There’s a degree of comfort in the familiarity of each weekend, the construct is always the same regardless of the setting; start lines, course tape, bib numbers, tents, and two wheeled machines, the same community in a different location. Within this mobile collective, much of the uniqueness of the weekends are based around the type of indigenous soils and terrain. The land we race on and the personality of the course designer add in much of the flavor but the true variable of any race is the weather. Easily the defining feature, moisture of any type adds unpredictability and the characteristics to the weekend that typically define how memorable and to what extent a particular race is recalled.
Because our races are largely on grass and the elite races are generally later in the line up for the day, the actual grass is typically torn up or reduced to dirt or mud by the time the elites take to the start line. Grass is notoriously miserable in its heavier feel when whole, and when moisture is added, its ability to clog up the moving parts of the bike. For this reason I’m generally satisfied that the majority of the times our race gets underway, the course features a smoother run through with the grass already having been skimmed off.
The moisture holy grail comes in the form of up to a foot or more of wet snow in a low draining area and this is basically what transpired in Suffern. The snow dumped across the northeast on Thursday night but by Friday the roads and skies were clear and the temps were above freezing. The race promoter made a feeble attempt to run a snow blower the entire length of the shortened but hilly course (I’d bet someone slept well that night) somewhat in vain as that one strip of cleared snow instantly turned into muddy mush. The lengthy normally grass based loop in lower upstate NY was without a doubt going to be a mudders race….of epic proportions.
There have been a few races where I’ve chosen to walk the course, observe racers racing or others preriding versus getting out there and trashing my currently spotless bikes. I walked the course in snow boots on Friday and caught a few glances at the muck during ongoing races on Saturday. I know I race better when I am familiar with the ruts and roots that are unseen under the slop, the ones that can only be felt out with tires, but it usually takes me four laps to have the lines dialed and there is not generally time for that on a race day, accomplishing one lap in the allotted time would be a lucky score with the slower going the conditions warranted.
I went to the start line on race day for all intent and purposes blind to course expectations. I knew what I had seen from my walk-around and I knew how the course had ridden in previous years. I knew it was sloppy and I knew there would be plenty of running. Mostly I knew it was going to be one of the more challenging events of the season with the straight shot off the start line into the unrelenting course wide mud that was at a minimum ankle deep.
The pavement start sprint led into one short soft spot before returning briefly to pavement. That five feet was enough to take a few riders out and this time it was immediately in front of me. I came to a fortunate halt rather than join the fray of riders dislodged from bikes but it placed me way deep in the back of the field. As we regrouped and dove full-fledged into the sea of mud the bikes went about 10 to 20 feet before the pedals threatened to grind to a halt and a transition to run was required.
So the raced progressed. I moved up steadily, once it was established where traction was possible I was able to hone my technique along with my lines. Gradual slopes were shedding water and developing lines, the flat sections were progressively deepening, and the steep uphills were contingent on the quality of your toe spikes and sheer will. The largest gains were made on the bike, the ability to let it fly on the downhills and transition quickly to running without crashing was key but by and large the biggest asset you could maintain was optimism.
It’s something else to stand on a start line, clean and dry and fresh and know that the entirety of the circuit you face for the following hour would be a completely different animal than 95% of most race experiences. I could sense it in the girls around me in the rear of the pack; that air of hopelessness which I knew I didn’t have. It was ridiculous for sure, this thing we are doing, taking an expensive machine with perfectly good sets of bearings and brake pads and willingly thrashing them purely for the privilege to push our physical limits.
Running technique can only get you so far as no one actually goes out with hard soled shoes on and runs a 5k in knee deep mud. It’s more than just running, it’s the downward sucking on your feet as you attempt to pull them up for each step, the unknown surface and obstructions below the muck that shorten your foot placement, the fight for each foot to gain purchase in ever changing footing, and the constant risk of your step resulting in a trip or a slip and sending you unceremoniously down to your knees in spandex clad splat amongst a tangle of sharp bike parts.
The mud was watery so while it was brutal on equipment it didn’t pack onto the bike and get heavy. Riding through it required more attention than usual but it wasn’t prohibitively impossible. Besides the exertion the most dominant discomfort was repeatably plunging your feet into the ice cold water but like most things cyclocross the discomfort was easily lost in the overall objective of chasing down laps.
