SSCX 3:16

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only gear, that whoever races him shall not DNF, but have eternal CrossResults points.

get that hotdog plummer

I am remotely fit now.  I sensed it in the parking lot, and I also sensed that I was riding THE WRONG GEAR for this race.

This is the one aspect of SSCX that is very mysterious, and why it’s actually a really good idea to show up at the right time in order to get yourself some pre-ride on course and work that out.  You’ll sort out, reasonably quickly, whether or not you’re going to line up with a gear that at least gives you some semblance of racey accomplishment.  Or if you’re just going to spin like a propeller in a $35 exercise contest against yourself.

Arriving at the right time.  The right time, let it be known now and forever, is about an hour and a half before your race starts.  It’s on the side of being a little too long, but one thing it does ensure is that you will be in a position to hop on the course as the race prior to yours finishes up.  And you will pre-ride, and discover things about the course and yourself, and it will be this whole existential experience that transcends the actual participatory component of the race and maybe you just go home thoroughly satisfied at that point.

Closer to one hour before your race is the wrong time, because it will drop you in an irritating window of existence before your race in which you’re unable to get on course before you stage, and because you need to stage, you really can’t take your pre-ride just as the prior field finishes.  In big races sometimes that actually works, but with the small fields at Paradise, it absolutely does not work.

the power of cross compels you

Left to “warm up on the pavement”, I could sense this 40×19 could be way too easy.  And because I am a prepared individual, I brought along nine other cogs that I could have swapped in, including the requisite tools to do so.

One good solid rule of SSCX and single speed racing in general, is to err on the side of “this gear feels too hard”.  If you are comfortable with it in pre-ride, and feeling really good about it, you’re wrong.  When the race begins, and your adrenaline starts firing, and your pain receptors go into momentary hibernation, and your inner Robert Tepper montage starts blaring, thoughtlessly firing your stupid legs at the pedals, you’re going to push a lot more than you think you can.  Because you have to.

So having opted to demonstrate zero good judgement, I thought maybe this gear would be too easy at the start, and then as I got tired throughout the course of the race, it would be palatable and productive, and so I left it on.  Honestly, that’s not the worst rationale, as long as your goal is to watch everyone disappear at the starting line and never, ever catch them.

Listen it’s not like halfway into the race the entire field is going to fade on account of their collective “pushing too hard a gear” and here you come riding your 38×18 out of the back like a skeleton horse through the gates of hell to the podium.

If you just love to spin, an easier gear might work and you might be able to hold it.  But your margin for error is small.  If you screw up, you’re not pulling back time on anyone, unless it’s some just absolute sloppy total shit mess of a race where everyone picked the wrong gear and then why are you out there anyway.  See where this goes now.  If you run that bigger gear, you can fuck up all you want, and kind of sort of have some way back out of your own stupidity; whether or not that’s a physiological reality for you is going to vary.

I used to push 42×18 all the time, it’s a highly appropriate starting point for almost any course so I don’t know why I didn’t go there.  Start with that.  And keep a little notebook.  The same gear does not work for every course.  You will forget, and you’ll want to remember.

take this, all of you, and do not race with it

So another thing Chris decided to do, after two decades of using SPD pedal technology, was to just go out and race on a pair of used TIME pedals.  This made sense, because he was very discouraged about losing places on account of cleats getting clogged up with material and preventing him from clipping in; a problem that has plagued his experience for years now.  And a cursory (two possibly three minute) shakedown in the backyard several days prior to the race showed real promise.  The pedals were reasonably easy to engage and disengage, and there was definitely going to be a small amount of adaptation needed, but nothing that wouldn’t work itself out by the end of a good hard race.

What Chris did not know, that the podium finishers of the SSCX race at Paradise would later tell him, is that TIME ATAC pedals have a fascinating failure mode in which a pin removes itself from the pedal, and then half of the retention mechanism for the entire pedal just ejects itself onto the course and go fuck yourself thanks for buying TIME pedals.

This happened at some point during the race, likely when I started to notice that every single time I railed a turn, my foot would come off the pedal.  And after every remount, it would never, ever seem to go back in.

“These sure do have a lot of float” I thought.

“Wow, these used cleats must be really worn out” repeated in my head.

