One of the best pieces of advice I've ever got as a bike racer was "get in the car."
If you want to be a halfway decent bike racer you gotta learn to love the long drives, crappy motels, and having your body run on diner food. Otherwise known as the glamorous life of a bike racer. In the 12 month period starting in January 2011 I made the 15 hour drive to the Milwaukee, Madison, Chicago area no less than 4 times. After that final drive home from Cross Nationals in Madison I swore I never needed to drive across the state of Pennsylvania ever again. If you've ever done it, you know it's pretty bleak. The sarcastic seat belt signs telling you to buckle up the next million miles get old fast.
More than likely I should have just made the 200-ish mile drive to NBX in Rhode Island like I always do. I'm generally a proponent of going to the closest race or the best race. In my opinion NBX is both of those things. The North East is pretty spoiled when it comes to UCI racing opportunities so on a practical level it seemed silly to go elsewhere. Then I thought about all the 9th and 10th places I've gotten the last few years. Scraping together a UCI ranking one or two points at a time is rough. Maybe driving to Indiana makes sense?
There is another almost ethical aspect to this decision. People have all kinds of opinions on "points hunting," which is going to a UCI race that conflicts with others on the calendar and therefore will have a "softer field" to score points in. When I was first brainstorming a trip to Indiana, the negative implications of points hunting were my second biggest aversion to going to Indiana (the first being driving across Pennsylvania). Because philosophically, yeah, I think the best riders should be racing at the best events and not spread out all over the country. Of course practically speaking that's not possible for a country as big as the US and the best of the best would be racing at Cyclocross Nationals come January 8th - 2017, just one week away. If my ultimate goal was to ride well at Natz then getting a few more UCI points would be helpful. Besides, it's been a while since I've been somewhere new to race my bike.
The first hurdle of any long road trip is "shit, this is going to be expensive." Even crummy motels ain't as cheap as I want them to be. The best way to solve this problem is to sell another poor soul on the idea that driving 10 hours to race bikes is a totally reasonable way to spend ones time. I approached a few people with a simple sales pitch — "Hey, wanna go to Indiana and score some UCI points?" I got a few maybes and one resounding "Yes" from Mike Festa who is an old buddy of mine. We've been racing each other for well over five years now but this would be our first chance to find out if our roadside eating habits are compatible.
I went to Mike's house on Friday morning after doing a quick openers workout on the trainer. We transferred all my stuff into his car and headed west.
We spent a large chunk of time on our drive speculating about what we were in for. Neither of us had been to Indiana or had raced cross here. We had no idea what to expect and both of us had been to some UCI races in the past that were UCI in name only. So when we rolled up to the course and saw huge off cambers, purpose built features, and solid race infrastructure we were already stoked. After riding the course once, we were giddy. If nothing else we would get racing on a fantastic track out of this trip.
Saturday went well. Indiana had managed to construct barriers that I felt comfortable enough hopping. I rode in the lead group for the first few laps and then I spent the rest of the race chasing the lead group solo. I got close with one to go but ultimately had to settle for 5th. My best UCI finish ever. It was great to ride well Saturday. It felt a bit like, ok, mission accomplished. No matter what happened the next day I could count the trip a success. That night Mike and I went out and spent a little bit too much on Bison burgers which seemed like a safe bet in Indiana for some reason.
The next morning I was itching for some Waffle House but the highway exit where we were staying only had Cracker Barrel available. Which is fine, I just prefer Waffle House when it comes to my breakfast food chains. The weather was gray, cold, and threatening rain. Apart from the inevitable "Oh this is real cross weather" comments I don't mind rain. I started to change my tune a little bit as the rain really started coming down during the Elite women's race. I decided that dragging my trainer into the heated bathroom was a good plan for staying warm and dry during my warm up. Shortly after I had all this set up some kind folks invited us into their walled off double tent. Then, they offered to pit for us. Midwest nice is no joke. Folks really stepped it up for us on what was quickly becoming one of the nastiest days to race cross I've ever experienced.
My bathroom warm up plan also included enough forethought to bring all my clothes and towels in there as well and leave them for myself post race. Outside it was only getting wetter, colder, and darker. I suspected that I would be finishing very cold and in the dark so preparing all my post race crap someplace warm seemed like a great plan.
At the start line everyone was trying to huddle under one 10x10 tent as we waited for the officials to get us staged. The whistle blew and I was briefly glad to be making heat. Then we hit the first icy mud puddle. You just can't train for this sort of thing. Trying to pick lines, pedal hard, and staying upright is one thing. Doing all of that while fighting hypothermia and not being able to feel your hands is just an exercise in mental toughness. The only place on the course I could generate some noticeable heat was on the run up. On the big descent I simply hoped my hands still had enough dexterity to pull the brakes hard enough to slow down. As mud caked on my face I kept grimacing mostly to make sure I could still move those muscles. I've been pretty miserable on a bike before but that was a first. It felt less like a race at that point and just an exercise in motivating myself to finish.
I rolled across the line shaking. I was honestly happy that my body was still trying to generate heat by shivering but I didn't have time to dwell on it. I had to start giving myself instructions. "Ok. Turn right. Go to the locker room. Leave the bike here. Get these gloves off." I was trying to make as much progress in getting dry and warm as I could before the adrenaline wore off and I'd have to start feeling everything. Luckily the sinks had hot water. It hurt my frozen hands. At this point there was a bunch of racers in there all making wild noises in various states of undress. All I wanted was to get the icy mud off and get clean enough to get into our car where the heat could bring us back to life.
It was probably at least an hour and a half after the finish of the race until I was conversational. The tips of my fingers and toes continued to hurt for hours though. The first thing we did after the race was get a Big Mac. The next stop was a self service car wash to get our bikes clean. Then our plan was to drive as far away from Indianapolis as we could before stopping for the night. We made it about three hours before being too tired to keep driving. Maybe we could have kept going a bit longer but the exit had a cheap motel and a waffle house which seemed like a good sign.
Driving home the next day both Mike and I had plenty of time to reflect on our weekend. I was happy with what I accomplished. I was top ten both days and one of those days was my best UCI finish ever. Mike on the other hand had a 17th and a DNF to show for it. The reason I'm telling you this though is because I truly enjoyed his reflection on this. He told me, "Shitty goals are ones you can meet 100% of the time." Thanks for that Mike. New goal at nationals is a top 15.