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Canadian XC Racers in Europe

June 20, 2008 (Madrid, Spain) – Eleven of us XC racers were slouched in our chairs around the long rectangular table, relaxed and exhausted after our third MTB World Cup race in as many weeks. This outdoor dinner gathering hosted by Pedal at a lakeside restaurant in the sprawling city park, Casa de Campo, near downtown Madrid, signified the end of a long stint of travelling, training and racing in Europe for all of us.

For some it was their first time contesting MTB World Cups across the pond, whereas others were all too familiar with the confusion of highways, baffling signage, language barriers, and myriad rental cars, hotel rooms and airports that come with the package — not to mention the actual racing. With more competitors than you can shake a banana at, massive crowds, and the ever-important start, with its elbows, swerving, bike contact and unpredictability, it was obvious we weren’t in Canada anymore. Despite the stresses that come with racing in Europe, there are things that keep the veterans coming back and entice the rookies to speak in the future tense — as if there is no question that they will return next year.

We were all dressed for summer, although it was just early May. In Madrid, however, springtime meant temperatures in the high 20’s, which made the race course dusty and the air in the city of 4.5 million constantly gritty. On this Sunday evening, Spanish families strolled along the lake or paddled rowboats around the giant fountain in its centre. Beyond the water, we were treated to a view of Madrid’s Baroque architecture.

Our waiter began with drinks, pouring Mical Dyck (Can) Trek-VW and Catharine Pendrel (Can) Luna Women’s MTB Team pear-shaped glasses of chilled beer. Alison Sydor (Can) Rocky Mountain, Derek Zandstra (Can) Scott-3 Rox, Emily Batty (Can) Trek Store Toronto, Sylvain Badia (Fra) Opus, Kiara Bisaro (Can) Opus, Amanda Sin (Can) Scott-3 Rox, and Ricky Federau (Can) Team Ricky, Wendy Simms (Can) Kona, and I shared a couple of bottles of a Spanish Crianza red and several litres of mineral water.

Then came the appetizers: baskets of crusty baguettes, thin wedges of Iberian cured ham, sweating slices of Manchego cheese, house made croquettes (“You have to try these,” said Sydor, biting one of the golden parcels in half), and mixed salad with olives, onions and tuna. Like at a big family holiday dinner, we all raised our glasses and toasted to a successful season, before tucking into the Spanish delicacies. Our chewing didn’t keep us from chatting, however.

Opposite me relaxed Dyck, wearing a white tank top layered atop a turquoise one to match her skirt. She had been complaining about the chilly, wet spring in Europe for nearly her entire three-week stay, alternating between praising her hometown of Calgary (“It never rains in Calgary!”) and the agreeable weather in California and Arizona, where she spent a few weeks earlier in the season, racing the first two NMBS events. Now she was happily soaking up the heat.

“Oxen have nice loins,” she commented after taking a bite of the tender oxen medallion she had just removed from the smoking mini barbeque atop our table, that she, Pendrel, Federau and I were sharing. “This is really good,” agreed Federau.

“You don’t get dinner for free,” Pendrel warned Federau. “There’s always a price.”

Dyck’s first foray into European racing since attending Worlds in Livigno, Italy in 2005 didn’t quite start out as planned. The week before she made trip over, the 5’10″ multiple Canada Cup Series winner came down with the flu. Add that to nearly 30 hours of travelling and an eight-hour time difference, and she wasn’t feeling so stellar come race day in Houffalize, Belgium — the first of three consecutive World Cups. “By the time the third lap came around, my body just started shutting down,” she said after placing a disappointing 57th. Dyck treated herself to a post-race crepe with Nutella, refocused, recovered, and hit World Cup #2 in Offenburg, Germany the following weekend to better her result significantly, finishing 29th. In Madrid, her final World Cup in Europe, Dyck kicked it up another notch to place 27th. The competitive all-round athlete (she used to play soccer and volleyball, she runs and XC skis”¦) is not satisfied with her performances, but she’s not sure she’ll be back in Europe next year. She has a while yet to decide — and hopefully drum up some more team support, as the financial aspect is the biggest limiting factor for the recent university grad. Dyck will continue her season, contesting NMBS races, select Canada Cups, Nationals, the Canadian World Cups, and — her season highlight — the Trans Rockies.

