Thursday, November 20, 2014

Race Report: Jingle Cross Sunday

I spun the pedals on Travis's bike, ensconced - wedged, really - into the narrow doorway between the sleeping area and hangout area of his RV, shoulder-to-laminate with the bathroom door on one side and the refrigerator door on the other. I was doing my best to warm-up, mentally sending blood to my chilled toes and fingers in preparation for my last planned Women's Elite UCI race before Nationals in January.

Outside the RV, the 1-3 inches of snow on the course was turning to brown ice under the tires of hundreds of cyclocross racers, as the temperature steadily dropped. By the time I finished warming up, emerging fully ready to race in whatever conditions, it would be 23 °F and overcast.

I rubbed embrocation into my feet and leg fronts. I taped duct tape over the breathable mesh of my shoes. I was wearing thick wool socks and fleece-lined leg warmers with industrial-strength silicone grips to hold them in place. Under the taught zipper of my speed suit, I had one thermal wicking layer beneath a lightweight but water and wind-proof jacket. Around my neck and under my helmet, I had on a wool neck gaiter and wool stocking cap. Two pairs of gloves (one a glove-liner, the other a wind-barrier glove). Vaseline was smothered on my face to prevent windburn.

I approached the starting line, ready to take on anything this shape-shifting course had to offer. I had pre-ridden the lap only once after watching Doug negotiate it during the single speed race, and noted with pleasure that I was going to get to ride through the Grinch's Lair - a sand-filled barn with a rather tight concrete doorway for an exit (in previous year's the UCI race had been detoured away from this feature).

I was on the second-row, center with a perfect position behind one of the fastest starters on the UCI circuit and an already two-time podium finisher this week-end, Courtenay McFadden. With my position, I managed to unobtrusively photobomb a couple of the first-row pro's hamming-it-up pictures with the Grinch. When the whistle blew, I jumped off the line with everyone else, but my left-foot slid past my pedal, scraping my ankle in the process, and I was immediately plunged into the middle of the pack.

Before the first turn past the starting line, I managed to edge my way back into the top half. But with too many ladies in front of me to count, a series of logs to jump, and a right-turn remount in a crowd to negotiate, I lost track of my position in the race.

I did a decent job of dismounting and running up the fly-over - two-steps at a time(!) - alongside Laurel Rathbun. whose long-legs matched my stride. We approached a tricky turn where just a few races before ours, I had watched eight separate people in a field of about forty slide out and do damage to their equipment. I took the turn on the righthand tape and swung across the mid-line of the race track onto the rougher terrain on the opposite left side of the line. It worked spectacularly and I had enough momentum to propel me past two other riders on the approach to the first big climb up the backside of Mt. Krumpit.

The mud had not yet frozen on the slope that so many had been forced to run in previous races. My tire treads searched for purchase as I weighted every low PSI nubbin into the earth (I was running something around 16-17 PSI in my PDX), churning up the hill on the wheel of Ericka Zaveta. After a couple of switchbacks at the top, I put on a tiny surge to slip pass Amanda Naumann before the descent to Hopson's Holly-Jolly Hell-Hole.

I emerged from the Hell-hole unscathed, on the wheel of Laurel Rathbun. Her tires kicked up frozen mud-pellets that pummeled me like marbles. A group of four or five riders had come together as a group, trading positions through the switchbacks, pit, barriers, and Christmas Barn with it's unnervingly scene-clashing soft rock Christmas music. Later in the race, I would hear White Christmas and feel my heart rate and wheels unconsciously slowing to the music.

I slipped into fourth position in the pack with a bobble out the Grinch's Lair. It worked to my favor, however, when I was able to race up a difficult kicker hill on to a slippery off-cambor section taking the high-line, as two other riders ahead of me in the group were forced to put a foot down to get up the last lip of the hill. I threw out my left leg for balanced and tried to ease the bike onto the more stable-low line, but Laurel added a nice surge to pass and bump me back up the hill and onto a less stable line on the approach to a steep downhill. I entered a series of S-turns, the last tricky corners before the finishing straight on the first lap, third in the group, but with the leaders in sight just about ten seconds ahead of us.

My bike was beginning to get weighted down with ice-mud, but I didn't want to pit and risk loosing position. I could feel the weight as I carried it over the fly-over. At the base of the hill, we all battled for a good line to accelerate onto the slippery mud. I moved to the far right along the tape for the ascent and could have reached out and hugged a group of fellow Missouri cyclocrossers cheering me on. Heartened, I laid into that hill like it was the last lap and surged ahead of the other riders. Laurel and I called out mutual encouragement as I passed her half-way up.

