I’ve returned to the Pioneer Valley. I’ve settled back into my office job. I’m in the midst of my off-season so I’m unusually restless and listless. I’m missing the physiological and psychological benefits of being active and training every day.
The racing in Europe was harder than I could have ever imagined. The experience was invaluable. It’ll carry me through this next phase of my life as I push to achieve more as an athlete & human.
Tim made a small cycling accessory to commemorate the experience. You can buy one here.
I’m writing to you from Oudenaarde, Belgium, where I’m spending the next few weeks racing.
My first race was Soudal Waaslandcross Sint-Niklaas. Tim put together a fun edit to capture the experience.
Officially on the results, I finished last. We think that they may have missed my number, but in any case, I was not towards the front at all. Nearly every aspect of the race was quite different from what I’ve experienced racing in the USA. I’m excited to get some more experience here over the coming days.
I felt a gentle swell in Rochester, pushed myself up, steadied myself on a metaphorical surf board at KMC. In Baltimore I started to lose my sense of balance. So then the uninitiated surfer arrives at Stage Fort Park on the North Shore of Massachusetts. I’m uncomfortable riding at speed (but I’ve practiced!). I’m afraid of off-cambers (again, I’ve practiced!). I start freaking out when the pace picks up (but I’ve been training!).
My mind is not in the game for the whole race, both days. I don’t see the good lines so I can’t take them.
It’s good to have terrible races so that you can wake up on a sunny Wednesday and change the approach. I’ll exorcise the demons. I’ll take the time to sleep, heal, and get ready for the next time I line up. Today I go back to the forest for practice with my friends. I’ll refine my process, I’ll play, and I’ll learn.
We split our drive to Baltimore in two parts, staying the night near Allentown, PA. I dozed off multiple times to the sound of Stephen Hyde’s favorite history podcast. The problem was, I was responsible for navigating to our destination, so periodically I’d wake up, alarmed that we’d suddenly gone off course because I’d fallen asleep on the job.
We arrive in Baltimore the next day and got on our bikes. We search for the bay but we never find it, blocked out by large industrial zones. I suppose we could have tried to find the water.
Zipping through Baltimore was quite the experience. New York City’s landscape of taxi cabs and wild pedestrians really started to grate on me towards the end of my time there. I’d periodically get into yelling matches with box trucks and cabbies. Overall it was a huge stressor. Being back in such an urban cycling environment, this time with a bit more experience handling a bike, side-by-side with teammates, really made me smile.
Charm City Cyclocross snakes through a beautiful, old public space called Druid Hill Park. Organizers make good use of elevation and geographic features, pushing us to dismount several times, and giving racers little opportunity to recover each lap. There’s sand, there’s climbing, there’s a little bit of turning, there’s a horse jump. There’s sprinting up two stories of scaffolding (happy feet! happy feet!). The weather was not in our favor! 80 degrees and high humidity. I keep saying that each race is harder than my last, and this time was no different.
My biggest takeaway from my weekend racing in Baltimore is that I’m still racing like a ballerina, face and upper body composed, relaxed, completely detached from my lower body, whereas my competitors (the ones who keep beating me) are all over the bike, pulling and pushing every last bit of power out of their bodies. I’m trying to find a way to unleash my inner wild woman on race day. Next up is Gran Prix of Gloucester, where we may see glimpses of her.
This week has a different schedule and throws off my typical routine. Wednesday is a super late night. I make the trip in the van with my teammates to the Midnight Ride of Cyclocross- this time as a spectator. I got to throw my lions mane into a ponytail on top of my head and walk around in cutoffs and a tank top, smiling, without the stress of preparing for a race. The energy is palpable! It’s really fun to watch teammates and friends race under the lights. I need a lot of help “heckling.”
Friday’s ride happens on Thursday, and on Friday we race at dusk. I work a full day at the office and pick my bike (freshly tuned!) at Al’s. I make plans to ride Fomer with Trevor and Scott. It’s a favorite road of mine. We ride easy, and once we split off I do a small effort to open up my legs for the next day’s race.
Even with the jumbled scheduled of the week, on Tuesday I’m already setting my intentions for the weekend. I tell myself that I’ll easily fall within the top 15 in this race, which at this race means that I’d earn UCI points. I convince myself that I have everything I need to execute. I start pumping myself up with pop tunes, thinking anything is possible.
On Friday morning the light is bright and I get to have a nice, long breakfast with Tim. He chuckles that I’m very visibly nervous while having previously proclaimed “I have this under control! I’m not nervous!” I have big goals for the night and they get the best of me.
I have a mediocre start and have to make up many, many places on Friday night. I miss the front and off they go. It’s a course suited to group racing so I try to stick the furthest group forward that my fitness will allow. Slowly I fall back, out of the group for 12th-14th. Another group catches me and we are going to have to fight for 15th place.
Teammates yell to “get that next girl” “win this group.” I don’t think I have it in me to do it. It seems impossible. I focus and stay calm, trying to gather myself until the last lap, when I give it everything I have to be first to the dusty off-camber feature. There it was: a bit of separation. I have to completely empty myself to keep that tiny gap and finish 15th.
Rod, the one who facilitated my first cyclocross race, was on the finish line. I devolve into a puddle of tears and thank him for, “well, everything.” Mike, a trusted friend from Easthampton is there, too. Tim films it all.
I did it – I earned one UCI point. The rankings updated today, Tuesday, and I’m there: #473 – Natalie Tapias – 29 years old (Well, actually I’m 28 but to the UCI I’m 29.)
Saturday is a confusing day- because typically we race Saturday-Sunday. I go on a recovery ride with Julie and I take us on an Easthampton loop that ends at the sculpture orchard. We drink warm apple cider. I spend the rest of the day in bed, waiting for Sunday.
Sunday was a C2 race. I have a good start and it’s a ripping first lap. Julie gets the hole shot! My heart rate is high and I don’t feel great. I gradually fade back and find renewed energy and determination once Regina catches me (here we go!). Instead, I fall and spend some time wrestling a stake out of my rear wheel.
Once the racing is all over, we pack up our things and gather around the van. We coordinate with Scott who’s ridden off into the sunset for a few more training miles and plan on grabbing him at some point along our drive home. Of course a phone dies and it takes a bit of triangulation/guesswork to estimate where on the dark highway he might be. We do find him, everyone breathes a sigh of relief, and we tell him to “get in the van.” We wrap up the weekend at an Easthampton noodle restaurant. Everyone’s eager for the next bit of racing.