Gabriella Day is a British cyclo-cross rider based in Belgium and riding the pro-scene. I’m always surprised at how this happens – Britain isn’t the biggest cycling nation, and ‘Cross is one of the least well-known disciplines, and unlike road, track, BMX and MTB, one that isn’t supported by British Cycling. So how does a Brit even find out about cyclo-cross, let alone get to a point where they’re competing with the very best in the World? I interviewed Gabby while she was having a mid-season break at home in snowy Lincolnshire, and we spoke about all this and more – including her blogging, Belgium, and how she came back from a huge crash at the start of the season. Read on below!
Pigeons: There are still a lot of people who don’t know what CycloCross is - how would you describe Cross to newbies?
Gabby: 'Cross is an exciting side of cycling, it is easily accessible to people and is a friendly sport. It involves racing hard for 40mins-1hr, with a few dismounts per lap and sometimes a bit of running. Technical skills are important in cross too. Basically if you enjoy challenging, exciting adrenaline fuelled racing then cross is the best choice!
Pigeons: How did you even hear about the sport, let alone start riding it?
Gabby: I heard about it from the guys at my local cycling club when I was 15. After a summer of racing road races, crits & TTs they suggested I give cyclo cross a go, as this is what goes on in the winter months! I tried it out on my mountain bike to begin with, which was tough, I really found it hard! It was all very new to me, the whole cycling thing. I came from a running background – long distance track, cross country. In a funny way I enjoyed it, getting a battering every weekend at the local Lincoln League races! I was loaned a cyclo cross bike to use and this helped a lot, it was lighter and so much easier to race on. Cyclo cross kind of becomes an addiction! It is exciting
Pigeons: So how did you take the decision to become a full-time cyclist - was it a conscious choice, or did it happen naturally?
Gabby: It kind of just happened naturally. I started going out to Belgium for racing, and in the winter I eventually decided it was much better to be based out there - to be able to do the biggest races and race with the best every weekend. Riding for Stefan Wyman’s teams meant I got to race all over Europe!
Pigeons: Are you based out in Belgium full-time these days?
Gabby: I am for the cyclo cross season, but in the summer this year I will be based at home in Lincoln. It is nice to spend time at home and see my family in the summer. I have a more relaxed summer as my winter is very intense and I put lots of pressure on myself
Pigeons: I read you're riding MTB this summer - can you do that based in the UK?
Gabby: Yeah, I’m doing MTB again this summer. I was new to it last summer, so hopefully I will continue to improve. I will be doing the national series races in the UK and see what happens from there.
Pigeons: it must be hard to have to take that decision to uproot for the Cross season - but there's no other choice for women road/cross riders if they want to compete, is there?
Gabby: No, not really. If you want to be one of the best you need to be where the best riders are. It is tough but if you find the right people to help you along the way then that really helps
Pigeons: And it’s the best place for watching Cross… Which races would you recommend for people to watch, if they’re new to it?
Gabby: If you are going to watch cross then Belgium is the best place to come to watch 'real' cross, and experience a great atmosphere. It is as big as a big football match is in the UK. It is like their national sport. The fans are so excitable - and add beer and frites to the equation and that’s the Euro Cross spectating experience! Koksijde is always a huge race to watch, so many spectators come, and loads of Brits, which is great as there is always loads of support at that race. Koppenberg is another great race to watch.
Pigeons: How was it, riding Koksijde and Koppenbergcross? Koppenberg is interesting, because road cycling fans know the climb (well the right fans!) so they can picture a bit of it, but apart form THAT climb, what did they add to the course?
Gabby: That course at Koksijde is so tough! When I heard it had been made harder, I couldn’t imagine it being any harder... but they certainly succeeded! I really like Koppenberg - it suits me as a rider. I usually have great rides there. The combination of mud and running is good for me. Unfortunately I made some bad decisions on race day and this cost me a lot. But you learn from days like that and take your frustration into hitting the next race hard.
The famous Koppenberg climb is actually the easiest part of the course! This year the mud was so bad that it just stuck to the bike and made the wheels impossible to go round - so there was a lot of running! I actually lost my shoe!
Pigeons: No way! Did you just carry on, with one bare foot?
Gabby: Yeah! The mud sucked it off! I had to stop to put it back on!
Pigeons: You mentioned bad decisions in a race.... on the road, there's the chance to make things up, but cross is only about 45 minutes for the women - how do you handle that, emotionally? Do you beat yourself up, or if not, how do you get over it & move on to the next race? I am so impressed cross racers can do that.
