Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A day late, but not short. Race Report: USAC Women's Elite Cyclocross National Championships

Something a little different, reporting the thank yous and vital statistics before the shenanigans. First, BFF Doug and Pedal Hard Coach and friend Isaiah, you know ;).  Mike Weiss (for saying it bluntly) and Big Shark Bicycle for unwavering support, teammates on Michelob Ultra/ Big Shark who probably get tired of hearing about me winning (I didn't today, ha!) Kent for the homestay in Austin; hope I get the chance to reciprocate. Everyone who tagged me on FB, watched the race on BTBtv, texted and called after the race. Y'all make a girl feel loved! For the record, I finished 10th, after not being sure that I would be able to logistically when it was postponed by a day.

Second row, far right, just behind Rachel Lloyd, cattycorner to KFC and grinning like an idiot. That was my mindset just prior to the start of the day-late Women's Elite race at the USAC Cyclocross National Championships.

With two minutes to go, I handed my jacket and pants to Isaiah, checked for the 9th time that my left pedal was upright and my chain was in the right gear. Then I starred beyond the butt in front of me and listened for the whistle.

I had the cleanest clip-in and fastest jump of the season off the start line. Almost immediately, the lane was clear in front of me as the nose of the field swung left. I geared up out of the saddle like I had practiced in the fields of Castlewood Park, as a respectable number of die-hard fans beat the boards along the straightway.

And then about 30 meters before the start of the uphill, I ran out of actual gears (!), the risk of running a 1x.

Aside: Doug and I switched my bikes to a single chain ring in front mid-way through the 2013-14 season. Issues with chain drop and the realization that I rarely get in my big ring led us down this path, and it suited my riding style. We had already begun discussing changes to this set-up before today, but decided not to "change horses in the middle of the race"... Ironically, the whole point of the pit in CX, to change "horses".

Back to the race: I was eclipsed by the field quickly, and nearly elbowed into the barriers. Now back in the pack, I rode through chunky mud blind except for the sounds of gear changes to signify upcoming hazards. I rode this way through the early switchbacks and gracelessly passed the first pit (as planned). There wasn't much room to pass, and not a lot of stopping power in the mucky turns. I nearly took myself out crossing wheels with riders in front of me. Isaiah would later say that I looked nervous in that first pit pass.

The first of many unrideable off-camber sections lay ahead. The dismount was tricky. Dismount on the unpracticed right and use the fencing to leverage, or dismount on the left and risk sliding side-ways into the downside fencing? Didn't matter. Forced to dismount earlier than planned because of the traffic in front of me. As I reached to grab the bike (it had to be carried or risk clogging the brakes and fork with mud), I was jostled from behind. The bike slipped from my gloved hand, and something unseen hit me right in the nose. I recovered my bike just as I started to see stars, but managed to run straight ahead despite my pain-blurred vision (my nose still hurts a day later).

Somehow, I made it to the base of the first limestone stairs. Advantage Sunny-long legs. I bounded up them, past two other women and close on the heels of a third. The course made a 180 after an off-camber remount section, and proceeded down a treacherously straight and steep descent. At the bottom, we were greeted by a second unrideable off-camber bit on the lower portion of the course (all of these were beautifully rideable in practice on Friday!) During my one-lap pre-ride (we were given only 20'), I slowed myself on the descent by jamming the knuckles of my right hand into the fence (on accident, of course). Wouldn't you know it? I did the exact damn thing in the race...I should have practiced it a second time. I resolved to take the line on the left side of the descent for the rest of the race.

Nothing broken (it is a lovely shade of purple right now).  I practiced a fist and then grabbed the fence post through the frame of my bike after I smoothly dismounted and shouldered it. This time I dug my spiked shoes into the mud and sprinted past a Luna rider whose handlebars had sadly become tangled in the fencing. Two or three riders alongside me attempted to remount their bikes through the next section, but I kept mine shouldered and high-stepped past them and around the next corner.
After a quick descent in which I remounted but remained unclipped, I hopped off the bike once more for the run up to the second and trickier set of limestone steps. I tripped on one and nearly face-planted. I recovered this time with a little more grace, but was thinking" "Jeez, I need to settle down".

