At first glance, the course wasn't very impressive, involving a lot of tape in an open equestrian park, with a straight ride through a sand jumping arena. Follow the course around, however, and it leads to a Back 40 comprised of a lot of tractor path double track, and a twisty, rooty wooded section that rivals the more interesting bits of mountain bike trail at nearby Cedarville State Park. The twisty section had serious flow; you could hammer it at full tilt without hitting the brakes, providing you were the kind of person who is comfortable riding little mini-berms, looking for lines well ahead of schedule, and using trees as berms elsewhere. Combined with the open meadow half of the course, the course seemed really nice.
As the C's rolled out, it started to rain, alternating mist with a steady drizzle. The course was already wet, and the fresh rainfall would add quite a bit of squishyness to the front half of it, turning a 100 yard uphill slog on a squishy hill into a 100 yard uphill slog in partial mud. At 10, the Masters 3/4 rolled out with a field of perhaps 50 riders. The uphill grass start was a bit of a PITA. Since I was rolling casually, I didn't bother scrumming for a decent position on the starting grid, but just went as hard as I could from the back.
I kept contact with the long string of the pack for most of the first lap, until the string started to shred. Bill Schiecken apparently dropped his chain at the start, but caught up with me just past the barriers, and stayed there for a bit, so my fat ass will feature in yet another one of his excellent cinema verite vids, if the editing works out and his camera was on. Bill passed me going into the woods and I managed to stay on his wheel for much of the rest of that lap, until the mud hill anyhow. I picked a bad line near the top and ground to a halt, with the rear wheel spinning and had to run 10 yards and remount. Coming through the sandpit I flashed a Rock & Roll hand gesture (I was wearing a KISS jersey. It was Halloween. so no lectures, please...) and didn't pay enough attention to my line, so I immediately stacked it. A few people passed me there. Then something cool happened.
I've heard this axiom that gaps in cross never close, they only open. That has usually been true for me. However... once I got past the second set of barriers on the back of the course, and into this long section of slippery sweeping turns and tractor path, I was able to gap people behind me, and close up gaps to the people in front. I closed a huge gap on a guy in the really twisty section, despite the roots criss-crossing the trail, a 35% corduroy surface. In front of him was a string of several riders all holding a wheel pretty closely. I saw Bill or maybe one of the other Arrow Velo guys up there. I was back in contact with a group that had dropped me. This was simply amazing.
Would it mean anything at all to you if I said I've been dropped from a group in cross, but in three+ years, have never caught up to a group? My inner monologue was voicing the axiom about gaps and laughing like a maniac at that point. The guy I caught was getting gapped himself, however, and when we approached a little sandy uphill turn, I decided it was time for me to make a move on him, and maybe try to jump into the middle of that group, which was moving at an unacceptably slow pace through the woods. (Yes, the mountain biking is paying off in cross, bigtime, that such a move was even a possibility). So I stood up, launched a brief sprint and went rocketing past the guy on the left. I kept on the gas intent on closing the 20 feet to the group really quickly, to carry momentum and maybe get into the middle of it.
Unfortunately, I was on tubulars. This was a bad thing because the tubies just don't hook up as well as the clinchers do at comparable pressure. I think the cloth sidewalls aren't as resilient as rubber, so when the weight comes off them - like during a standing sprint effort - the tread takes longer to bounce back into full engagement with the ground. Whether my theory is valid or not, tubies are slippery under me when I sprint, and what happened next was sheer horrorshow.
As my front wheel crossed a forearm-sized diagonal root, the front wheel slipped out from under me in a flash. I went down really, really hard - like massive big rugby hit hard - and landed on a bunch of roots and rocks. The pain was like a lightning bolt.
I bounced up right away, cognizant of the fact I was laying across the trail and about to get hit. I got the bike off the trail, and then doubled over and hyperventilated a bit. A guy I'd passed stopped and asked if I needed help - evidently it was a pretty spectacular yardsale - and I told him not to stop, it's a race, I'd be fine. Then I tried not to cry.
I took stock for maybe a half minute. I could just about stand. There was something wrong with my left hand, like a broken finger or two, and I kept shaking it hoping the pain would drip out of the fingertips or something. And I could already feel a tennis ball-sized lump on my hip. I decided to quit, but then thought that I'd paid same-day registration fees to race - $20 plus $10 extra - and I wasn't about to quite after 1.5 laps if I could function at all, even if it mean soft pedaling in.
So I hopped on the bike and pushed off, only to realize my chain was derailed, the derailer was in the rear wheel and the chain was munged up between the derailer and cassette, and my STI's were clogged with mud and pointing inwards. So I hopped off, and using my good hand, got the chain unclogged, eventually managed to get it back on the big ring, and gave the derailer a tug. It looked lined up okay... we'd see if it worked. The STI's moved back into position with a few good punches and with a squeeze of the brakes it was possible to flick out most of the mud and leaf bits. While this was going on I lost maybe a minute, maybe two, and several people passed me. Not good!