Gabby: That is one of the tough things about cross. The race is short, so making mistakes can cost you places. I have had to learn to deal with disappointment and not let it bring me down. It is tough when you have had a bad race, as you feel upset about it, especially if you know you could have done better. It is important to not let negative thoughts drag you down, otherwise it becomes hard to focus on the week’s training. I make sure I focus on the next race. It is tough emotionally. I have certainly had lots of ups and downs in my career. But I have learnt to be strong and not let bad races bring me down. Dealing with ups and downs is all part of being a successful cyclist - it is when you have bad days, and can be positive and overcome them, that makes you the stronger athlete.
Pigeons: You've sorted out accommodation for Albertina & her friend for their winter Cross holiday [I hope she knows what she’s letting herself in for]
Gabby: Yes, it turns out they will be staying at 'The Chainstay' which is where I live! It’s a great place – their house is set up to accommodate cyclists - they get a lot of business in the summer from cyclists who want to stay in the Oudenaarde area. Gregg used to be a pro cyclist in Belgium. It is perfect for visiting cyclists, everything has been thought of. They have a lovely dog called Belle that lives there too, I take her for walks.
They are also my main sponsor – and Gregg and Holly are also my crew! Gregg has been absolutely great. He has really supported me - without the help of Gregg and Holly, it would not be possible to do what I am doing this winter. Gregg has driven me to all my races in his race van, and is my mechanic, pit crew - he is a general top guy! Holly gives great sports massages, painful, but great for getting my legs back into shape after a tough race.
I was put in touch with them by American cross racer Christine Vardoros. She said that Gregg was looking to support a cross rider this year. It has turned out to be a great move for me. Living at the Chainstay means I don’t have to pay rent and also the focus is 100% on me as the rider. I am living with 2 Canadians at the moment - Shaun Adamson and Craig Ritchey - they are lovely guys, it’s good to have guys to ride with. I am rather outnumbered though, as I am the only Brit in the house. It is mainly Canadian, so I like to correct their funny way of saying things!
Pigeons: You used to live with Helen and Stef Wyman, and now are based in Oudenaarde, where they live. Do you still hang out?
Gabby: I still meet up with the Wymans. I have coffee club with Helen every week! It’s a nice opportunity to talk with other girls, as I am predominately in a guy house. We do rate the cafes on what treats you get with the coffee though! It’s always good if you get a biscuit AND choc with your drink! I think we have tried most of the cafes out now
Pigeons: You always come across as a sunny person in your tweets, & your blog
Gabby: Thanks! I always try to be a sunny person! Blogging is great it is great for my sponsors. Twitter is great too
Pigeons: What started you blogging? Why did you start? And what do you like about it?
Gabby: As I started to do more racing, I decided it would be great to have a website to promote myself better. Having a website is a great way of attracting sponsors, and it is also good for keeping yourself in the media and letting people know what you are up to. Putting yourself out there is important. I send my blogs to all my sponsors too, which they like. Having a website and a twitter account is another great way of promoting my sponsors, I am very lucky to have great support
Twitter is great, as it means people can know more about you. I have had some great support from Gayle Howells too - she runs Seren PR, and is great to work with. So I am very lucky. Having someone like Gayle to help me out is great, she is lovely
Pigeons: Is it true you're not one of the taller riders? In my head I have a scale that runs from Pavla Havlikova at one end, to Kirsten Wild and Regina Bruins at the other – I’ve heard you’re at the Emma Pooley/Daphny van den Brand end of the scale? How does that affect your riding?
Gabby: That sure is true! It is tough if there are some big steps or big run ups - it is not as easy for me, as my legs are not as long! I am 164cm, I ride 49cm bikes! So if a big person hops on them to test the gears out etc it looks so funny
Pigeons: Do you have any tips for short folks -- stuff like getting over barriers, running up stairs, carrying the bike during races?
Gabby: Not really you just have to get on with it! Just pick your feet up.
Pigeons: Now, Podium Café always asks this.... wax or shave?
Gabby: Shave! I have waxed before, but I think I would go and get someone to do it for me. It’s the anticipation of the pain before you pull the strip off!
Pigeons: But how is that different to cross?!
Gabby: Haha! I am causing the pain
Pigeons: Isn't that the same with races? Or is it the course causing the pain? Which course is the most painful? Or is the answer "whichever I'm riding just now?"
