Kicking off the 2023 race season
In this month’s column, Irish professional cyclist and Škoda ambassador Imogen Cotter chats about the start of the thrilling 2023 race season.
Hello all, and welcome back to my monthly column with We Love Cycling. My 2023 racing season has kicked off, so I thought April would be a great time to showcase the highs and lows of the season so far and tell you what it’s like to prepare for these races.
My season was scheduled to start with two UCI races in a short block in Belgium – GP Oetingen on March 8th, followed by Drentse Acht van Westerveld, just two days later. This is a little different to how my racing season would have started as an amateur. In my previous club team, Keukens Redant, which I rode for in 2020 and 2021, I would normally start off with some kermesse races – basically local races in Belgium where a lot of pros begin, but without the pressure or the level of a UCI race. These races are always great for finding your race rhythm, getting used to riding in a bunch again, and generally building up race fitness. I always felt more confident and better prepared for my first UCI race of the season if I had a couple of these races already under my belt, so it felt a bit odd to jump right into a UCI race – but I was up for the challenge! GP Oetingen followed a lot of the local roads I used to train on when I lived in Belgium, so I was excited to maybe get in a breakaway or at least attack on one of the very few climbs in Belgian races!
I flew into Belgium specifically for these two races, but as we were going to sleep the night before Oetingen, snow started to fall. The next morning, there was a lot of uncertainty about whether the race would go ahead. The roads were filled with snow and the race route was due to follow some cobbled sections, which would be incredibly unsafe in freezing conditions! A mere 15 minutes before we needed to leave the hotel to head to the race, the race was cancelled. The snow didn’t really ease up over the next few days either, and we headed to Drentse Acht van Westerveld in freezing conditions. One lap into the race, snow started to fall thick and fast – I was already struggling to feel my hands at this point, a knee injury was flaring up and the slippery roads made for a nervous peloton. I was secretly relieved when the call came over the radio that this race would also be cancelled!
So, there you have it – my racing season was postponed again! In a typical year, I would have started racing kermesses in February. It felt very odd to be waiting until the middle of April to pin a number on, but at the same time, it also felt very good to be able to continue working on my rehab and getting a big training block in.
In mid-April, I flew to Belgium again for GP Mouscron, on April 10th and Brabantse Pijl on April 12th. This is another thing that is very different when compared to life as an amateur cyclist – flying into countries specifically to race! Of course, you very quickly adapt to it, but it can be a bit weird to be chilling in the sun in Girona (where I live) one morning, and the next, be lining up against the world’s best cyclists in rainy Belgium! It requires a very quick mindset switch. I’ll be honest, I felt some pressure going into these races. Not from my team, but from myself. I have high expectations and I knew it would be harder to return to racing in mid-April, when most riders had been racing since February.
GP Mouscron was a race I had done before, and once the race got started, I felt like I could get back into the groove. We quickly went from wide to narrow roads, and road furniture and slick road signage was causing crashes left, right and centre. In these UCI races, the team cars follow behind in a convoy. I was in the second group at this stage, and the cars began to pass us on a very narrow road. A wing mirror slightly clipped my hip and I began to panic – being in such close proximity to a speeding car was very triggering for me, and I finished this race in tears.
I was determined that Brabanste Pijl would be better – and it was! Although some people may just glance through race results, and see a DNF, (did not finish) but I truly believe there is a story behind every one of them. For me, this race was confirmation that I can ride in a bunch and that I can push high watts! My team are very understanding of my recovery process and they gave me a job to do towards the beginning of the race. They knew (and I knew!) that the final of Brabantse Pijl might be a bit too heavy for me at the moment. However, it felt really good to be in the peloton with my fellow teammates and to help them work towards a team goal. It’s something I really thrive off – having an aim in a race and working as a group to achieve it. This is another aspect of professional racing that has been a game-changer for me: each rider having a role and using my energy wisely in pursuit of a collective result.
This race gave me the confidence I needed, and has made me really excited for my next race: a stage race, Gracia Orlova, in the Czech Republic next week!
Next month, I’ll be taking you through everything you need to know about altitude training and my experiences to date. Until then, happy cycling!