Picture the following recipe for non-success: blowing the clip-in at the start of the race because new-to-you pedal technology, in too easy a gear, ultimately left to race with only one foot secured to the bike.

I drove home in silence, my posture tightened in a straight jacket of self reflection.  The bitterness turns to hunger, and that’s why we do it again.

See you after again,

cp

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Hanover Cyclocross and the Rebirth of SSCX

We were camping again in the greater Hanover area, so why not take in Hanover CX for a second straight year.

A few days before the race, I went all in on the decision I made a few weeks ago.

I bought a Wolf Tooth 40t chainring, and scavenged some spacers and a castoff XTR short cage derailleur from my landfill of parts.  Frustrated with trying to remove the shifter cables from the Ultegra 6700 levers, I cut the housing and cables right at the bar tape; fuck it.  This thing is going one gear and isn’t going back.  40×19 as it ended up; effectively the 38×18 I last raced routinely in 2008.  I’ve run 42×18 in recent years, and it will be easy enough to throw a 17t cog on and resurrect that ratio if need be.

(Thanks only to Sheldon I can speak fluently in equivalent gearing)

In the “late 2000s”, I experimented with a single chainring, trying all manner of different chain retention gizmos – derailleurs, drop stops, bash guards.  Nothing worked reliably, and rings like the Wolf Tooth didn’t exist yet.  So this would be a real test of faith for me, because I used to drop a LOT of chains.  In fact, I nearly threw my bike in the ocean once because I was so pissed off over dropping a chain.

Naturally I had no real time to do a shakedown of this new setup; I rode it around a campground the day before the race for about ten minutes.  It held together.  So this was either going to work out, or be a really short race.

For someone who rides singlespeed on the road a lot, I shouldn’t have been so surprised at how doable this race was with one gear.  But like anything, you get away from it for long enough and you forget.  It also helped that I didn’t pick an obnoxious ratio.

Hanover is very technical and for me, that’s a great day.  The problem is, this is my second bike race of any kind this year.  I’ve exerted myself at race pace only one time before, which was about four weeks ago at White Park.  I’ve worked out sort of regularly, but haven’t ridden much over the past few months.  Predictably, my lungs were alright, but I had NO (0) {} legs of any kind.

I turned a good first two laps, doing well to get through the infamous serpentine sands of Storrs Pond.  Then, everything just went to shit for ‘ol Chris, when a line he had been using through those granular Hasselhoffian plains seemed to vanish.  I couldn’t have looked worse.  I’d round the same turn each time, and it was just in my head.  One time I resorted to running, which was equally fast as riding as it turned out, but my fucking shoes would NOT stop plugging up.

It was a constant problem here, and it has happened before, and it can’t possibly be the shoes since I’m pretty sure everyone on Earth wearing Mavic Furys would have said something by now.  I’ve gotta try this Crank Brothers shit.  Or this Time shit?  My race at the back was absolutely decided by a complete inability to clip back in.  All I could do is scoot along and wack them against the pedals until they got happy again.  Which sucked because for a while, I had a good competitive little thing going with my nemesis Jordan.

I didn’t stick around for results, so I’m just checking them for the first time as I write this. 14th of 15.  I’m not entirely sure that’s right; I feel like I was at LEAST 14th out of 16.

The big winner though was the drivetrain.  Wholly unlike my performance in this race, it was flawless.

In honor of the first SSCX race I ever did in 2008 (actually, my first cyclocross race ever for that matter), I wore the same exact outfit – the Nike 10/2 MTB jersey I bought on clearance from the Nike Store on Newbury Street almost ten years ago, and the same pair (I think) of Pearl Izumi bibs.

That’s White Birch Session IPA by the way.  It’s gross.

A long time ago, I knew the destiny of the G&T would be to become a singlespeed cross bike.  It was cool to have it finally become a reality, fueled by my disenchantment with conventional category racing.  And more specifically some of the personalities therein.

The starting line vibe for this race was ultra loose, and the race was fun as hell.  It is exactly, EXACTLY why I did this.  The difference between this race and almost every other field of any race on any day is that all the competitors in this field know there are no stakes.  That’s why it’s perfect and that’s why you should do it.

And so why is that?  Why all of a sudden do things change in the typical geared bike fields?  What about them has to be more serious?

What’s on the line in those races that isn’t on the line in a SSCX race?

