*Warning* this is long
I was pretty high after returning home from Saturday’s first day of racing in Sterling, for the first time in a long time without having to hit the crack pipe or the flesh hooks. While I do love me some rock and self mutilation, this was turning out to be a pretty good long weekend fueled only by turkey, the company of family and friends, and a Tom Stevens cyclocross course in good weather.
Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday, dating back to my formative years when my folks and I would travel up to Essex County to have dinner at my uncle’s house. He was a great cook and a bit awkward socially but he could tell the best jokes… it’s all in the delivery you see, and he had it knocked. You didn’t even know he was telling a joke until a grin crept onto his face as he hit you with the punch line. Those meals were his chance to experiment with the traditional Thanksgiving fare, pumpkin chiffon pie and oyster stuffing weren’t my favorites, but occasionally he’d knock one out of the park, like the garlic mashed potatoes. After dinner, my cousin and I would hoist a few of the first Sam Adams Lagers ever brewed on the rear deck before heading out to the back yard to toss a football back and forth. We’d sit around an open fire well into the cold fall evening and gossip about any relative unfortunate enough to have missed the feast. One year I stayed with this uncle for two weeks while training for my first real job out of college, a stay the ended on Thanksgiving weekend. Someone get me a freakin’ tissue over here!
I’ve since fallen out of favor with this uncle, which it too bad as he was most likely my closest relative outside of my parents… I have no brothers or sisters. It’s been years since we’ve spoken amicably, but clearly it still bothers me. Despite the current state of this relationship, those times spent with family at his home still are some of the best memories for me, and my expectations for Thanksgiving are always high as a result.
This year my wife and I hosted the holiday meal, and we had a nice mix of friends and family over for dinner. With some efficient preparation we were able to enjoy the company of our guests on Thanksgiving without being slaves to the kitchen and my first attempt at frying a turkey was a success. PRO tip: don’t get any part of your flesh anywhere near the turkey as you lower or raise it from the pot of scalding oil. It will melt your flesh. The meal was tops and everyone went home with plenty of leftovers. The thought of establishing a new annual tradition at our home was pleasing to me as I rubbed my full belly and watched my kids playing with their own cousins on this most enjoyable of holidays. Bring on Santa.
So on Saturday evening I was amped up for the following reasons. 1) I’d been off of work for 3 days with another to come 2) I had enjoyed a great Thanksgiving on par with those of my youth 3) the first race of the weekend had been a blast 4) I’d be racing again tomorrow on a killer course at a dry venue 25 minutes from home. This is the stuff man, this is the stuff.
The superstitious hockey player in me held an electric carving knife to my own throat and forced me to follow the same routine Sunday as I had the day before: 20 minute opener on the trainer before leaving home, breakfast of oatmeal with bananas, walnuts and raisins, and lots of water. I was a bit later to race than I wanted to be, but still there in time to pre-ride the course about an hour before having to line up. Same track start but only half way around before it turned 180 degrees. Through a set of hopable barriers (if you are JPows or Adam Snyder, not me silly) and a series of turns past the pit out to the lower lot aka gravelly high speed turns of death.
Something to note here for those of you that have not raced cross at the same venue but different courses on two consecutive days. It is really fun to see how a good designer changes the course from one day to the next, but do know that the course will be different. Don’t follow the lines from the previous day because some of them are not being used any longer, as I discovered when I nearly castrated myself on a half a telephone pole sticking out of the ground that we went in front of on day one but around on day two.
From the gravelly parking lot/nut eating pole section you climbed for the next 2 minutes: first along the hill that immediately preceded Saturday’s finish, then up a set of stairs, then on a gradual power sucking incline to the base of a muddy run up that was once of those almost-ridable-but-not-quite-thanks-to-the-extended-climbing-that-you-had-just-completed kind of run ups.
From there, it went half way down the hill from the day before and turned right to head into a short section of woods. Yeah, more climbing in there. Leaving the woods it wrapped around the horse jump and headed due east across the fields towards the school. A series of turns there wrapped around a generator, a few trees, and a playground before exiting to the pavement and turning left to pass the opposite side of the pit. The sweet turns from the day prior were back again and they led into an off camber above the track and a few more turns before the finish.
I lined up on the left again and at the gun settled in mid-pack. Sunday’s start felt faster than the day before. Not possible that I wasn’t a peak freshness… no way. The accelerations out of the tight turns were taking their toll early on. JC was ahead of me, that guy can stick it up there in the top 20 for a lap or two but then he slides deep into the field. I spent a lap riding conservatively, but found myself further back than I had hoped, behind helicopter Matt, WS, and JB who I’d rather be with or just in front of. BH was with me and must have had the same concerns about how far back we were, because he powered away out of the 180 at the beginning of the second lap to move into the top 20. JFerraro was ahead and speeding up as well and when SR came through shortly thereafter I jumped on and moved up near the barriers. In the turns after the pit I caught and passed a JC’s group, mostly by braking late and diving in on corners to gain spots rather than gassing it. The climb from that lower lot hurt badly, everyone recognized that was a place to put their competition in distress.
