Mucky conditions at the European Cyclo-cross Championships

A team of four junior riders were selected for last weekend’s European Cyclocross Championships in Silvelle, Italy. The young team, all participating in their first major cyclocross event, were Roisin Lally, Darcey Harkenss (Junior women) and Ciaran Dixon and Darren Rafferty (Junior men).

Photo credits Sean Lally and Andy Layhe.

Conditions in the run up to the event were good over recent weeks with temperatures in the late teens and the course was expected to be dry and fast, however some serious rain in the two days leading into the championships left the course completely waterlogged and it was clear conditions were going to be tough for all competitors.

The team of four riders and four staff of Andy Layhe, Paul Birchall, Liz Roche and Paidi O’Brien headed to the venue on Friday for the first recon laps of the course, then again on Saturday to see the conditions had worsened. Some work was carried out on the bikes late Saturday to ensure all was ready for Sunday’s early race starts.

Strong sunshine and blue sky but a waterlogged, mud drenched course greeted the riders on Sunday morning. Warm ups ensued and the two junior women riders made their way to the 9 am race start. Thrity-six riders lined up and it was a frantic start into the first corner. With the Irish riders starting from the back of the grid it was always going to be tough passing riders. With around 70% of the course having to be run it was going to be a slog for the 40 minute race, but it was the same for all riders so it still produced a worthy winner.

Due to the conditions, riders were forced to change bikes every half lap and the battle for the washers between the 13 nations pit crews was intense! Paidi, Paul, Liz and Andy worked hard to ensure the riders were presented with clean bikes every change. This was a welcome relief to the riders as conditions took their toll.

Both Darcey and Roisin battled hard in conditions they’d not faced before to finish on the same lap as the winner. Darcey came home 33rd and Roisin 26th so a great experience for them.

Roisin, only a first year junior said, “Riding the European championships in Italy was an incredible experience and I’m very lucky to have had this opportunity. The atmosphere made it one of the craziest races I’ve ever been in, it’s not often you get people hanging over the barriers with air raid sirens and two stroke chain saws!”

Roisin added, “The conditions were really tough which meant a lot of running and bike changes but thankfully the staff of the Off Road Commission Cycling Ireland sent to manage the riders were amazing. All staff were so helpful both in the race and across the other days we were out there. They all went above and beyond to make sure the riders had everything we needed to do the best we possibly could. I really can’t thanks Andy, Liz, Paul and Paidi enough! I loved every second of the trip and really pleased with how I performed to get 26th and would love to have another opportunity like this again in the future.”

Staff only had ten minutes to gather themselves between the end of the junior women’s race and the start of the junior men’s event. Darren and Ciaran carried out their warm ups and headed to the start to begin the biggest race of their careers to date.

Again the start was frantic, but both riders made it through the chaos. Gridding wasn’t favourable but they began picking off riders as the race progressed. Half lap bike changes were still the order of the day! Darren suffered a nasty crash halfway through the race with bloodied leg he battled on through the conditions, passing some quality riders from notable cyclocross nations such as the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Darren finished 38th and Ciaran 59th from 68 riders representing seventeen nations.

A muddied and tired Ciaran finished the race but spirits were high, “The European cx championships was my first experience at this level of competition and my first time riding for Ireland. I had a great experience with plenty of things to learn from and improve on, riding what was a physically demanding course with lots of running and changing conditions. It was very valuable to be able to race against the best juniors in Europe and to be able to see the professionals fight it out on what turned out to be a very different course. I can’t thank Cycling Ireland enough for the opportunity especially to Andy, Liz, Paul and Paidi for all their help.”

Darren, a first year junior, has also had a great season on the road and stepped up to the challenge well in his first major event, “For me it was a great experience at the European championships in Italy. The opportunity to race in a major championships in the green of Ireland allowed me to see the quality of the junior field in Europe and where I am within this category. I have realised how much improvement is necessary to compete at the top at the highest level and how important gridding and UCI points really are! It was great to have the support of Andy, Paidi, Paul and Liz over the weekend as without them the weekend would not have ran as smooth as it did. What a great pit crew!”

Many thanks to all the riders and staff for their help and input. We must also thank those who helped raise some much needed funds for this event through the various fundraising ideas that took place up and down the country over recent weeks.