Nothing.  There is exactly the same opportunity for you, amateur bicycle rider, to do absolutely nothing of professional consequence.

There are precisely a handful of people moving onward and upward through the ranks of the sport, destined for great things at a high level of competition.  For them, racing and placing truly matter.  But those aren’t the people mired in the middle of any pack, in any category.  The destined elite are outright winning races and spend only a handful of time racing in categories you and I will spend a lifetime in.

I can understand that taking something seriously is a way to stay committed and train hard.  In fact, I totally get that.   But where I’ve seen, for years now, that passion translate into chopping guys, taking guys out, the preposterous chippy mid-pack banter – completely misplaced seriousness due to a lack of situational awareness – it’s growing this sport into something that it’s not.  And you can tell me I haven’t raced singlespeed enough to have seen that yet (I’ve raced SSCX nearly every year for the past 8 years), or I’m not up front where the tempers run hotter, but on the whole it is undeniable that the SSCX fields are mentally in a place that the others are not.  The edge is off.  Everyone has one wrong tool for the job, and everyone is resigned to having a good time getting through it.

The sport of cyclocross is stupid.  Try explaining it someone who has no idea what it is.  You can’t do it in a way that will convince them that it makes any sense.  You effectively describe something like mountain biking, but on road bikes with bad brakes and skinny tires.  Even the vaguely informed look at you like “okay buddy, sounds good”.  You may as well be telling them that you mow your lawn with a beard trimmer.

Only in some tangential, loosely fundamental way does it connect that this is something people should be doing.  It’s technically a bike, and technically a race.  Somehow, some way, people race cyclocross for a living.  But – as precariously close as we might feel to those people, by virtue of our incredible level of accessibility to them – that is never, ever going to be us.  And the moment you come to terms with that, and understand that all of this – everything we’re doing – is total bullshit, you can just have fun.

That’s SSCX.

That should be every field.

Knibb High football rules.

STAR CUP

Another Midseason Category 3 Intervention

In 2010 I had a problem.  For one, I was racing cyclocross.

Two, my wife was still in grad school, we did not yet have a Stella, and as a consequence I had way too much time on my hands.  I did a lot of racing and thinking and existential analysis and the sum of all that was to follow the letter of the USAC rules and upgrade out of Cat 4.

I’m somewhat proud to say that many followed suit.  It seemed in no way equitable to have racers who were doing this for the very first time scored with racers who were doing this for the 30th time.  Not in a sport with a category-based (vice age-based) scoring system.

Here we are five seasons later and the landscape has been altered in a way I expected, but did not.  Most importantly, we now have the Category 5 the sport always needed.  First timers are greeted to the sport with a kinder, gentler machine gun hand.  We have burgeoning interest.  It’s a positive.  We did it.

For a short time, it appeared we would see Cat 3 mellow out a little, given a new rule to auto-upgrade out of Cat 4.  What really happened though was that auto-upgrade mandate was applied to Cat 5, and Cat 4-3 went back to discretionary upgrade.  That meant that the flow of ordinary dudes into Cat 3 was over, really before it began.  With a 5-4 structure now in place, there was really no impetus to move northward if you weren’t scoring any points.  Especially with the advent of Cat 2 roadies landing in Cat 3 cyclocross by default.  Not only were you already in a good place in Cat 4, moving to 3 just meant you were going to take an ultra beatdown.  Before it was a moral necessity, now, completely unnecessary.

When you toe the line in Cat 3 enough times to ask yourself “why am I racing a field that is so fucking fast”, it’s a time to ask yourself why you’re actually still in it.  Especially since a downgrade to 4 is a trivial matter than could improve quality of life substantially.

Could it though?

You could argue that fields in the combined 4/5 are swollen ticks that pop inside the first minute of any given race, and you want no part.  Truth told though, Cat 3 fields aren’t all that much smaller.  It’s almost a lateral move in that regard, notably at places like Providence, and Gloucester, and Northampton.

Then I guess you consider, what is the skill differential between the back of the Cat 3 field and the middle of a 4 field.  Arguably back of Cat 3 is a better place to be.  You never ever get a day off, but it’s pretty consistent.  The middle of Cat 4 will be a mixed bag of guys who can race and guys who are technically all over the place.  Maybe you have the patience for that, maybe you don’t.

