CX Apprenticeship: French Cyclocross Culture and Surviving a Tough Crash – Cyclocross Magazine

My late January was characterized by a crash, recovery, World Cup Pontchâteau and some “Belgian field trips.”

Hitting the Deck

The Wednesday before the Pontchâteau World Cup, I crashed hard in training. I had just completed a group ride and planned to do some sprints before going home.

On my very first sprint, I twisted my foot out of my pedal and likely kicked my front wheel. I was on slicks on wet pavement, so there was no recovering. In fact, there was no time to respond at all. There was only time for a single thought to flash through my head: “This isn’t going to end well.”

Because I tucked and rolled, my right side and rib cage, rather than my head, took the brunt of the crash. I knocked the wind out of myself, but I did not knock myself out.

Once I caught my breath and stood up, I was surprised to find I seemed  “mostly alright.” Nothing was obviously wrong with my body, my helmet was not cracked, and my not-so-close bike inspection found my frame wasn’t obviously broken!

I knew I had hit hard. I knew I still had to ride home. I thought I was alright, but then again, I wasn’t entirely sure. The crash happened so quickly that I was flooded with adrenaline; everything felt a bit unreal.

I was on the Schelde canal. The Schelde canal is a main cycling thoroughfare with almost no car traffic. You rarely go more than a couple minutes without seeing riders. Yet, at this time, the canal road was devoid of persons as far as I could see.

The Schelde canal where Corey crashed. photo: Corey Coogan Cisek

The Schelde canal where Corey crashed. photo: Corey Coogan Cisek

Concerned more about whether I was okay than how I was getting home, I scanned my mental Rolodex. All my truly beloved people were 4,500 miles away and asleep.

As I mentioned in my last piece, I’m an introvert who loves solace. Yet it turns out, you don’t really know “alone” until you are alone next to a canal in Belgium and not entirely sure what side is up.

Yet, I guess you are not totally alone if you have a cell phone and a data plan?

In my less-than-put-together state, I did think of some trusted and reliably calm friends I could call. Fortunately, they answered, determined I seemed okay and calmed me down. We agreed I would spin home and then check in to let them know I had returned safely.

With this, I swung my leg over my bike, took a single pedal stroke and lodged my rear derailleur in my wheel, destroying it and two spokes. My none-too-careful bike inspection had overlooked a severely bent hanger.

Situation gone from bad to worse, I checked my internal Rolodex again. Who did I know who would be least inconvenienced by having to retrieve sorry ole me from the canal road?

Luckily Gregg Germer, owner of the ChainStay cycling house in Oudenaarde, had ridden by me just minutes pre-crash and so was on my mind. I messaged, and he was able to retrieve me. Turns out, I’m not the first, nor likely the last, rider Gregg has fetched post-Schelde crash.

The Cost of a Crash

Crashing is expensive and I’m not just talking replacement bike parts.

Closer inspection of my Lazer Bullet helmet showed it had done its job and was fit to be retired. In the days that followed, I held my breath waiting for concussion symptoms, but none came.

There were just three days between the crash and the Pontchâteau World Cup. Waking up the day after the crash, I felt like I had been hit by a truck. Recovery takes energy, so Helen adjusted my training. Sometimes the best course of action is whatever it takes to find the best form for the next race.

I traveled to Pontchâteau with my right side covered in 55 Euros worth of bandages.

The Pontchâteau course was screaming fast and bumpy too.

Preride was surreal: I had AMAZING legs from all the rest, but my upper body was very angry to be bounced around. It was apparent my intercostal muscles (the muscles between the ribs) were strained in the crash. I guess that’s what happens when your rib cage bounces on pavement…

I hoped a good shot of adrenaline and race intensity would drown out pain, but no such luck. Pontchâteau is a relentless set of power climbs, and I was in pain from the very first one. Holding my core firm and pulling up on the handlebars was a massive strain on healing muscles.

