And just like that five months went by in a flash! Two countries, fifteen states, thirty-six race starts, over ten thousand miles, seven podiums, eighteen top tens, and ending up ranked 101st in the world.
After a few weeks of getting back in to the groove at home it wasn’t particularly appealing to take off for one last trip. Nationals week came up quick and the time home was nicely punctuated with solid training on the bike and two homegrown backyard races, one very cold with snow and mud, and the second warmer and sunny with the usual dry dirt.
I was trying to ride quality hours in the cold to get ready for what might be in Reno and I must have worn myself down because after a whole season of being healthy, one particularly cold day on the bike had me riding home with a significantly sore throat.
I could tell I wasn’t feeling quite as peppy riding the rest of the week, which was a high contrast for how I was feeling just a few days earlier. I skipped more than a few workouts, acquired some elderberry syrup, ate a ton of raw garlic, had friends join me to caravan for the drive, loaded up the van and pointed it west.
Early on the Reno course was wet, rain showers made for fun slick corners, heavy pedaling, and plenty of bike washing. I was very relaxed; with a whole week to kill and the weather causing the course conditions to change I didn’t have much worry about pre-riding.
I spent the week getting healthy, cheering on friends in their races, having a relapse of the head cold from too much cheering and excitement over my driving buddies collegiate win, spent a day on the couch blowing my nose and trying to regain energy, avoided my bike, ate lots of food and even more raw garlic, felt good enough Friday to take a trip to visit the Gigifactory with my host and badass Tesla engineer as a tour guide, and got my mind thoroughly blown, an earful of blue Oyster Cult, and my head crushed against the back of the seat test driving the Model X around the factory.
My nonchalant approach to the big day was maxing out to nearly overkill. I had a few things to do to be ready for the race and those were all getting put off. From mud removal in the far off bike wash to fixing things: I’ve had a bike that wouldn’t shift since October and a few trips to neutral support a few hours before the race did finally correct that. I had noted two features I wanted closer looks at and rolled out for a last pre-ride lap to give the now functional bike a test. I was so excited to have two bikes with reliable shifting again even if it was just hours before the race!
I kept thinking the race started 15 minutes later than it did. Getting caught up watching the drama of the U23 men’s race on the live feed in the van with the heat blasting put me outside to warm up with just 45 minutes till race start. I remembered that I should maybe have spare wheels in the pit and that my spare race wheels didn’t have a cassette on them. I got that going until I decided this would also be an optimal time to throw some spikes on my shoes and hopped on the trainer with the tools. Not wanting to change into my race kit without changing shoes (shoe dirt in chamois isn’t awesome) I knew I needed a few extra minutes off the trainer to suit up. Fortunately I had at least remembered to pin my number on already!
It miraculously all worked out with much thanks to my super organized pit help volunteer recruited as I strolled through the venue also a few hours earlier in the day. I managed a few efforts on the trainer and rolled over to the start with plenty of time to get adjusted. The racers lined up on either side of the start chute, a new and very impressively organized development, and there were a few rounds of “paging Katie Compton” before they realized she was already in the start grid.
My late second row call up left me with a grid choice of center pack or far right. With the first corner a left hand turn, I was stoked to slot into the right pole position. I checked to be sure I was in the correct gear, ate my gel, took a last sip of water, handed my jacket over, and rotated my pedal into the perfect place. Thirty-seven starters prepared for the collective tension as the countdown began.
We were off and I was determined to hold my ground up front. With the race leaning left I should have had a clear shot. I nailed my pedal with a clean clip in and went for it. The rider to my immediate right has at least a foot of height and managed half a wheel length on me as we left the line. For reasons unknown she leaned hard right into me and checked me into the boards.
It happened fast, I lost a pedal and hit the boards hard but still was moving forward. The folks packed in on the side of the course were leaning over the fence to gain a better view of the start and at least six of them smacked me in the jaw with their arms and elbows as I slid across the boards. For three full board lengths I was leaning on the wall with my face bouncing off spectators.
By the fourth and final board before the gap for the lap finish, the arms retracted enough to give me room and I was able to lean on hard enough onto the boards to push back upright.
I watched the race spin away from me as I fought to regain my left pedal while till trying to maintain and build speed, now very much in the wrong gear and unable to stand and crank without both feet clipped in. I passed under the finish line mid-way down the start stretch with bike lengths between me and the last racer.
Thirty-seventh place off the start line. It flashed through my head that I do always perform well when faced with adversity, why would I not just enjoy making it as challenging as absolutely possible. As I crossed off of the dirt into the first turn I regained my composure, closed in on the last rider and stood up to get to work on the first grass straightway.
