2017 USAC Cyclo-cross Nationals

#roadtoHartford.

Seemingly anonymous or perhaps confusing to the unaware, the simple hashtag has been a part of every social media post for the past year. After qualifying for and competing in my first Elite National Championships in Asheville last January, I left North Carolina with the singular goal of making it back to “the Big Dance” the next season.

Since leaving the grey skies and lavish Biltmore estate in the southern hills of Appalachia, the road has always been aimed at New England. From summer Cross Camp to the final races of the local Texas season, I’ve made a great deal of progress. Though I haven’t won any races, or stormed into any top 10s in UCI events, I’ve made progress that I can be proud of and have started to lay some stepping stones for future improvement.

Now the time has arrived to head back to the Big Show at Elite Nationals. Hosted in the hotbed of American Cyclocross, New England, the Hartford Nats was going to be a stark contrast from the warm, summer-like temps of Southwest Florida, where I spent much of the Christmas holiday with family. Using pretty much all the will power that I had, I was able to avoid over-indulging during the holidays… for the most part. But cookie consumption aside, I was looking forward to Nats and a chance to better myself against some of the nation’s best ‘crossers!

Wednesday – Wheels Up!

After being graced with some amazing weather back home in Dallas over the New Year weekend, it was wheels up to Hartford! Packing wasn’t terribly agonizing – grab all warm weather gear and put it in a bag – and the trip north was smooth sailing. Thanks to some awesome pre-race recon videos I was able to spend some time over the weekend studying the course. But with almost a week until my race on Sunday, I wasn’t holding my breath that the course I saw on the weekend would be the same one I was racing in a week’s time. Arriving under gray skies, the sun came out just in time for the afternoon hours and brought lots of smiles to start the week ahead.

Thursday – One, Two, Three for Texas

The sun returned on Thursday and it was off to the course to get ready for some course preview, for me, and some National Championship races for our Texas women. Kim Chance (Matrix/RBM) started the day off on the right foot, winning the Women’s 55-59 National Championship. Before the later races I was able to get on the course and session some sections.

The large hillside, known as Bonk Breaker Hill, would offer many opportunities to blow yourself up and the ensuing off-camber and downhill sections could be made increasingly difficult at maximum heart rate. The second half of the course was beginning to get beat up with many frozen ruts, and slick turns would not be all that challenging, in my opinion. However, the conditions made it such that constant focus and attention would be required in order to quickly navigate the track.

In the afternoon, Cat (Trek Cyclocross Collective) took the line in the Women’s 45-49 National Championship. She went HARD off the line and the first time up Bonk Breaker Hill, she already had a 20 second gap. Over the 4 lap race, she metered her effort and increased the lead to claim her second cyclo-cross National Championship. Not to be outdone, Christina Gokey Smith (Matrix/RBM) crushed the Women’s 40-44 field to take her own Stars & Stripes jersey and jersey number three of the day for Texas. Not a bad way to start the weekend!

Friday – Snow Day!

After some celebratory pizza and good laughs, we woke up on Friday to see snow coming down from the skies. There was an audible grown in the hotel room when we opened the curtains. The course was not changed much when we arrived in the morning, save for the fresh layer of white stuff all over the track. I jumped out in the early session to check out the lines and continue to session parts of the course – easier said than done with a couple hundred other riders out on course. With a couple of laps under my belt, I hopped on the trainer to finish up my ride time before the afternoon races started.

The rest of the day was spent as a spectator and enjoying the weekend’s events. It was really cool to see a couple more friends tally some good results in the Masters Championship races, and it provided some inspiration going into the weekend!

Saturday – Helena, the Univited Guest

The talk all week was about the impending weather with Winter Storm Helena. Pre-depature forecasts had been devoid of any serious precipitation, and I packed accordingly. However, Helena decided to defy the weather people and come join the #cxnats party. I was able to hop on course for the mid-morning pre-ride and get a sense for how the course conditions were continuing to change. With my course sessioning done, I set up on the trainer in the Trek CXC tent to my openers done. Engine purring, I got off my feet and bundled up to stay warm as the clouds rolled in.

