The most enjoyable thing about my first season of cross (so far) has been the license to “start over” with cycling. I make stupid turns sometimes. I stutter step on my remounts. I do things that would otherwise end your chances in an A race. Instead of getting dropped from the break in a road race because my lactic threshold was 2% less than I needed, I get to learn new things and try them out live. I’m a kid again, learning from every race.
In the past few weeks I’ve taken a lot of good-natured ribbing about being a sandbagger. Somebody even cracked a joke at my expense during a long muddy running section in yesterday’s race. I didn’t catch the whole thing (too busy dying), but it went something like “Hey Rutgers” and “A rider” and “you must be feeling better than I do.” We shared a little laugh. I’m not usually recognized in races. In cycling, you are always one upgrade away from anonymity.
Where was I? That’s right. Sandbagger? Ha, watch this.
You see, you are never too old/experienced/fast (not that I have any of these in spades) to do something stupid. I did something stupid before Saturday. I put a new chain on my bike Friday night. In ten years of racing, I’ve always followed the advice to leave the bike alone before a race. I’m not sure why I thought this time was any different. I suppose experience can make you brash. I danced with the devil and lived to tell about it.
Saturday morning, Jason and I register and start to preride the sopping wet course. It is quickly appararent that my bike will not work. New chain + old cassette + old chainring = no gears. None. My bike was unridable. I scurry to neutral support, who are not too happy to have a C rider bringing a dead-on-arrival bike to them at 7:30 in the morning while they are still setting up. There isn’t much time. I politely convice the mechanic that I have a chance in the race, that I need to start, that I’m worth getting the hands dirty. He straightens my derailler hanger. He tunes the shifter. Nothing. I beg for a fancy SRAM pit bike. The mechanics finally give and s-l-o-w-l-y get a bike for me, swap the pedals, and adjust the seat. Last call for men’s C sounds out over the loudspeakers. My heart rate is pegged as I nervously wait for a working bike. With about 2 minutes to spare, I sprint to the start line on an unfamiliar Specialized tri-cross with Zipp 404s, Mud II tires at about 40 PSI, SRAM shifting, and lots of other quircks I’m not used to. I feel naked. I deserve it.
Jason and I take our crappy callup postions behind 80 or so of the 106 racers. The whistle blows and I go beserk, trying to gain as many spots as possible before we leave the road and hit the mud. The road is wet and slippery. I swerve around people like a rabid banshee. I would never act like this in a road race. CX has turned me into a monster.
I spend the rest of the 30 minute race working past the people in the mud. I’m pretty good in the slow, watery spots because I get to cheat with my roadie power. The bike feels okay, but the front brake is off center and rubbing loudly against the carbon rims. I reach down at least ten times during the race to try to undo the cable. No dice. I sound like a belt grinder as I approach people. I have to dig extra deep to shed a Princeton rider who has stuck to my wheel for too long.
Last lap. The would-be winner of the race has flatted and comes out of the pit right next to me. I play him by leading through the last 1/4 of the course, but intentionally let him come by me in the final turns, by taking a wide, silly line. We get on the finishing road and I feign surrender by hanging off his back wheel and acting tired. He takes the bait and opens his sprint from the front. It’s a delicious draft. I slingshot off to pass him on the left, ending up in third place. Score one for the roadie.
I’m in no rush to upgrade to the world of Bs and pit bikes and brakes with names like “spooky”. I’m still dumb enough to swap a chain the night before a race, and for every Watt I have on my competitors, I lose an equal amount in the turns. I’m learning to embrace the mud (but only the slushy kind, not the peanut buttery kind). I’m having a blast and getting better by the race. I even get to piggyback off of the good cyclocross name that others have established at Rutgers. Maybe in a few more races It’ll start to look like I know what I’m doing. Until then, my toothless facade will continue to haunt the dreams of hairy-legged beginner racers everywhere.