At the first bottleneck featuring three concrete stairs I maintained composure to not shove through and began to make my way through the back of the pack.
The race was already well strung out at this point but I stayed aggressive through the ditch crossing, hopped off to run the sand pit with the bit of wiggle room I had around me and managed to pass two thirds of the race before we cruised to the back side for the run up and crazy downhill.
The first climb on the run-up had me pass a few more riders but I played it safe on the downhill and held my lines without challenging anyone to sumo wrestling. We were creeping down the intimidating hill but crashing tends to take more time than being patient and waiting for a clean pass so I opted for the latter.
As we came out the bottom I cleared past a few more riders in the bumpy turf and headed through the dinosaurs to the start/finish stretch with three other girls. In total I passed 20 racers on that first lap, churning my slowest lap of the day but coming out in 17th place.
Lap two was spent reeling in one girl after another, managing to close in on 13th place as we came through for lap three. My focus only allowed me to be aware of the next rider in front of me and as I dismounted to run the ditch a rider launched it immediately to my left and practically landed on top of me with a huge smack of the ground. I glanced over my shoulder to see my van-pool caravan partner as the cheers erupted, I would have loved to tell her how crazy awesome that move was but there would be plenty of time for that later.
Now behind her, I sat in as we rounded the corners to the sand pit. As we dropped in to the sand (literally, there was a curb) I managed a cleaner, straighter line and passed her back. I caught sight of a few more girls while I rounded the corners leading into pit two and handily caught up to them with good line management.
Lap four allotted me a few more spots and as I came in to the corners before the pits I sailed over the two barriers and remounted a little ahead of the motion, landing on my saddle nose. With a loud pop the saddle slipped and tipped forward, being one turn from pit two it was no question of what I would do.
I took the corner wide to head in and realized I didn’t really know where my people were located. I saw a bike come flying out into the line near the last fourth of the pit but I had lost some speed searching. I swapped bikes while noting with much surprise that at least four girls had been hot on my tail and had just moved through me.
I held my ground behind them and as we headed into lap five I was two seconds off the four of them in the start stretch. I heard spectator shouts to get on their wheels but I was not loosing ground where I was and the corners were my friends.
We dropped into the sand pit and the back two got bogged down on slower lines. I made a clean pass while they were struggling out the last feet of sand and placed my sights on the front two.
I held steady with no mistakes and continued chasing as we headed out on the final lap. I was still feeling good and just needed to be clean to stay near the top ten and my finish from last year. My pit crew yelled I was in 11th and in my strange state of heightened peripheral awareness I was pretty ecstatic about that.
I was hot on the heels of a rider and as we passed through the ditch she rode through while I dismounted and regained her speed much quicker than I on the other side. I took note that her tactic was faster though it was a bit late in the game to adjust. I let the gap open confident I could be smart to close it back down again and as we rolled to the back side of the course I had to flare wide to avoid the yard sale that had resulted as she took one of the more rough turns haphazardly.
I plowed through the mud at the base of the run-up one last time and as I crested the hill to head down the first of three plunges I approached another racer with a flat running. I asked if I could pretty please have the line and she obliged, scooting over to give me a clean pass.
Just one more trip down the off-camber and it was home-sweet-home. If my pit crew was right I had just beaten that heck-of-a-result I’d had taking 11th at the previous years nationals. Top ten wasn’t even on my radar with the dry mostly flat course. I hadn’t really set a results based goal, my objectives focused on staying off the brakes on the slick descents and keeping my eyes looking where I wanted to go instead of at the mean rocks determined to eat my tires. The dirt surface on the off camber had started chipping off once it became dry and only the top bit of the slopes was smooth, letting speed carry you in to the lower portion exposed you to loose, flat inducing, rocky peril.
One last trip braaaaping through the dinos and I popped out on the start stretch, I glanced back to be sure and sat up to savor the moment. How had I done that?! It hadn’t even felt difficult. Hugs were had, exclamations were made, congrats were accepted.
And it was time to go home.
A few weeks off the bike were welcome, winter has never been my favorite season. Time at home allows for a reset, a little hiatus from social media, the chance to really look at what coming up next, and to let excitement for the future adventures build. While racing mountain bikes cross country isn’t my main focus anymore, I still love to get out there and picking up races is always a fantastic excuse to be on the road traveling. My goals have changed a bit this upcoming season, I plan to attend smaller events where I can meet more folks, visit new areas, and ride fresh courses.
I’m excited to continue to represent my outstanding partners as I carry on into the 2018 season, and I want to sincerely thank them for being a part of my adventure!
Terri Smith | Dave McElwaine | Bo Bickerstaff | Daghan Perker | USA Cycling |CXHairs