I haven't raced 'cross nationals in five years. Last time I went, I drove to Madison and had what could charitably be described as a "bland" experience. Most notably, I spent the season getting hyped for what would surely be the sickest snow/ice cx race ever, only to show up and race a 40 degree tractor pull.
So when 2017 Nationals were announced in Hartford, I knew I had to race (being an hour from home and all) but I also knew that getting myself amped with dreams of snowy CX radness was a good way to end up disappointed. After all, it's Hartford in January. Even before global warming, Hartford wasn't exactly a hotbed of skiing.
And on the first two days of Nationals, it was mid 40s and raining and awful:
Then on the third day, it got cold. Really cold. And all the ruts froze up.
And then, on the fourth day, it snowed two inches, covering up the frozen ruts so you couldn't see them.
So yeah. It was the hardest conditions I've ever ridden a 'cross bike in. The ruts (and footprints) from the earlier races were baked into the ground, rock solid. Once you fell into a rut, you were stuck in whatever stupid weaving path it took you on. If you weren't in a rut, you were hammering through frozen footprints or riding across ruts wondering if you were going to slip into them.
It was very hard to ride. But it was even harder to pedal hard. And there's nothing I hate more than pedaling hard!
I had a second row callup because the truly fast 35+ guys still qualified for the elite race, so this was actually the aging-scrub-zone national championships. I nailed the clip in and promoted myself to the front row... but then had a near death experience on the first non-paved straightaway, (there was one line without a rut, I did not get it. Thanks to whomever I leaned on while screaming for pushing back so neither of us fell down) which cooled off the quality of my start significantly.
Into the epic high line/low line dike feature on lap one, I chose the low line while most people seemed to go high. I ran up the hill, bullied my way into the line of running dudes in an entirely non-terrible position... while thinking to myself "holy crap I am already so redlined, holy crap I should have actually trained in December, holy crap fat bike rides are not training."
Then we went into an insane, unrideable, icy off-camber, then another insane (but rideable) off camber, then an insanely fast and rutted icy turn in the woods (grabbed all my brakes here and ended up in the tape), past the pit, back into the woods of insane ice ruts (passed a bunch of guys by running here) and somewhere along the line I realized... wait a minute, I don't feel like I'm going to explode anymore?
Turns out, all the "try not to die" sections forced a lot of recovery. Guess who's got two thumbs, loves recovery, and is good at not dying on a bike?! THIS GUY!
|Here I am not-dying while riding at 120 watts and being more efficient than the guy not-dying behind me, via Sean McCarthy|
I came through lap one in 10th or so. On the dike I was able to ride the entire low line, and when I got to the top I was up to seventh (!!!).
At the end of the lap, I caught up with a dude who was struggling in the technical stuff, so I chopped him into the last off-camber and went through the line in fifth (!!!!!).
At this point I started to come to grips with the fact that this was going shockingly well.
Luckily, the section from the finish line to the top of the dike was the one "just pedal your bike hard" part, and the guy who had be struggling on the technical parts definitely did not struggle with pedaling hard. He ripped back past me along with Charlie Berhtram (#charlie) and that was the end of my time in podium position.
The low line was now the preferred line for everyone, and I was flustered enough by the loss of my secret line that I hooked my handlebar into my shorts somehow, (?!) and that pulled my legwarmer down.
WARDROBE MALFUNCTION! WARDROBE MALFUNCTION!
I remember Katie Compton winning (?) a World Champ with a leg warmer falling down. How the heck she did it is a mystery to me. A droopy leg-warmer, I now know, is a DEVASTATING handicap.
|CLOTHING CRISIS! From Shoogs|
First of all, it's pretty much impossible to not notice a leg warmer flopping around your calf, and when major parts of the course require 100% focus to not crash, this is not ideal.
Secondly, every time you take a hand off the bars to try to pull it back up, you have to stop pedaling, and pedaling is important.
Third, and worst of all, EVERY SINGLE FRIGGIN SPECTATOR heckles you about it.
So as #Charlie and I settled into a battle for 6th (that's just off the American podium... but ON the NUE Podium!) I spent most of the time thinking about my stupid leg warmer and getting yelled at by the crowd. I remember checking behind us a few times and being surprised to find out that we appeared to have 6th and 7th place locked up, as apparently many other people were having more than just leg warmer issues.
Coming through the finish straight at one to go, I sat up, rolled my skinsuit leg up, pulled my leg warmer up, rolled my skinsuit back down, and fixed everything. The whole process cost me like three seconds... what the heck was I thinking for two laps??? What was Katie thinking at Worlds?? Man. Life hack: you can fix a leg warmer really quickly by not pedaling a pavement section. And pedaling on pavement sucks anyway.
#Charlie passed me back during my non-pedaling and we went into the last lap, and suddenly I realized that a group of dudes were within striking distance of our precious NUE podium spots.
That's ok, I told myself, just bury it to the top of the dike and you're in the clear. "No one is gonna ride the technical half of the course faster than you." (yes I'm the best bike handler here, mmhmm, pay no attention to the fact that I crashed 3 times in a minute preriding)
Yeah, well, you know what's a good way to struggle mightily on a bunch of muddy, icy off cambers atop a dike? Burying it to get there on the last lap of Nationals! I distinctly remember being heckled (suspiciously near where Shoogs took that photo on an earlier lap...hmmmmm) as I failed to ride to mud-shelf and came to a dead stop and had to step over my top tube sideways, and now the guys who were chasing us.... were getting very, very close.
Charlie compounded our last-lap unraveling by crashing while running on the next off camber (mud over ice: no one's friend) and by the time we went by pit 2 and back into the woods, they were there. 3 of them. Man, 10th place sounds way less cool than 6th... shit.
The first guy there blew past us literally the second there was an opening (he'd started on the back row, he was what you'd call "better than us," I believe) and all civility immediately ceased. Charlie made a miniscule bobble and I immediately dive-bombed him off the mini-flyover and set off after better-than-us guy. I had a small slip going up the gazebo hill and ended up racing a dude bar-to-bar for the next corner, but I hung on... only to have him sprint by me coming out of that turn and narrowly beat me into the next rutted section. AHHH MAN WE ARE REALLY RACING BIKES NOW!!
So we ripped through the last two minutes of technical course with me thinking "oh wow, one can sprint a lot harder between turns if the race is ending," and I hit a couple good lines to close right up onto 7th place into the last off-camber... and when he had to unclip, I was able to sneak by and lead out the sprint and get 7th!
Obviously the real MVP here is the conditions, but I'd also like to thank everyone who cheered for me, congratulated me, and generally helped create the impression that my little achievement in our little hobby was a big deal for a few hours!
I mean, I had so much fun I might even go to Reno next year!
That's a lot of exclamation marks. Now it's time to scale plastic rocks and hope it snows for a few months...