There isn't much better than two days of cross racing at the same venue. No travel (assuming you find a place to stay), a course that is familiar and strange at once, and usually much better turnout in terms of racers and beer vendors. Day 2 of the cycle smart international was a much anticipated race on my schedule, I was sure JD & AHM would come up with something great.
The boys didn't disappoint. The course was laid out on the same foot print as the day prior, but it played out completely differently. There was only one transition between the lower and upper sections per lap, meaning you rode all of the bumpy roots in one shot and hit all of the power field sections in another. The loose run up was gone, replaced by a climb up the down hill from the day before. The prior day's ride up was now a high speed descent that launched you over the rail road tracks. The barriers>paved path>finishing straight were the same, but that was about it.
Map (ignore the red line heading out of the park counter clockwise... I forgot to turn the GPS off as I left the venue):
My warm up consisted of sitting on my arse in the sun to try and stay warm. Someone said it was 26 degrees out, sounds about right to me. A full inspection of the course revealed that the start was going to be a problem, it got tight within the first few turns and having a problem there could ruin your race. I was not optimistic with my 6th row position on the grid, but I was going to try and move up as much as possible before things got tight, which would be about 15 seconds into the race.
At the whistle I missed a pedal and the field roared by. I got moving but was well back just like yesterday: hugging the left side through the first few right hand turns and riding face first through the tree that got me the day before (glasses on this time... and every time from here out). As we approached the tightest section of the course I was behind JTFerraro, and our outside position on the far left became an inside position as we approached a sweeping left hander around another pine tree before the fast descent. Riders to our right were trying to cut into our line and I yelled to Jeff "be aggressive!!" but he got slowed by someone who beat him to his spot. When he tapped the brakes, I had to, and a moment later as I got back on the power my rear wheel slid out in the greasy soil and I was down. Running to remount I had fallen back further into the group and was now solidly placed in the tape-to-tape cattle drive of mid-pack racing.
Down the hill and over the tracks, the enormity of the task ahead hit me. The leaders had already reached the far end of the course, turning to make the return trip back. I picked of at least a dozen guys in that section, moving up to find a fast wheel to jump on for the long pull across the lower field. After a trip down and back and about 1/4 way through lap one Colin yelled "you're 34th!" Really?! Based on the number of guys that I passed and who was around me, I thought I would have been right around 20 by now. It was going to be a long day.
I made a sweet move up the left hand side of the ride up on lap one and after a few more efforts was in the high 20s by the start of lap two, when I formed a group with a Battenkill rider and a guy from Benidorm. We were chasing Paul Curley, Bob Bisson, Aaron Millett, Chris Borrello and... you guessed it... Mike Rowell.
I was trying to swap pulls with the two guys I was with, but they had "issues." The Battenkill rider was suffering from some sort of short term memory loss, he just couldn't figure out the course. Maybe he was mixed up from the race the day before, that's happened to us all, but a lap or two and you have it all figured out. Not this cat. He'd sprint out of a turn and directly into the tape as the course would turn again. Next lap, same thing, same spot. He did it for three laps in more than one area of the course. It wasn't bike handling, because he was pretty strong technically through the turns where you could see which way the course went up ahead, but if there was a turn that went around a tree, it was like the guy was riding on ice. Whenever Battenkill would get in front to take his pull, he'd over cook the very next turn and I'd have to go to the front again. The Benidorm guy's problem was that he was simply skipping his turns. The group with Mike Rowell and Paul Curley was riding just ahead this entire time, not getting any closer, and I was getting tired from a good portion of the work. I lamented to my group that there was no way I could bring the guys ahead back by myself, I needed help.
Half way through lap 4 I noticed John Meerse gaining on us. Help was on the way.
John reached us at three to go and put in a massive sprint on the start finish stretch. I knew he was the ticket up to the group ahead, and while I didn't catch his wheel I kept it close enough that I was able to catch on with some selective braking going into turn one. John is strong, and there were four or five slower turns before we hit the fields that would represent my last chance to enjoy the scenery and realize something of a rest. I know full well what was coming when we got down the hill.
John led us down the hill and into the field and turned it up to 11. The next 35 seconds were the hardest I've ever ridden a cyclocross bike. I was in his draft and struggling to stay on. We caught the group ahead 1/3 of a lap after John joined us and I was pretty happy just to be there. John went straight to the front of course and rode away with Curley and Millett to chase Bisson who had slipped away.
We tooled around for a lap and the Battenkill rider got a gap at the pavement with one to go that he held to the finish. He almost picked up Curley, who couldn't hold on to the Meerse freight train. Mike Rowell and I were sharing the work at the front of our group of four with the Benidorm guy still skipping his turns and Borrello trying to move to the front through the corners. Mike lead into the lower fields and through the sand then tried to ride it and bobbled. That leaft me on the front with about 2/3 of a lap to go. Onto the lower paved section I fought to hold my place from Borrello who clearly wanted to lead into the final few turns on the field section. As we approach the ride up, I felt the surge coming from behind again, so I blocked a bit and held onto my front spot going up the hill.
This was all going well, but I knew that there was two long paved sections to finish this race and the weak finish I put in yesterday still stung a bit. Being on the front for 4 minutes leading into something like that isn't ideal, the guys behind would be resting where they could, and surely they would beat me in sprint.
But I decided that today would be different. I decided to harden up a bit, lead through this entire last section, lay down the sprint of my life, and make them come around. Leave it all on the course.
I rode as fast as possible through the final rooty sections, trying not to brake at all so I didn't have to spend any energy getting back up to speed. My pal Ken (who put in two monster days marshalling a course crossing while freezing and out of the sun.. thanks Ken) yelled "c'mon Matt drop this group!"
I didn't drop anyone but could hear from the brake's on Mike's carbon wheels that he wasn't the one directly behind me. We came in hot to the barriers:
Borello's front tire buzzed against my rear through the turn right after this, and I tried to keep the speed high with as little effort as possible. Making the turn onto the pavement, there was 150 meters to go. The next 25 seconds were the second hardest I've ever ridden a cross bike, and no one came around. I ended up 23rd.
Years ago I played golf quite a bit and more than once I heard people talk about how one good shot, no matter how badly you played otherwise, would bring you back to play again. That final lap at Noho was that one good shot for me.