“How do you do it?” Dyck turned to Alison Sydor (Can) Rocky Mountain, who lounged to her left. We were discussing the infamous World Cup start, and how Sydor has the seemingly magical talent of surging from the back to the front of the pack in a very short time.

Sydor wore her straight blonde hair pulled back in a low ponytail and smiled faintly, leaned back and took in her surroundings. After a pause, she answered Dyck’s question: “Patience”¦. All you have to do is be patient. You just have to wait for the hole to open — and it will open. I never touch or push anyone.”

Suddenly Simms accidentally bumped her glass of wine and it flowed across the table into Sydor’s lap. After the fuss of stopping the flood and mopping it up, the subject had changed, and Sydor was talking about a vivid dream she’d had about her dog, and how she feared for his safety. “I dreamt about my sister’s conception day,” she offered to explain the reliability of her dreams. “I think I’m some sort of witch or something.”

Sydor’s opening World Cups didn’t go as planned either. After winning the intensive eight-day Cape Epic Stage Race (“The Cape Epic was awesome,” she said. “It was the best sporting event I’ve done in my life.”) Sydor got sick. When she arrived in Europe, she was still not recovered, and then came down with a tooth infection, followed by another cold. She had to take time off the bike, and knew that she wasn’t going to be a contender, so she did the World Cups as training (another way of looking at World Cups). Her plan is to train at home before she contests her next big event: the Trans Germany stage race from June 1-7 with teammate Pia Sunstedt (Fin) Rocky Mountain. (which she and Pia won).

“This course is so fast,” said Pendrel, who sat on my left. Count on good ol’ Pendrel to bring the conversation back to racing.

“It’s so easy to blow up here,” agreed Sydor. Pendrel, who was celebrating another top 10 World Cup result, was also enjoying the barbequed oxen and crispy French fries and green peppers served with it. By looking at her, it’s not evident this lean machine loves to drink beer and eat red meat, pastries and lemon white chocolate (a happy discovery in Switzerland).

Next to Sydor sat the somewhat scrawny [he’s a bike racer after all], brown-haired Zandstra, eating steak and talking about how his second time racing overseas was very different from his first, which was at the 2006 World Championships in Rotorua, New Zealand, as a part of the National Team at the World Championships. He never imagined how much more difficult it would be, travelling and racing without the support of a team. The 23-year-old found himself in the feed zone during the women’s races in Houffalize and Offenburg, passing bottles to teammate Amanda Sin (Can) Scott-3 Rox Racing, while eating his pre-race meal, instead of going through the motions of a proper, stress-free pre-race regimen. Sin returned the favour during Zandstra’s races, after she had crossed the finish line. “You get support at Worlds. They [National Team staff] pick you up, everything’s arranged. Here you have to do everything yourself. Get a GPS,” said Zandstra.

The Ontarian was not discouraged, however. “Cycling is part of mainstream culture here. European racing is definitely the way to go,” he said. “I’m going to go home, chill for a bit”¦. Who knows? I might want to go do Europe again [for World Cups #4 and #5], depending on funding.”

The towering, quiet Sylvain Badia smilingly listened and surveyed the scene. He seems shy and unassuming, but another aspect of Badia’s personality is his incredibly deadpan humour, which is often misconstrued for the truth. The Frenchman is well acquainted with the Canadian riders, having been hired on several occasions by the CCA as a mechanic for National Team projects — it was at the World Championships in Lugano, Switzerland in 2003, when he and Kiara Bisaro (Can) Opus first met. The two kept in touch over the years, and eventually a romance blossomed. Badia now travels to races with Bisaro, and provides race support for the star Opus rider. He is also known to generously support other Canadian riders in need of a feed, stretching his almost telescopic arm to racers when needed. While Bisaro is in Europe, the two live with Badia’s parents near Toulouse, France. Badia spent last winter with Bisaro in her hometown of Courtenay, BC.

