Wissahickon is a old Indian name meaning, "He Who Punishes the Legs."
We bailed out of the hotel around 6:00, hoping to make it to Ludwig's corner with plenty of warmup time. We made a tactical error and stopped in the Dunkin' Donuts for bagels. It took ten or 15 minutes to get a couple bagels and some coffee. Then it took another five minutes to get out of the parking lot - there was no real exit, and the way out looped between some hotels, around a Borders, and possibly into a mall in the next county. The scrambled parking lot was patterned after the Wissahickon "Corkscrew of Death," only not as fun to ride. Eventually we hit the road and got to Ludwig's Corners by 7:30 or so.
First mistake of the race: not getting a hotel in West Chester, which is 10 minutes from the race course.
I asked fellow early arriver Fat Marc what he thought about tires. He recommended file treads. I did another hurried tire change. Saturday it was file tread to muds, Sunday muds to file tread. Good thing I have the patented GorillaHandz™, or all that tire changing would have been time consuming.
Second mistake of the race: not rolling with three wheelsets - mud, dry, all purpose pit set. There's always next year.
I rode several warmup laps, hitting the hard sections vigorously, easy spinning through the easy parts. The legs... they were notta happy. Granogue had pretty clearly decimated them, it apparently takes either a few years of training, or much better legs to race cross on back-to-back days.
Third mistake of the race: thinking I could control my effort at Granogue and still have plenty of legs left to race Wiss. I ain't that fit or that gifted.
The start/finish was a long uphill paved stretch into a series of off-camber turns, going back and forth across the face of the hill. In the middle was an off-camber double hairpin left/left/right. From there it was some back and forth off camber, down and around into an 80 meter run through a sandpit. Thence to a false flat running into two kickers, a couple sweepers up into a long run across the flats, into a double Corkscrew of Death (that was brilliant), through a couple more hairpins, barriers placed mid-runup, followed by some fast off camber hairpins that dumped you onto the finishing straight. Nice course. The only problem was my legs weren't going to open up enough to let me take advantage of it.
I had a nice second row grid position out of maybe 75 starters, but one of the guys had severe problems clipping in, which dropped me from tenth to about 30th instantly. I made some positions back on the uphill sprint but kind of settled in when I realized we were going to scrum for two lines through the first hairpin. Not good. I elbowed a lot of people out of the way, if you were one, sorry, and I highly recommend you learn the same tactic and use it on the guys blocking both of us.
The off camber runs across the face of the hill did some sorting out. Amazingly I got through the double hairpin really well. I'd watched people hitting it in practice and the only way most C riders could hit it on the bike was to nearly stop, the grunt up the little rise. It only worked for slow guys if they were alone, but it was still too slow and if anybody else was in the corner it just didn't work. So I committed to running it and consequently got through really fast on every lap, and used it to open up a big gap on four guys who were catching me on the last lap - more later.
My mouth was as dry as dust, and I was gasping for breath with totally uncontrollable breathing. My legs burned like hell, they felt stiff. This would be bad.
The first run through the sand, I ran hard. I didn't lose any spots but carrying a 28 pound bike through 80 meters of sand really took it out of me and I had trouble recovering, so I thought I'd ride the next lap. I got around the course pretty well from there, hung on through the Corkscrew, and only got passed by a few guys. A lead group of maybe 20 formed and I was dangling off the back with a little cluster of guys, but my legs were totally blown. It had to be fatigue because I can't blow my legs apart in 4 minutes normally. This wasn't good and by the end of lap 1, I knew I was in for a really tough day.
The second lap through I tried to ride the sand pit. Four guys passed me, running. Stubbornly, I hung in on the bike reasoning my legs would be fresher and I could catch them outside the pit. Yeah, right. That didn't exactly work out. My legs were just about as bad, and the I sort of racked myself with an epic peelout on the second kicker after the pit - massive wheelspin during a standing climb, unclipping, racked my family jewels on the top tube, the whole deal. Steel may be real, but racking your nards on it isn't any better than carbon or aluminum, in my experience.
I did have a highlight on this lap - dropped my chain on the runup when I dropped my bike after the barriers and kept running. At the top I cursed, leaned down, spun the pedals and slapped the bike. The chain dropped right back on the chainring. It must have looked pretty pro to bystanders. Viewed from my perspective, it was plain dumb luck and I was ten seconds from standing up and kicking some spokes out of my rear wheel, but I wasn't going to question my good luck. So instead I enjoyed the cheers (sophisticated crowd, that, cheering a fast re-chaining) and got rolling again, only losing one place.
At that point the legs were bad and fading so I resolved to ride as hard as I could, just keep it pegged, and see what happened. Surprisingly, I held okay from that point on. A couple clusters of guys passed me, I passed a number of single riders who were fading, and on it went. Third time through the sand pit I rode the whole way, and three more guys passed me. Dammit! I also had an interesting time after the barriers. I was dicing with a guy from the Corkscrew all the way up the barriers, and he really put the pedal to the metal right after the runup. I told him to take it on that first turn, and let him go hoping to have a good wheel to hold on the long start-finish straight, after which I'd stick it to him on the off-cambers. So I held his wheel really hard and he rode himself off the course, getting tangled up in the tape near the start-finish straight. Pressure, pressin' down on you... That was enough to get rid of him for the rest of the race.
