In the days leading up to the race yesterday I did a quick sort through the plastic tub that I take to cross races. The tub contains a small tin of safety pins, embrocation, my clear racing glasses, some gel packets, cowbells and whatever else has accumulated over the years. The bottom of the tub has some bits of dirt that might bring me luck so I don’t clean them out.
In my rummaging I came across a flyer from the 2005 Cyclocross season. Reading the names of the venues brought a wry smile to my face; as did the year, 2005. Counting on my fingers confirmed that this is season number twelve for me. I should have learned by now. It is time I resigned myself to the fact that just like Forest Gump, “I am not a smart man.”
I felt confident the weathermen and weather babes would be wrong and overblow the forecasted Stormageddon. I can say “weather babes” because sexism is alive and well in broadcast media. Show me a female weather broadcaster over forty years of age and I’ll show you a hundred male forecasters over forty. We like our men trustworthy and our women pretty. Sexism justified by market research is still sexism.
Alas, I digress.
Rich sent out an email to find out who was racing Sunday and he said the weather forecast predicted perfect conditions. I love Rich. Grown men and women going to play in the mud. Maybe we aren’t as grown up as people think.
The days and hours leading up to the race followed the usual routine I found myself at the back of the starting grid waiting for the signal to go.
The start was predictably fast but I wasn’t expecting the rooster tails of water in my face and front of my body. The rain and wind had let up but the standing water was icy cold on my bare legs. I moved my line to the right to avoid the water coming off of Coz’s back wheel.
Tacos El Magnisun
As we left the pavement and hit the bumpy grass I was mindful as I rolled across the brass memorial plaque marking the spot of El Chefe’s wheel tacoing tumble from a year ago. I was on some fat 40mm tires that soaked up the bumps from tree roots and grass clumps.
My Nano tires aren’t just wide and fluffy, they are aggressive and the hungry tread and low pressure bit into the grass like saw blades and I was able to rail the sweeping loose corner. The mud in Randy’s Crack is tacky until it gets too wet and then it is a greasy mess and carnage quickly follows. Lucky for me it stayed tacky for my race.
The grassy sections were a diabolical mix of lumpy roots and rutted mud bogs. I piloted my fat tires around the ruts whenever I could and they absorbed the lumps better than narrower tire options. I moved up and was able to count riders in my cat as the course doubled back on itself. There were three off the front then a group of four with Coz among them that had a small gap on me. Coz had been sick otherwise he would be in the leading mix instead of having me anywhere near him. There were three guys chasing just behind me so I focused my attention on the riders in front and tried to keep in contact with them.
The mud around the tennis courts was like some gravitational hyper-vortex that sucked your strength and held your tires in its sloppy grip. The mud slowed you to a comical speed. 800 watts to go four miles an hour. Riders tried to hug the fence line which was faster but brought its own risks. This option cost El Chefe’ his left shift lever.
Bunker Hill took on a Portlandish persona of slippery cream cheese-like mud that necessitated both finesse and brute strength. Then onto the gravel road that is usually fast but was saturated with water on this day and was painfully slow. When I pre-rode the course I had tried multiple lines, left, right and center and there were no fast lines. This was a tough day at the office.
The climb up Kite Hill is always good to me and this day was no exception. We were catching riders from the open Cat 4 group and I started picking them off. As others feathered their brakes on the blind downhill I let my fat tires fly.
The sharp corner at the bottom reminded me of one of the unique and hard things that define Cyclocross. Accelerating from a near stop to full speed again and again makes the sport feel like an hour of intervals with insufficient recovery.
Passing the finish line and seeing three more laps gave me hope. I thought I felt pretty good for an old man in Zone 5.
Sure enough; I'm 38. And Yiddish!
In the grassy switchbacks I spotted two guys in my Cat still chasing me. I had a gap but I didn’t feel safe. I feared I might fade on the later laps. We were now in the thick of the Cat 4 open field so it was hard to see who in front of me was in my group. A healthy sprinkling of mud on my glasses didn’t help either.
I focused on good lines and keeping speed through the corners. I am trying to make this the winter I don’t break a rib so I was conservative on the really loose stuff.
On the third lap a couple of the 35 plus guys passed me and I tried to leverage their draft and get pulled along. It didn’t really work but since racing as an old man involves pretending you’re young and fast, another incremental lie wasn’t that far out of place.
At the end of the third lap I heard the sweet sound of a cowbell at the finish line telling me I had just one more lap. I looked ahead and lapped a rider from my own cat. Wow.
People often refer to “old man strength” and I can assure you that it is real. I can handle almost anything if I think of it as the last one. I would later see that my lap times were remarkably consistent and my final lap was the fastest.
After the mud followed by Bunker Hill I redlined the engine on the gravel and up Kite Hill. I let it fly on the downhill and had my target rider in my sights. After the turn at the bottom I accelerated out of the saddle. My legs were screaming and I wanted to catch my target, a 35 plus guy who had passed me and I had been chasing him the whole last lap. Back in the saddle I spun with all my strength.
Picking up speed I ticked through my cassette and passed two Cat 4 open guys who were blown. As if he smelled me, my target was out of the saddle sprinting for the line. I came up next to him and we held even for a second before he slowly pulled in front.
I crossed the line at full speed then grabbed the brakes as I was two seconds from hitting the grass and El Chefe’s taco spot. I finally rolled to a stop and unclipped.
As I fought to catch my breath I slumped over my bars. Even though I was stopped I had to consciously work to maintain my balance and stay upright. At this moment I wished it was socially acceptable to lean over and just fall off your bike and lie on the ground. Doing so would result in calls to 911. Such is my demographic.
This moment of ecstasy and agony was what I came for. This is why I pinned on a number and got myself and my bike covered with mud. I felt absolutely alive. I am still a racer.
After a short warm down I made my way back to my car where I washed the mud from my legs and threw my muddy clothes into a big plastic bag. Endorphins were still swirling around my bloodstream keeping me warm and excited.
An afternoon engagement forced an uncharacteristically rapid departure and as I drove off I chomped on a bagel that had been intended as a pre-race snack. I drove faster than usual. Another side effect from racing.
Racing. I love that word.
For a handful of people racing is about winning. For most of us it is a chance to find out more about ourselves. Racing is hard. Doing hard things is good.