The cyclo-cross season's big finale is just around the corner, and while fans just can't wait until Sunday's main events - the elite women's and men's UCI Cyclo-cross world championships in Koksijde - the riders themselves are trying to contain the excitement, nervousness and stress. What is US champion Katie Compton's method for handling the pressure? Angry Birds.
"It's tough leading up to the biggest race of the season," Compton told Cyclingnews. "Most of the time is spent relaxing and hanging out, trying not to think about it too much. That's the biggest challenge - the rest of the season you're so busy training and racing. When you're tapering the hardest part is the waiting, the excitement and the build up for the race.
"You want it to be tomorrow, but you also don't want it to be tomororw. It's like studying for the final exams, you want to get it over with, but you also might not be ready for it."
When asked what she does to kill the time in between now and Sunday's showdown, Compton admitted to dabbling in some video games. "I have completed a level for Angry Birds (a cartoon-ish video game where players use slingshots to launch flightless birds in an attempt to kill evil pigs), I'm not sure if I'm proud of that or not. It's a good distraction - and I've been reading. I have some good books to take my mind off of things - just stupid mysteries."
This calm before the storm will all be over on Sunday morning, and after one last quiet evening with family and friends, Compton will transform herself from pig-slayer and sleuth into the fierce competitor who will try to conquer the sands of Koksijde against one of the toughest fields to date.
Daphny Van Den Brand's form has been coming on strong and she's already impressed on the same course when the World Cup visited there in November, and other riders like Katerina Nash, Lucie Chainel-Lefevre and Helen Wyman can never be discounted, but defending world champion Marianne Vos will be everyone's biggest foe - and she hasn't lost in the past 15 races,
"She's riding really fast right now. it's the fittest I've ever seen her. Obviously she's on top of things, and she's going to be really hard to beat on Sunday. Daphny's riding really well too. It's going to be tough.
"I want to have a good start and a clean race in the sand. and put everything into it and have a good day. If I do that I'll be happy with wherever I finish. Hopefully that's on the podium, but we'll see."
Compton's normal confidence was shaken a bit by finishing off the podium at last weekend's World Cup finale in Hoogerheide. While she didn't place utmost importance on the World Cup overall, she would have liked to have won or finished on the podium there. Instead, she spent most of the race worrying about protecting her third overall in the series from Frenchwoman Chainel-Lefevre.
"I got a good start, which is what I wanted, but I made a couple mistakes. I took a turn too wide and went into the pit instead of going on course - it was a stupid mistake, but it meant I had to take a bike on the first lap. I lost about 10 spots, and then I was stuck in traffic trying to chase on.
"On the third lap I crashed - Katerina and I were chasing Marianne and I lost my front end on this sandy downhill and crashed, and took Katerina down. I lost the rhythm and had to get that back, and then I was tired from chasing.
"It was one of those days where I was looking behind me instead of in front of me. Whenever you have one of those days you know it's not good."
Last November in Koksijde was similarly bad, as Compton went into the race feeling fatigued, and battled some mechanical problems during the race that made her third place there a battle to obtain.
But since then, Compton has achieved a balance between the stress of racing and training and rest, and is coming into this weekend's world championship better rested and with her mechanical issues ironed out. It's a big change from previous years when severe leg cramps forced her to drop out of important races.
"I've actually felt pretty good all season, I've been able to train and travel and the leg pain hasn't been bad. I'm actually feeling better than I ever have, and my fitness is good. It's just a matter of having a little luck on the day."
Compton will be joined in Koksijde by a stronger-than-ever US women's team: Amy Dombroski has been in Belgium all season, but is just coming back from a nagging illness; Meredith Miller had a strong showing in Hoogerheide in 11th, and along with Nicole Duke, Andrea Smith comes Compton's coaching client, Katie Antonneau.
While having to help a client at the same time racing your biggest event of the season might be impossible for some coaches, Compton said that Antonneau is self-reliant and a quick learner who knows when to steer clear and when it's OK to ask questions.
Helping Antonneau prepare for the race also serves to reinforce the same strategies that Compton herself has to use to mentally and physically prepare herself for the big day.
"I think we both have the same kind of nerves and the same kind of internal pressure, and I think it does help me to have her there. I tell her to just focus on the preparation, the warm-up and the pre-ride and just to ride her bike in the race and not to worry about the outcome. If she does everything right beforehand and gets in the race and feels good, she'll do well.
"It's the same thing I'll be thinking about before the race: what I need to do to go fast, and hopefully that's fast enough, I have a good day and I get what I'm looking for."
Meanwhile, Compton is counting down the days, ticking off levels of Angry Birds and trying not to think about the race - trying to make the next five days truly the calm before the storm.
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