Today was the bitter experience of knowing exactly what I had to do and simply blowing it.
The conditions at the non-championships 40+ race on Wednesday were such that I really put myself at a disadvantage by not getting a good start despite my front row position on the line. I bobbled a bit getting into my pedal and found myself nearly outside the top ten once we made our way past the pit for the first time. I tried to push it a bit to get past some riders before the first hill but quickly realized that I was going to get myself in big trouble if I tried to pass guys before there was the room and opportunity. So I waited until the course and the field opened up a bit, played it patient and passed guys when I could. It worked out fine and I was able to get to the front with just over a lap to go and hold on for the rest of the race. The course was muddy and slick and I went down once, but on the whole it seemed to be manageable.
This morning it was another story. The test lap was a study in terror as the rain the previous day and all through the night had either liquefied the mud or washed it completely off the course exposing the frozen ground underneath, which was pretty much just ice. I quickly realized that the day would be about survival and trying to keep upright and being even more patient to take advantage of opportunities to advance. It was also clear that the start of the race would be even more critical as positions lost at the start would probably never be regained due to the ice imposed maximum speed that the course was going to dictate. There was enough mud on hand to make the FMB Super Mud treads my tire choice of the day but the abundant ice convinced me to take even more air out of my tires. I rode 23psi in the rear and 21psi in the front.
So, after the warm up, after the call up, sitting in the second row on the grid, directly behind current Masters 45-49 World Champion and 2012 USA National Champion Don Myrah, I knew exactly what I had to do. I had to nail the start and come off the pavement as far to the front as possible. Because once we hit the ice the guys at the front were not going to be seen again by anyone that was not already up there with them.
I knew what I had to do. The whistle blew and I f’ed it up. My left foot went to the pedal but instead of clipping in my shoe slipped right off the surface of the pedal and slammed down to the road. And that was it. From my #10 call up position I was now nearly in 20th spot before we had even ridden 100 meters. And as much as it pains me to say it, because I spent the entire season building up to this race with the hopes of a top 5 finish or maybe even a spot on the podium, 30 seconds into the race the entire event was immediately transformed into a salvage operation.
It was more important today to stay patient and wait for opportunities to pass because forcing something on that ice would not only potentially cause the end of my day but could also resort in some kind of real injury. It was slow and steady and careful work finding the maximum speed possible for each section of the course and doing everything possible to stay on the bike while holding that speed.
And the patience was paying off. Within two laps I had moved up from 18th position or so to within the top 10 and within another half lap I was challenging for 6th place. But I was passing guys that had either gone out too hard and were blowing up, or were crashing and very slow and getting back up (ouch) or had some kind of damage to their bike that was limiting their ability to race up to their strength. From what I saw everyone was riding their own race with the question being was your own race faster than that other guys race? Almost no one was racing each other directly.
Overall I am happy with how I was able to keep the bike under control today. I can’t say I have raced with that much fear before but once I figured out the lines and the speed things were going ok. I crashed on the descent following the stair run up and my left hand brake/shift lever took the brunt of the impact, breaking the lever housing bracket and eliminating the use of my front brake. The chain stayed on the big ring, and I found that the less braking the better on that ice, so despite losing a couple of places in the crash I was quickly back up and going. My coaches were ready in the pit with a perfect bike exchange and I headed out in pursuit of the guys that had just passed me. On the back side of the course, not a quarter of a lap after the bike exchange, I went down again. Another quick crash, pop up and remount but I laughed out loud at my bad luck when I realized the left hand brake/shift lever had once again taken the full impact and had broken in the exact same manner as the previous. Despite losing another place I was able to keep things going and ride the next lap and a quarter without problems and finish the race in 9th place.
A top ten finish at the US National Cyclocross Championships. Right now I can say that I am pleased with that. But when I crossed the finish line I was angry. Angry for blowing the opportunity that I had worked all season to give myself. Angry at not being able to see just what I might be able to do against the top ranked riders in my age group if I had not ruined my chances as soon as the whistle blew. Angry that the conditions were such that I would have no chance to recover from this mistake and have a chance to ride with those guys up front. I sat in the tent after the race for ten minutes consumed by anger and frustration, sadness and self pity.
And then I remembered that’s the game. Those are the rules. There is only one start, you have to get it right. The conditions are the conditions and they are the same for everyone. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone has bad luck. But what do you do after that? Over react? Blow up? Start yelling and screaming? Quit the race? Or stay calm. Try and recover. Be patient. Keep at it and keep working and keep moving forward. 9th place is not bad, 9th place on a day like today with an f’ed up start and two bike breaking crashes is pretty good. Plus I now have another race experience in some pretty awful conditions that I know I can perform in.
Sure, I wanted more. I wanted to do better. But I have achieved a number of my goals already this year. A better performance at nationals can wait until next year. And Master’s Worlds in Louisville is three weeks from today. We’ll see what can happen there eh?