Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Cyclocross Tokyo!

The final stop in my round the world tour of cyclocross is Tokyo, Japan. Japan has a rapidly growning CX scene which has been around for a number of years now. The standard of competition in Japan is very high, their top male and female riders are consistently amongst the top 30 at the world championships and world cup series and often on the same lap as the winners.
I’ve been to Japan before, but never for a bike race. I was pretty excited, as I’ve had a fair bit to do with Yu, Keiichi and Ayako and the photographer Sonoko whilst racing in Europe. They are refreshingly friendly and always smiling, which was always a welcome change from many of the euro pro’s, who barely acknowledge you exist. 

Champion Systems Japan hosted the race on the shores of the bay in the middle of Tokyo. The race is now in its second year, and doubles as a bicycle expo with many sponsors setting up tents with catalogues and demo bikes on display. The organisation behind the event was absolutely outstanding. The guys and girls from Champion Systems arranged everything and provided a select group of riders with flights and accommodation for the few days either side of the race. I was very privileged to be amongst some top name US athletes such as Jeremy Powers, Tim Johnson, Barry Wicks, Spencer Paxson and Erik Tonkin.
Half of the course was in a little forest next to the beach, with windy singletrack, barriers, stairs and a purpose built wooden flyover. The other half involved two separate sections of sand, separated by a concrete start finish straight. These were rideable provided you had 100% focus on the right lines, and weren’t interrupted by other riders.  As you can see from the photos, it was a stunning setting for a cyclocross race, easily the most beautiful area I've had the pleasure of racing in. What made it even more amazing was the number of people who showed up. 13,000 spectators came through over the two days of racing, with an estimated 10,000 on race day, pretty impressive for a non UCI race a long way from Belgium!

The team from Giant Bicycles Japan also provided me with an enormous amount of support during my stay; picking me up from the airport, and taking me to and from the hotel everyday. Together with employees Shibui, Tomohiro, Takashi and their Marathon MTB specialist Motoshi I was also given a gastronomic tour of Japan at dinner each night. I’m not exceptionally adventurous with food, but I figured I should lash out and try everything, given the opportunity. Some of the culinary stand outs were raw prawn sashimi, sea urchin, flamed sea eel, a Korean style-Japanese barbeque (with amazing marbled beef) and raw squid in soy sauce (the live squid are thrown into the soy sauce!). 

My supporter cards were a hit with both the employees and fans, I think I gave away all 120 over the weekend! There were many recreations both before and after the race. 

From some of the earlier races, it was evident that the Japanese take to CX in the same relaxed nature that I’ve seen in the US and Australia. There were costumes a-plenty in some of the lower level races! 

The international riders and top domestic Japanese riders were instroduced to the crowd (which was estimated to be around 10,000!) and signed on after a brief introduction by the MC. 

I still feel halfway between a rider and a fan when I’m hanging around the pros. Whilst we were waiting around to be called up to the stage, Jeremy Powers himself made mention of how big my quads were! In my head I was just thinking “play it cool, play it cool!” I’m a big fan and he’s an absolute machine, so it was pretty cool to hear (if only my legs could put out the power I imagine he could put down).

I got chatting to the runner up from the National Champs, Hikaru Kosaka. He was the Japanese rider I nearly caught at the finish of our race in Louisville the week earlier. Hikaru’s dad is a legend of Japanese cyclocross, and is still exceptionally fast at 49 years of age. He came 3rd at their Nationals!
Given my celebrity status and UCI points I started on the front row, and the gun fired to the theme from Pirates of the Carribean. Off the start I was in an alright position, but as soon as we hit the sand, mayhem ensued,  and I was caught amongst a swarm of riders scrambling for the prime section of rideable sand on the left hand side. 

Through the forest I was able to establish my position, and thanks to some some primary school level Japanese I was able to determine I was in 13th (Ju San). The second sand section was even more difficult, as the rideable section had now been covered in water from the rising tide. This meant that unless you were able to ride exceptionally smoothly and efficiently in the sand (I wasn’t), you’d have to run the 400m until the concrete start finish straight. 

Most of the courses I've raced on involve running sections of around 10secs at a time, however this course involved a total of what I’d estimate to be at least 1min30 of sand running per 5min lap, depending on how much of the sand you could ride. This was too much for my poor body to handle, and at around 30 mins in (around the same time as my mum and sister arrived, fresh from skiing powder in Niseko), I felt the familiar pinch of cramps in my calves and hamstrings. 

Yasutami snapped this shot of me mid cramp!

Before long, I was cramping in every major muscle of both legs. It got so bad that a number of times I actually had to stop and stretch them, only for the opposite muscle to seize up. I was screaming in pain and laughing at the same time, plenty of the spectators were laughing as well and I’m pretty sure I even cried a little bit, it hurt that badly. From then, my position in the field started falling, and a crash with another rider, that dropped my chain and unhooked my rear brake meant that I lost significant time to the leaders. After about 40mins, Yu Takenouchi came flying past me with a lead of about 10 seconds over Powers and Johnson. Despite the roar of the crowd in support of the hometown favourite, Powers ended up winning, to Yu in second and Johnson in third. I ended up 2 laps down in 19th position, struggling to walk and breath, but managing a smile, grabbing a few high fives and plenty of cheers from the crowd in my last few laps. 