Going into the fourth or fifth lap, I heard the bell. I had just passed the Corkscrew and decided this was the time to sort of conserve my effort for an all out effort on the last lap. Guys always make a push and I had a cushion of maybe 15 seconds back to four or five guys behind me, and I knew if they worked together on the flats and finishing straight I was screwed. So I soft pedaled just a tiny bit, burned it a little less up the start/finish straight, and went off into the off-cambers. The Gang of Four was maybe 2 seconds back at this point, so it was The Land of No Mistakes for me, but I was slightly refreshed, and I figured they were probably not working together, and all hurting. Just then, I had my other two technical highlights of the day. The first one was hitting the Turn 1 off-camber properly for the first time all day. I held my speed, hit the narrow inside line, and hit the pavement path hard enough that my clincher started to roll, but snapped back in place on my rim with an audible pop, and the tube held. Nicely done, saved some energy. The next highlight was coming into the double hairpin. The Gang was right on my heels, and I kept churning the whole way, hopping off at the very last second while still pedaling. I must have come in really hot because this girl near the fence gasped at me as I jumped off, and I felt my feet sink pretty deep in the dirt just then. It's possible I looked totally out of control, but I fortunately stuck the landing, didn't miss a beat transitioning and sprinted. I hauled as down the little hill, skidded around the pole, up the little rise and remounted (even had the pedals in the right spot this time!) As I clipped in, I glanced back and saw my four buddies sort of piling into each other in the turn and stumbling into it. I put what felt like *huge* time on them there, and none of them challenged me for the rest of the lap.
It was routine from there until the double corkscrew. At that point, a Baltimore Bikes rider I hadn't seen before charged up behind me - like a really good rider who maybe crashed or mechanical'ed or something. This wouldn't be good. He more or less got my wheel in the Corkscrew and I started ramping it up frickin hard, but he held steady. Past the barriers, through the last hairpins, and off onto the starting-finishing straight. I did a seated sprint, it was wayyy too long to stand, and felt him coming up behind me. I tried like hell to hang on and push harder, but it seemed like the line would never come, and I was just about spun out in the 44:12. He pipped me at the line, taking 38th.
Damn. Who races that hard for 38th? Or 39th?
I pulled off the course and met up with Dave B, who placed an excellent 17th against a loaded top third of the field. While he talked to some other people, I had a huge attack of Crossgut, and coughed up a bunch of bagel chunks, and some lungs. Just like I promised, kids.
After that things were kind of a blur, coming down from the adrenalin high. I chatted with some folks, passed on some course intel to a few people, saw Ken W off, and the drank a bunch to rehydrate.
Power/weight needs to improve a lot. I need more of a particular kind of fitness - a bit more lactate clearance, and about 20 seconds more VO2Max power would help *a lot*. Two hard races in a row, in two days, just isn't possible for me right now. I dropped out Saturday sitting around 40-42 out of an 80-something rider field at Granogue, and finished 39/~75 at Wiss. I look at the Wiss course and know I can do a lot better there, more fitness, more thin and more rest is needed. Maybe next year I'll do Wiss, skip Granogue. We'll see. I am getting confident in my handling skills. When I have the right tires, I do alright. Sand, on the other hand, murders me.
Other highlight - I saw some awesome pit work in the B race, including a guy from a Boston club who trashed his bike. He came in on a dead run, his mate literally threw him a new bike and went to work on the bent bike. A wheelset later, the racer came flying up to hit the barriers. He dismounted and let the bike roll (at 20 MPH) into the hands of one teammate, sprinted through the pits, grabbed his own bike - now fixed - and shouldered it, sprinting up the hill past the barriers. It was great teamwork, and everybody in the pits and on the runup cheered when they saw it.
Finally, a lot of the folks who do cross are the best. I sometimes really hate roadie bitchiness. In cross, there are some jerks. But for the most part it's a pretty collegial kind of racing. Beat each other's brains out, throw elbows, whatever. But when you're done racing, you're done. Have a beer, hang out, let's enjoy the sun and watch the next race together. The spirit reminds me a bit of rugby, which is violently intense during the game, and collegial afterwards, usually sharing jokes and war stories over a couple beers. Cross has a special atmosphere, it places special mental and physical demands on racers, and seems to draw a lot of special people as a result. I respect a lot of the folks I compete against for their willingness to engage in a particularly painful kind of battle, and because I respect them hope that I earn some respect in return.
Yes, objective results matter a lot, but most of us will never get close to the podium, except when we stumble by it on the way to pick up our spare wheelset from the pits. Hey, what the hell, we're weekend warriors. Most of us aren't that gifted and we shouldn't expect to win. What matters then, is acquitting ourselves well, battling honorably, giving the last full measure of effort we possess in what is often a completely futile effort. I totally recognize this when I see others fighting hard.
Why then are mediocre finishes, my own huge improvement from last year, and the knowledge that I had nothing left in the tank Sunday, not enough for me? I don't know the answer to that. Perhaps my heart does not yet believe the truth that my mind knows.
My mind knows that the Spartans at Thermopylae finished DFL against the Persians. The 300 were slaughtered. What made them great, was not their final placing, but how hard they fought. Sometimes, there is a lot of honor in just fighting, if you fight hard enough.