Given my lead-up to the race, my performance was fine. I was 42nd and pulled 1-lap down, but staying on the lead lap in a 7-lap race is quite difficult due to short laps. Since 30-second power climbs are my happy place, it’s a shame my riding was hampered, but as they say, “That’s racing.”

The course at Pontchteau was bumpy and fast. photo: Corey Coogan Cisek

The course at Pontchâteau was bumpy and fast. photo: Corey Coogan Cisek

French ’Cross Culture

Fortunately, Pontchâteau was memorable for reasons other than nursing an injury.

I underestimated France’s cyclocross culture.

Many say the Belgians cheer only for their favorites and compare their enthusiasm to that of golf fans—I’d arguethat—but I was taken aback by the enthusiastic cheering in France.

While there were fewer fans than in Belgium (still plenty), they made up for lesser numbers with near constant cries of “Allez, allez!” Even as a back of the pack rider, I felt their respect. It seemed they acknowledged that even the later finishers were “World Cup riders.”

The French kids were fanatical. They descended upon rider parking in droves. Since I was pulled, I returned to the Cyclocross Custom tent before the finish and found a savvy youngster waiting. (Why wait for the finishers when a lapped rider is just as likely to part with their number?)

I happily obliged his hand-motioned request and gave him a shoulder number. I hadn’t finished signing it before a second kid arrived and asked for the other.

Coogan Cisek obliged a fan's request for her race number. photo: Corey Coogan Cisek

Coogan Cisek obliged a fan’s request for her race number. photo: Corey Coogan Cisek

Later kids were spotted combing the trash for riders’ numbers. Several American riders were also asked for their sunglasses. No, we cannot afford to give those away, no matter how cute the youngster!

Speaking of affording things, the biggest surprise of the trip was the tolls!

France is largely a system of tollways unless you want to take really long rural routes. The first tolls of around eight Euros were painful, but manageable. Yet, when I encountered the 37-Euro toll, my blood pressure likely spiked.

By the last toll, I merely handed over my Visa with resignation. This, folks, is how an athlete goes hopelessly over-budget!

When you get Your Hair cut … in Dutch

On the way back from France, my mechanic made a unique offer: “Do you want to get your haircut, tonight, for free?

My mechanic’s wife is a “kapper,” a hairdresser, who teaches a class at a vocational school. And that is how I ended up sitting in front of a classroom of students getting my haircut.

My haircut is fantastic and the price was right. It was, however, a little surreal to sit there while the class evaluated my hair in Dutch. It is “dik” (thick) and “krullig” (curly).

I was surprised by how delightful the whole experience was. After months of spending most of my time in sports clothes and focusing largely on how fast I can race my like, it was nice to feel “like a girl” for a bit.

Sometimes it IS all fun and Games

Tyler Cloutier, Emily Werner and I had the unique opportunity to see mattentaarten being made.

Fan of cycling and Cyclocross Custom soigneur Claude Colpaert organized a tour of Bakkerij Nevens Pascal in Geeraldsbergen.

Mattentaarten are personal-sized cakes with buttermilk as their main ingredient. They have Protected Geographical Status Indication from the European Union, so they can only be made in Geeraldsbergen, Belgium or the nearby town of Lierde.

Since buttermilk is a key ingredient, happy, native cows are important! The Geeraldsbergen cows must live happy, albeit wet lives, as Belgian grass is very green and the tarts amazing.

The bakers’ work is both large-scale (hundreds of tarts per batch) and handcrafted. While they use industrial machinery for the mixing, rolling and whipping, the eggs (some 250 of them) are cracked and separated by hand. Watching the baker’s hard work made us feel lazy!

Coogan Cisek and some friends got to watch mattentaarten be made. photo: Corey Coogan Cisek

Coogan Cisek and some friends got to watch mattentaarten be made. photo: Corey Coogan Cisek

Nearing the end

I am not attending Worlds as either participant or spectator, so I am in a holding pattern, staying in Oudenaarde and training. Beginning the Wednesday after Worlds, it’s back to full-on racing with five races within a dozen days.

I’m looking forward to one last race block before (reluctantly) wrapping up the season.