Yeah, I'm talking about the most challenging course in New England, a course that you either hated, loved or felt both ways about it at different times, but there was no sitting the fence on this one. For all you grass crit haters, this was your chance to race cross as you could only otherwise dream. Palmer makes Putney look like Gloucester, makes Gloucester look like a flat 40k TT on a sunny day with a tailwind, makes a flat 40k TT on a sunny day with a tailwind look like a ride on the bike path with your kids. The famous course at the Pathfinder Regional Vocational High School.
I'm told Palmer once was a premier event on the New England calendar, part of Tom Steven's prestigious Spin Arts Series at a time when VERGE, the USGP, the Cross Crusade, and the National Trophy of Cyclocross were twinkles in a variety of different promoters eyes. This was back in the day when Page was a Junior, the elite field was 10 guys (all national championship caliber), and the sum total of the day's racers was less than 50.
I once lived in Ludlow (Mass, not Vermont) and have a generally poor opinion of the area just East of Springfield. Sorry if you live there - not sorry for dissin' your town, actual sorrow that you have to live there - but this opinion was formed around the time I moved away from the area to RI in 1984 at the ripe old age of 13, so clearly I'm holding on to some bitterness towards my parents for ripping me out of my childhood home. It's not you, it's me...This isn't relevant information of course, but I do tend to get a bit uneasy when I'm in that part of the state. I feel the same way about Ludlow/Palmer as I do about people with dogs: they aren't bad to visit, but I'm looking forward to leaving sooner than later.
My mountain biking career started in 1994 and I added road riding in 2002. Everyone that I raced with in 2002 and 2003 told me that cyclocross was something I should try. I wasn't especially fast nor especially good handling a bike, but decent enough at both that maybe I could leverage those mediocre skills and do well in cross.
So on November 21, 2004, using a borrowed cyclocross bike, I headed towards Palmer to race my very first ever cross race. I didn't have a blog back then, so here's that 2004 Palmer cyclocross race report... 4 years late.
Pre-Ride? Warm-up? Hadn't heard of those things yet so let's skip right to the good stuff: call ups. A few minutes before the race started I rolled over to the start area (it was on the practice field behind Pathfinder) and noticed a bunch of guys there and they were all looking pretty serious about this. Guys were clearly testy about who deserved to be where on the front row. I'd done crits before and didn't understand the big deal... line up and let's go right? I figured any starting spot would be a good one, just stay with the group. The gun goes off and HOLY CR@P! Why is everyone pedaling so hard?! We make two left hand turns in the field and as we get to the end of the grass I see these two planks of wood, right across the course. Say whaaa????
So my first cyclocross barriers were in my first race, within the first 30 seconds, and I cleaned them like a seasoned veteran: never understood the practice barriers/remounting thing. The course that year went right into the woods from the athletic field, then out into the meadow for a lap around the perimeter before returning to the woods for the second half of the course. I discovered my first run up on that lap one, and also that it was really hard to ride in soft wet soil with tires barely wider than a road bike, despite the little knobs on the there.
I was locked in a battle with an up and coming rider: a college student from Holy Cross in Worcester that had a bright future ahead from what I'd heard. This kid has the stuff to be a pro: the engine was strong and the mind sharp for cycling. Cyclocross would be something to keep the legs strong for this Cat 1's inaugural pro season in 2005. I'd battled this rider several times before earlier in the year at the Wednesday night training crits in Lincoln RI. We even got in a break together with 5 other riders: a break that stuck for a long time until first I, than a few others fell out as the pace was just too high. The prodigy was setting that pace and was also the last one standing before the pack swallowed the remnants in the final dash to the line. The phenom had bettered me 4 times in 4 tries at Lincoln. That rider... was Mackenzie Dickey.
She was good but somehow she was behind me that day at Palmer for the beginning of the race. With two laps to go she pulled me in and rode past in the field like I was standing still. She was on a black Lemond Poprad looked like she had picked it up on the way to the race, reflectors and all. It very well may have been her first cross race but it didn't look like it.
Mackenzie had the advantage on the power sections, and I in the woods. I managed to hang with her until the bell lap and made a move to get past her after the field on the quick ride/run up mini-hill. That led to a short woods section and I went as hard as I could. I was riding over my head, and the ensuing lack of control made me hit a stump, which lurched me to the left and into a tree. Dickey breezed by and I lost to her... again. I took 29th. Here are the results.