“It’s lots of stress in the morning until the start,” said Badia of race day. “I’m doing it right now [acting as Bisaro’s mechanic, soigneur and feeder], because it’s the best way to support Kiara.”

“I like the feeding zone too. You always have to watch. It’s always exciting, it’s always a surprise, you always have to be ready.” Many Canadian racers are lucky Badia is such a keen feeder, as someone to hand bottles out during races is often hard to come by and Badia is often called upon. [Thanks Sylvain!]

Badia slid out of his chair and crouched beside me, looking around furtively. “I have to tell you,” he said quietly. “Emily Batty tried octopus”¦ and she liked it.”

I walked to Batty’s side of the table, parked myself in the empty chair next to hers and inquired about her experience with the cephalopod — a Mediterranean delicacy. Batty had ordered a steak “I’ve been missing home,” she explained. (Batty grew up on a cattle farm in Ontario.) It was Bisaro who had convinced Batty to try a bite of her octopus. “It had the texture of chicken and I didn’t taste seafood, but it was worth trying,” Batty described. “I ate the tentacles.”

“I’m quite the fan of Spanish octopus,” said Bisaro. “I love it. I’d have to say, it’s one of my favourite meals.”

Emily Batty, 19, the youngest member of the Canadian crew, started off her second senior season with some stellar performances at the early NMBS races (5th at NMBS #1), which led to her last-minute decision to skip over the Atlantic and try her hand at some of the most competitive mountain bike racing on earth. It’s difficult for those who have witnessed her career develop (from winning cadet women’s races at Ontario Cups to multiple Junior National Championship titles), to remember she is no longer 16. The petite, blonde Batty, with her wide eyes and engaging smile, spoke positively about her European World Cup experience. She placed a respectable 37th in Offenburg and 53rd in Madrid. “I always knew the starts were very important, but you gotta experience it to know what you gotta do,” said Batty. “It’s so important to get to where you wanna be.”

Bisaro, beside Badia, leaned her head on her right hand, supported by an elbow on the table. Her melee of dark brown curls enveloped her hand. Her smile (a Bisaro trademark), was slightly troubled. Bisaro, who represented Canada at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, and is one of the contenders to make the team again this year, had not been racing at her best. She was still feeling the consequences of a gruesome crash from last year, and was unable to finish the race in Madrid. She was glad it was finally time for a break before the next World Cups — still Olympic qualification races — so she could get her health sorted out. “I’m really gonna try to figure out what’s going on with my body,” she said. “That’s the most important thing right now.”

She became thoughtful. “Right now, Catharine [Pendrel] is riding really well, but I’ve looked at the Olympic qualification and it’s still not out of the question for me, but it’s farther away. I’m not giving up”¦ but I don’t want to go to the Olympics if I’m not ridng well. If Marie-Hélène [Prémont] and Catharine can do the best job, then they should go.”

Sin is on Bisaro’s left. She’s wearing a pink tank top that shows off her muscular back, shoulders and arms. It is her first time racing World Cups in Europe, which are notoriously more competitive than the ones in North America or anywhere else, since, if they’re not at the top of the heap, the bulk of Europeans don’t make the trip overseas. Sin’s speech is roiling with waves of energy. She is very emphatic and excitable, especially when the conversation turns to one of the many adventures she’s had on this short trip, from getting incredibly lost trying to find her hotel on the outskirts of Madrid (“I just wanted to pull over and cry”) to finding a woman selling produce out of the back of a box truck during a training ride (“You guys, I’m telling you, she had everything!”).

