First Cross Race
Ok where to start…Well after begin sick and travelling a lot for work, I hadn’t even been on my bikes in weeks. However, I came across the website for the Midnight Ride of Cyclocross and it sounded like a lot of fun. Who wouldn’t want to do a cyclocross race at night under the fairground lights, with a lantern for a trophy? Also, having signed up for the Grand Prix of Gloucester before getting sick, I figured I needed to get a race under my belt before going to compete against the best of the best in NE on Saturday. So what did I do? I called all my club friends to find someone to go with me and we went.
I rode up with John from the club and he was in the Cat 3/4 men race, which started at 5. We got there early enough for him to register, preride, etc. The sun was blazing hot and I kept thinking, man this is going to suck riding as hard as I can for 45 mins in these temps. I decided to get on my bike and just preride a section of the course while I was waiting for the men to start. I picked the first section and WOW it was twisty! I knew my handling skills were not that great, but I really had a hard time making all these sharp turns without clipping out. Add that to the list of things I had to work on this season.
Unfortunately due to some USA cycling rules regarding the number of participants allowed in each race, there was a delay as they had to have 14 people give up their spots and race in another race. They took off around 5:10/5:15 with a very fast start; it was still full sun and the start was a long, fast basically asphalt strip. As they went from this into the chute of curves, I realized how much starting position really matters. With a field of 100 men, I was amazed at how slow they had to go through this first section, as there were traffic jams and pileups left and right. Those able to get out front were able to get seriously leads here that they held the rest of the race.
So because the men cat 3/4 started late, the single speed riders had to preride while they were on their final lap. I didn’t want to be out there in the middle of this congestion, so I decided to watch the finishes and just preride a little more right before my race. I didn’t really watch more than the first lap of the single speed race, as I was getting ready, eating some dinner, and riding casually around the outside of the course. Once they were getting close, I figured I needed to ride some more sections of the course before my start. At this point the sun was definitely going down, but there was still plenty of light to see everything. I picked the second section of the course, having already rode the first. This was the section with the wood chip piles and climb up to the top of the hill. I did this section all in my big ring (without realizing it), but I felt pretty good and was beginning to feel more confident. The turns in this section were wider, more gradual turns, so I was able to do them without much trouble. Also, I felt great on the hill, just steep enough for me to feel like I was working, yet not too steep that I had to really grind up it.
By this point they are calling all women over to the staging area, so we can be lined up for the start. The weather was perfect, mid 60s, no rain and the sun setting. I knew all woman Pro through Cat 4 were starting together, but what this meant didn’t really sink in until I got to the start line. I started looking around and realized there were ACTUAL pros (UCI pros) I’d be racing against. I could hear various conversations among the others, and I soon got the feeling that I was in WAY over my head. Then as they were staging us, the official is going over the rules and asks if it is anyone’s first race. I am the only one to raise my hand! This is when I start to get a feeling of dread. I get staged about 3/4 of the way back, but I was secretly hoping to start in the back, bc I didn’t want to get involved in serious traffic at the start when I really didn’t know what I was doing.
As the gun sounds, I take off a little slower than I could, allowing the faster riders behind me to pass me easily. I go into the roped off section 4th from last. I take it wide going into the first turn and two girls pass me on the inside. I slowly struggle through a third of this twisty section with one girl behind me. I am happy because 1)I’m not in last place (my only goal for this race) and 2)I may be slow, but I am making the turns without falling or clipping out. Well I soon realize the girl behind me is probably frustrated, so I purposely stay to the edge in a section where it would be easy for her to pass me. She goes on and from there on I hold up the rear of the race.
At this point, I get to some sections that are in COMPLETE darkness. I’m guessing this was not intentional, but the race organizers definitely missed some areas, that should have had lights. All my preriding of the course had been while the sun was still out, so it was pretty frightening when I suddenly couldn’t see where I was going (or even the ground underneath me). I get all the way through the really twisty beginning section and still have the girl in front of me in my sights. As we go into the straight a way, leading into the barriers, I make up some serious time on her. I hop (not gracefully run by any means) over the barriers and run around the u-turn before remounting my bike. I stumble here as my heart is pounding and I want to catch up to the girl in front of me. Finally I get clipped in and take off after her, again able to gain some ground on a fairly straight section with one wide turn. From here there is one switchback that I definitely screwed up and cost me having to put a foot down to avoid falling over. I make it through the wood chip piles without incident and I begin climbing the hill. I’ve definitely lost more time in this section, but I can see I am gaining on her again going up the hill.