I was hoping to be a little higher up on the results from this race, perhaps top 10 or top 15. I certainly won't look back on it and be disappointed, but I'd love to come back  for some more races and see whether I can't hit the top 10 in some of the November UCI races. This is easily one of my favourite places in the world, so I'd love to come back.

Stretching out my cramping 'everything' across the finish line.

It’s been a ridiculously long season, from New Zealand Nationals last July until February in Tokyo and I’m looking forward to relaxing with friends and family back home for a week until I take off for a pre-holiday through Europe before starting a uni exchange in Berlin.

Thank you for following the blog, for the messages of support on social media, in the comments and obviously in person. It has been the most amazing experience, and I am exceptionally grateful for the opportunities given to me. The trip would not have been possible without my generous sponsors, in particular my primary supporter Giant Bicycles Australia but also my associated sponsors: Sram Australia, Zipp Speed Weaponry, Adidas Eyewear, 4Shaw, Champion Systems, , Creux Cycling Streetwear, Paul from FMB tyres, Ozriders, Sports2 Nutrition and Qoleum Sportscare.  I also have to thank the many people who helped out in Belgium, the US and Japan, providing accommodation and transport to make the logistical nightmare a walk in the park. I will be forever indebted to Roeland and Jeroen, who gave me an amazing amount of support during my stay and their family, girlfriends Rose and Ellen and friends all helped to make sure I was fully supported at the races and had a home away from home during my stay in Belgium.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

World Championships! And a plug for Giant Bicycles!

I’d heard only good things about the cross scene in the USA. With an emphasis on participation, the courses tend to be less technical, and typically the fans are racers themselves (often racing in the earlier events). There is equal prize money on offer at many of the UCI level races……
My time in Belgium was fantastic, but as I neared my final week, I was looking forward to some familiarity, being able to understand dinner table conversations, and eat some different food.
Thanks to a handy connection tee’d up by my coach, Mark, a friendly local personality David was kind enough to host the Kiwi contingent of Alex and Genevieve, myself, and our respective support teams. All in all, there were 8 people staying at David’s house! Everything they say about southern hospitality is true, and David was an excellent host making sure we experienced all the city has to offer (something we would have certainly missed out on staying in a hotel).
Upon arrival in Louisville, we were greeted with a 20 degree day and a beautiful ride in a jersey and knicks. Over the subsequent days the weather gradually deteriorated. We experienced a tornado warning (complete with siren), rain storm, snow storm and a drop in temperature which reached -20oC!

We woke on Friday morning to news that the race had been moved a day earlier due to a flood being forecast from the Ohio river, which would leave parts of the course underwater. I thought it was a joke, but sure enough, all 4 races were scheduled for Saturday. Having been fairly relaxed over the past few days, I started to freak out a little about everything which would need to be organised before the race. Thankfully, mechanical duties were covered by two excellent mechanics, in Paul Larkin (the Kiwi mechanic who also happened to sell me those FMB tubulars) and Vaclav Svatos, a friendly Czech guy who’d been put in touch with me via my coach. Thanks to these two guys, the TCX’s were dialled to perfection and quite honestly running better than they have ever been. They were up until the wee hours of Saturday morning before the race making sure everything was perfect. (There were 6 bikes to have dialled in total!). Vaclav’s experience in racing in the snow was especially valuable given the weather conditions, the bikes were treated with antifreeze to prevent ice building up in the chain, cassette and cables.
If the course had remained dry, it may have been considered a little too easy (at least by the Belgians), but thanks to the rain, snow and 3 other races prior to ours, it soon became technical enough to separate riders with superior bike handling skills. Unfortunately a mild but lingering cold I picked up on the plane hadn’t disappeared by the time we lined up in Eva Bandman Park, but there was nothing I could do, so there wasn’t any point getting concerned about it. The temperature was hovering below zero close to the start, and I was itching to get going as it was bloody cold in the “Cyclones” track skinsuit I was wearing.
The red lights turned green to a roar from the crowd as the riders tore down the start/finish straight. I’m always a little apprehensive at the start and I was nearly taken out by a wayward Ukrainian rider who swerved from one side of the course to the other. It was a pretty bad start, even by my low standards, but I managed to catch and pass a few riders, whilst keeping my Antipodean nemesis,Alex “De Snor” (moustache in Flemish) Revell within sight, a hundred or so metres ahead. 9,000 spectators attended the race, but the noise they made rivalled the 60,000 I had encountered the year before in Koksijde. The main difference I noticed was that the Americans cheered all the riders, no matter where they were in the field. I was copping plenty of friendly heckling, like “c’mon you can’t get beaten by a kiwi!” and “short sleeves? You’re not in bloody Australia mate!”
I managed to catch and pass Alex, after he came down on a slippery muddy descent, but my lungs were on fire, and the legs never really felt comfortable putting down the watts. It sounds like a strange thing to say, as surely you’ll always be outside your comfort zone in a cross race, but when you’re feeling good you forget about the pain, and when you’re feeling crap, the pain in your legs and the lack of blood to your brain can be debilitating. A couple of silly crashes meant I was soon passed by Alex again, and despite turning myself inside out to stay with him, he gradually faded away. I knew my race was ending soon, and although it was somewhat disappointing not to be racing at my best in the World Championships, I was keen to make sure I enjoyed myself on the course at the very least. Fans would hold notes of money on sticks for riders to grab, but thanks to an earlier crash my gloves were covered in mud and the bills would slip through my fingers. I did manage to grab a can of beer from a spectator, and a quick swig led to an eruption of noise from the nearby crowd. Nearing the end of a lap, I’d managed to catch up to a Japanese rider, and attacked to try and close the gap, but the familiar sight of a UCI official on the course meant my race was over. My breathing never settled down and my head was spinning, it took me what seemed like a few minutes to realize I was having an asthma attack! I haven’t had one in about eight years, but thankfully I keep numerous inhalers scattered around my luggage and managed to find it quickly and get it under control. There’s a tip for anyone with any form of asthma; mild or chronic, keep an inhaler with you at all times!
The atmosphere at the race was absolutely mind blowing. It was the most enjoyable race of the season and considering – performance wise, the race really didn’t go as well as I’d hoped, this speaks volumes for the event, and the scene in America in general. My only regret is not being able to compete in more races here. It was a real honour to be able to represent my country against the best cyclocross racers in the world and to race in the first World Championships outside of Europe. In the end, I finished up 5 laps down from Sven in 40th place, so on paper, the result is a reasonable one by my standards. I’m sure we’ll see more Australians racing cross abroad over the next few years; hopefully I’ve inspired a few to make the trip!