Cat 4 and you’re back to showing up at the ass crack of dawn for everything.  No one is awake, and it’s cold, and no one is out there standing behind the tape making fun of you yet.  It’s palatable if you’re brand new to the sport and riding that virginal euphoria.  Maybe not as much if you’ve been in this thing a while.

Also in Cat 4 your options are nothing what they are when you’re a 3, when it’s not unusual to have three or four different time slot options to race in.  It’s exceedingly real-life friendly.  To that end, going back may be a pretty tough proposition, unless you hate your wife and kids.  You race cross so you already hate yourself, I guess what’s the difference.

Alright.  We’ve thought this through a little.  Where we’ve landed so far is that while Cat 3 is preposterously fast, going back to Cat 4 may not really solve that much.

Can anything be done to salvage the Cat 3 experience?

I guess you could points dope and bring yourself up in the field; give yourself a little change of perspective.  Points doping has been well covered here in the past, but after the investment, what does it really accomplish.

Say I’m a 500 point Cat 3 and I want to improve that stature by 100 points, which gets me marginally further away from the back row.  I would simply enter 1/2/3 fields, toiling off the back hopelessly annihilated until I built enough equity to drag me up when I raced Cat 3.  That’s maybe a few weekends of work, just mindlessly pounding away in $40 races against no one.

Okay but then so what.  So you’re finally out of the race’s toilet in a triple digit field.  That’s a positive.  The problem is, it may or may not pay off over time.  It depends on whether or not you can maintain that points standing as a newly minted “soft 400” against guys who are a “hard 400” – they were already there.  You might look at your performance and say things like “well, generally I finish where I start in Cat 3” but that doesn’t necessarily translate if you migrate 100 points northward.

Let me illustrate.

2010 +41

When I started racing Cat 3 in 2010, I entered 8 Cat 3 fields and never finished lower than predicted.  On aggregate, I was a +41 in terms of where I finished relative to where I was predicted to finish.  This is a barometer that reads, to me, that I am in the right place.  No matter how it might feel, mired in the back, I am consistently exceeding expectations.  If you don’t chalk it up to margin of error, you might almost call that…improving.

2011 -28

In 2011, only entered two Cat 3 fields because I was almost exclusively racing Masters 1/2/3 in an attempt to lean out my points and improve my Cat 3 standing.  You know what happened?  Across those two Cat 3 fields I was a net -28.  In my haste to move up, I cut my own throat.   For the few rows I was able to advance, I gave it all back.

2012 -8

The following year I was in three more Cat 3s for -8 as my points stabilized.

2013/2014 +14

Last year, things came back to where they’re supposed to be.  Across three races I was a +12 and the one Cat 3 field I’ve been in this year, I held my own at +2.

The moral is that points doping is basically…doping.  It’s dumb.  Your points are your points and you can’t get away from them.  If they’re stable or gradually improving, you’re probably where you’re
supposed to be.  It is the order of the universe.

That’s why I have invented a new paradigm in cyclocross bicycle contest scoring.

Let’s face it, unless you are any good, crossresults points really don’t mean anything to you.  Sure, you might be a terminal category bottom feeder.  But that doesn’t mean it can’t be any fun.

I present to you a simple, category neutral, programmatically possible scoring system: STAR CUP.

+10 FINISHING ON THE LEAD LAP
You fight like a dog just to show up in the results with an actual finish time.  Maybe you face a choice in the waning minutes of the race to either gut it out, or sit up and get lapped and end the suffering.  A big ‘ol heap of dividends gives you something to think about.

+10 FOR EVERY RACER YOU BEAT IN A SPRINT
You will take home a bonus for every person you finish immediately ahead of, defined as 10 seconds or less.  Maybe you took them to the line like a hero.  Maybe you simply did one thing right in the entire race that kept you one step ahead.  And note – you might not get this bonus if you’re lapped.  You’ll only be calculated for a sprint if you end up with a finishing time in the results, so extra incentive to get on that lead lap.

+10 POINTS FOR EVERY RACER YOU BEAT THAT HAS BETTER POINTS
Pile on the cheddar.  You had a great day and a better someone else did not.  Whether they were simply off their game, had a mechanical, DNF’d…the fact remains that you came out ahead on the results sheet and that’s the only thing that matters.

