For a team that does cyclocross, the Christmas period is a very busy time, writes Pat Hayes, Velocity columnist and directeur sportif of the under-23 amateur women's cycle racing team AWOL. It is definitely not “the holiday season”.
Here, December and January are the climax of the racing season, with the focus on the last round of the National Trophy in mid-December and the National Championships three weeks later.
Over in Belgium the Christmas and New Year period has come to be called "Crossmas", with a race virtually every day as the mid-winter football season break allows the country’s second most popular spectator sport to take centre stage. The weather is at its best for ‘cross, too: cold and wet.
Some UK riders go to Belgium for the whole of Crossmas but, this year, two Liv AWOL riders crossed the channel for two races each: Emily Ashwood and Connie Hayes both rode at Bredene just outside Ostend; Emily also took on the crazy flood-lit night race at Diegem and Connie the more conventional race at Gullagem.
The great thing about racing in Belgium is that the courses are so challenging and the competition so good. Our girls, one of whom is working in a bike shop while waiting to join the Fire Service, the other a geography student, are riding against the World Champion Sanne Cant and all the other top professional and full-time riders.
In Belgium you also get course features of a difficulty you just don’t get in the UK: bridges, ramps, sand pits and banks that are, at worst, truly terrifying and, at best, hard to run let alone ride. Would these courses pass British Cycling’s risk assessments? One suspects not.
Races like these are part of the top league competitions, just below the Super Prestige series in status. The challenge for us is not to come last and, if at all possible, avoid being “80 per cented”. This particularly cruel practice entails any rider who has completed less than 80% of the distance achieved by the race leader, at a particular point on the circuit, being pulled out of the race.
Diegem is a particularly crazy race, on a tight circuit around the eponymous village, in the dark, with a huge crowd of inebriated fans. Emily was caught behind some of the crashes on the tarmac sections which are especially treacherous on soft, muddy tyres. She finished 65th out of a 70-plus field. At Gullagem, outside Kortrijk, the women’s field was small but high quality. Connie had nowhere to hide, but finished 28th of 35 starters.
Against more than 60 starters, including the best in the world, at the tough Bredene circuit, Emily placed 35th and Connie 44th. Both fell foul of the 80% rule, which was being strictly followed after an incident in a men’s race just before Christmas where back markers appeared to deliberately impede a leader from a rival team. These races can be dirty in all senses.
Back in the UK, after the New Year, it was time to get ready for the National Championships at Shrewsbury on 12 and 13 January. The organisers shied away from using the really hard version of the course employed a few years ago, at Shrewsbury Sports Village, after some heavy rain this was still a tough course.
We had two riders Charlotte McGreavy and Bethany Barnett in the first ever women’s junior (u18) National Championships race. Incredibly, cycling is so far behind in gender equality that, until this year, women aged under 18 had to ride the senior race.
Bethany got the “hole shot” – in other words, she was the first rider off the tarmac start straight and into the off-road section. That’s highly prized in ‘cross, where it’s always said the sprint is at the start not the finish. Tragically, she fell while running on the first off camber bank, spraining her ankle and withdrawing after two laps. But Charlotte went on to claim 8th place and lots of points.
Unlike most other European countries we still don’t have an u23 women’s race so Emily and Connie rode against the seniors. Both are only 5ft 3in so the massive 40cm steps on the bridge were a challenge. Yet Emily had her ride of the season, finishing a brilliant 14th. Connie overcame a heavy crash in the woods to place a creditable 25th from over 50 starters. With muddy bike changes every half lap, the pit crew were kept busy.
This was a great climax to a successful season. Connie placed 15th and Emily 23rd in the last round of the National Trophy at York before Christmas, too, and one rider or the other has been in the top 20 in every round of the National Trophy. Only 18 months ago, Emily sustained a horrific spiral fracture of her lower leg and here she was, 14th in the National Championships.
Away from cyclocross, the team management has been ordering bikes, helmets and other kit as part of our rebrand as AWOL (A Way of Living), which is the BTR arm of developer City and Docklands, whose chairman and CEO Gary Sacks is one of our biggest contributors.
We’ve also been applying for UCI race invitations but our first invitation is a return to the five-day Healthy Ageing Tour, which we hadn’t even requested, assuming we wouldn’t get in. We’re delighted with that and waiting anxiously to see if UCI teams take all the places in the Omloop Van Borselle one-day race. We also have an invite to the two-day Tour de Belle Ilse sur Terre, in Brittany in August. More applications are pending.
Of course every invitation comes with accommodation and travel costs, putting pressure on our tight budget. We’d welcome more sponsors as we nurture another generation of sportswomen.
Contact team AWOL via their website.