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Life as a Bike Jockey: Cutting through the Calamity

I think it's a whole different gig to prep mentally for a World Cup. There's just more calamity to cut through to keep the focus on the race

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If you ask around, U.S. riders on the World Cup circuit will tell you World Cup racing is different from racing our national series here in the U.S. There’s the larger fields, the formalities, the atmosphere and the courses that make world cup racing a different beast. But I also think it’s a whole different gig to prep mentally for a World Cup. There’s just more calamity to cut through to keep the focus on the race.

To arms

I was talking with world cup cyclocross racer Amy Dombroski who may have put it best, “It’s like getting ready for battle.” And it’s true. With all the course holds and the spectators lining it, you’re making your way through chaos at times. The first World Cup in South Africa this year was kinda a good example of it all.

Big numbers

The elite fields at World Cup races see almost double what they do at our national races, meaning there are more riders to funnel into the singletrack. This has riders scrapping for position, especially on the first lap. And those first laps can be like watching mothers gone gangsta on Black Friday at Walmart. I saw a couple of good shoves in South Africa as we hustled up the first climb. That had me thinking, “Whoa. This place is crazy.” But on second thought, a hypoxic shoving match was just kinda funny.

Miss Manners

It’s only business, but there are more elbows and opportunities to get put in corners at World Cups. And for sure there’s more yelling going on — especially in some shrill foreign tongue. (The language barrier makes translation tough, so for ease’s sake, I just assume they’re complimenting my shoes, which I agree are very pretty.)

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a rolling brawl, but it’s more aggressive. I was riding in the trees behind some Polish gal who was yelling at the rider ahead of her. When I came around the next corner the Pole was gone and the other girl was on the ground. What happened, I couldn’t say – but I don’t think they’ll be exchanging Christmas cards this year.

Come on feel the noise

Honing the focus through the cacophony of shreikers, whistlers and noisemakers is also an exercise because World Cups are just noisier. It could be because there are generally more spectators. Or again, it could be because there are gals demanding to know where I get my shoes. But it also seems there are more course marshals deputized to use their whistles.

I appreciate the goal to announce approaching riders so the course is clear of spectators, but I wonder about the method. I think the crew in South Africa was instructed not to blow until they saw the fuzz of the ears. Seriously, I thought I was at a rave.

The course

Then there’s always the course itself. World Cup courses are notorious for being more technical and dangerous than the ones we race in the States. The course in South Africa was no different. For the most part, it was buff singletrack. It’s just that the buff singletrack was dotted with about five technical sections that could mess a person up like a round or two with Muhammed Ali. And stepping on a course so mean it “makes medicine sick” is enough to give a person pause.

I don’t think I was the only one, but I’ll admit, the course in South Africa got in my head before the race. I was hung up on two sections — a drop and a log descent — that both had sent riders to hospital and then the sidelines.

On the one hand, I knew I had the skills to ride those sections and cut time. On the other, I was lacking the confidence and fearing the consequences. Therein between the two, was my unhappy mind.

Let it flow or let it go

Luckily, on the Thursday before the race I ran into Dan Proulx, the Head Coach of Canada’s National Mountain Bike Team. Dan said that even if I had the skills to do it, it wasn’t wired in the system. And with that disconnect, it was best to put those lines aside and focus on what I would ride on race day. Once I let that sink in, I let go of what was dogging me and got back to a key race prep for me – having fun on the course.

As soon as I got home though, I ordered a Kronolog adjustable seat post. With that and the Valmont Bike Park here in Boulder, Colorado I’ve been working on that disconnect.

Hakuna matata

Lastly to top this pancake stack of distractions, there was what was at stake in South Africa. A good placing at the first world cup of the season would up my starting position for the next. And in fields of 100+ riders, every spot counts.

Also tied into my finish was this little thing on my mind — making the Olympic team. The 2012 Olympic team will be decided mostly on the performances at the first four world cups of this year. So, you know… no pressure there either.

That said, the only thing I worked to do was keep what was at stake out of mind. Because, at the end of the day, all you can ever do at a race is your best — so worrying about the peripherals was just putting the imagination to use on an unwanted outcome. Hakuna Matata, baby.

Keep the focus

In the end, South Africa went well. I moved up from a last row start to finish 32nd and the third American woman. This gives me roughly a fourth row call up for the world cup in Houffalize, Belgium and keeps me in the game for the Olympic bid. It’s still race by race; nothing has been decided. So all that’s left to do is to keep the focus.

Thanks for reading!

Judy Freeman is a pro mountain biker out of Boulder, Colorado. She was nominated to the Olympic Long Team as a potential rider at the 2012 London Olympics. Freeman races for the Crankbrothers Race Club. Team sponsors for 2012 include Ibis Bicycles, X-Fusion suspension, Formula braking, SRAM shifting, Crankbrother components, Pactimo clothing, Fi’zi:k saddles, Continental tires, Rocky Mounts racks and Pearl Izumi footwear. Join her for her monthly column on called “Life as a Bike Jockey.” Also, be sure to follow her adventures on her Facebook athlete page.