Cyclocross season kicked off on Labor Day in the Pacific Northwest. And it did so in style with the optimistically named 'Labor Day Cyclocross Championships'. Fortunately the promoters have a good sense of humor and expectation. This event is usually considered a fun warmup to the CX season and is always a good time.
Kurt had called me a day or two before and said he'd be joining me for his first Cyclocross race. Cool.
We met early and took a few scouting laps together. We learned that this year the promoters used basically the same Joint Base Lewis McChord training grounds as previous years but changed the course to include a couple gravel roads. These two parallel straights were each about a quarter mile long and drafting would be a factor. After a full lap of scouting we also realized that there were still plenty of twisty sections in the trees to challenge our bike handling skills. We took a second lap together and tried to figure out how to assemble all those corners into one smooth racing line.
At the end of our second scouting lap Kurt headed for registration and I headed out for another lap of scouting and warmup.
(Which is where we start the first of two racing tales)
story one: By the Numbers
On that third scouting lap I created a bit of levity that could have ended my race day. I caught a couple 10 or 11 year old kids who were also pre riding the course. I announced 'on your right', they held their lines, I passed, and all was well. I approached a left hand corner I hadn't yet perfected, bent the bike into the corner and instantly realized I was riding the line for a different left hand corner. My entry into the Salal bushes was at full speed. The bushes were so dense no braking was necessary. Fortunately I did not discover any hidden stumps with my front wheel. Just as I lifted myself and my bike out of the waist deep leaves the two younger riders passed by and I coolly announced, 'Hey kids, this is _not_ the racing line...'.
When I finished my third warmup lap, which I took at closer to race pace, I felt some concern. While setting up my trainer I worried over my race plan. But it wasn't until I actually started my trainer warm up that the worry faded. My concern was the advantage that the 'power broker' riders would have on those long straights. Drafting mattered so I figured I needed to be in the lead group and keep my nose out of the wind. And the answer was to rest my legs a bit in the trees. Instead of powering by if a rider put his wheel out of line I planned to use just enough energy to maintain my position while we rode the twisty tree section. Then I hoped to have the energy necessary to close any gaps as we entered each straight away.
Soon after my anxiety faded Mark and Kurt came by to wish me luck. I promised Kurt that, after my race, I would be sure to see him off at his start with my camera in hand. My warmup finished and I was off to the start line.
I found a second row slot. I anticipated the starter's announcement. I was ready to go if I perceived any movement of the rider in front of me. And yet, my start was horrible. I let my rear tire spin on the loose rocks, bobbled, and watched as the rest of field pedaled forward. For the first minute or so I burned matches getting up to the lead group of about six. But, importantly, I was on the tail end of that group getting onto the straight away.
My execution matched my game plan perfectly. When other riders were braking into the corners I was easing off the pedals early. If I found a better line through a corner I coasted alongside but did not accelerate out of the corner to finalize the pass. And I worked hard to nail the corners leading to the straights to minimize the effort needed to close any gaps.
I was working near my limit but it looked good that I would be able stay with the group. A few riders were making moves. Mostly I did not contest them. As long as I stayed in the group I was content with any position in the group.
As plans are created they are also changed.
Part way through the third lap the third place rider tipped over. The fourth place rider took the long way around the fallen rider and body. I stayed on the racing line, passed both, and found myself in third. With a small gap between me and the lead group of two.
With no wheel to follow I started asking myself 'Is this too fast?' and concentrated on not overextending myself. But I held out hope I could reconnect. At the end of the tree section the gap had grown from 100 feet to 100 meters. My nose was in the wind, fourth place was well back, and I made the decision to ride my own pace instead of attempting to close that gap.
The race continued with no real change. Save the last lap. I chose my time and executed my six minute extra effort. Apparently so did the lead group. When they turned up the wick they stretched their gap to 300 meters. I finished third, well drained, coasted to the sideline, and waited for the fog to clear.
I wasn't alone. A female rider was looking as winded as I felt. She sat down. And ignored my first joke about how bad I felt. When I looked back I could see her eyes starting to glaze over. Just as I bent down to check on her she started falling over and asked me to hold her up. She struggled to tell me that her inhaler was in her back jersey pocket. I quickly removed the cap and she inhaled. And then, after what seemed a long time, but was just seconds, she announced 'OK, I'm getting better'. After another 30 seconds she regained composure and we chatted a bit.
She introduced herself as 'Emily the asthmatic Cyclocrosser'. She told me that in her race she was solidly in second. She figured she had second locked up. And that pushing to the lead might trigger an asthma attack. And that she made the right decision. Then there was a pause. I searched her face for an answer but found none. So I had to ask 'What position did you finish?'. She grinned a little when she responded 'first'. Wow.
After offering my congratulation and waiting for her friends to arrive I excused myself, put on my virtual photographer's cap, and headed for the next start.
(Which is where we pick up racing tale number two)
story two: Mr Cool
Kurt found himself on the front row of the first wave for the two lap event. The two lap event is designed as a 'test the waters' or 'get a taste of cross' race. No licenses. Low entry fee. As welcoming as can be for a sport that knows how to serve up the suffer.
I think Kurt posed for my camera while waiting for the start. And why not? That is one fine looking jersey...
Kurt's start was clean. He accelerated smoothly over that riverbed of round rocks.
Mark is pretty keen on finding a good spot to see multiple sections of the course. I snapped some photos and watched as Kurt passed. Kurt was not leading and Kurt was not last. But he sure looked comfortable through the corners. He rode smoothly and efficiently every time I saw him. And his expression changed little. He seemed pretty cool under the pressure of his first race.
After Kurt crossed the finish line I snapped a few images. Up close he didn't look as calm as before. He rode hard and he was showing it! He was winded and just trying to recover. Once he could talk he exclaimed "That was a gut buster!". After a few minutes he told Mark and I about his race. He confirmed to us that he felt comfortable skittering around on semi knobby tires. And he mentioned he hadn't trained specifically for a twenty minute effort. And he was still surprised at just how strong some of the other 'two lap event' racers appeared.
Before we all headed our separate ways I snapped one more image of Kurt and Mark. All rested up. And the smiles are showing. Another fine CX raceday.
I wanted to share my enjoyment of Cyclocross with another Cyclopath. I tried to guide Kurt's first CX experience to be high on the fun meter and low on the stress level. I hope I succeeded. Either way, I can report that it warmed me to get the opportunity to share what I know about CX with a willing participant. Especially when that participant races in such a fabulous jersey.