It seems that some racers enjoy being led to the slaughter in tricky sections, following the preferred line despite the large number of others trying to do the same thing. When everyone set up to go into the woods on the left coming off the upper hill on lap two I made up several spots by going far right. Gaining spots without spending effort? Brilliant! Near the turns by the school, I was with Helicopter Matt when he commented that it wasn’t fair because I hadn’t even started trying yet. Ever humble, I told him to pay attention because I’d be going soon and that I’d see him after the race. Aww, I don’t recall what I said, probably something like I’ll be going soon, stick with me if you can or something goofly like that. The fatigue at that point was high already, but I knew that there was another gear left in me to move up rather than just hang around where I was.
Four turns later the group had swollen to a long train of 8 or 9 guys being driven by SM and I was the caboose. He’s a machine in the power sections and I didn’t want to get G-A-P-P-E-D when we hit the track so I attacked near the pit and got up to 3rd wheel. Smart move: when we hit the track SM laid it down and only myself and AW were able to latch on.
Up ahead MR and JF appeared to be slowing down and coming back to our group which had grown to include MT. We picked up MR and rode just behind JF near the end of lap 3, and though MR had been slowing, he seemed to find a comfortable pace for himself with us and he took his share of massive motorcycle-like pulls. SM fell off the pace and was replaced by SR who had ridden up to us solo and was looking strong. CR cheered for MR going by the pit while I was hiding like a hibernating muskrat in his wake. I gave her a look like “hey, what about me?” and she politely encouraged me as well. I know that she wanted him to crush my soul and ride over my grave on a bike made of my bones. That’s fine, she has to go home with him. I have no idea if muskrats hibernate or not.
Our 4th trip up that hill after the stairs approaching the run up was incredibly slow; walking would likely have been faster. I think we laughed about it right then. Coming out of the woods, I’d been letting a little gap open up ahead of me (usually to MR or JF who were at the front most of the time) then I’d drill it to catch back on hoping to shed the others behind me. That didn’t work even a little bit… not once. I had railed the turns near the school on the first lap, but struggled there for the next three, and each time it cost me effort to get back on before the pavement. The small attacks continued until we saw two to go, but our group remained intact. I started thinking that I had to ride those turns more smoothly or I’d be in trouble. Everything else was working out fine but I was worried about those turns.
The spot ahead of our group was occupied by RL and he was riding well and looking comfortable from where I was. Later he assured me that he was on the edge the entire time, but he’s so strong he makes it looks easy. AW had fallen off the pace from the smaller accelerations and it was clear we were going to come to the finish all together. On lap 5 JF continued to be the instigator, he had been at the front or just ahead of us the entire time & he clearly wanted to get away again but was unable to shake us. He’d get 5-6 lengths, and then loose them a few turns later. I was over my head on the lengthy climbing section; I had to let some spots go to stay sub-nuclear. SR moved ahead but dropped a chain and lost our group going into the woods on lap 5. I recovered enough to get back on and finally nailed those turns around the playground, amazed at how much easier it was in there when you rode the correct arc through the turn. The draft I enjoyed was just the bit of rest I needed to get back on terms and set up for the last lap.
At the bell JF was driving us around the track then sat up to let someone else come through near the 180. He took off when no one did and we scrambled to get across. We followed him through the turns past the pit and into the lower lot area. I know MR well enough to know that he was going to attack on that long climb towards the stairs. He’s a house and was riding a similar uphill in Providence hard every lap on both days. Had we been in Vegas I’d have put money on it… and I would have cleaned up because right on que he went and I rode that wheel right to the front. I tried to keep the pressure on by overlapping wheels with him on the last section of the climb before the run but the pace was slow and it didn’t matter. I just didn’t want JF to come around and ride up that thing. MR did try to ride the run but couldn’t and we were all together coming off the hill.
Smooth again through the playground turns I was second wheel approaching the tight turns just past the pit. I wanted to be first into those turns to set a pace I was comfortable with at a point where I knew no one could pass so I promptly jacked up the brakes to slow this train down for a few seconds. Coming out of those turns MR came back around (I knew he would) and said “let’s go!” Across the off camber he got a small gap, and when we hit the track he was gone. I tried to get the draft but couldn’t, and won the 19th spot over MT with a well timed bike throw.
Another great weekend of racing in the books. I have made so many good friends riding my bike in circles around a field, I’m thankful for getting to know all of them. I got the chance to share a laugh with some of the hup guys and the embrocation guys as well as my super teammates. It is always great to chat with the other guys in my field, debriefing our race experiences while cooling down and talking about how much fun it all was. Richard Fries asked me how business was… I’m pretty sure he thinks I’m someone else. Business was good I told him… it’s just insurance.
Post ride we grilled chicken and polished off the last of the candied yams from Thanksgiving. What we lacked in beer we made up for in smiles. Next weekend we’ll be sure to bring plenty of both to Warwick for the series finale. Watch for more sock premes and cookie feeds.