Gabby: The course and how hard you push yourself. Normally all races, but I have to say Koksijde was very painful this year
Pigeons: Can you describe riding it? It looked crazy! How was the sand? was it the worst part?
Gabby: It was very tough! Fast, intense and lots of running. I just wish I had had a 27 cassette on, I was really struggling ride the banks when other girls around me were. Frustrating. Sand is a bit like deep mud. You have to relax and hit it hard, don’t over-think it. Kokisjde is another race I like. Last year I finished 10th and was so happy to have overcome my previous negativity about it.
Pigeons: What kind of courses are your favourite? and which do you ride best on? are they the same?
Gabby: I like muddy courses. Niel was great it was so muddy and wet. I like courses with some running too
Pigeons: What's it like when you pre-ride the course? Do you have fun with the other riders?
Gabby: All the cross girls are really friendly so it is nice. It is serious stuff during the pre ride, as you need to concentrate and make sure you get the right lines. Once you are confident on the circuit then you can have fun!
You don’t do that during the pre ride but in the race is it different. Race face on and it’s everyone for themselves
Pigeons: What's your raceface top tip?
Gabby: Be Aggressive – don’t back down - and ride hard! Don’t be bullied
Pigeons: And what's been the peak (so far) of your career?
Gabby: I would say my 9th place and 10th place in world cups - Koksijde last year and Pijnacker in Holland. This year has been more steady. I had trouble with my iron levels, but I am back on track now.
Pigeons: You crashed hard as well at the start of the season...
Gabby: Yeah, that was a nasty crash, a big shock. I was lucky to come away with only a broken finger. The rest was superficial: black eye, facial scrapes and bruised body. My finger is still strapped up now, it is still painful and swollen. I broke it on the joint so if it bends it re-fractures. Frustrating! I look very English when I drink my tea, my little finger sticks out! I will have to get it sorted at end of season. For now I just strap it up for racing or wear the plastic cast.
Pigeons: You’re having a break in Lincoln at the moment, surrounded by snow – how are you training, and are you practising ice racing?
Gabby: It has meant many hours on the dreaded turbo. I am secretly hoping Belgium has it too it will make me feel better about being home! I did try to go out on my cross bike in the quarry near my house but it turned into a running session, the snow was so deep up to my axels and knees at times so it became impossible to ride! Maybe when it starts to thaw out I can get out on the cx bike
Pigeons: How many bikes do you have, & how many at each race?
Gabby: I have 2 cross bikes at each race! They are wonderful bikes, I love them. They are Scott addicts. Scott are another of my sponsors - they have been fab, I am so lucky to be riding their bikes they are one of the lightest cx bikes around. I have loads of wheels. I could start a wheel shop. All my wheels are the same just with different tyre choices. I don’t really have a favourite, I guess as I like muddy circuits I should say Rhinos are my favourite. I use FMB tubulars
Ritchey (palipgap) supply me with the finishing kits (bars, stems, seatposts, saddles). SRAM have supplied me with top of the range RED groupsets. TRP give me my brakes. Northwave my shoes. Prendas have been a great sponsor this year, they are so generous. I love using their products. Their winter gear is great, I definitely recommend it. I am also lucky to have For Goodness Shakes for my recovery drink supplier. They taste great and are easy to use. They are a great company to work with
Pigeons: I guess if anyone knows how to test products, Cross riders do!
Gabby: They sure do, we can test stuff in all the elements!
Pigeons: Heh, mud, floods, snow! Do you ever wish you were like the elite boys, getting to ride at Curaçao, & swim with the dolphins? Or is that just wasting energy?
Gabby: Wouldn’t be bad would it! Sunshine! Would be great in the off season. But I love cross, I just love the fact it is just you and the bike riding hard for 40mins. And the crazy fans! It is really nice to have lots of fans at races, shouting your name. Although I have recently been called the Swedish champ at races...my kit is yellow and blue! Me and Fieldy [British Cyclocross rider Ian Field] should get extra money for being the Spanish and Swedish champs!
Pigeons: Finally, as a Brit (or Swede!) abroad, what's the best thing about living in Belgium? Is there anything you miss in the UK?
Gabby: Belgium is great to live in when you are a cyclist, there is so much support for it, people understand what you do and love cyclists. Very different to the UK. I miss my boyfriend and family when I am away. I am pretty happy wherever I am as long as I am with the right people.
Interview by Sarah Connolly. All photos owned by and used with permission of Gabby Day.
For more photos of Gabby's 2009/10 season, see Balint Hamvas' e-book