More serious was the loss of brakes on the Fetish. I violated Racing Rule #966, Thou Shalt Not Change the Bike on Race Day. I had mounted a wheelset with Michelin Muds, expecting and hoping to ride in the vile freezing sleet and mud predicted on Weather.com, with the idea that I may not be faster than most people but I’m probably tougher, so a real sufferfest would be to my benefit.
Problem is, between work and a ton of personal obligations I’ve been busier than the one legged man at the County Ass Kicking Contest, and I was too tired (aka too much of a lazy, pussed-out moron) to tune the brakes last night. I reasoned that brake carrier cable adjustments are a pretty minor job with the TRP Euro-X brakes (and they are) so I could do it at Reston if need be.
Let me know if your “HEY, LOOK AT THE STUPID GUY” red flashing dashboard light just started blinking. Apparently, the bulb in mine is burnt out or just not too bright.
Anyhow, on the day, the brakes were wayyy too loose, so I loosened the straddle cable end and shortened the cable. The cable end has two hex bolts pinching the cable so it’s adjustable. This fixed the brakes. Unfortunately, I only had one hex wrench, and had to tighten up the cable end using my patented Thumb/Forefinger/Irritation Signalling Finger Vise Grip tool. It wasn’t clear how tight I got it. Not very, it seems.
This defect went unnoticed until the steep downhill into an off-camber most of the way through the first lap, when a guy stacked in front of me. I made a panicked grab at the brakes, and pulled the STI levers up against the handlebar. After that, I had no way to brake effectively to moderate speed, which made the corners interesting, but this was really a good thing.
A good thing? Yes.
I tried to keep braking for a quarter lap, but after I rode off the course down by Steve’s Swimming Pool I decided to just stop braking, except on the downhill off camber. On that the only way to navigate it was to just about stop at the top of the hill, keep the brakes clamped to the bar, and keep them locked on all the way down to the off-camber, which I would hit at just about full speed, after picking up speed all the way down that hill in spite of the levers being pulled in to the bar. I’m not skillful enough to carry speed all the way around so I had to sort of calculate how much speed I could carry through the tight spots, and try to just ride in at that pace. It worked out okay and the last two or three laps went pretty smoothly, a hard effort at a slightly lower, but much more constant intensity than I am used to. It wasn't fast - I lost probably 10 spots on the downhill off camber during the race - but it wasn't terribly slow either.
It turned out there were a few places on the course I could just hammer, and I was pleased to look left going through one fast sweeper, and see my wheels throwing up chunks of dirt and roostertails as I drifted to the left through the turn, barely under control. That kind of stuff is good for building confidence in your bike handling. The downhill into the off-camber posed a concern each lap, as the brake cable slipped a little further each time, and there was an uphill/downhill off-camber section traversing a hill face over the latrines that was also a little sketchy, but I felt I had a lot of flow and I'm going to keep working on not braking in races.
In the end I finished 43d out of maybe 70 or 75 riders. Not a great placing, but I wasn’t unhappy. With sore legs & back, fading fitness and mostly non-existent brakes, it’s not like I could have expected more. You have to go into a race being honest with yourself if you hope to ride smart and up to your potential on the day. The one really good takeway from this was feeling desparately bad right from the start but sticking with it through the second lap thinking “well, now I have more than enough excuses to quit – bad legs, no brakes…" and then concluding that it would be more honorable not to quit - time to HTFU and just ride. So it wasn't a great performance placing-wise, but a good ride in terms of earning some self-respect.
Having friends cheering for me. Deep in the pain cave, I heard Fat Marc, some women calling my name (who was that I wonder? Most of the girls I know who do cross were racing at the same time) and I think Ken Getchell said good things about me, plus tons of random folks. Sometimes I don’t hear but when I do it’s nice. Hey, I'm not going to invite y'all over to date my sister, but if you race cross too we're friends of a sort.
Being thanked by a guy for letting him pass at the top of the downhill into the off-camber – I shouted “go, no brakes, gotta go slow.” I only did it out of necessity – if I didn’t slow way down, I’d have stacked it and he would have run over me or crashed with me. That’s an aside, the nice thing is knowing I remembered to not be a jerk on the race course, and that one of my peers appreciated the decision. It’s hard competition out there, I don’t mind sticking it to people in a test of legs or lungs, but the competitive spirit ends at the point where continuing to compete would cause needless injury or just be flat out stupid. Trying to ride that hill without brakes, at my skill level, would have caused needless mayhem for others, so I didn't do it and waved people through if they were on my wheel at that hill. As a general principle I try to hang on to the sportsmanship that should undergird all our competition in life. I don’t always manage to do this, but I like doing it, and like it more when it’s appreciated and the favor is returned. It makes me feel like I’m not alone in this, and that makes it easier to sometimes bite my tongue and keep cool when somebody else does something unsportsmanlike or really stupid on the bike.
Chatting with like minded friends. Cross season is funny – every weekend, you get together with 500 buddies to go out in some field and suffer. You meet a lot of good people racing, and it’s always pleasant.
Chatting with Jeremiah Bishop about the Tacchino course. I didn’t speak to him on the day at the Tacchino but thought I should ask for his opinion on our course – he’d told some of the guys it was very much a roadie’s course. So I just introduced myself as one of the club officers, thanked him for attending (and winning), and asked for his opinions on the course. He gave some thoughts that squared with what Ken and I and some other folks on the club think about what a cross course ought to be, and we have some ideas for some nice mods that will help us to build next year on this year’s success. Now here’s the cool thing about that chat with Jeremiah – he’s definitely the Alpha Cyclist (or one of three or four) at any given MAC or MABRA event, a pro who makes a living at this. He could be a real dick, super arrogant, and not hang out and chat with people – nobody would think anything of it. “Hey, what do you expect? He’s a pro.” But he’s not like that at all, he’s super gracious and spent a lot of time near the barriers, watching the races and hanging out chatting with random folks, a real normal guy pro. As I was leaving, Jeremiah was doing his warmup near the Trek VW, which was parked adjacent to my truck. It was getting close to his race time so I didn't bother him, but a guy and a girl walked up to him. The guy introduced himself and his wife, said they were huge fans, and Jeremiah smiled and started pouring on the charm, chatting with them. He didn’t have to do that either, and would have been within his rights to say, “hey, great, I’m glad to hear it, but I’m trying to get ready for my race right now.” The nicest guy in the world could say that and nobody would find it unreasonable. But Jeremiah didn’t say that and as I pulled out was having a nice warm discussion with a couple of his fans. That was really impressive.
And here’s the kicker. As far as I’m concerned, anybody who races is just some other guy who rides a bike. I don’t really think of anybody as being above anybody else – we’ve all got talents, no matter what we do with ourselves for a living and for hobbies. So I didn’t think anything of walking up to Jeremiah Bishop and asking him what he thought of the course and how to improve it - he's just some guy on a bike, albeit one who has world class talent and (I'm presuming) world class ability to judge a race course. So he's still just some guy, in my book. But after seeing him in action, if he is gracious enough to attend the Tacchino… well, I’ll probably feel compelled to re-introduce myself by saying, “I’m a big fan of yours and on the event organizing team, and wanted to know what you think about the course this year…” Seeing how he treats people made me a fan – maybe not as much of Jeremiah Bishop as a racer, but of him as a person. That was excellence in the one dimension that really counts, decency; and it was impressive. Yeah, I'd ride with him any day, if he was able to go that slowly.