By Dan Chabanov // Contributor
Another US cyclocross season has ended. Right now I’m feeling a strong mix of the proverbial “cross hangover” and a very real hangover from drinking a bottle of whiskey with Richie and Dan Langlois last night.
This year we decided against the traditional afterparty for something a bit more homey. Nationals under the best circumstances is a large undertaking but throw a winter storm in the mix the day before with high temps in the low 20’s for the day of the race and it takes every bit of energy everyone has just to make it through.
The whole week is always a lot of hype. If you’re a cyclocross racer then the week of the race you can’t even causally glance at social media without being inundated with course previews, photos, videos from various age group races, weather reports, and an endless stream of punditry. As racers we all try to keep our heads above this stuff. The course conditions and layout was changing on a daily basis from Tuesday on so stressing about it wasn’t going to help anyone. Instead I focused a lot of energy on not forgetting to pack anything I might need for the weekend.
Dan Langlois and I got on the road mid afternoon on Friday to head up to Richie’s place in Connecticut. The whole team would be staying in Deep River for the weekend as it was a pretty short drive from the course. You could say Hartford was going to be a home race for us.
After having Dan L with us in Asheville last year, I couldn’t imagine doing a big race like Nationals without his help. A good mechanic is worth his weight in gold. But Dan L doesn’t just keep all the bikes running he somehow manages to make everyone feel more at ease and prepared at the same time. Plus he’s easy on the eyes.
The day before the big show on Sunday was going to be our big team preride day. Britt, Sam, Dan L, and my self would head up to the course and meet up with Roger Parmelee who volunteered to have his mobile bike shop (The Rover Cycle Co) on hand for us to use as a base of operations so to speak. Our plan was going perfectly until about 10am when it started to snow. Then it started to snow very hard. It became pretty obvious that it wasn’t going to stop snowing anytime soon.
Driving to the course became a challenge. Just the simple act of doing course recon was called into question. We decided that getting some course time was ultimately going to be more beneficial then staying home stress checking Instagram and looking at the accumulating snow. Despite the driving conditions the course recon was valuable. Some things that we learned were — you can’t run in cycling shoes on ice, there’s ice everywhere, every off camber is ice, and that after a week of rain a muddy field will just turns into ice — Welcome to the frozen rut world championships.
Priority number one became getting grip on our shoes. Studded ice tires were banned in cross several years ago but you could put as many sharp objects into your shoes as you wanted. Sheet metal screws are the object of choice for this sort of thing. The next step was to take our normal toe spikes that are designed for penetrating soft muddy hillside and modify them into ice spikes. Which basically means sharpening them into flat head screwdriver heads so the sharp edge can dig into the hard frozen ground. Keep this in mind the next time you have to race in ice world. Because spoiler alert this was crucial to my race the next day.
Dinner the night before a big race is always tense even under perfect conditions. I think we all tried to put on a brave face but the fear was there just under the surface. As Richie put it, “You all went and looked at the monster. You can’t un see it now but you have to figure out how to fight it tomorrow one way or another.” None of us had a fool proof plan for our race. We were as prepared as we could be but I don’t think anyone spent the last month riding somewhere icy and frozen to be ready for these conditions. My usual approach is to simply remind my self over and over that it is the same for everyone. It was a small comfort and was nicer to focus on then reliving my preride as I went to bed.
Driving to the venue the next day was much less harrowing, the roads had been plowed overnight after the snow finally stopped. The mood was warmer despite the temperature still hovering in the low twenties. The sun was out. It was a small victory. Each race had it’s own separate preride window today which was nice but it was very short. Enough time to do some last minute inspection but not enough time to make adjustments and test changes. Fortunately for everyone the course was much more ridable today. “More ridable” is off course relative. It was by no means easy. It just wasn’t bring you to your knees in tears frustratingly difficult like it was the day before. I would still rank Sunday’s race conditions as the most challenging I have ever raced in. On top of this the penalty for error was pretty high due to the ground being frozen and iced over. There were no soft landings out there today.
My call up was 4th row which wasn’t great but since I was pretty used to this I didn’t let it bother me. Dan L was there for some last minute tire and cleat cleaning. After we were gridded he grabbed the pile of spare clothes I was wearing and ran in the directions of the pits. The support crew had their own set of challenges to deal with but since Riche, Deb, Dan L, and Roger where all pro’s they kept it to themselves and got it done.
The start was the usual bat out of hell speed just over snow and frozen ruts into a big sweeping corner with no traction. The accepted technique was unclip your inside leg, hope you make it, clip back in and sprint into the run up. The whole week everyone has looked at mostly videos of this hill. The high line or the low line? My choice on the first lap boiled down to which one would have less traffic on it. As I was probably 30th wheel I wouldn’t have a clear shot at either line but I figure I would go for the one that at least looked like it had fewer people on it and hope for the best. I knew I could ride the low line quick but on the first lap I decided to run anyway. I was jogging at a nice pace behind someone who was riding. If I had time to think I would have thought about how nicely all those screws and spikes were doing their job on the bottom of my shoes. At the top the two lines merged. So far I had been to busy looking where I was putting my feet to glance around and check on my progress relative to everyone else but as I slotted into line I had Stephen Hyde in front of me and Jeremy Powers behind me. Shit. Either I just went from 30th to the front of the race or they were both having bad starts.
In retrospect it turned out to be a little of both. Going low on the first lap was the move. It gained me at least fifteen spots. Taking me from top 30 to about top 15. If there was a moment that earned me that top 20 on the results sheet, this was it. Sure I still had an hour of racing left but as long as I kept moving forward and didn’t fall down too much I’d be ok. There wasn’t many places to pass on this course. Most of the track only had one good line to ride and as long as you managed to stay on that line it was almost impossible to pass. This is how Jeremy Powers ended up on my wheel for like three laps before he crashed. I felt a little bit bad at first. On any other day I would be doing nothing but holding Jeremy up. But again with a single ridable line I had to focus on driving and not think too hard about who was behind me. It was also pretty cool to be out on the nationals course with Powers on my wheel. A lot of my friends had made the trip up for the race and it was so energizing to hear them all going crazy on the sidelines. As the laps wore on it felt like I was putting together the ride I had envisioned going into Sunday.
The surest way to know if you left it all out there is how you feel when you’re sitting in the back of your car, freezing, and trying to get into some warm clothes. On that Sunday in Hartford, I was happy. 19th is my best result at Nationals. Which was a nice cheery on top of my season. The only things left to do was to get warm. Eat some McDonalds and drink whiskey.
I’ve got a little while before I feel like riding a bike again. Even longer until I want to pedal one with some anger and then probably another six months until I do that on a cross bike. In the mean time I want to thank you for reading this. I always love hearing all the responses folks have to this column. Thank you to every single person who has reached out with support and thanks to Julie and Jeremy for publishing it here.
In the off season you can always get in touch with me on Twitter and Instagram (@danchabanov) or send me anonymous questions on my tumblr (www.bonedeth.tumblr.com).