+5 LANTERNE ROUGE
A bonus for being the very last finisher.  The HARDMAN award.  The day was a toil and against your better judgement you followed though and didn’t quit or succumb to your mechanicals.

+10 PARTICIPATING IN A SINGLESPEED RACE
Obviously.

+5 FINISHING EXACTLY WHERE YOU WERE PREDICTED
What can you say.  You’re a man who delivers on expectations.  You’re no better than anyone thinks you are.  But you sure as hell aren’t any worse.

+5 FOR EVERY PLACE HIGHER THAN PREDICTED TO FINISH
In the eyes of the algorithm, you had a great day.  You could be paid handsomely for simply not sucking as much as you were supposed to.

+10 THE WINNER CARRIED IN 200 MORE POINTS THAN YOU DID
The brutality bonus.  You entered a hard field and it’s not for nothing.  You never had a chance, except at a windfall of bonus points.

DNF AND YOU SCORE NOTHING
Everyone doesn’t get a medal in Star Cup.  If you can’t get to the finish line, you can’t get any points.

Star Cup is a relative scoring system that happens all over the field.  It doesn’t matter if you’re fighting for a top ten or a fighting in the bottom ten.  You say it’s apples and oranges.  Star Cup says fuck it, it’s all fruit.

Star Cup is awarded for every field for every day.  And for the sake of having one, there’s a season long leaderboard of Cup winners.  And that leaderboard does not discriminate – men, women, juniors, savagely old masters well into their brilliantly executed retirements – we’re all in it together.

Hi Colin.  Let’s do it.  This takes off at starcup.cx.

Cat 3, I fucking hate you

I fucking hate you Cat 3 cyclocross.

I hate how you are so fucking fast at the front, because the front consists of the next batch of fucking Cat 2s.
I hate how, if there’s a massive pileup wreck at the start of the race, I can’t just write all of you crashed-up fuckers off like I would in fucking Cat 4.
I hate how I will run a set of stairs like a fucking champion, nail the fucking remount, and think I put a dent in you fuckers unlucky enough to be crawling up my ass.  For a moment I’m right.  Then I get to the next turn and there you are again, like fucking athlete’s foot.
I hate how I will hop something you have to dismount for and it doesn’t fucking matter at all, in the end no distance between us has changed as a result of my thinking I’m being fucking cool.
I hate how when I hear you behind me I race you and take your lines and all it is accomplishing is fucking pissing you off and not constructively advancing my position in any possible way.
I hate how I fucking throttle myself back on a stiff climb because “it’s a long race” and you fucking hammer up it like who the fuck cares yolo.
I hate how I pass you mid-race and I think I’m progressively putting time into you because I have somehow “broken your spirit” and it doesn’t fucking work because you’re not fucking terrible.
I hate how I pass you in the final stretch and beat you and want to fucking throw up from trying so hard and then I find out you had plenty of energy to race again that day.
I hate how if I finish 20th out of 28 in one race, that statistically I should finish 100th out of 140 in another race, but I’ll still only fucking beat 8 people in that another race.  Fuck.
I hate how in general, I have to fucking try.
I fucking hate you.
But it’s fun.

Getting Back

Allow me to not bullshit you – when I finished the race at BoB CX two weeks ago, I was done.  And it wasn’t on account of the bad luck or the result.  I had nothing to work with out there.  So tired, completely unfit, and horribly outmatched.  I rolled back to the car and told Kristen I can’t race this year, and I was going to contact Gloucester and try to get my entries refunded.  There was no sense carving out time this Fall for racing bikes if it was going to be like this.  There’s challenging yourself, but that’s not what this was.  It was just self-destructive.

I had looked forward to cyclocross all year long, and now it was here, and I was useless.  And while that should have been really frustrating, I accepted it, because I have a beautiful kid and a beautiful, exceptionally tolerant wife and at the end of the day I don’t need or want anything else.  And while I never quit anything, ever, this felt like one of those times of where the acceptance of reality releases such a weight from your conscience; the relief just overtakes you and it doesn’t feel like quitting at all – it’s just the way it is, and you’re not fighting it anymore, and there’s peace in that.  And that peace lasted about two days.

