Thursday, September 30, 2010

Here we go CYCLO-CROSS

I woke up in the dark to the sound of steady rain. Rolled over and looked at the clock, just before 5am. I thought “at least the rain will keep the dust down,” and rolled back over for a couple more hours of sleep.

Woke up just after 7am and started my coffee and oats then looked outside. Everything looked pretty damp but I couldn’t see any rain falling in the overcast morning. After getting ready and making sure I had everything I got in my car and was on my way to my first cyclo-cross race.

I had been wanting to try cyclo-cross for a few years. Even went to a race a couple of years ago to scout it out. I would be riding a Surly Cross-Check that I received the frame set as a Christmas bonus while working at a bike shop. This year I committed to going and it helped knowing I would have some friends there racing too.

About half way through my forty minute drive to the race, the rain resumed. A steady soaking rain that would normally keep me from riding or racing, but this is cross. It just wouldn’t be right if the conditions were perfect. It hadn’t rained in the area for about three weeks. Up until today summer had kept a firm grip here in the deep south with daily temperatures in the mid to upper 90’s. Today ‘s forecast was for overcast skies with rain and a high of 80F.

When I got to the race I parked next to @scragglyjosh and his wife, Surly-girl and got registered. With a little more than 30 minutes before my race I kitted up and headed out to do a few practice laps as a warm up. I was running tires with a file type tread pattern that are known to be great, fast tires in the dry but was not going to be a dry race and I was not very confident how these tires would do. Surly-girl and I hit the course to see what this cross thing was all about (this was her first cross race as well).

The course was 80% grass around a scummy looking pond in a park that included a few baseball fields. There were two large sand pits right after the start that looked to be sand volley ball courts in a former life. I was relieved to see that there were only two barriers on course. One right at the top of a muddy run up and the second at the bottom of a grass run up. It was basically pancake flat except for the two little run-ups. There was also a section I can only describe as a spiral or corkscrew. It took a decreasing arc to the left then a right turn when you reached the middle to an increasing arc back out. It was taped off in such a way that during the race you would pass the races both in front of and behind you going the other way.

After riding one lap and seeing what the sand and mud had done to the drive train on my bike I decided the rest of my warm up would continue on road and parking lot. Now it has been at least 6 or 7 years since I have entered a competitive race but I still know to warm up but that morning I didn’t know how to as I just pedaled comfortably around the parking lot with @driskell joking.

With about 5 minutes to go before the start the Cat 4’s and the women, who would be starting right after us, started congregating around the start. By now the rain had stopped. I don’t remember having any nerves at this point. Years ago when I was racing mountain bikes several times a year I would line up at the start line almost sick with nerves, usually wondering if I had time to make a last second dash to the nearest port-o-let. I think the lack of nerves were a result of not knowing what to expect in the race and not remembering how hard racing can be.

After a short explanation of the rules the official sent our group of 16 or 17 out for our 30 minutes of self induced suffering called cyclo-cross. As the guys lined up on the front accelerated away out of the saddle towards the first right turn I “settled” into the rear of our group hoping to stay out of the way of the more experienced racers. Less than a minute later I was through the two sand pits and gasping for air as the field began to stretch out in front of me. I don’t remember thinking much here, just the sound of my out of control breathing. About the time I could actually catch my breath I was coming to the 180 degree right hander that was soupy with mud followed immediately by the first run up and barrier. I made the turn, unclipped while still pedaling and before I knew it I was up and over the barrier doing my best to get back on the bike (I suck at the remounts). For the rest of that lap and the second I was in a constant state of just trying to survive and catch my breath. At the end of my second lap the official at the line informed me I had 5 to go. I didn’t think I’d make it, I was only two laps in and every part of my body was screaming to stop. I just told myself, “its only 30 minutes” and kept pedaling. The hardest part for me was the sand pits. I know how to ride sand, hit it with some speed, keep the pedals turning and let the bike find its own line. By the time I powered through both pits I was in the red, gulping at the air and probably with some drool stringing from my mouth. The rest of the course was just a matter of paying attention and making sure I was set up for the slick turns and dismounts all while riding at your limit. Somewhere in my 3rd or 4th lap I started getting lapped, but they weren’t pulling racers so I just kept going and actually started finding a rhythm. This was also about the time I realized that the sand had rendered my brakes mostly useless as I over shot a couple of turns to the sound of sand grinding into the rims. I made my lines around the turns a little wider so I wouldn’t need to brake and I think this sped me up a bit. By this time my back was also letting me know the dismounts were taking their toll. But its only thirty minutes.

My main goal for the race was not to finish dead-ass-last. For the first half of the race I was in front of one other rider and he was dropping further back with every lap. About the half way point I couldn’t see him behind me anymore. I didn’t know if he had dropped out, passed me with some of the riders that I’d been lapped by or was just too far back. But there was now a possibility that I could be last. In my last lap entering the spiral I noticed I was gaining on a couple of riders and upon coming out of the spiral I thought I might could catch at least one. For the first time in the race my competitiveness started to come out as I hit a short gravel section putting a little extra into the pedals with my sites fixed on the rider ahead. From behind he looked like he was going a little slower than me and maybe tiring. He got through the last barrier and run up before me and there was only stretch of grass before the left turn that lead to the finish. I closed the gap on the grass stretch and right after the left hand turn came around his left right before the finish.

Done. That was all the official said as I crossed the line and its all I wanted to hear. I pedaled off the course as the endorphins started to kick in. I took a little pride in the little spark I had right at the end to gain one place even though nobody was really interested who was racing for next to last. I also knew there was a chance that the guy I passed might have been a guy that had lapped me earlier (possibly putting me back in last).

I got back to where we parked and @scragglyjosh was getting kitted up for the CX 3 race. Surly-girl had ridden to a solid 3rd in her first race and @driskell was high mid pack. I tried to tell @scragglyjosh where the best lines were wished him well and that I was surprised at the traction our tires got in the wet grass. After spending the first half of the CX 3 race riding around fifth place Josh started reeling guys in and passed for second in the last lap. Second place in the first CX 3 race of the year, IMPRESSIVE.

My first cyclo-cross experience was a blast. The course was challenging and fun. All of the spectators cheer the racers on and also dish out some good natured heckling. Cheering and heckling is almost as fun as the racing itself. And the rain and mud made it even more fun. Later that night I checked the results and scrolled to the bottom of my class. There I was, three riders from the back. Ahead of one rider and one DNF. Had fun, didn’t crash, didn’t finish last. Goals accomplished, (however meager they may be). I think I’ll be back, I might even get a proper warm up in next time.

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