The organisation behind the event did an exceptional job, especially considering they had to move the Elite Men and Women a day earlier. An example of the fantastic facilities USA Cycling had provided were heated containers to warm up and get changed in prior to the race, and these were fenced off in an area only for riders and support crew. This kind of infrastructure is by no means compulsory, we’ve never had that at any other event in Europe, but it made it that much more comfortable to warm up before and after a bloody freezing race.
There was almost more hype about the after party (#Louisville2013foamparty) than the actual race in the week prior to the race. Thankfully, the ‘foam’ turned out to be a gag, but the party lived up to expectations. I can’t divulge all the specific details, but Jeremy Powers was on the decks, the junior Belgians were very creepy, dancing with wasted locals whilst wearing the forbidden jeans and runners combination and Lars Van Der Haar was friendly as usual, but parties as hard as he stomps the pedals at the start of a race. It was great to see Sven and the two Barts (Aernouts and Wellens) rock up to the party, to a raucous reception from everyone present. They were all smiles and happy to take photos with adoring fans (myself included).
There are a number of other people to thank for making the trip to the US such a success. Jeroen, (my host Roeland’s brother) shared the long drive down from Chicago, helped transport the second bike, provided welcome support in the pit lane (as he has been doing all season) and general assistance over the course of the entire trip through his role as “Australian Coach.” He was also kind enough to drive me to almost all my races in Belgium, an absolute legend. The Kiwi riders Alex and Genevieve, and Genevieve's helper Ryan were excellent company over the week or so we stayed together, and certainly made it feel a little closer to home.
Over the course of the season, I’ve been plugging my generous sponsors with each race report. Feel free to have a flick through and read up on them all. I’ve decided to leave my most supportive sponsor until last, and that is Giant Bicycles Australia. I’ve been riding Giant Bicycles almost exclusively since I began racing mountain bikes back in 2002 (I think I’m up to my 14th Giant bicycle), so to be able to represent a company that I have been a long time fan of is a real honour. These guys have offered me so much support over the past few seasons and have played a large part in both being able to fund my travel overseas and making each trip such a success. The TCX Advanced bicycles provided to me are world class, I certainly can’t claim that the difference between myself and the world’s best has anything to do with equipment. People say it’s not about the bike, but a light and reliable bike makes a world of difference when you’re churning through 30cm of mud or hoisting it on your shoulder three or four times a lap. The bikes have been entrenched in mud and cleaned again a countless number of times, and they are still working superbly (of course it helps to make use of a skilled mechanic in Roeland, Paul or Vaclav). 

This has been the trip of a lifetime, and it’s not even over yet! I fly into Tokyo in a few days to compete in “Cyclocross Tokyo,” an exhibition race sponsored by Champion Systems Japan before returning home after 3 months of racing overseas.
Finally I’d also like to thank all the support offered to me from various people on social networks, in the comment sections on Cycling Tips and my personal blog. It’s greatly appreciated!