All Eyes On Fayetteville

All Eyes On Fayetteville

Credit: Kenza Barton Schlee (@kbschlee)

Nobody ever said it would be easy. But early this season, Raylyn Nuss was making it look that way. She ripped a victory at the Pan American games, then came second at the US national championships early in December. For an analytical development scientist who is competing in only her fourth season ever as a ‘cross racer, these victories were a monumental statement. Raylyn had ditched her career with Pfizer to focus on racing for the Steve Tilford Foundation, as well as running the team, and her dedication and focus was paying off. With the 2022 World Championships looming in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and a spot on the team assured from her performances at Pan-Ams and Nationals, she followed the path of dedication and headed to Europe for her baptism by fire in the World Cup arena.

Racing cyclocross in Europe is brutal. The Belgians and the Dutch have spent generations battling through the frozen much of winter, and the competitive climate in those countries is orders of magnitude different than racing back home in the US. Raylyn went in prepared, ready to learn, accompanied by a solid coach and mentor in Chris McGovern, and in league with a solid cadre of compatriots who were all in Europe for similar honing of their race craft. But this is Europe, and this is cyclocross, and it is anything but a walk in the park.


Credit: Kenza Barton Schlee (@kbschlee)

“How is everything different about ‘cross in Europe?” Raylyn self-queried in her Tilford Foundation newsletter last week. “Deeper and stronger fields. No true start grid - everyone jams in any open space. The tracks are much more challenging. Mud - always mud, and the soil has a different texture. True ruts. Venues are nothing like the parking lots of the US scene - you park on town streets, sometimes a 5 minute ride to the start line…”

The mud. The eternal powersucking mud. If not the mud, the sand. The relentless off-camber grassy hillsides that become slicker and more treacherous with each lap. The ruts that demand you somehow stay loose enough to flow smoothly along them even as you bang shoulders with the rider next to you. The constant fight to make up ground. The sheer hunger of every other racer jostling for your position. The insanely powerful fistful of Dutch women who are currently dominating the sport – enough of them to completely blanket the first row of any start, every one of them a serious contender.

Nobody said it would be easy. It wasn’t. Jet-lagged and stiff legged from hours in a plane followed by hours in a car is probably not ideal prep for a World Cup. Let alone two in a row, back-to-back, in a weekend World Cup doubleheader; first Rupchen, then Namur. Rupchen, a blazing fast course punctuated by the dizzying taped spiral at its heart. Namur, the legendary citadel, an insanely technical course littered with slippery roots, steep ups and downs and greasy off-camber runs. Welcome to Europe, champ. 42nd in Rupchen, 46th in Namur.


Credit: Kenza Barton Schlee (@kbschlee)

My body was feeling tired the morning of Rupchen,” Raylyn recalls. “I tried to fake myself out that I would be ready to snap for the race. The legs just did not respond. Shaking if off, I figured I would give it a go at Namur. But again during warmup I was struggling to get my heart rate up to threshold, and I knew it would be a tough day out there. I gutted the race out even though I wanted to stop so badly midway through as I could barely make it up the massive climb at the start - my legs were gone.”

It is said often that the true test of an athlete’s mettle is not how they win, but how they handle adversity, how they persevere. Raylyn persevered. Fighting for every position, she clawed her way into the top 30 at the World Cup in Dendermonde through the slop and weirdness and endless running. Then on New Year’s Day, Raylyn punched through the thick mud at the GP Sven Nys and found her way back into the top 20.

The ritual baptism in the mud of the Low Countries is never a gentle one, but it is a profound education that can’t be taught anywhere else. This coming weekend, Raylyn will put that education to the test again. She will pull on a red, white and blue jersey and line up in the relative home turf Arkansas against the same powerhouse athletes she battled with in Europe. We will be watching and cheering. Go get ‘em!

More From The Journal