I trotted myself out to a midweek training race at UNH.  And I was decimated by people I know I’ve hung with before.  Completely gassed and wrung out.  My great accomplishment was shutting the door on a kid who passed me early, had a mechanical, and passed me again.  I was so bombed out and dropped that on a climb, I reached back into my pocket and grabbed my phone to see who that last text was from.  This sucks.  But I figured this was the hard time I needed to do right now – race my way into shape.  I know how good it feels to be racing when you’re actually fit, and I was going to chase that fucking dragon.

After the race, Brad and Steve wanted to ride a little longer, so I led them into the trail system at Kingman Farm.  Which I know well enough at this point.  We noodled along for a few minutes, and emerged into a clearing that leads to Hicks Hill.  I figured I wouldn’t take them out here and not ride the hill.

I rode ahead and for the first time in my life, I’m not sure how many times I’ve tried to be honest, I cleaned the whole thing.  On a cyclocross bike.  How many times over the years at UNH did I put a mountain bike up this hill and never make it.  All of them.  And now tonight, on this road bike with skinny little tires, nailed it.  At the top, I grabbed onto a tree and sat for a moment, waiting for the others.  It was getting dark, it was quiet, it was very reflective.  I’m rarely here anymore.  Hell, I’m rarely even out riding a bike period anymore.  I felt like everything was alright.  I can do that.  My fitness has been taken away, but I can still ride a bike.

A week later I have this realization that in order to give myself the best chance of being fit for Gloucester, I need to race both days this coming weekend on my singlespeed.  I had been on a bike in September a total of three times for a total of about three hours, and this was going to hurt.

At White Park on Saturday, I got nuked.  Making that climb over and over was destroying me.  Every time I would come through the start line, my body knew it would have to heave itself up that thing, and I could feel it shut down, bracing for the abuse.  The paved portion of the hill would drive me insane.  You catch an echo of your drivetrain off the guardrail, as you do on any paved climb, and sometimes you’re not sure if it’s you, or someone right behind you.  I felt like a thousand pounds.  But one thing that was working was the bike.  Stompy was reborn with this new fork; it could actually turn.  And riding on tubulars; it could actually turn.  21 pounds be damned, he could hold it together.  I crossed the line 18th of 27.  Couldn’t have been better, but could have been worse.

I decided that Mr. Stompy, attrition beater, would now be called The Millenium Falcon.  Now clad in vintage Mavic Reflex rims, Fango 33s, a feathery new fork, bearing the same abysmal cockpit.  So much more capable than Stompy ever was when he hit the circuit in ’08.  Wasn’t this a lot of trouble?  YES.  I could have just ziptied my Gin & Trombones, saved a ton of weight, and been done with it.  But this is better.  She (yes she, it’s a she; you can sex this bike by looking at the sticker just behind the bottom bracket on the seat tube, it’s a Sky Yaeger “100% Chick” design, it’s all quite an identity crisis that’s now sorted)….she’s got it where it counts.  I would like to add however that up a hill is definitely one of those places where she doesn’t have it, and it doesn’t count, except against you.

The morning after White Park was something I hadn’t felt in a long time.  It was the morning after a bike race.  The unmistakable fog of fatigue.  Today was going to be rugged.  Just like it was supposed to be.  I hit the coffee, and then plowed through chores around the house, barely eating.  Around 1pm, only three hours out from the start of the next race and little food in the house, I realized I was kind of nutritionally screwed.  We tracked down a bagel around 2, I started Skratch doping in earnest, a Honey Stinger an hour out, and hopefully that would be enough gas.

I knew my gearing for Sucker Brook would be too easy the moment I turned it in my driveway as I packed up the bike.  I had changed the ring the night before (38t to 42t), but I still had the 18 out back.  All of my 16s were mounted on other wheels.  Out of time, the 18 would have to do.

Sucker Brook was a very strange experience as I found myself with a great start and racing in a very unfamiliar location known as MID PACK.  What happens here?  I have no idea.  I’m not sure I’ve ever been.  There are all of these people on bikes, not just in front, but behind?  What do I do?  I’m riding really hard, and it’s very early.  I realize that this is how bike racing works.  This is that “hard part” when the leaders are popping everyone else, before things settle down into their normal order.  Of course, as laps wear on, the “hard part” doesn’t seem to get any easier.  But I feel pretty good.  It’s all very mysterious.  I roll with it.

