By Jenn Jackson

The Namur World Cup had an unprecedented 84 starters in the women’s race. Three days later the Zolder World Cup grew to a staggering 87 racers. While many celebrated the growth and depth of competition in the women’s field, I found myself back on the eighth row wondering if this was actually a good thing.

Canadian Cyclocross nationals 2018 Peterborough Jenn Jackson
Jenn Jackson racing 2018 Canadian cyclocross national championships in Peterborough, Ont.

To be sure, more women competing at an international level is amazing – but without the addition of development categories, financial incentives and support, the space to grow is limited. Having only competed domestically prior to this trip, I didn’t really grasp how much of a disparity there is between men’s and women’s categories at a World Cup level.

Right now, cyclocross World Cups have three men’s races – Junior, U23, and Elite, but only one women’s race; creating these enormous fields pitting 16-year-olds against elite World Champions. The argument of having juniors in the women’s race is one of several weak excuses for why the women’s races are kept to 45 minutes while the men race for 60. And then there’s the staggering disparity in prize money: at a World Cup the women’s purse at 2,000EUR for the winner, paying out 10,400 across the top 20 compared to the men’s winner taking home 5,000EUR of the 39,500 paid across the top 40 men. Now I know change doesn’t happen overnight, but it makes me cringe that this is where the highest level of cyclocross sits in 2019.

In any case… not letting the systematic robbery of female cyclists weigh to heavily on my mind. By starting from the back of the bursting 84 rider grid certainly kept any expectations (high or low) at bay; my main objective was to stay out of trouble, which would be no easy task on the muddy banks around the Citadel. Beyond staying out of trouble, keeping my nose clean (or at least trying, in spite of the endless mud spray), and giving my best effort, I wanted to treat everything with respect in this European and World Cup debut.

Respect. That was my word for the day. Respect the course, it’s a monster. Respect the conditions, it’s real cross weather. Respect the level of competition, it’s the World Cup. Respect the opportunity, it’s a privilege. And finally, to myself, respect the work that brought me here. With all that, a little patience and a little grit, I found my way up to 33rd, in my first cyclocross season, first race in Europe, first World Cup. A few days later, I’d inch a little further up to 28th, then 28th again, then 22nd, and then 10th at the end of the 10-day cyclocross stage race campaign.

I emphasize these “firsts” to reminder myself that there’s still lots ahead; more space to grow and more work to fill the space. While this may be the start of my cross career, the back story through cross country skiing to mountain biking isn’t exactly a short recap… My other-sport experience and fitness has certainly given me a leg up in the most grueling part of cross, where being able to slog and suffer are as, if not more, important than your cx skills alone. And while I lean on the strengths I know, I’m also inspired by the gaps in my own performance.

Jenn Jackson Gridlock Pan American Championships Silver Goose Midland, Ont.
Jenn Jackson being interviewed by Canadian Cycling Magazine‘s Matthew Pioro at Silver Goose Pan-American cylocross championships in 2018.

Every weakness is exacerbated under the intense scrutiny of World Cup competition. There’s nowhere to hide out there. Even over the course of a race I’d discover areas I was weaker than the riders around me and make noticeable shifts in my riding to improve lacking element or to at least limit the damage from it. So while my teammates and trip staff were invaluable mentors day in day out, the race courses and competitors were my best teachers in Belgium.

Jenn Jackson is a mountain biker and cyclocross racer and former XC ski racer from Oro Medonte, Ont. In 2018 Jackson won Canada Cup XCO Women’s series overall title racing for AWI Racing. She then won a Silver medal at 2018 Canadian cyclocross national championships in Peterborough, Ont. and join Cycling Canada’s Christmas Cross program in Belgium. Catch up on Part One of Gridlock here.

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