The Horror at Harding Hill – 1st Place CX

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Take a good look friends.  It hasn’t happened since the fall of 1996 – fifteen years – I honestly did not think it would happen ever again, and there it is.  Top step.

Did only 3 people race in my category?  YES but who cares! because the race was absolutely brutal.

I have no idea why I thought entering another mountain bike race with a cyclocross category was a good idea.  Rumpus was one thing.  The Horror at Harding Hill – yes, that’s actually the name of the race – is a total fucking other thing.  Just because a course has doubletrack doesn’t mean you should race a ‘cross bike on it.

Because for all the fairly raceable doubletrack, there were land mines, steep technical downhill sections, rooty Fomba-inspired bullshit sections from planet awful, you name it.  And it was hot as all hell, into the 90s.  And the laps.  Were.  Eternal.   The course turned left forever and ever, and you climbed, and then went left again, and up, and left, and climbed more, and hallucinated, and people cheered you on and made witty references to Harry Potter that you didn’t get about your race number being 7, and you kept climbing.  All perfectly reasonable requests on a perfectly good mountain bike.  Which I own.

So I show up, I’ve never been here, I only know from Evan Patten that this is in fact going to be possible, based on his pre-ride assessment which was done on a mountain bike….which again I own one of these – in fact, a really nice one….so anyway.  Two 5 mile laps are what I’m in for.  I pre-ride a lap about an hour before the race.

About halfway through my pre-ride, my left hand is killing me.  Gloves are already saturated because it’s so damn hot, and I peel them off to find a pretty good blister forming on my palm.  This is not good because THE RACE HASN’T EVEN STARTED YET.  I can barely use my left hand after a few more minutes.  To compensate, I’m doing all kinds of insane-but-necessary things like riding with only two fingers gripping the hoods, right-hand-on left-hand-off, grabbing the tops of the handlebar and hoping I don’t need to brake, riding normally anyway and dealing with the awful squishy feeling of blisters welling up and rupturing.  A fucking DELIGHT today was going to be.  I actually considered not even starting the race.  It was definitely shaping up to be that bad.

They told me 6 people had signed in to race in the cyclocross category, and at the start, I only spot 3.  As bad as it gets out there, I’m thinking I have to finish or this is just going to be embarrassing.  Podium gifts are rare wonderful things not to DNF yourself out of.  I felt pretty confident that mechanically I’d hold together (in spite of installing a brand new drivetrain the day before??? – it’s that swagger you get from your first job in life as a mechanic at Tom Mowatt Cycles), and that running tubulars I’d at least keep air in the tires.

One of my opponents, Jarrad Warner, got me at the Rumpus.  Strong, ex-downhill guy, just starting CX.  I knew we would be competitive, but the other guy, no idea.  Pretty fit, tall, CyclocrossWorld skinsuit, Conquest Team frame, guy was serious enough.  I lined up right behind him, we start, I fumble the clip in, my typical hundred feet of riding one footed, sprint to get back on his wheel, and Jarrad is glued to mine.

We were started with the novice wave of MTBs so there’s lots of picking through racers to stay with ‘crossworld guy (cwg).  I am feeling pretty good today.  But we hit the first climb a few minutes in, and I see cwg start to pull away, a little higher pace than I’d like this early.  I know it’s going to be a long race.  So I let him go.  I figured if he had that kind of motor, great, have at.  I wasn’t going to start burning matches to pass riders out of my category just to stay with him.

We all have the wrong bikes, wrong gearing, maybe things will equalize at some point.  I had a 38×28 low combination and I made it work up all the climbs, really getting into it.  Definitely wasn’t easy, especially when you’re racing alongside mountain bikes that are spinning happily in a 32 or 22 tooth chainring.  Difference though being – I was never passed on a climb.  I was definitely pinning the HR, but it was fast(er).  It definitely required a withdrawal from the energy bank.

I gapped Jarrad early by a little, and then made it a point to drill every climb and make sure he wasn’t coming back.  I looked forward to every single sustained climb, because it meant I could take my left hand completely off the handlebar.  It was becoming a wreck.  It got to a point where I was negotiating most of the lap with minimal front brake, barely holding on with that hand, overgripping with the right, blistering that hand, it was completely stupid.  I’m amazed I didn’t eat shit.  It was just point and shoot, keep your ass back, stay on the bike, dump gears at every chance you get, rejoice at the sight of a sustained climb.  For a long time.  My left hand was completely trashed, and every now and then I’d grip with it anyway just to get through something, knowing as awful as it was going to look and feel in the end, it could possibly be worth it.