My confidence grew as we made our way around and I couldn’t help but glimpse an external perspective of ….the absurdity of it all…. What the heck were we doing?? When the races are fast it’s easier to not think, to instead be captivated by the rhythm of turns and accelerations, to immerse yourself into the flow of the intensity, blind to the blur of the activity outside the course tape. The purpose of lining up and testing your ability to compete against the top women in the country is predetermined, the only thought that really needs to pass through your head is how hard you are willing to pour your heart out on the course to close the gap to this rider and then the next or where more speed could be made up.
This version was closer to a test of pure determination, coupled with a sharp dose of quickly deciding when you should or shouldn’t be on your bike. My pit crew (who had raced earlier in the day) left me to roll to the start with the final words of “just run it.”
Their advice rang true, much time is lost in the unwillingness to dismount, so to be fully committed to the run regardless of how ridable that section could be made much quicker work of the lap. My consistency paid off and I worked myself up and into the top ten smiling for most of it. I’m not one to go out of my way to splash through a puddle on an otherwise dry ride, on the contrary I will slow to a crawl to avoid the spray, but once I’m in it I’m in it.
After finishing it was back to that never ending task of cleanup. Bikes were demudded, rags were rung out, clothing was sprayed down and then all of it was hauled back to the hotel to be scrubbed out in the shower. On a rare thermal worthy day, I kitted up in a lightweight suit to merely make the cleanup easier.
We went out to dinner contemplating what the next days plan would be. Surely they would relocate the course and give us a fresh go at somethingrideable. But it was not meant to be. Manpower was likely a factor, it takes a few folks to get a course reset and with limited daylight and low temps it just wasn’t feasible. The track was reversed however, the one longer on the bike climb now a descent and the steeper plunges now meant runups.
The mud thickened as the day progressed and no longer did it just slide off the bikes after wrecking havoc to the moving parts, it also added weight. The flat surfaces deepened and more snow melt added to the collective moisture. The temperature had lowed a bit and the sun was no longer out. Shedding puffy coats and warm boots for lycra and near certain discomfort was in no way an appeal. Once again I forwent a pre ride lap and instead marveled at the sheer hopelessness of picturing a bike race on non bikeable terrain.
The course was so slow that for a second weekend this season the mandatory dismount point, in this case a set of barriers, were removed, the intended stairs having never actually been added. I started without any major incidents, my discomfort was heightened by need to remount at the top of the descents, I’d prefer to flow into them already on the bike but this was not possible with the heaviness of flats that led in to the downhills.
It’s fascinating how the general points of spectating are moved around based on the severity of the course conditions; off cambers, so entertaining to observe in moderate to slick conditions become mute points when every racer is running. Otherwise underwhelming descents become hotly contested tests of skill and willingness to avoid the brakes. Mundane flat stretches become a test of line holding and how far launching in can get you before testing your ability to dismount minimizing momentum loss. Ruts forming make cornering more of an act of physics and soft hands then a graceful tape to tape speed maintainer.
I found my comfort after one lap, determining where I could possibly make up time and hone speed. Going out for the second lap I let fly on the longest downhill and was rewarded with an unforeseen somersault. The impact was mostly to my shoulder with a duck and roll but the bike took a good hit twisting the bars sideways. Being near to the pit I opted to run it in but time was lost in the recovery. I’m usually pretty good at regrouping but somehow this one caught me off guard and after loosing ground to a handful of riders I maintained that position for the duration of the race.
Individual races tend to develop around you as you loose sight of the front and back ends of the larger picture. Myself and three other girls went back and forth, each of our strengths showing up on different sections of the course, I determined my strengths could be utilized later in the lap and as we pulled onto the final section of pavement for the last time I glanced back to see all the other girls immediately behind me in hot pursuit.
Or so I thought. I sprinted it out for a longer than desired stretch to the finish line not even risking the glance back in the chance they were wanting that spot more than me. We were racing for a finish out of the top ten but with the battle against ourselves and that course it was a position no one wanted to give up. As I rolled under the line I finally took a moment to peer behind me and realize I was exceptionally overestimating the motivations of my pursuers. It was morbidly entertaining to roll into the end of the chute so gassed when no one was chasing me.
New York was the final weekend of east coast racing for me and it was ended on quite the legit note. I was more than happy to pack up the van and begin heading somewhere warmer while savoring the one weekend of the season away from racing. Next up was Texas and a long van ride was exactly what I needed to regroup and process. There are a number of places that make me happy but it’s tough to beat a sunny day of van driving, open roads, facing the unknown and singing along to whatever tune the radio is blaring.