“I totally want to come back,” she said. Racing in Europe seemed to agree with Sin. “Just to be part of an event like this is so amazing.” The 31-year-old is currently 45th in the World Cup standings and she sounded like one of the only Canadians who didn’t want to go home. “I don’t really have a home right now,” she explained. Sin is in the process of moving and quitting her job — a perfect scenario for sticking around Europe and racing bikes. Reality set in, however, and the last time I saw her was in the Madrid airport. Since returning home, Sin picked up a couple of second place finishes in the first two Canada Cups. Those results just may be enough for a spot on the Worlds team and a trip back to Europe”¦.

“You just rip their heads off, then their legs,” said Simms. She wasn’t talking about her competitors, but explaining to Sin how to eat the large plates of shrimp they had both ordered. In Spain, they are served whole, with legs, heads, feelers and beady eyes still attached.

Simms, 36, took a year-long leave of absence from her teaching job at Malaspina College in Nanaimo, B.C. in order to chase the dream. The tall, freckled strawberry blonde has been racing for ages and always showed potential (she placed 16th at two World Cups in 2006 and was 7th at the 2008 Cyclocross World Championships), but she never gave it her full attention. Now that she has, though, it’s not exactly going as planned. “I don’t know, I’m goalless,” she said after placing 40th in Madrid. She waffled with whether or not to return to Europe for the next two World Cups in Europe, but finally she couldn’t say “no.”

“I’m having fun for sure,” said Simms of the full-time racer lifestyle. “I haven’t changed my training that much, but it still takes time for your body to get used to it.”

Later this summer, she’s taking on the BC Bike Race and the TransRockies Challenge. “I’m probably going to do a full World Cup cyclocross season,” she added. “I’m really pumped about it. I love the courses, the people, the fans.”

Finally there sat Federau. Lanky with a roundish head, shock of straight light brown hair, and a usually mischievous grin, Federau, 26, has been on the Canadian MTB scene for as long as I can remember. He holds national titles in all three categories: Junior, U23 and Elite. The son of a B.C. chicken farmer has an incredibly unique way of speaking, peppered with “Rickyisms,” including “That was the best [insert verb or noun here] ever!” This year, the ever-optimist became discouraged. “I’m pretty unmotivated right now,” he admitted. “I don’t think I will race a World Cup ever again.”

“I think I’m gonna race the Test of Metal and the Canmore Canada Cup, just “˜cause I just want to go there and have fun. If it’s not fun, I ain’t doin’ it. World Cups are definitely not fun right now.” He cites unsportsmanlike behaviour from fellow competitors and lack of sponsorship and support for his pessimism towards mountain bike racing. “I’d like to send out a big thanks to the Polish National Team for taking care of me at all the World Cups,” he added. Federau travelled with the Poles to the first three World Cups and he was blown away by the generosity and support they showed him, even though he’s not even Polish.

What Federau is most excited about doing this summer, however, is attending the Calgary Stampede. “I’m gonna ride the mechanical bull. Yeeha!”

After gourmet ice cream desserts, we all slid a little lower in our chairs, smiling sleepily and sighing. “This is so great,” someone said. “We never all get a chance to hang out like this.” Suddenly the waiter appeared, carrying tall bottles of syrupy looking liqueurs and shot glasses, which he placed on the table. We all looked at one another, took some experimental sniffs from the bottles, and tentatively filled the little glasses. When everyone had a glass in hand, we stood up and saluted a final time to an enjoyable 2008 season — doing whatever it was that we were doing.

The next Nissan UCI MTB World Cup takes place May 31-June 1, in Vallnord, Andorra, followed by World Cup #5, June 7-8, in Fort William, Scotland and then the 2008 MTB Worlds in Italy. Only two Canadian men and four Canadian women (sans current women’s World Cup leader, Prémont) are on the start list for Andorra.

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