Lap 2 and things have mellowed out; I’ve been lapped by a few Elites but otherwise things are pretty thinned out and I’m definitely locked up in second at this point.  I have all but forgotten about cwg.  I’m just trying to get through another lap of hell on wheels, trying not to think about my hand, hoping not to see a glimpse of anyone coming up behind me.  Still giving it full-bore effort on every climb.

Maybe halfway through lap 2, I am starting to fade pretty badly.  It has been so abusive out there, jackhammering, dodging everything in sight, gingerly negotiating shit that will make the bike explode, and the temps haven’t helped, and I feel like I’m in an oven.  I can only hope the others are feeling it too but I wouldn’t have a clue.  I just keep thinking, again, that we are all totally equally screwed so I can’t be the only one suffering.

I’m now really struggling with things I know I have blasted through earlier.  Just trying to pull this thing through the finish, that’s literally all I’m doing.  Trying not to quit.  Then.  Fucking THEN – the second to last technical section of the race, a mile left to go in the race, rooty as all hell, full of traps, and there’s cwg, running with his bike.  A prudent choice almost every time.  Except this one.  When I saw him, I couldn’t fucking believe it.  Are you kidding me.  How in the hell did I catch this guy.  Still on the bike, I drilled it right past him over a rooty section, jumped off, ran the rest of a section I knew wasn’t worth screwing around with, remounted, and blasted off with every last bit of what I had.  Which was next to nothing.

I knew this feeling.  It has been a long, long time but I know this.  But it’s a little different now.  For one, this time I have literally nothing left in the tank.  Two, I have no idea if cwg is running because it’s expedient, or if he’s popped, or if he has a mechanical, or what the deal is.  He could be back there ready to kill me at any moment.  So I dig, dig, dig, keep on digging, trying to muster something enough to not blow this opportunity.  I’ve gotta hold onto this for about a mile.  And I can’t do it.  Every little nugget of time I can make I make, but I have no gas.  I am still just barely hanging on.  And I make peace with the idea that if I blow this, and he passes me, that is absolutely going to be alright because I have nothing left to work with and I have done everything I possibly can.

I keep hearing riders behind me, and as they pass, I keep wondering if it’s going to be cwg.  Each time it’s Elite lap traffic, and I breathe small sighs of relief.  And it’s an eternal final mile.  When the hell will this FREAKING LAP END ALREADY.  The final technical section, and I jump off, hoofing it over almost everything I could have ridden.  It just seems like a better idea, because I’m so exhausted I will probably screw this up and wreck if I try to ride.  Worst running form at this point ever; I look tragic.  I remount entering the field for the finish, gingerly grip the handlebar, finally take a good look behind me, and there’s no one in sight.  Are you serious.  Through the finish line, already one handed so I put up my index finger, and then make the sign of the cross, thankful that I even made it out of there in one piece.

I head under the scoring tent for some shade, my head down on my handlebars.  I am shot.  The scorers have all kinds of questions about how did it go, was the bike an advantage, all these things they wanted to know.  All I remember telling them was that it’s the wrong tool for the job.  Someone said something like “yeah but you won” and I said “The course won.”

Under another tent to wait for things to finish up.  What seems like a long time later, cwg rides through the finish.  Kristen asks me if I did enough laps.  I honestly, for a second, wonder if I really did two laps.  How the hell did I finish ahead by so much?  Sometime thereafter, Jarrad rolls in.  In the final scoring, I got cwg by nearly nine minutes, and Jarrad by eleven.  Standing there heat-stroked, shell-shocked from the abuse, it felt like a half an hour between us.  My brain was so cooked.  I can’t even believe I finished the race.  Let alone manage to win it.

Up on the podium, I can only make thumbs up; my hands are so blistered and painful, and opening my palm is excruciating, especially as the sweat runs into the wounds.  I manage to shake hands with both guys, and cwg calls me “the fast guy”.  I sure as hell didn’t feel fast.  It was honestly so hot, I had no idea what I was really doing.  But I must have been pinning it pretty good to get that kind of gap.  Or been pretty lucky.  I don’t know, I don’t care, but I know one thing for certain – I will never be back to defend that title.  Once of that is enough for a lifetime.  Can’t be a better way to go out though.

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