Last week, Jalapeno Cycling’s owner, Kathryn Cumming, was invited to compete in the World Cup in Bern, which is a special treat as only a limited amount of racers from each country are allowed to participate. The culture, environment, and level of competition are far different than a local race, or even a standard American UCI race. Today, Kate writes about what it was like to head to Europe to race against the best in the world.

words by Kathryn Cumming, title photo by Elisa Haumesser.

Andrew and I were excited to travel to Switzerland. The opportunity to race a World Cup doesn’t come around often, but the location of this event also played a big role in our decision to attend. We try to take advantage of exploring everywhere we go, and a quick Google search of the Old World city of Bern had us convinced that this was going to be an awesome trip!

I must admit that I was intimidated looking at the start list. I had only watched several of the top contenders on TV, and I still remember spectating in awe as Marianne Vos won the World Championships in Louisville, Kentucky. Vos is a legend and being on course with her was going to be special but brutal.

There are plenty of races at home where I still get my butt kicked, but the best in the world were converging on Bern, Switzerland, and it was going to be worthwhile to check it out. Fields that deep have a way of pushing me to my limit. The energy that accompanies these deep athletic efforts carries well beyond the event itself, and I find myself striving to be better. The intensity and drive is contagious.

My experience racing World Cups is limited, but the feel of racing a European World Cup is very different than racing an American World Cup. Unless you are at the front of the field (which I am not in a World Cup), American World Cups feel more like a local race. You know who you are battling and it’s mostly known factors. Often the races play out as expected. On the other hand, in European World Cups, there is an unknown to many of the competitors, and it forces you to be on your toes for the entire race.

It was helpful to see some familiar faces during the pre-ride, and Katie Compton’s husband, Mark Legg, was kind enough to offer support and advice for the American women throughout the weekend.

Our first success of race day came when Andrew and I scored a great parking spot. Parking in the UCI lots in Europe can be an ordeal, as the spaces are tight and limited and everything is being guarded by European mechanics and team managers. Most areas are covered in a haze of cigarette smoke. Each team setup even has ashtrays for the support staff; it seems a little counterproductive for an athletic-focused event.

Much like the World Cup in France and those in America, the environment around the race was upbeat, with smiling faces and cheering families. The course was like one big playground, with drainage ditches, bunny hopping, and ramps. Europe has been dry all fall, and the gravel and grass seemed more like dust in many areas. It was going to be FAST!

After Andrew and I watched the Junior Men’s start, the rest of my day became consumed with self talk. The start was so fast I stood in awe. This race was going to be as fast as they come and I needed to remind myself that I deserved to be there.

During my warm-up on the trainer, I played through some of my racing successes in my head, a necessary positive reinforcement that I could handle the speed.

After receiving my call-up, I went full Euro-mode and proceeded to cram my front wheel between the riders in front of me on the starting grid. While we remain in orderly lines in the US, in Europe you fight for every millimeter before the light even turns green. Our eight-row starting grid was probably condensed to four rows. My handlebars were between the hips of the riders in front of me, elbows out, ready to go.

About thirty seconds or so before the start, they cut the music and started playing a heart beat loudly over the speakers. Nothing like growing the tension. You could visibly see the shoulders of riders tighten up. I kept breathing trying to relax. The start was long and there would be plenty of time to move up.

The light turned green and I found my pedal right away. It finally felt like all of my top-end power work paid off as I snuck through every opening I could find. I had to take advantage of gaps or else they would close instantly. We turned on to the gravel with speed, and rocks were flying everywhere. I kept sprinting to move up every time I saw an opening. Next we hopped a curb onto a grass straightaway filled with rock gardens. It was a pure drag race to maintain power through the bumps and avoid the booby traps waiting to claim a tire or wheel.

We hopped the drainage ditch and I heard a handful of clangs, several carbon wheels didn’t survive. We then hit the dusty off-camber climbs. They were steep and slippery and I had dismounted and was running with traffic before I even hit the first of the three climbs. In an effort to gain spots, I was running downhill as fast as possible, desperately grabbing the wooden stake at the bottom with my left hand to slow myself in time.

Racers were battling for every corner like it was the last on course. A half lap in my mouth already had the metallic taste of blood. This was going to be crazy.

The pace did not slow, and at one point I remember thinking “How is everyone riding that section so fast,” then I had to remember that I was racing in a European World Cup. There was nowhere to hide your weaknesses.

For the first time ever in a race, I desperately drafted through the start/finish chute. I frantically chased down the wheels in front of me when I hit the pavement, thinking this was my only chance at survival. As soon as I caught the wheels, I had to tell myself “BREATHE, BREATHE.”

I felt great on the power sections and through the corners, but chasing on after the bunny hopping and loose, rutted corners eventually took its toll. I started moving backwards in the field. The tank was pretty empty and all of the downhill running and sprinting were making my quads feel like they could seize up at any minute.

For the first time in probably five years, I rolled through the finish feeling proud that I made the lead lap. The race truly made every crit and road race I have done in the last several years feel slow, and with Marianne Vos leading the charge, I was excited to have kept the time gap from her to me somewhat reasonable.

I knew I would not be going to Europe to score some incredible result. This opportunity was all about racing against the best in the world. Although, I must admit, with a bit more training of my weaknesses, I would love another crack at that field.

It was helpful to have complete confidence in my bike. While the course may have looked like a road race, there were lots of rough, bumpy sections, several loose and dusty off cambers, ruts, and steep climbs. Furthermore, we were hitting course obstacles at faster speeds than I thought possible. The risk factor was high. My Sage PDXCX held its line through everything and then responded to each acceleration. It played mountain bike, road bike, and cross bike without missing a beat. While I was exhausted after the race, my body did not feel thrashed from the bike, just from the intensity.

Thinking about the race still gets me excited. Being surrounded by the top level of competition and having to fight for every spot was so much fun!

Cyclocross racing is short and I would not have it any other way. While it can be enjoyable to see how long and far your body can go, my preference is to be fully consumed by the event. Every pedal stroke, every line, every heartbeat, and every breath seem to matter during a cyclocross race, and I find myself wanting more of this each week.

I am blown away by the support I received from our community, both in Bern and from afar. Bikes bring people together in a special way, and the text messages, emails, and words of encouragement really hit home.