Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Right Race

After Saturday's Wicked Creepy 'Cross in Bennington, I wasn't sure I wanted to race on Sunday. Yes, I had a good ride there, but I felt flat and couldn't get the power to the pedals when I needed to. Really I think I was just blocked from not opening up hard enough on Friday, but mentally I am at a point in the season when I feel like any more bad luck or crappy rides could really break me. So I was actually riding around in 2nd place contemplating dropping out. What the hell is wrong with me?!

Anyway I got over it. I was pre-registered for the HPCX UCI race down in New Jersey, but I was dreading the 6 hour round trip and felt ill-equipped to score UCI points given the relatively strong field.

So after putting racing out of my mind and going to see Paranormal Activity with Charmaine for Halloween, I wallowed around Sunday morning, packing the car while protesting that I didn't want to race, and really testing Charmaine's patience to its outer limits. Finally I decided to go, but then decided not to once I was on the road, so I turned around and went to Vermont, instead. Really.

Ethan Gilmour and Me, running the Birch Logs
Photo Courtesy of Alan Atwood

I mean, I love racing, I love Vermont, and I love cyclocross. I even love the solitary drives through the fall foliage that are a part of cross season, and I love getting amped about prize money and UCI points. But what I really love is that feeling when the balance between community and competition is just right, and for some reason the folks at the West Hill Shop in Putney always manage to get that right. In fact, this was the first 'cross race I ever did (2005, 5th in the B race) where I felt like I might actually be good at this, and it was under similarly unlikely circumstances. Maybe it's the mountains, maybe it's the foliage, but Vermont is good for my soul. A solo drive to Jersey in search of UCI points that I may or may not have had the legs to get, however, did not seem good for my soul. I was right.

The field was small this year, owing to the fact that there were a ton of local races scattered around New England this weekend, but my buddy Al Donahue was there and we had agreed on a no-holds-barred rematch from the day before. Kirt Fitzpatrick was there, too, and he has been riding well lately, as was local Vermont lad and U23 Euro mountain bike shredder, Ethan Gilmour. So it promised to be a classic Putney: laid back and fun, but with just enough fast guys to make a real race out of it.

Al got an uncharacteristically quick start, but I sneaked past him for the hole shot and led through the barriers and onto the first batch of slick, muddy turns before the birch log two-step and the whoop-de-doos. Man I love this course! Honestly, there are few courses around that are simply as much fun to ride bikes on. Anyway, I stayed in front all the way around the corn field for the first lap, then Ethan came past me and led us into the run-up the first time. At this point Ethan, Kirt and I had about a 5 second gap on Al, who looked to be closing, and the rest of the field looked far away, save for Evan Huff who was chasing on his own in no man's land. Things stayed this way for the next two laps with Ethan and I doing all of the work until Kirt attacked us as we approached the run up for the 3rd time. He railed the turn at the bottom and sprinted up the hill, opening a small gap which he then lost when he couldn't get into his pedal. It looked frustrating. Once he clipped in he proceeded to sprint out of every turn for the next lap really keeping the pressure on Ethan and I...and then he blew up. After the 4th time up the run-up we kept at it and when we looked back the next time through the corn field Kirt was fading fast and Al was now about 10 seconds down as well.

Me leading Ethan into the woods
Photo Courtesy of Alan Atwood

This was motivating and we stayed on it, trading pulls, working well together and running the legs off of each other each time up the hill. We kept it steady until 3 laps to go when Ethan got frisky and started to attack me. I didn't really attack him back much since he didn't seem to be hurting at all. I took the opportunity to jump around him and lead the technical stuff a couple of times, hitting it hard out of the corners and hoping to gap him but each time he got right back on with no problem.

Now anyone who knows the Putney course knows that if you're racing against an evenly matched rider, then the race is to the top of the run up since the finish line is less than 100 yards away at that point. As a rule, the first rider to clip in at the top of the hill wins the race. I felt like I was pulling a little harder than Ethan, but I also didn't think I could drop him and ride it in solo, so I decided to bank everything on a last lap attack through the cornfield, and if that didn't work I would do whatever I could to win the race to the top of the run-up.

Sure enough he jumped me first in the cornfield, I stuck it, then countered, he got right on me, and stayed glued to my back tire through the back-to-back 180's leading to the road. I led onto the road but didn't pull hard and kept my eye on his shadow. When he jumped I made sure he didn't gap me, and then I countered hard to his left when he was looking over his right shoulder. Yes, I did go around the cones in the middle of the dirt road, but in a situation like that, cones seem like a suggestion to me more than a hard and fast rule. We drag raced to the last turn rubbing shoulders, and basically it just came down to him braking first. Fortunately we didn't crash coming into the hill. I'm no great runner but I sprinted as hard as I could up the hill, clipped in and wound it up to the line. Judging by the shadow on the ground it looked like I had enough room to sit up and celebrate but something told me not to, and it's a good thing because Ethan surged hard at the last minute and in the end I only won the sprint by a wheel or so. But I won!

Sure, it's a small, local race, but it's a New England classic and honestly, I don't get to win all that often. Given my fatigue and frustration lately, and given the fact that (no secret here) my biggest competitive enemy is my head, I was just really happy to stay focused all the way to the line and not make any mistakes. And taking the win in front of guys I respect like Ethan, Al and Kirt felt really, really good. Maybe November is my month again...I never do exactly the same thing in September, but invariably I seem to go better in November every year. Go figure.

Thanks for reading,


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