The day started out super pleasant. Crank up the espresso maker, fasten the bike to the top of the pre-packed truck, wait for Jon to come over, check the weather. Good news – the temp in Columbia was 50 instead of the predicted 40 – much nicer racing weather. Jon and I got to Rockburn Elementary at 7:45 or so, giving us over an hour to pre-ride, then another hour before race time. Perfect. Prepping well doesn’t mean you’ll win or finish above your ability, but following a good routine prepares you to race and ensures you will have the best possible chance of riding up to the limits of your ability.
We pre-rode, stuck wheels in the pits, and I got registered, then back to the truck for some trainer time and to down a Clif bar. I had some hesitation to run tubulars since they were slipping all over the place – stupid Vittoria Evo tubulars, they have a crummy compound and just don’t stick well and today’s pre-ride was no exception. So I put on the Michelin Mud clinchers and put the tubies in the pit for spares.
The race started with a short run up the pavement into a hard right turn up a hill. We had 80+ starters, so this was nearly disastrous. A bunch of guys were rubbing tires and bouncing off each other and braking hard, so it was total mayhem, but the hill thinned us down to three wide. I still went into the first grass turn rubbing shoulders with people. Eventually we got into some twisty grass stuff.
The course followed around some berms then down the hill, curving around the mildly off-camber hill in a U-shape – down the outside of the U, then quickly up over the left end of the U, then down the inside of the U and back up the right side. Since this was the first lap, and it the hill was off-camber, and there was a huge pack of riders spanning pretty much the entire U, it was ripe for disaster, and since it was ripe some guy decided to eat it. A guy on the uphill (coming back) side of the off-camber wiped out, taking a few guys on the upper path with him. They slid into the lower oncoming off-camber, causing the front half of the mid-pack to stack it. There was a lot of carnage. I leaned into the tape on the very bottom of the course and just pedaled through, coming by in awesome position.
So I was golden, except my frickin’ front tire started slipping out almost immediately. I don’t know if I got a little tear in the tube and burped some air, or if I had the wrong air pressure (42 seemed firm enough…) or the rubber compound on the two year-old tires is shot, or what, but the handling was vile and the front end was the culprit. It was slipping on the grass off cambers, on the dirst, in the gravel and on the tarmac. There wasn’t a single place on the course it was holding. So I struggled through the prologue lap and got down into the dirt trail, screaming to Jean on the way through, “Jean, pit for me… front tire!” Along the way I thought about this guy in jump school who had a bad premonition about his chute not opening, so he asked somebody to switch chutes with him. He switched with another guy, and the moment his chute opened, it ripped into shreds. He got down safe on his reserve, but over beers later confessed to us that his takeaway is that you can’t avoid your fate sometimes. Maybe I should have stuck to the tubies. The tire problem screwing up my race, apparently, was my fate today, and it was not to be avoided. Still, it’s racing, so you make the best of it and hammer where you can. One guy passed me between the road and the dirt but otherwise I held my position in the string despite the front end sliding like bacon in a Teflon pan. Then I pitted and fumbled with the front tire… forever. Nystrom was there and helped me out with my bumbling but a lot of guys flew by. I don’t know if I was DFL by the time I got out of the pit, but you could see DFL from my neighborhood.
I was prepped right though. The advantage of getting to the race early is you have a lot of time to focus on the task ahead, not just the technical bit about lines, but the part about getting your mind right. So I buckled down. I immediately hauled a few guys back with some really desperate riding. The longer you wait to start passing guys in cross, the worse your life will be. The race gets strung out and the guys in front of you will only get further away as you lag behind some other back marker. So you gotta kill yourself and try to get back into contention.
By the time I got through the sweepers, I knew my race was screwed. I’d lost the long string. I thought about quitting for a couple seconds but decided I had to stick, to see what I could do. So I worked and worked, the inner voice reminding me to at least soft pedal on the downhills even if I was dead, upshifting into a hard gear on the uphills and doing a standing effort to force myself to go harder, as if on a single speed MTB on a steep hill. It worked, and I stayed in the game metally. After another half lap there was no question that I’d be okay and could keep fighting my way up. I passed a few guys on each of the first two or three laps, passing maybe 7 or 10 guys as I fought forward for the rest of the race. One at a time, painfully, the hard way. There was no slacking out there, every pass was a fight. And, mirabile dictu – the combination of Mud rear and Vittoria Evo front tracked like nobody’s business. I may use that combination from now on.
Along the way, the short 150 yard road section was a gift. It seems I’m a roadie at heart; it was easy to do a crit-type acceleration and pass a guy or two on the road. The dirt path was also a gift. I’ve been riding so much MTB at Patapsco, that hitting this familiar stretch of path (which abuts Patapsco not far from Landing Road) put me in the happy place mentally – suffering bad but in the same woods where I spend so much time with my friends.
And so it went. On the last (for me) lap, I couldn’t see anybody behind me except for the leaders, and nobody was in passing distance to the front, so I soft pedaled and focused on staying out of the way. About 5 or six guys lapped me but nobody near me in finishing order was even close.
The final verdict, I think, was about 60th. Not the greatest placing, but all things considered I wasn’t unhappy, for having fought back from DFL +/-5.
After the race I spent the rest of the day cheering for some friends, and enjoying the day with my family, John’s Trevor’s, James’ and Chris’s families. Will knocked out third place in his heavily parent-assisted division of the Li’l Belgians, and got a medal and a $10 gift certificates to Dick’s Sporting Goods (way to go, Dicks!) like all the other kids. It was a great day, and I hope this race keeps growing. Many thanks to promoter Mark, pit guy Chris Nystrom, the officials, and all my racing buddies.