As I type this, really really fast people are getting ready to race Cross Vegas. The World Cup is on American soil for the first time, out of Europe for the first time ever. The season is just two and a half weeks old. But, it feels like so much has already happened!
This past weekend was the second UCI race weekend. Nittany Lion Cross has been around for a while and it’s often filled the role of season opener on the east coast. The race itself is held on the grounds of the Trexlertown Velodrome and on muddy days we have the distinct pleasure of clogging the tracks shower drains with mud and grass. The course itself is pretty much the exact opposite of last weekends track at Rochester. That is to say it’s flat. Completely and totally flat.
It is a popular race as it sits conveniently just on the northern edge of what people consider the Mid Atlantic region but still close enough to New England that racers make the long drive south. I was particularly happy this year as the proximity to Philly allowed me to spend my Friday visiting my girlfriend and doing openers with friends. Happiness watts are the best kind of watts.
Getting to a race is always a little stressful for me. I feel like no matter how early I leave I still do not have enough time to do everything. Then there is the parking. For Richie parking at the race is really important. A good parking spot is worth it’s weight in gold to him and over the last five years I’ve seemed to pick up his affinity for the mythical parking spot. It has to be something that is as close to the course as possible while still being close to a bathroom. Shade or rain cover is a plus. Room to spread out is a must. I think if he could, Richie would park his van right in the pit. Anyway… Race parking — sometimes organizers have people directing cars to maximize the parking space at the venue. This has to be probably the most thankless job at a bike race. These poor people are left to deal with a bunch of egomaniac bike racers armed with nothing but an orange vest. Fortunately the team is well versed in the art of saving parking spaces and I do my best to avoid confrontation with the guardians of the parking lot whenever possible.
When we finally unloaded at the race the weather was perfect. It had rained really hard a few days earlier so the ground was just the right amount of tacky. Everyone had a blast ripping it on file treads during preride. Before the second chance to see the course it started to drizzle a little. So I broke out the intermediate treads and went for a spin.
At this point I should mention that my buddy Walton Brush was at the race. Walton went to highschool with Kyle and Evan Murphy and 2015 was their first professional road season. Walton’s didn’t quite go to plan so he decided to come to the East Coast to race cross for a month or so. His bikes were set up for dry and rocky California CX. Which is to say that the slick and getting slicker course wasn’t really agreeing with him.
When the pro women set off for their race the drizzle had become a steady rain. Since it hadn’t been raining for that long most of the field still seemed to be on intermediate treads rather than the full mud selections. It was getting down to crunch time and I really needed to make up my mind about what tires I was gonna run. My original plan was to start on intermediates and have full muds on the pit bike so if it proved to be too slick I could always switch to the grippier tires. Alternatively I could play it conservatively and start on full muds and hope the rain kept up. At the same time I was obsessively checking the weather app on my phone hoping it would somehow tell me what to do. In the end I decided to go full muds and I was really happy I did. The rain kept falling and it was going to be a slick race out there.
In the start grid I was second row which doesn’t happen that often anymore. Most UCI races attract riders from very far away and while a few years ago just a handful of points would almost guarantee a second row start, it is now more than likely that you’ll end up on the 3rd or 4th row. In my first year racing Elite (2010) I started a UCI race in Maine on the front row with just 2 points. That race doesn’t exist anymore but in contrast — last weekend in Rochester I was on the 4th row with 17 points. Just goes to show the huge influx of talent that’s come to cyclocross in the US in the last 5 years.
Nittany is one of the few races where the start happens via a start/stop light like at a car track rather than the usual whistle or starting pistol. It is kind of weird because essentially it’s a totally silent explosion of riders onto the course. I started well and managed to hang around 12th or so. I was riding on Ben Burden, it was muddy, I figured I was in good company. The most important thing about a muddy race is to not make mistakes in the first lap. If you can ride that first lap cleanly you will end up saving so much energy for the later part of the race. Particularly compared to guys fighting tooth and nail for every spot behind you.
There are several ways to judge how well you’re doing in a cross race. One is visual, as in counting the guys in front of you. Once the lead group is gone you can generally tell if you’re in it or not. Then, you count the number of guys you’re with, the number of guys just ahead, and the number of guys chasing you. Inevitably this gives you a wrong number. But it’s a good estimate. Another method is to listen to people on the sidelines as they yell out what spot you or someone in your group is in. Sometimes they are even more helpful and yell what position the guy you’re trying to chase down is in. This method is also often wrong because people don’t know how to count and trying to listen while you’re heart rate is at 190 is also hard. But generally after about 30 min of this influx of unreliable information you can kind of know where you are sitting.
30 minutes in I was in a group with 2 other guys chasing the ageless Christian Favata who was in 9th. The good news is we were catching him and that means that the 4 of us would be racing for 9th and 10th. The bad news is that I would have to beat at least two guys in this group. In my group was Robert Marion, Nick Waite, and now Christian. Rob and Christian can both generally ride me into the ground when it’s muddy. Nick is strong as hell and starting the last lap the three of them had about a 5 second gap on me.
This is pretty much race crunch time. You can either be satisfied knowing that riding to 12th is a huge improvement from last weekend or try and do something special. I really wanted to pull something off here. On top of being super motivated from last weekend I had also just ridden one of the best 45 minutes of a muddy race I’ve ever ridden. I did have a bit of extra motivation there. Every lap I’d hear or see my girlfriend Krista cheering for me somewhere along the course. Remember; Happiness Watts are a real thing.
With half a lap left my gap to the three guys I was chasing got no smaller. My options were getting limited in terms of hoping they made a mistake while playing cat and mouse with each other. On the back side of the course that exact thing happened. They slowed down. I was able to rapidly close the gap but with so little race left I had to go right past them and hope that they would keep looking at each other. I buried myself figuring my best bet was to go as fast as I could and take up as much course space as possible.
It worked. Sort of… I managed to gap Robert and Christian but Nick was able to sprint around me for 9th. I rolled across the line in 10th place.
That effort took everything and it was worth just one single UCI point. I was stoked. Anytime you can see a goal right in front of you in a bike race and you can actually manage to hurt yourself enough to achieve it it’s a good feeling. To be able to do it in front of someone you love, who’s rooting for you the whole time is an even better feeling. The look on Richie’s and Deb’s face after I have a race like that is just priceless. All those feelings combined is enough to make me keep racing bikes forever.
Speaking of which… For the last two seasons I’ve had this internal deal with myself. I haven’t told anyone about it but now feels like the right time to share. The deal is really simple. If I score a UCI point, I gotta keep racing Elites. That is to say you readers have at least another season’s worth of columns to look forward to.