I head down the hill, using my best mtn bike form of leaning back and off the saddle, so I am beginning to feel more confident again. There is a u-turn at the bottom, but I knew from the guys that raced the first race to stay left and be in a low gear so I could make it up the short steep hill that followed. Unfortunately this ended up NOT working for me and I ended up almost falling over where the path had been worn down, so I had to run up the section with my bike. Now I enter the worst section on the course (for me), which involved some tight turns, while going downhill and off-camber. I ended up clipping out just my left leg and kind of rolling through this section, which I realized half way through was a stupid idea and just slowed me down big time.
I continued on, making it through the rest of the lap relatively unscathed and focusing on how to improve my second lap bc by now it was obvious I was going to get last. Since I was virtually all alone now, I was able to try to push faster through the turns at the beginning, knowing if I screwed up I wouldn’t be affecting anyone but me. I was still a little hesitant, but I found if I went faster into the turns, I was able to keep my balance easier, so I moved much quicker through the section this time around. Soon I heard the announcer and knew it was just going to be a matter of time before the girls in the front caught me. I knew we weren’t going to get pulled from the course (official explained this ahead of time), but I still focused on making improvements from my first lap, so I could stay ahead of them as long as possible.
Unfortunately the first two were coming up on me leading into the wood chip section. I didn’t want to upset anyone by being in their way, so when I realized they were close, I pulled clear off to the side and took the turn extremely wide. This way they would have an easy time passing me (just had to hold their line). This, however, turned into disaster for me. I came into the wood chips so slow and off the path that I hit them and virtually came to a dead stop. I tried to start up again, but I realized it was impossible off to the side where I was (and I didn’t want to block anyone’s path coming up on me), so I ended up getting off and running to the end of the pile. I made it through the second and third patch without much issue and then took off up the hill.
Now I really was feeling in a groove, the front runners had passed me but I could tell I was riding faster and knew I could make the corner at the bottom of the downhill. I did and rode successfully up the hill on the other side. I quickly decided to run my bike through the next section since it was so short to avoid the issues I had the first time. I did and couldn’t believe I managed to stay ahead of some girls on my tail. I quickly got back on my bike and finished the lap feeling pretty good. This didn’t last long however, as my lack of training and being sick began to catch up to me. The third lap I started coughing and having a hard time breathing. I was slowly getting passed by more and more people which was difficult to digest. The low of the race, however, was when a girl asked, as she was passing me, what was wrong and if I needed a medic (guess my hacking up a lung didn’t sound to good)! From this point forward my goal was to just make it through this lap. In my head, I was thinking it could be my last one, since last time I went through finish it said 2 laps and I knew the pros would pass me again.
I had another problem in the wood chip section, this time falling into the wooden fence on the left, but I was able to stay on my bike and make it through. I completed the rest of the lap, only getting passed by a few more people, so as I came across the finish line I realized I still had another lap to go. At this point, my legs started to feel great underneath me. My breathing was not good, but my legs had all the strength in the world, so I decided to stay in a harder gear and grind through this lap as much as possible. I did ok on the turns, and even rode by a few who crashed after passing me. Besides not being able to breathe, I was feeling pretty good about myself again. I still hadn’t been passed by the leaders and I knew this WAS my last lap so I was in the home stretch. It wasn’t until the stairs run up on the final section that the pros passed me again. I heard someone say they were coming, so I purposely remained off my bike and stood off to the side to allow them to pass. Some may say this was stupid and that I should do my own race, but in all honesty I was in last place and these were the pros, so I have no qualms with what I did. I was able to follow the first couple (leaders) in and pretend like I was one of the top finishers. It was a great feeling, even if I was coming in last.
So there are probably plenty of people out there that think people like me shouldn’t enter races and that if you aren’t able to compete at a certain level then you shouldn’t be out there. And to those people, I truly am sorry. I will be the first to admit that no, I was not on the same playing field as the other women out there that night. However, I will say that I did go in the lowest category possible and there are no such things as beginner events or ways to get into the sport without entering races. So while you may hate having to pass me, in my defense I do everything in my power to not get in your way. If this means getting off my bike or taking a harder line, I will do it because I know until I can truly compete, a couple seconds (or even a minute) here or there will not impact me, but it will you.
Overall, I was really glad I did this race and I feel like I learned a lot. Also, I got to say I raced against (as in the same race as) a british national champion, as well as, canadian, european and american UCI pro women. How many people (especially at my level) can say this? So what did I learn. Well, for starters I learned that beginners dont really enter races, so I am giving myself props for just getting out there and trying. Two, I learned that sometimes getting off your bike is actually faster then staying on it and trying to make it through a section. Third, I learned (though I guess I already knew this) that I really need to learn how to take sharp corners in order to improve at cross. And finally, I learned what great people the top woman in the sport really are. Nine out of 10 that passed me encouraged me or cheered me on in one form or another. That was truly a great feeling and makes me want to get better so one day that can be me giving positive words to a fellow racer.