Remounting, it appeared I couldn't really grip the bar with my left hand. The forefinger and thumb worked and the palm was okay to lean on but bending the ring finger and pinky, and to a lesser extent the middle finger wasn't really an option. So I rode up the hill and onto the course like I was gripping a tiny cup of tea, pinky extended. Very classy, very proper, not teddibly practical for riding over roots.
Aunty Mavis Demonstrates the Proper Method
to Grip The Handlears With a Broken Pinky
to Grip The Handlears With a Broken Pinky
So at that point, there's only two players left at the table, me and that cyclocross course. It's eyeing me nervously, sweating a bit, trying to look cool. I have no idea what cards are left unflipped, haven't even looked at them, but I'm glaring at the course. It's now personal, and I'm going to beat the course, or go bust trying. I've taken this big stack of chips, and pushed them to the middle. Now we start to flip the cards.
Coming out of the woods it didn't take long to pass back the guy who most recently passed me. I got him on the ride up to the mushy hill. Up ahead of me on the mushy hill, quite a ways up, maybe 50 yards, I saw a tall DC Velo rider, a 55+ racer, I think - James ____? It was a big gap, but maybe I could get him before the end of the race. Figuring he (unlike me) knew what he was doing, I watched his line as he spun up the soul-sucking hill, doing the same thing except mashing it about two gears higher. This closed the gap to about 20 or 30 feet by the time he turned the corner to ride to the sand pit. Coming out of the same corner, I did a standing effort, closed the gap a bit more in the sand, hung it out in the turns onto the start/finish straight, and passed him going up the hill. This wasn't a huge accomplishment in the grand scheme of things, I've got maybe 20 years on the guy, but I've usually been a fader in cross, not a strong finisher - here I was recovering and moving faster. Maybe it was some anger, maybe some adrenaline. Whatever it was, it was working.
The DC Velo guy tracked me pretty closely past the barriers but when we got into the double track, where I could rail the slippery turns and hammer through the woods, he was gone. I cought another guy in the woods, and then had a big gap to my front. In a haze of pain and anger, and positive surprise about this new ability to go faster and close gaps, I just kept my head down and kept grinding, losing the concentration only for about 10 seconds at one point before noticing some slackness, and recovering with a quick standing sprint out of a corner to get the speed and effort level back up.
I was alone from there until starting the last lap. Heading up the finish straight, a cluster of fast riders emerged from the woods. They would have been about a minute or 90 seconds behind me. I wanted more than anything not to get lapped, so I got after it hard from that point on, redoubling my efforts. That caused a few interesting moments. With the rain continuing the corners were really slick, so each corner was risky. I nearly had a second really hard crash in the woods, since with nobody in front of me I was carrying a ton of speed and sliding all over. Then it was out of the woods and into the field, and the guy I had passed right before crashing was maybe 75 or a hundred yards up, turning onto the muddy hill right as I started up the rises to get to the turn. I thought, "there's the carrot" and got after it as hard as I could.
The thought process at this point was pretty funny, the same mindset I go through on hard intervals. "It's two minutes to the finish. I can do anything for two minutes. It's all out until I pass that guy." When I turned onto the hill the carrot was about three quarters of the way up it, and mashed for all I was worth, taking the 55+ rider's smart line. When the carrot turned right off the top of the hill he was maybe 40 or 50 feet in front of me; too far. Coming out of the sand, the race leader caught up to me and asked for a line. I let him take it and told him to go get that next guy. If I was going to finish -1 on the results, I didn't want to be alone, I wanted the carrot to be there too. Coming into the finishing straight, I did a standing effort on the short downhill into the sketchy turn; carrying speed would be important if I was going to catch the carrot. Hitting the tape as I slid around the turn I noticed the carrot was still *way* ahead of me and it didn't seem I could close the gap but I put my head down, shifted up a few times, and went as hard as I could anyhow. I kept my head down and passed him about 6 feet from the line.
Maybe this wasn't an awesome result on the final results. For all I know, it's possible that I was staving off DFL in my class and narrowly avoiding DFL'ing to the 55+ guys. But some things happened that were really positive that really pleased me, particularly after last week's debacle at DCCX. For one thing I've *never* been able to close gaps and bridge in cross, but I was doing that yesterday, finding a way to do it (mainly on bike handling - do I have some aspect of cross I'm strong at? - and grinding not so hard but more consistently than usual). Second, I took some injuries that in the past would have knocked me out of a race but overcame them yesterday. Finally... maybe there were some glimmers of hope coming out of that race. Cross is funny, it takes away and sometimes it gives. Last week, it got a pound of flesh, and I wanted to throw the bike into rush hour traffic on Rock Creek Parkway. Yesterday, it gave me a bit of hope.
The tennis ball-sized hematoma on my hip and the fingers dislocated yesterday are an unpleasant reminder about the race but as I discussed last week, a big part of this is about progress, and the progress will remain after the fingers and hip heal up.
Other Coppis had nice races too, particularly Andrew, who took the 3/4 race, and Steve, who distinquished himself as usual in the M-1-2-3 35+. Not sure what Jeanbean did but I bet it was good. As usual, it was great to see my teammates and friends, and good to see PAX Velo out there with a promising new course. Keep the double track guys - it makes the whole course interesting.
My All Hallows race, in a nutshell: