My trip to the U.S. Cyclocross National Championships almost fell apart before it started. About a hundred miles into my drive with Krista on Thursday morning, the timing belt skipped on the car. All the sudden our top speed was only 40mph and we had to quickly make our way off the highway. We had made it to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which turned out to be pretty lucky as it wasn’t the middle of nowhere. We proceeded to spend about 8 hours sitting at a mechanic’s shop while they tried to figure out what was wrong. They didn't figure out the timing belt was the problem until it was too late in the day for them to fix it. At this point our options became pretty limited.
Fortunately for me I have friends like Dan Langlois. He was planning to come down the next day to help out and wrench on the bikes. A few phone calls later, he had managed to switch his work schedule around and was on his way to rescue us. The shit box mid 90’s economy wagon relay to CX Nationals was on. The only downside of this plan was that we would be driving through the night and arriving at 3:00am Friday morning instead of 4:00pm Thursday afternoon. This is not ideal for when you’re trying to be at your best.
However, it is hard to be down when friends rearrange their life to help you go race your bike for an hour. Acts of kindness like that really help put bike racing into perspective. Even though I felt like a zombie the next day I got kitted up and rode over to the course as planned to get on for a pre-ride around 11:30am. The course, as I’m sure everyone has heard by now, was awesome. Very fun. Very challenging. Lots of steep climbing followed by very technical descending. It seemed like the folks in charge of laying out the track stuck to the “let the beginners bleed” philosophy of course design. Which, if you think about it makes perfect sense for a course that’s going to decide the national champions.
The next day I repeated my ride over to the course for more pre-riding. The course was still awesome but I needed to spin a bit more so Krista and I rode out on the beautiful grounds of the Biltmore estate over to the main residence which is supposedly the largest private house in America. It certainly looked it from the outside. We pedaled gently through the gardens and paused briefly to take pictures of a waterfall. I’ve never been to a more beautiful venue for a cyclocross pedaling contest.
That evening the team got together for a half hour so Richie and Deb could give us a bit of a pep talk. Throw out every movie locker room pep talk you’ve ever seen because this wasn’t that. It was more like sitting down for a quick family meeting where mom and dad remind everyone that they love them and no matter what happens tomorrow that’s not going to change.
That night we all went to sleep with a steady rain falling outside and woke up to mud and images of juniors sliding off the course on our Instagram feeds. This is why I never put too much stock into all those damn course pre-rides earlier in the week. All the lines and tricks we had learned about the course the last few days was now totally irrelevant. This was in addition to the two new sections of course that were added just for the Sunday pro races.
During the day the high winds dried out the course significantly while also dropping the temperature into the 30’s along with some scattered snow showers for added drama. The course was as challenging as ever but it wasn’t going to be a mud fest. One of the Sunday-only sections turned out to be another run up. Which meant three run ups in the first half of the lap. Cool. Good thing I’ve been working on that…
I handed my pre-ride bike to Dan Langlois who went to work while I set up my “A” bike on the trainer and got into my warm up routine. It was great having him there. The days before the race he was able to help the team so much with getting all the bikes dialed. The Sunday mud in the early morning meant having an experienced extra set of hands to help was a huge advantage for the team. After I hopped off my trainer Dan checked over my A bike one more time. He put a final coat of chain lube on it and wished me luck as he ran to get my “B” bike to Richie and Deb in the pit. I headed to the start where Krista was already waiting to take my jacket and tights. Everyone pitches in around here.
I lined up 4th row. Right next to Adam Myerson and a few other folks I’ve been racing all season but also many folks from other parts of the country I’d never raced before. That’s the toss up at a nationals event with such a huge country and many well developed regional scenes.
I had a clean start. I only had to go foot down in one slow speed 180 corner in the first bit and made steady forward progress through the first half lap. I felt strong on the runs but lost a little time on the technical descents. At the end of the first lap I was dangling about five seconds behind a large group.
Going into Nationals I made a gut decision to ride my own race. For me, this meant that I would go hard on the runs and make sure to holster it on long, fast straights. The course was laid out in a way that meant going hard in one spot meant having to go easy somewhere else. You simply couldn’t ride the whole lap on the gas without collapsing at the top of the third run up. Or at least I couldn’t. So even though I could see the group ahead I decided to stay put and make sure I could still go fast later in the race.
This strategy paid off for me with some really consistent lap times. I was also able to constantly pick off riders who blew up or made mistakes in front of me. With 2 laps to go I allowed myself to start thinking that I would finally finish on the lead lap at Nationals.
Allow me to explain.
Despite having raced cross at the elite level since 2010 I’ve never finished on the lead lap at Nationals. I don’t know why. I feel like I’ve race much tougher races throughout the season against much tougher fields without even thinking about getting lapped. Providence and Gloucester both come to mind here. It has just become some sort of jinx hanging over me. In Boulder in 2013 I was pulled and placed 2 laps down at 26th. I was riding in a group racing for 23rd. Objectively I was riding well. So when that happened I sort of thought that maybe it would never happen. I guess the moral of the story here is just because you fail at something four times, don’t give up on it.
I was elated to cross the line 23rd and collapsed into Krista’s arms. I took a seat on the ground, wrapped myself in a jacket, and sat there for awhile as she picked pieces of dirt off my face. It was a perfect way to end my best season racing cross.
Several hours and a shower later everyone sat around in Richie’s hotel room. We ate pizza and drank whiskey. A bar of chocolate was passed around. We recounted each others races and tried not to think about the fact that it would be 8 more long months until we would be able to do it again. I know that I’ve generally stayed away from the usual professional rider mumbo jumbo column full of sponsor plugs but since it’s the last one feel free to check out richardsachscyclocross.com and look over the list of all the wonderful folks that make it possible for the team to do our thing. Finally, I have to thank Richie and Deb because I can’t ever thank them enough for giving me the opportunity to make unforgettable memories from September to January.