I knew I was in the top ten, but my frozen addled brain couldn't think much beyond the next few turns. Securely in position, I raced into the pit to hand off my weighted-down bike to Doug and Travis's capable hands (photo credit: cycling Doug yelled out that I was in fifth as I fixed him with a shocked expression!  Third and fourth were in sight!

I got a little excited then, too excited for the slippery hard-right turn into the barriers, and I sheepishly heard the announcer call out my name as I bumbled my way over them. Doug and I had talked before the race about finding my inner-Cross-Crusade-Oregon-mud-zen-mental-skills capable of floating the back wheel effortlessly around every corner. I found it in the sultry strains of Bing Crosby in the Christmas Barn. And by the end of lap two, I was beginning to bridge the gap to Meredith Miller and Maghalie Rochette.

The hard work was just beginning. The course was changing, getting faster, as the mud on the top most later of the track began to freeze, and it was like riding in slow-churned chocolate ice cream. Sticky. I started to push the speed around the corners. Each one, I would put on just a little more gas, take a little more aggressive, go into a little faster, all in attempt to gain one second here and there in my pursuit of fourth place.

Midway through the third lap, I started to visibly gain ground on Maghalie. I took the logs and fly-over super-smooth, but when it came to remounting onto the bike, I realized my clips were starting to freeze up making it a bit of a challenge to get clipped in. I rode the next few corners with my right foot beating the shoe against the pedal every other stroke. Finally, at the base of the climb, I felt it grab, and I jammed out of the saddle, pumping my legs faster than I thought possible midway through the race. I caught Maghalie's wheel and we rode single-file down the tricky backside of the course.

Once over the bridge, I surged up a small hill, took a tight line around the corner and passed the Luna Chix rider in the rough of the following straightaway. It happened just before the pits, and I could hear Travis and Doug cheering me on as I swung by in pursuit of third.

For just a moment, I thought to myself, "Fourth is really good". But with two laps to go, my legs were not screaming at me, and my lungs - while icy - were not yet at their full capacity. And as I crossed the start finish line with two laps to go, I dug really deep and pulled within striking distance of Meredith.

My face was a mask. Frozen as it was, I probably couldn't have made a pain face anyway. I concentrated on riding each feature clean and ever faster, holding onto that Zen to scoot my rear wheel around corners and power onto the next straightaways. Riding up the hill, I was conscious of the fact that at some point I passed Meredith. I hugged the tape on the way up, and Ricky Bass, a fellow CXer from St. Louis, reached out a hand and gave me an encouraging tap on the back. It was electric! I emerged from the woods, sprinted past the pit, the Noosa rider hot in pursuit, and didn't dare look over at Doug and Travis.

I rode the rest of that second to last lap nearly perfectly, including the slippery off-cambor section that -in my mind - I have started calling Max's Run (after the pooch in the Grinch).

Aside - this particular section was so treacherous that for a few races in the morning, I think the race directors detoured racers around it.

Photo Credit - Todd Fawcett

I could not let up on the pace. I could see a hard-charging Carolin Mani behind Meredith making up time. But, I also didn't want to focus my attention behind me. I listened to the announcers for news from the front line. And then, astonished, and a little concerned, I heard them announce that Katarina Nash, an already two-time champion this weekend, was running her bike up the hill! I tried not to guess what that meant, but I knew the two riders were not that far in front of me.

Frozen cleats, that was her struggle, not damage to her bike, and she was able to jump back on and stay in contention to the end. With a half-lap to go, it became clear that I wasn't going to catch the two leaders, and I threw a sly smile at Doug as I passed him in the pit for the last time. Not believing it possible, I actually started to ride even faster (the lap results would show that my last lap was a good 13-seconds faster than any of my previous laps!) and the gap to fourth seemed to grow. I gave it all I had over the finish line, the goofiest grin literally frozen on my face.

I did not prepare for the possibility of a podium finish. My sixth place finish the day before was impressive all by itself. Doug sprinted on my Giant TCX bike back to the RV to fetch my Big Shark jacket and stocking cap, and I proudly ascended the podium next to Katarina, Courtenay, two very cold podium girls, and The Grinch.

1 comment: