The plan was simple: Stay smooth. Stay consistent. Keep moving forward. Your equipment is the best. You are a better bike handler than 99% of these guys. Just flow, race my race and go as hard as your under-tuned body can push you was my inner-chanted mantra. That, and stay out of the shit-show many riders would demonstrate given the conditions we faced. I was lined up 6th row…close enough to see the smiling faces of my brothers on the front line, Webber, Dubba, WB, Robson, Jonny C which gave me some hope and confidence. Yet turning around in the start grid seeing the masses lined up behind…some 17 or 18 rows deep…was daunting. 180+ riders in all. I have no idea what it would be like if the conditions were dry and fast. It would be a scoring nightmare as we had no ankle transmitters.
Friday - The Time Trial
The day before those that either were out of the top 8, did not do Nationals the year before or upgraded to a new age bracket could participate in a time trial to help seed your position. Any little advantage would help. I am a fast starter and while the TT course was well designed to challenge you, it felt pretty manageable to me. There was a beautiful and treacherous run up of ice and snow featured at the midway point, with fast and flowing trails leading to it and from it...trails which were a lot like what you’d experience short tracking. Leaders were doing it in about 6 to 6:15. I pre rode and felt fairly good. Legs were still a little under-whelming but I knew I could push through it. I pre-rode everything…twice mind you…with the exception of the very first section of the course…a critical mistake.
Three, two, one, go! I am off and Robson is yelling at me to stay smooth. The beginning threw a few paved 180’s at you and then immediately puts you into the dirt. I flow into a section super hot shortly after entering the dirt (e.g. unsmooth) that had a radically arced turn (that of course I missed by not pre-riding). I completely blow this corner to the extent that I am off course, in the brush and off the bike. Being off your bike is not fast. I remount and start ‘er up again, pushing hard and find a rhythm. I hit the run up and find myself Mario De Clercq-ing up the run up ‘fast feet’ style, truly bounding up this thing. I complete the course including a set of barriers about 30 seconds off the winning time set by my boy Michael Robson to put me in 40th position, seconds separating riders 10 at a time.
Saturday - The Main Event - Men's Cat 1/2/3 40-44
My compatriots Dave Weber, Jeff Wardell and I were at the start line together. We were shivering, hopping up and down in the grid partly due to nerves, but mostly due to the conditions which were unlike anything I’d faced in the time I’ve been racing. It was a rain and snow squall alternating between the two every few minutes. Looking up into the sky was surreal. The Pacific Northwest was literally raining down snowflakes as big as golf balls. I’ve raced in all types of conditions: It’s been colder than hell racing here in Colorado, for sure. It’s rained on my races plenty of times for sure. But the combination of the two yesterday was such a vicious cocktail, racers would push themselves to new levels…insane levels…to finish and to say ‘they were there.’ We were, for all intents and purposes about to participate in the Woodstock of cycling folklore.
From the sound of the whistle the starting group blasted off the line. The paved start chute was a sea off slush, each riders wheel making a wake and massive frozen rooster tail into the riders faces behind them. It was a ‘pray-for-your-life’ scenario. You can see it all here, from the slush to the mass of humanity racing in the event as captured by Colt and crew. I come in to the first chute off the pavement in the first 40 riders or so (at 00:36…yes, Colt, this needs to be BlipSnippable!)
By lap three I have a brother with me in Jeff Wardell. I am feeling better, railing lines and generally feeling pretty motivated. Surprisingly I don't necessarily feel I am going backwards but gaining ground. Having Jeff there would be a great carrot. I know I was motivated as I could feel the cold but it wasn’t the most ‘present’ thing. Railing the lines were and I felt simply great on my Rhinos doing exactly that.
So as I am flowing with Jeff, an S & M guy and a DeSalvo guy attach to the group and we tractor-pull through a grassy slog which nearly everyone identified as a major leg sapper. This flowed out to a paved path that shot the riders up and over a pretty rad bermed embankment. On the paved lead up into the berm the S&M guy makes a move and we start to tangle bars. I yell at him ‘No! No! No!” as I feel we are both a second or two from hitting the deck. We untangle and he moves on yelling ‘Come on man! It’s racing!” To which I agree but if I could get that guy to see my season through my eyes and the desire to not end up on the ground (again) he’d appreciate the need for me to yell.
100 meters later we are all three shooting to the bermed embankment. S&M guy is through, then DeSalvo and I head in and up. There are two lines and he takes the low, me the high. We converge on the exit, now bombing down the embankment when DeSalvo guy comes unglued and yard-sales in front of me. I hit him t-bone square-on and go over him, his bike and onto the pavement.
I can’t believe it. I open up a cuss-fest and I jump back on and try to pedal and already hear/feel something wrong with me and the bike. Leg warmers are torn and my hip is shooting bullets at my brain. We head into the woods and the rear end of my bike starts making carnival-like noises. Some dude yells at me “Your derailleur's broken!” and I look down and sure enough it’s in the wheel. And so, my National Championship cross country running race begins.
I ran for minutes and minutes, even making some ground on dudes still trying to pedal who went out too hard too early who look like they were in the Bataan Death March. I could feel myself getting pinned from running but finally see the pit. I raise my hand to my dear friend Chris ‘Shotty’ Shotwell who is faithfully manning the pits in the freezing cold for me personally. The course lead up into the pits is painful. I am literally at a point where the pits are 10 feet away as the crow flies, but 100’s of feet away given the course I have to still run to get there. So frustrating as I can see Shotty prepared but it was a lifetime to get around the course. I eventually make it into the pit and toss in my wasted bike and Chris hands me the clean one.
And right there when I tossed in the bike, I had ‘that’ moment.
