were experts at their jobs, but humans none the less. I had to begin to treat them as my equal, just as Daphne had reminded me time and time again. After that point things began to look up, the course was hard but very doable. Not technically very difficult as much as strength sucking and brutally exhausting. I nailed a few remounts and even rode up the sand steps a couple of times during the warm up, and just tried to block everyone else out, trying to focus on myself and my own race.
After the preride ended, I headed back towards the hotel for the rider confirmation and managers meeting. What a difference a tail wind can make, I flew back to the hotel, feeling strong again with the wind propelling me back towards the wacky world of the strip. I will say that despite my newly determined attitude towards my fellow competitors when I walked through the casino to the elevator lobby, and around the corner from the other end of the hotel came Tom Meesuen, I did feel slightly (completely) starstruck. Not only that, but the entire rest of the Telenet Fidea team turned the corner behind him, and within a minute we all were laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation. 7 (what seemed like 15) cyclocross riders, and their bikes, a smoky casino in Las Vegas. What the hell were we doing here?? I chatted briefly with the guys and rode up in the elevator with them as the other hotel guests gave us weird looks, myself included. I was floating on high, to be lumped in with the bunch of tall gangly professional cyclocross racers. I sprinted back to my room to tell Mia and Daphne all the crazy things that had happened in just a few hours.
After our meeting with the UCI, we confirmed our pit location (lucky number 13) and picked up my numbers, we settled in to watching Forensic Files and an early night. The next day we got to the venue with plenty of time to spare. I had lots of chances to pre-ride the course, and was feeling better with each lap. We found a spot under a shady tree to set up the official Cuttin Crew base camp, which afforded us a perfect few of the whole lower section of the course. Nathan and Morleigh were at hand with everything a girl could need, clear lenses, sunscreen, documenting the whole experience.
Before I knew it I was at the start line. I could see Sanne Cant, Katie Compton, Katerina Nash, all of my heros right there in front of me. I felt proud to be there, and looking over at Daphne, I knew she was proud too. The whole beginning of the race was a blur, a complete rush, something I will never forget. The lights, the cheering crowd, wheels, bodies, my heart rate immediately peaked in the start loop. The race started so fast, the pack was spread across the course and there was simply no where for me to go. Starting at the back of a group of the most talented riders in the world means that even your hardest dig only moves you up a spot or two. The pack stayed together somewhat on the first lap, I tried to move up where I could and push myself as hard as I could. I knew the start would be fast, and extremely difficult for me, but I knew I just had to keep going, keep pushing. Every turn was a bottle neck, navigating the riders and the obstacles was a blur, everything was a blur. I eventually settled into my spot, trying to chase down the riders nearest to me, I traded back and forth with a couple of Canadian riders for a lap or two. Lap after lap I was expecting to get pulled, not because I felt I was riding badly, I felt I was actually riding well, not making big mistakes, no crashes, trying to attack out of every corner but because I knew what I was up against. When I saw 2 laps to go, I knew I could make it to the lead lap, that was my one tangible goal, I began to push hard again, simulating my final lap in order to make the cut. I desperately wanted to finish on the lead lap with the best women in the world. Unfortunately Katerina Nash had other ideas about my World Cup Goals, unbeknownst to me she put in a huge dig with 1.5 laps to go and began to open a huge gap to the group in second. I could see her off the front as I began to finish the second to last lap. Shit shit shit! I dug deep. I could see the Canadian rider Siobhan Kelly in front of me, a few turns away, I was maybe 10-20 seconds down from her. I saw her round the corner into the start chute the officials had waved her though. I really thought I had it, the officials were scrambling a little, and I yelled out 'CAN I GO THROUGH'. They crushed me a little as they held out that paddle with a little red circle. No dice. 1 lap down, I exited the course. I missed the lead lap by only a handful of seconds, and was first to be pulled with the 4 riders behinds me also being pulled. As crushed as I was not to make that lead lap, the feeling of disappointment quickly passed. I had given it everything I had, I just hadn't had quite enough. I knew that for my first UCI race, and for my first UCI World Cup I had done really incredibly well. I got nothing but positive responses from everyone who I met. The whole race atmosphere was electric, and I heard nothing but well wishes and compliments over my kit, and shouts of 'MARIA STINKS'.
At long last I felt I could relax. I sipped some birthday (I frequently forgot about this fact) champagne that had been chilling in the Oakley VIP area that Bud Reeder had guarded with her life and celebrated the day with friends.
There are countless people to thank for getting me to this race. In no particular order I'd like to thank; Comrade Cycles, Chicago Sport Massage, Johnny Sprockets, Srammies; Mike Phillips & Mike Hemme, Matt Schweiker, Sage Hahn, Tim Holt, David Reyes, my teammates at the Cuttin Crew, Frankie Reynolds (for our celebratory champagne), Heritage Race Team, Newtron Cole, Snowy Mountain Photography's Nathan and Morleigh, Brett and Yasmeen from The Chainlink, Tenspeed Hero, Robin Amer, Lindsay Knight, Sarah Szefi, Rawny Semba, Caroline Martinez, Ryan Connor, Robin Seymour, Martin Grimley.
I'd like to thank Cycling Ireland for giving me this chance to compete at the highest level. Helen and Stefan Wyman for your support and advice which was given on the fly but made me feel so much better. A huge thank you goes to Daphne, Mia and Kyle, I really don't want to think of what could have happened with out these three people, my every need was taken care of, my mood calmed, my ego massaged, and my equipment polished and cleaned to the nth degree. Everyone at home cheering from Chicago and Ireland, I put everything I had into the race for all of you.
Full race results are available; here.