I’m actually racing today, and it’s a very confusing time where I have this awareness of setting up for corners, planning ahead for various sections; I have no fucking idea what’s going on but I’m doing it.  I’m running the sand, passing people, actually shouldering the bike properly?  Nothing is making any sense.  I’m aware of people on my tail and how racing the person in front of me is allowing that gap behind me to shrink.  This is just like watching NASCAR.  I’m driving the tires right off this bike, and they’re taped, and they’re not going anywhere, and life is amazing.  I come through the line 14th of 24.  When I discover this, all is right with the world.  I feel incredible.  Kristen is here, Stella is here, and she’s happy, and I feel like something is starting to come back together.  A dark couple of weeks getting to this point let me tell you.  I’ve never, ever felt so encouraged about Gloucester, even in the years that I was actually riding.  I don’t feel worn out.  I feel like I’m just getting started.  As long as Stella is only getting up once a night, I think I can do this.  Ride this little wave of consistency as long as we can.  She will destroy me again at some point.  Until then, I got my balls back behind the handlebar of a bicycle.

Mid-Pack Attack

This is the story I wrote late last December for Bike Monkey Magazine, which appeared in Issue 15. If you don’t already have a subscription, or didn’t find it at Barnes and Noble or the iTunes storehere it is.

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I don’t remember it completely; only small vignettes.  Brimming with nerves as I thoughtlessly fumble through gear in the back of the car.  Apologetic as I steamroll a rider who wrecked in front of me on a tiny headwall.  Hopelessly bogging down in the soggy grass; the scrape of metal studs as I suitcase those stone steps, the tin of cowbells, the smell of damp loamy roots, lap after lap of the overcautious approach into a greasy footbridge.  The final panicking surge through that muddy, rutted right-hander to the finish.  Tachycardia.  Recovery.  Reflection.  Relief.  Indelible pieces of that bleary-eyed, suffer-packed morning in September.  It was 2008.  I raced cyclocross for the first time.  

I had little to no idea what I was doing, but the thing is, I was under no illusion that I knew what I was doing. And this bit of self-awareness and humility is what keeps one going, week after week, lining up to get decimated.  There were so many factors involved in the equation that relegated me to the back of Cat 4 that season, and I accepted and embraced them all as incidental, temporary conditions that befall anyone who does anything for the first time.

The simple fact that I was new to the discipline.  The reality that, in spite of sometimes believing otherwise, I had no idea how to fuel for an event.  And that I was doing this on a singlespeed – and not a particularly svelte one at that.  And that I hadn’t figured out the right gearing yet.  And that I was borderline burned out from training all year for other events.  And that I only started riding again two years ago.  I knew that in time, after this freshman season, these things would sort themselves out, and I would improve.  I wouldn’t be terrible forever.  I mean, who the hell would bother if they thought otherwise!  

In spite of riding at the metaphorical top step of the cellar stairs, those first races were laced with magical moments.  Learning that whipping through the sweeping grass turns at Gloucester, before the morning dew burns off, is a recipe for an awesome concussion.  And that just because your chain only has one gear to wrap, that doesn’t mean it still can’t derail in a turn on the biggest race of the year.  Winding up like a hero and winning a sprint against a geared bike.  For 50th place.  Defusing a guy who gets off his bike and insists on fighting because you bumped his wheel on a warmup lap.  Navigating through a massive wreck at the start of a race that, due to the ensuing 41 DNFs, would yield a personal best finish.  “Divine Salmoning”, that one.

With these antics in the bank, fast forward four years and 40 some-odd races later.  I should be pretty damn good by now.  At least, that’s what 2008 me would have thought.  I should be crushing it.  And I’m a fairly modest person when it comes to this stuff, so “crushing it” really means “mid-pack finishing”.  The dividends of suffering should be paying out large; hell, at least paying something after all that work.  Four years of autumn campaigns – such a seemingly long period of time when you say it like that.  You gotta come out of that with something more than you started with.  Right?

I mean, there’s no way I’m still…

Oh Jesus…am I still as bad as I was four years ago?

I don’t want to look.  

But I have to.  2008 me is like “TELL ME THIS WASN’T FOR NOTHING.”  