As I remount the clean bike, I could feel demoralized, gassed and simply shattered from this season. Every single thought ran through my head…the most prominent of which was ‘crawl off’. I am tired of sucking. Tired of complaining. Tired of lots of things. I was hurt and for the next few minutes as I eventually pedaled on truly questioned what I am doing and why (on many levels). It was short lived thankfully. I just sucked up the fact that I simply am not fast and I will work harder next year if I can find the focus in my life to devote to it wholly.
As I come through on the bell lap, my spirits lift a bit. Dave Towle sees me and cheers me on over the course P/A system which made me smile. He also was calling out the fact that my dear friends and team mates Pete Webber and Brandon Dwight were pushing hard at the front with our Colorado compatriot Jon Cariveau murdering himself behind Brandon by mere seconds. I knew even with my running race I had made it into the bell lap safely. That fact and the fact my boys were flying ahead of me and Colorado was slaying the field. My mood went from piss poor to pretty incredible in a matter of pedal strokes.
The elation aside, the suffering on the bell lap was incredible. I barely realized I crossed the finish when I eventually came through 7minutes down on Za Webber in an illustrious 70th place and just kept pedaling and circled back to our tent where we all sat and began our bouts with hypothermia. Webber, Brandon, Ward Baker…we all were in an extremely bad way. Friends were piling in to the tent to literally begin to rescue us as it became pretty scary. Uncontrollable shaking, lips turning blue, no motor coordination, completely slurred speech. It truly was happening and we were going hypothermic. I had the Hogan family (Karen and Mike) on me. Each tearing off clothes, boots, helmets, base liners. Mike literally had to get me naked and wrapped in blankets. I had enough focus to ensure he know I was having a Seinfeld-esque ‘Shrinkage!” moment when I was naked. We then all got corralled into the Moots Sprinter van, its heater blaring we all sat inside and literally on each other unable to hold in our hands the amazing warm treats the Hogans and others were bringing. Literally shaking so bad that the coffee could not be brought to one’s mouth.
Thank you Mike, Karen and EVERYONE who helped us after the race.
After warming up from our near-hypothermic experiences on Saturday, we proceeded to watch the remaining races and I prepared for my role as pit crew chief for Brandon and Pete in the Elite Men’s race the next day by downing a gaggle of Deschutes Porter. Time to let go a little I guess. There were some amazing spectacles to watch from Danny Summerhill’s win in his last U23 performance, to Matt Pacocha and Jon Baker’s age group wins. All fellow Wednesday Worlds compatriots. (Side note, we’ve got to erect some sort of trophy wall at Elks given that one park has produced a number of National Champions. Amazing.)
Sunday’s races would be raced in almost balmy conditions compared to the day prior. Sunny yet still super wet. I was able to pit with good friends Dan Farrell and Dave Weber out in shirt sleeves. It was a muddy mess but simply great to be outside in. Dan and I had Brandon and Pete’s bikes dialed and ready for action while other Coloradan’s tended to our other teammate Allen Krughoff’s pit services.
We had a great time, sharing lanes with Mr. ATMO himself, Richard Sachs and our friends from KCCX. I think I saw a bloody shard of my vocal chords pop out of my mouth I was yelling so hard at Boulder Cycle Sport and all Coloradans to keep their mojo and their tempo high. Frankly any racing mope that came within site of me got yelled at to motivate them.
Pete, Allen and Brandon all had unbelievable rides…Brandon starting literally from the very last row to a 24th place finish, Pete 20th and Allen Krughoff right in front of him at 19th. Just amazing to see this especially after Brandon and Pete’s insane battle at the front of our race yesterday. It is amazing to see how being smooth and consistent keeps moving you up and up and up. That’s the game and these guys are absolute masters of it. Not sure if I’ll ever get it.
The weekend was capped off with an epic after party on Sunday. Each year it’s like a reunion. I’m in desperate love with the spirits that inhabit our sport, from the comedic to the serious to the God-gifted. We suffer so greatly together that so much is just understood without speaking about it between us…from an Elite Champion to a Cat 4 newbie to the sport. The conversations I had at the Summit Bar with my friends…both old and new…were amazing. These conversations had a theme and I was truly 'hearing’ what was being said. While the words were flowing in to my brain, I’m balancing them with my thrashing uncertainty of where ‘am’ in this sport. "What is my place in this sport I love?" proverbially speaking. I won’t be a National Champion in the Elites…likely never in my age group. I am confused at what fast means and how to get there even after 14 years of racing this insane sport. What I do know is that I love it and those that stopped me that evening and put a hand on my shoulder to simply say ‘thanks for writing’ meant so so much to me. They were the words I needed to parse and balance with everything else pinging around my brain these days. I was able to 'hear' them. Truly.
It’s odd, I want to write about crushing the competition and having arms up again and being some sort of alpha-winner. At least that is a part of the vision I thought I should have. Winning and personal bests will happen again some day when I can devote what I need to, to it. But maybe that is not my ‘role.’ Maybe it is about expressing the need to just keep going. To not extract yourself and take your toys home because an aspect of your goals like winning or “personal best” is met unfulfilled. It’s so frustrating, yet the sport is 360 degrees around us. It’s the people, the courses, the equipment and nerdery around it. It’s the ability to get over embarrassment and embrace failure. It’s the need to know you’re doing this because you love it…and where would you be in life without it.
My life is what it is because of cyclocross. And it is beautiful. And that is not an embellishment.
I will try again next year to be better if life will have it. To fly. To have my legs feel supple and fluid again. The leaves are off the trees now and flowing in the heavy breezes that mark our winter here in Colorado. And before we know it they will be changing colors again. You are my anchor, cyclocross.