Back to 2008. Since November 2004 I've got 60 cross races under my belt, my own bike, and tubular wheels even. I know why a pre-ride is important and barriers still seem silly but aren't quite as surprising as they were that day. This past weekend I arrived at the venue early to check out the swap. It boils down to this with these swaps: Mavic is either there with the box truck or not. They were no, so I was relegated to sorting through bin after bin of "period correct" parts for bikes no one would want to ride. I did get a set of old school Time ATAC pedals and a nice stem, but the whole thing seemed like a handful of guys hauling a bunch of junk onto the school cafeteria only to have to drag 98% of it back out some 6 hours later.
I pre rode the course, and it was significantly different that a few years ago. The start was in the parking lot, and after a short section down a path through the woods and over a fallen log, we were in the meadow. It was cold enough to be frozen, making it fast in the straights and super slow in the turns. The course then returned to the woods through some very rough trails, the same mini-hill ride/run up, past the same section where I crashed out trying to drop Dickey, and into new trail sections including a stream crossing facilitated by a handful of wooden palates. There was a four pack of barriers in the athletic field as well - a great feature IMHO. The course was 100% frozen, and there were deep ruts along much of the trails from some ATV use.
I lined up in the second row behind the speedy Curtis Boivin, predicting he'd take the hole shot and open up the right hand side of the course. That's exactly what happened, and as we approach the log my good pal Matt Domnarski and I were talking some mini-trash and laughing about who had worse barrier technique. We gave each other a friendly shove, I didn't want to mix it up with him too much as I was pretty sure he had passed the rigorous State Police fitness test and could either kick my a$$ or simply shoot me. Into the field we set off towards the guys up front. Dan Coady and John Foley were up there, along with another guy in green and Todd Bowen from CVC riding a straight bar bike with disc wheels. I had no idea where Boivin went, but apparently he had injured himself hurdling the log.
Through the first lap I was in 5th spot, and at the start line professional heckler Chris Bailey (don't bother with the link, he never updates his blog) said "you're loosing to a guy on a mountain bike!!!" referring to Bowen. I had seen a lot of the guys in the cat 4 race using fat tire bikes, chalking it up to inexperience. Turns out I was the inexperienced one: that upright position and sure handling of the straight bar was looking like the way to go.
After initially hating the course, I started to warm up to it soon after I caught up to Foley. He was so smooth on the trails and gave me a great deal of confidence that my bike was not going to be the thing holding me back. It is interesting how far you can push an overbuilt road bike if you just checked your fear at the door.
Shortly after the start of lap three and Bailey's third reference to the guy on a hybrid bike who was up the road, Foley and I were past Bowen, battling for second and gaining on Coady. Dan's a nice guy, and was cheering me on from the other side of the course in spots. Cheering me to catch him. He's either nice or very confident that I'll never actually be able to ride up to him... probably both. Boivin had appeared behind us but was loosing ground each lap, much to my satisfaction. I'd never beaten Curtis and was feeling that this was going to be a good day for me.
Foley and I traded turns on the course, he leading in the trails and me on the straights. At two to go I bobbled the remount over the log and lost 5 bike lengths, but rode a bit harder in the field and by the ride/run up I was back on his wheel. Moments later, while transitioning my fingers from the sides of the hoods to the brake levers I hit a rut. The hands came off the bars and they were under my armpit in an instant. The crash was loud and John wisely attacked while I had to get my chain back on. Post crash racing is ugly, filled with fear and tentativeness. I hit every root and dip on the course and by the bell Boivin was clearly closing in on me.
Damn I can't seem to put a full race together!!!
He caught me in the meadow and went by like a flash approaching the barriers. I tried to respond by my legs were cooked: there was no fight left in this dog. They paid three places, so of course I got fourth. My road team promoted the race, so I'm sure they wouldn't have actually paid me, but being on the podium would have been nice. Well, there was no actual podium, but being top 3 would have been my best result ever. It was still fun.
Post race I changed in the warm team RV and helped myself to a pulled pork sandwich, a steaming pile of baked beans, and a few beers courtesy of the roadie guys. I put in a pathetic 30 minutes of post race clean up, which did nothing other than make me feel a bit better about having eaten their food.
Pro Tip: Get eyebob to pin your number if you can. Pay him to do it if you must. I've never had a faster, cleaner pin job. He got 5 pins in without catching the base layer in the time it would take mere mortals to get just one. I've got to show him the double stick through the number technique, but the guys is PRO. Thanks Bob!