We had a series of boggy, but not unrideable, long, swooping turns ahead before arriving at the pit a second time. I used my practiced lines and loose caboose to pass two more ladies. I took in big gulps of air and used a power-pedal stroke to ride over the choppy mud into the pit. Isaiah and Doug were waiting two-thirds of the way down, and I simply said "clean, please".

Past the pit, the mud was so think that we had debated the merits of running the whole thing in order to have a clean bike for the twisty concrete section to follow. I had decided to make it a clutch decision, hoping that by the time our race hit the course, the juniors would have packed down a line. They did not disappoint. I rode that stretch and hit the pavement a tad wobbly on the slickened surface, but with lots of clearance between the brakes and the wheel.

Lots left to do on the first lap, and lots of work to do yet in the race. We were onto the approach of what would have been the most fun part of the course in dry conditions, but arborists and rain, in addition to causing an unprecedented and unforeseen 24-hour delay of the race, had fundamentally changed the course. Now, a banked turn along a short wall-like hill ended with a hasty dismount, a side-step leap down, two-step run-up, right-turn remount, and an unclipped downhill before another four-step run-up that would have needed a ladder if it were any steeper. Spectators lined the top of the wall.  A number of them heckled me when my foot slipped in my attempt to remount at the end, and I "Supermanned" my saddle (ouch).

I was still amongst a tight group of women, and we careened down another steep, hold-your-breath-and-hope-your-cantilever-brakes-grab-your-mud-choked-rims-at-the-bottom kind of hill. Mine did, and I swung a leg over at the bottom.  Shouldering my bike over two legit (and somewhat aggressively high) barriers before another long run-up, I gave it my all I was worth to catch the woman in front of me so that I would have someone to draft off of on the long start-finish straightaway. The wind was picking up, and I was slightly concerned still about being under geared on this stretch.

I needn't have worried. Our group was already showing signs of fatigue just one lap in. I made the pass at the bottom of the hill and caught the wheel of the lead rider in our loose four-woman group. I spied the orange and blue AmyD kit of Ericka ahead and worked to bridge the gap before the next time we passed the pit.

I didn't quite make it, but I was able to grab her wheel in the subsequent turn, and it wasn't long before I took a chance to pass. Though they should have had the same pressure, I felt the rear tire on this bike might be squishier than my other bike.  And I could feel my tires grabbing the turns on this bike better. I briefly though about asking Doug to let a little air out of the tires of my A bike once I got to the pit. I decided against it because of the hidden bedrock and sharp curbs we were bouncing over on the course.

Can you tell I had settled down? I focused on taking the turns faster, hitting the run-ups more aggressively, having a little more fun out there. I felt a smile creep onto my face. I asked Isaiah and Doug to "Please, clean" my bike once again, and they excitedly handed up my bike for the second time.

When I came through the start-finish, I realized two things. One, that the race was half-over with two laps to go. And, two, that I was in 12th place, with 10th place in sight (I'm far-sighted)! I can't describe the feeling that came over me except to say that my legs felt somewhat renewed, my shoulders relaxed, and my bike impossibly surged forward.

I don't remember much of that third lap except that I passed by Elle Andersn into 11th place (I've really enjoyed her rider diary and feel somewhat inspired to go race in Europe over Christmas next year), and pulled in plain sight of the recognizable kit and powerful pedal stroke of Courtenay McFadden.

I now had two somewhat contradictory goals, ride as fast as possible on this silly, sloppy course, and stay upright. I bent my elbows just a bit more, scooted my butt a little farther back on the saddle, and let her go. The course was becoming just barely, perceptibly tackier, and I was able to get a tiny bit more aggressive on the corners and power-stroke the straights.

I'm not quite sure when I moved into 10th, but I do know I never let up on that last lap. I was heckled for my helmet color choice (neon orange), commended for my stair-stepping, and redeemed in the eyes of the spectators on the wall, cleanly remounting with the moves of Superwoman this time.
I took that final hill no brakes until the bottom (very tacky mud here), a gamble as I maneuvered into a track-standesque side-slide, coming within a foot or two of the fencing at the bottom. I ran over the last two barriers like I was being chased (I was). One last run-up, one last remount, one last tricky corner, and I was on smooth payment, grinning from ear-to-ear.

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations! It was fun to root for you from back here.