Since Crossresults point payouts vary year-to-year for the same event, the only consistent metric for accomplishment is percentage of riders beaten.  And all this time, moving from 1 gear, to 9, to 18, to 20; a steel tank of a frame, to a tragically undersized scandium one, to an aluminum/carbon machine that actually fits; clinchers to tubulars; Shimano; Campy; Shimano; the skinsuits; the teams; the heavy shoes, the light shoes, the fancy shoes; the thousands of dollars; the category upgrade; straight 4s, straight 3s, 3/4s; Masters, No Masters.  Nothing.  Nothing has changed.  By the numbers, I still suck.

2008 me is seriously, seriously not impressed.  

2009 me chimes right in. “WHY DID WE SPEND THIS MONEY YOU JACKASS.”

2010 offers simply “I HATE YOU.”

Relax guys.  We may be okay.

A lot has changed in these past four years.  So many more people have become interested in this little piece of hell on wheels.  Whatever sort of barrier to acceptability that existed before, certainly it’s gone now.  Cross is the real deal.  People get it.  Even singlespeed cyclocross, previously only a fringe discipline here in the East, now has it’s own sponsored series.  Every Fast Eddie on any other kind of bike is joining the fray.  And they’re finding that, even coming in without the technical aptitude, watts take you pretty far while you figure it out.   Fields are getting deeper, and it’s just like Reese told Ricky.  If you ain’t first, yer last.  Even if by his own admission he was high when he said that, it’s still true.

It speaks to how truly good you are if you’re improving in this sport right now, and how, even if you’re holding your ground, it hardly warrants dismissal.  Neither of which I’m doing mind you.  I was supposed to be mid-packing heat by now.  But this gets somewhat complicated, as I upgraded out of 4 after two seasons, and entered the wholly faster and fancier world of Cat 3 well before I really should have.

I had one respectable race this year – in a 3/4 field – where I started and finished exactly in the middle.  After these years of getting shelled, it told me what I so hoped would be true: the fact that I’m a slow 3 aside, I’m probably a good 4.  As it turns out, if I had stayed in 4, I’d be right where I wanted to be, 2008 me.  But what you didn’t know back then was that I would want more than that.  I knew it would get better, and I wanted to push.  For some reason, I hate not suffering over my head.  I need the contentment of brutal difficulty.  It’s a genetic disposition I can’t get away from, no matter what I do.  It’s why I signed up for this and kept coming back in the first place.

The thing that 2008 me didn’t really understand, that 2011 me now does, is that results are just metrics.  They don’t convey the camaraderie you feel when you line up with people you know.  Or tell you how it felt to make new friends that day.  It doesn’t factor in the rabid fools at the top of a runup screaming your number through a bullhorn, or the spark of energy you get from a faceless voice yelling your name, or the fervently intoxicated pleading with you to give in and take a handup from the other side of a snow fence.  Your placing alone will never convey to others how hard you worked to come back from a flat, or a wreck, or a jammed up shifter, or how you dug in and wrung your guts out just to finish on the lead lap in a field loaded with super fast dudes.  Or how, after living through a year of loss that felt so turned upside down, and left you questioning every minute you’ve ever invested in the sport, you were lucky to have even gotten out to race in the first place.  

The final weekend of this past season brought it all together for me.  I worked like an animal that Saturday to finish on the lead lap in a singlespeed race against super fast dudes.  I mortgaged everything I had that day, and then had to absolutely dig a crater on Sunday just to finish where I did the year before.  I felt so damn good about those efforts; how I had really worked to make something out of nothing.  The results and resulting points were in no way telling that story, but I couldn’t possibly let that define what had happened for me.  What I had done, given the context of what I had gone through emotionally and having such an erratic base of fitness, was so much more than “only beating 4 people” or “shitty points”.  

It’s why, in spite of finishing my final weekend of the season with those two bad-looking results, that on the surface convey that I’m no better than I was four years ago, I take away so much.  I get it now.  This is what people mean when they say things like “go out there and have fun”.  If you keep looking at the results, you won’t find a number for that.  Fun isn’t really about where you finish.  It’s about how you get there.  I have no doubt I’ll get better on paper.  Where it matters, though, I know I’m way ahead of four years ago.  I’m crushing it.  Mid-pack finish.


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