The afternoon races were epic. Large snowflakes fell from the heavens and blanketed Riverside Park in white powdery snow. Watching the single-speed categories was fun as many riders exchanged descending on two wheels for sliding on two cheeks from the top of Cannondale Hill. The snow didn’t let up and as the night wound down, the nerves began to pile up like the precipitation outside.

Warming up for the Big Show. Photo by Daghan Perker

Sunday – Feel the Rhythm! Feel the Rhyme! Get on up, it's bobsled time! (32nd)

Sunday. The Big Show. My body and mind sent signals of mounting tension that it was race day, despite my best efforts to stay chill. While I had already pre-ridden the course and could visualize every turn, I was still feeling under prepared for the afternoon’s racing. The mind has a funny way of doing that to us. Scrolling through social media for race/ course updates, I came across a quote that Dr. Kristin Keim shared.

“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

It didn’t matter that I hadn’t ever ridden in the snow before, the only thing that I could do was give 100% effort at every opportunity. And as comforting as that was to me, I was still getting layered up at 10a for pre-ride at noon.

We rolled up to the course early and there was plenty of time to run through bikes and discuss tire pressure, tread pattern, etc. I set out for a couple laps of the track to get one last recon before the race. After finding the right pressure, I was starting to feel more confident and was actually looking forward to the race.

With the 39th call up to the grid, I assumed my spot on the fifth row. In that moment, when tensions were mounting and the announcers were getting the crowd fired up, I was almost calm. It wasn’t like a moment of zen or anything, but the pre-race anxiety was replaced with a sense of preparedness and ease. The whistle blew and zen was replaced with chaos. We barreled off the line into the first snowy right-hander. I played it safe and held my spot in the pack, opting for the outside line instead of the faster inside track. I was able to make a couple of passes and found myself in a good spot heading into Bonk Breaker Hill. As we made our way across the levy, trotting along in line like marching ants, I pulled the reigns a bit to keep from going too hard in the opening minutes of the race. It would have been easy to get wrapped up in the #hype, but I was hoping to race for the full 60 minutes, not the first 6.

Successfully descending the hill, I was able to keep my bike upright and pass more riders through the woods. I was settling into the rhythm of the race and feeling good. Then, it happened. The first crash of the day. I knew that I was going to crash multiple times in the race, so I was mentally prepared. No major damage sustained, I dusted myself off and got back on the gas. Crashing was actually the best thing to happen to me in the race as it allowed me to push my limits a little bit further on the ensuing laps.

Passing the pits for the second lap, I was just off a bit group of racers in front of me. I was electing to run the high line on Bonk Breaker Hill, which in the end may have cost me some energy and time, but it was the option that I knew I could execute 100% of the time. Moreover, the risk of falling down the off-camber was a very real risk since I hadn’t practiced riding the top line in practice. Best to go the route with two feet. As I navigated the off-camber descent to the woods, I had enough time to flash a smile to some old friends from my collegiate racing days, then get back to full focus!

Crash one out of the way, my second lap proved to be my fastest of the day and I was making headway in the race. However, the afternoon sun started to create ice in places where there was once snow and with three previous races, many of the choice lines were getting slick. The course's speed limit was becoming more apparent over the next couple laps. I pushed the pace a couple times and quickly found myself sliding across the course. However, I was starting to get the measure of the ever-changing conditions. At one point, RBM rider Abi Yates (who was 4th in her own championship race! Congrats Abi!) yelled to me, "JPow is just up there! You can catch him!"

Psssh, yea right! There's no way the reigning National Champ is this far back! I thought to myself and got back to work. But as I approached the flyover once more, I saw the familiar Aspire Racing colors just around the bend and realized Abi was telling the truth! With that carrot to chase, I pushed a bit harder on the last part of the lap. But my chance to ride with Jeremy - hampered by a hard crash on his knee - was not to be and I fell victim to the 80% rule.

Ahhhhffff-season

The end of cyclocross season was bittersweet. On the one hand, I was happy with the progress that I made throughout the year and the results that I achieved in my first season as a pro. But on the other, I wanted nothing more than to fast forward to September and give it another go. While the start of the 2017 season is still another eight months off, I'm buoyed by what is to come. But for now, I will enjoy some time off the bike and continue to make up for lost pastry time!

See you in 'cross season!

-tc