Even before the DS and I knew for sure that we were going to move to Colorado to told our friends in Washington and Oregon that we would come back every year to do some REAL cyclocross racing. Not to slight Colorado which has more national champions than any other state that I’m aware of, but when it comes to CX heart and soul, the Northwest takes the cake. My theory is that the incessant waves of fair to poor weather, which are often the scapegoat for seasonal depression, are given purpose and meaning when CX season rolls around. The Pacific Nortwest is tailor made for mud, sweat, and embrocation.
It was with those three ingredients in mind that I packed up my trusty warpig and boarded a flight for a late October double header weekend in PDX. I can just go ahead and admit up front that I went with the goal of winning a Cross Crusade race. I’ve raced a bundle of Cross Crusades, and the closest I ever got to a “W” was around 5th place. I knew I was going faster this year, and I hoped it’d be enough to cross the Crusade off of the CX bucket list.
The Crusade race I was going to hit was the Hillsboro Cross Crusade. I’d done this course a number of times previously, including its inaugural year when it included a couple of hundred feet of slogging through one foot deep mud and sh*t in a flooded outdoor horse pen. That was a particularly poignant memory. Before Hillsboro though, there was the Saturday race to contend with, which was a new race out at Vancouver Lake called Het Meer. Het Meer is a part of the new GPMC series which was partially formed to give people a respite from the massive crowds that show up for the Crusade series.
This race report is already a week “overdue”, so I’ll keep these short.
Het Meer started fast, and I stuck to my new strategy of trying to sit in and watch the leaders while my body got going. About 1/4 way into the first lap though, the leaders were making some mistakes picking lines and I would have had to hit the brakes in order to stay tucked into the pack. I moved around on an outside line through some barkdust (that I had seen a clever racer take earlier) and squeaked into the lead. I stuck to my strategy of conserving energy, but I put some heat on and started motoring. Het Meer was a course that couldn’t be any better suited for me. I.E. it was almost completely fast and flat. There were some really nice serpentine sections through some shady trees, and there was a massive 400m stretch of sand to contend with, but neither of those two obstacles were as challenging to me as a good old fashioned hill would be.
The sand proved to be quite fun and according to my buddy Jimmy, it is where I put most of my time into my competition, gaining five or ten seconds per lap. By the end of the race I had built up a solo lead of about a minute. The only thing I needed to do to win was not do anything careless or stupid. With that strategy in hand, I earned my first and only “W” of 2011. Het Meer was a fantastic race, probably one of the most beautiful and pure CX venues I’ve had the pleasure of racing. I wish them all the best in 2012!
Coming off of Saturday’s win, I felt a lot of confidence going into Sunday’s Crusade. I wasn’t dumb enough to think I was any sort of shoe-in for another win though. The Crusade brought out five times as many racers and a much tougher bunch of competitors. People bring their A game to every Crusade race. If you haven’t had the pleasure of attending one of these events, I’d advise you to skip USGP, Nats, or any of the other big UCI races and hit a Cross Crusade instead. Nothing I’ve ever raced has equaled the passion of the racers, sponsors, AND the fans. A crusade is a circus of cycling, and the energy has to be experienced to be believed.
There were about 80 or 90 competitors in my race, and I drew a mid-pack starting position in the lottery. I knew in this size crowd that I needed to make a big effort to get to the front of the race ASAP lest the leaders simply ride away never to be seen again.
So, that is exactly what I did. On the gun I put on more gas than usual. I was surprised at the speed of all of the starters, even as far back as 45th where I was. It felt like being in a stampede. Because of the way the course zig-zagged back and forth on itself, I could see that the leaders had about 20-40 seconds on me on the first lap. My fears were confirmed in that they had clean racing on the front and I had a lot of traffic to fight through to try to catch up. Not only did I need to ride faster than them, I needed to do it while navigating through the congestion.
It took about a lap to catch up to the top five and move within ten seconds of the leader. I was (stupidly) running very low PSI in my Vittorias, which hurt the grass and pavement cornering grip quite a bit. I felt the rear tire fold over repeatedly. But where the low pressure did help was the washboards on the back of the course.
Aided by my fluffy tire, I found that I could hammer through the washboards sections and let the tires suck up the bumps while others suffered more from the vibration. Using this section of the course to my advantage, I moved up to 2nd place within another lap. I decided to sit and watch the leader instead of trying to pass, but not long after I caught him he overshot a corner and I snuck by on the inside. Judging by his body language and the huffing sounds behind me, the guy didn’t have any intention of falling off my wheel like the other passed racers had.
At that point the race for the win became a race between him and I. He was a member of the Jens Voight Army team, so I’ll just call him JVA from now on. For the next three or so laps JVA and I duked and dueled. He was a much more aggressive in the corners and I easily made up any gaps he opened in the straights. He would slip by me from time to time on the inside, and I would slip back by him whenever he overshot a turn or washed out.
Going into the last lap he was in first and I wondered if I had any chance of winning if he didn’t mess up. At exactly that point he did mess up once again, and I found myself leading the last lap. I heard him on my wheel, and braced myself for his attack, but it never really came. About a minute from the finish line I though I might actually take the win again, because we had cleared most of the turns where I was having trouble. Then, in literally the last tiny s-turn, JVA gunned it and passed me on the outside. I jumped onto his wheel and we closed into the finish at an alarming pace. I didn’t have many options at this point. I knew I could out pedal him, but there were no more wide open parts of the course, only serpentine curves. My last chance was in the bumpy dirt horse pen. He was clearly animated and aggressive being in first and wanting to hold it, so I hoped against hope that he would bobble and give me a window of opportunity. Two times in the horse pen he almost washed out and went down, but he frantically recovered each time. At that point I knew he had it and there was nothing I could do. There was only one line through the pen and after that 50 feet of grass to the line. JVA fought a hard fight and used my weakness against me to much success. For his efforts he beat me to the line by two seconds. I passed him after the finish and shouted “nice ride!”.
That was it, the weekend was over. Time to go home to the rarefied air of Colorado. I came back with a 1st and a 2nd, but I missed the ever-elusive Cross Crusade win. I’m not sure if I’ll get another chance. Technically I can earn one more top 3 before I need to upgrade to A, but I’m not sure if its worth staying in B just to chase that W. Maybe some things aren’t meant to be.
As a post script to the weekend. I finally unpacked my bike yesterday (Friday) to get it ready for this weekend’s races. I had deflated my tires for travel and upon inspecting them I was shocked to see that I had clearly rolled my rear Vittoria in three or four places. About 60% of the rim was completely un-glued, stuffed with dirt, and held in place only by air pressure. I easily grabbed the tire with one hand and completely yanked it from the rim. I realized immediately that the nasty handling in Hillsboro was verifiably due to my own mechanical negligence. I’d never inspected the tires to see what sort of shape the glue was in (after a season and a half of use). Don’t make the same mistake yourself! If you have tubulars, inspect them by deflating and gently pushing them with your thumb as you work around the wheel to make sure your glue is still holding. Live and learn!