2018 USAC Cyclocross Nationals 2.0
After two week of racing at home in Texas and Oklahoma, it was time for the Big Show. Returning to sacred ground of American Cyclocross Lore, the 2018 USAC Cyclocross National Championships v2.0 was set to take place the following week. With inclement weather on the horizon, it remained to be seen what the course would be like and who would be rising to the top step.
Bikes & Bourbon
With the regular season done and dusted, all of my attention turned to Nationals and Europe. Back home in Dallas, it was a whirlwind couple of days and stress was high as I had to pack not just for Louisville, but also for two months in Europe. Fortunately, the weather conditions looked about the same in both places. I jammed all of my things in bags and tried not to forget the necessities before hopping on a plane to Kentucky on Thursday morning.
Joe Creason Park was still dry and tacky on Thursday afternoon. The early races benefited from almost perfect conditions and the clay soil was in a “Hero Dirt” condition. I took a few laps with my coach, Jacob Fetty, and the rest of the Cycle-Smart crew to get a feel for the course and start to think about the important landmarks on course. I knew it would all be different by Sunday, but it remained to be seen how different it would be exactly.
Heading into the weekend, I found myself in a weird state of mind. On the one hand I was excited for the racing ahead but that excitement came with a touch of apathy. For 98% of the US cyclocross population, Nationals is the culmination of months of hard work. It’s the final act in a play that has been going on since the summer, and there is a great deal of expectation, hype, pressure that is placed on this one weekend. For the other 2%, those who embark on European campaigns, the 2018/19 season is only half over and there is much to look forward to beyond the championship races.
I am one of those 2% and my personal expectations around Nationals paled in comparison to my fellow racers. Yes, Nationals is important and I don’t mean to take that away from anyone. But for me, unless I’m racing in the top 5, there really isn’t much I get in return. I still go out of a sense of obligation and because I want to test myself against the best racers in the country, but reflecting on the weekend, I can’t say I was neither excited nor “meh” about it. For me it was just another race weekend. (shrug)
The rain came on Friday afternoon and carried on through Saturday night. I elected to stay off the track on Saturday for two reasons:
Getting my bike THAT muddy would only cause more stress, and with no dedicated mechanic, I could really do without an hour or more of cleaning.
By race time on Sunday afternoon, the course would be so different, that anything I learned on Saturday would need to be mostly unlearned on Sunday.
Instead, I rolled over to Cherokee Park, cruised around and did some openers to hopefully get the engine started for the suffering that was about to take place.
The USAC Elite Cyclocross 10k (14th) (Strava)
The sun was hiding behind a thin veil of clouds on Sunday morning. On the surface I was calm and collected, but inside I could feel the tension and excitement starting to rise. The track itself remained unchanged from the proceeding days… torn to bits with minimal patches of green. My hands were quivering as I pinned my numbers and I felt like time was passing so quickly. I jumped on course for a quick recon lap (read as: walk) and then met my road teammate Chris Carlson (of C4 Coaching fame) to grab a clean bike and roll back to the tent. In a bit of foreshadowing, Chris’ help that day was critical! I spend much of the season without a dedicated mechanic at the races, but on the day that I needed it most - hanging a bike in the pit would not have sufficed - Chris was there. After having raced earlier in the week, and spent countless hours at the course supporting the athletes he coaches, I’m grateful that he was there to support me.
The energy was high in the staging grid. Some riders were at ease, others were hyper focused on the task ahead. I found myself in relative ease, joking with riders beside me. But as the countdown began, I switched my brain to the task at hand. The light turned green and I was moving up in the bunch as we dove off the pavement and into the mud. I moved to the outside to find some green grass and made up a lot of ground, moving into the top 10. I knew I was on a good day.
That is, until I clipped a stake which sent me flying to the ground and sliding across the mud. From the front of the pack to the back, I chose to run the rest of the section through the first technical bit. Nowhere to go but up! I made passes where I could and stuck to my lines as I slipped and slid through the mud. By the end of the first lap, I wasn’t at the back but there was still a ton of work to do.
Each lap I would move up a few more places, sprinting up the hills and sending it (relatively) down the downhills. The crash had pushed me to a new level of focus and all I could think about was trying to get in one more lap. My coach, Jacob Fetty, was there alongside the course reminding me to keep forward momentum and to put myself where I needed to be. Just as critical were my friends Chris Carlson and Court Kretzmeier giving me a clean bike every half lap. And every time I went through the pits, it was as if I had gotten new set of legs, on account of a bike with half the weight.
With one lap to go, I knew that I was inside the top 15 and as I passed the pits for the first part of the lap, Allen Krughoff was just 20 to 30 seconds in front. I went no brakes down the descent and ran my ass off up the climbs and off-cambers. Still sticking to my lines, I was making up time, and as I came through the pits for the final time, I was pretty sure I was going to breathe out my lung. I turned onto the pavement to see Allen pedaling away with a bit more gas in the tank than I.
Exhausted from the hour-long effort, I crossed the line and managed to crack a smile in between gasps for air. I finished the race in 14th place and on the lead lap of the National Championships. Coming into the week I was aiming for a Top 25 finish. I’ve been trending upwards every year I’ve raced Nationals, and I felt like a spot in the top half of the field was well within my grasp. Moreover, I had yet to finish on the lead lap of the championship race and would have counted that as a win. So to smash my target result and finish on the lead lap in a tough race, I was elated.
The day after I was sore from my shoulders to my toes. The race had taken a toll on me, but the aches and pains brought on a sense of tired satisfaction. I took a couple of days to go riding with my host, Jeff Chambers, and enjoy the winter sunshine while keeping the legs turning over. Whereas Nationals is the end of the season for most, there was still another half of the season to go, and I boarded the plane from Louisville ready to take on Europe once again.