No one knows what to expect from the first weekend of cyclocross. It’s really hard to train for ‘cross, because it’s only a race, not a ride. So you can come in knowing that you might be fit or having worked on skills, but maybe everybody else has worked just as hard or even harder. That first race can be the one that sets the tone for the season, or shows you what you need to work on. Last year it showed me what I needed to work on. This year I hope it’s setting the tone.
I’m coming into the season fairly fit, and having done a lot more cross specific workouts than I may have in the past. I knew it would be a good weekend while I was pre-riding; it didn’t feel laborious to turn through the grass, and I wasn’t going embarrassingly slow on the down hills and turns. It almost felt like I knew what I was doing. It only took five years or so to get that way.
Roanoke is a great way to start the season. The vibe is great – they have a pool, and a soaking area for spectators. The food is good. The crowd is loud. It is just super relaxed and upbeat and really sets the mood for the first race block.
The best part about opening weekend is catching up with old friends. I kept telling everyone that I was treating it like a local race, an opener for the season and not thinking about UCI points or being nervous on the start line. Sunny Gilbert said that she didn’t think I was prepared for the race that was coming. But I showed that maybe I was the most prepared of everyone.
Caroline Mani had the best start, but mine wasn’t too bad – I even took myself off guard. Finding myself in the front group not having to pass anyone, I took advantage and went straight to the front. Pretty soon into the first lap it was just a group of three of us, myself, Caroline Mani, and Sunny Gilbert. Throughout the second lap or so Caroline was trying to coach her teammate towards the front of the group. When Caroline said “go Sunny” I said “no sunny”. I would like to think that it was my verbal deterrent that gapped Sunny from the two of us. She was clearly intimidated. With Sunny out of the picture, it was just Caroline and I battling at the front. We exchanged leads multiple times. I had to convince myself that I can’t let her out of my sight, I started to drift back once, but I reminded myself that Caroline doesn’t fade, Caroline doesn’t crash. If I wanted to stay in the race, I would need to keep myself in it. After getting dropped off a little bit, I rallied and chased back on.
I wasn’t quite sure where I might be able to best Caroline, and in my head I thought, “well at least I have second”. Going into the last lap, I decided just to give it all I had in the few little power sections leading up into the finished. Luckily, it proved to be enough. I turned onto the short pavement stretch before the line and found myself alone. I won my first bike race of the season! But more importantly, I’ve won the first bike race of the season. Is this the token win, or portentous of what is to come?
Day 2 the course was much punchier, and maybe a little bit better suited for Caroline rather than myself. Nonetheless, we lined up at the start. Caroline and I were actually laughing and talking a lot, and I was commenting on how I would have liked to have offered her my water yesterday. You’d think that would grant ME the good karma. I chose the same position as the day before, and I started in my saddle just as I did the day before. Starting my saddle is new this season, I find him a little bit slower immediately, but I’m able to get my pedal more consistently. The whistle blew. I was a little slow off the line is expected, but I also missed my pedal. I immediately lost over a bike length. By the time I got my pedal, I heard something. I thought “man, maybe I can just get one more pedal stroke in and avoid…” And I was on the ground. Well, apparently I was airborne first.
I heard the crunch of carbon and the slide against the pavement. I was already on the ground so I hunkered down and I put my hand along my face to protect myself in case anybody else was going to hit me. I knew that Sunny had gone down, but Caroline got off scot-free. The crash affected nearly everyone in the field except for Caroline Mani. I was down for what felt like a solid few seconds, but I’m sure in retrospect it was only one. I picked my bike up, assessed my body, checked to see that everything functioned, hopped on and kept riding. Again, all of this felt like it took quite a long time, but I’m sure it was only seconds. I was in the back of the group, not dead last but definitely in the back. My glasses were gone, my body was damaged, but at least my bike moved. The good news is the Shimano GRX group did not drop my chain so I didn’t lose more precious seconds. The first pit was close to the start and I was able to get there and swap bikes with Spencer without discovering the broken rear hanger. The first lap was full of passing and being patient, attacking, being patient, and passing. I found myself able to take much better lines than people around me so it was easier to pass. It’s into the second lap when I’m in the part of the race where people are taking much better lines and accelerated much harder out of corners where passing was more difficult and I had to wait for long stretches at a time and I felt myself getting very antsy, knowing Caroline was pulling away. Eventually I caught the chase group of three and was able to work myself passed them smoothly, and then it was just me chasing Caroline.
Unfortunately, by then it was the last lap. And though I was only 20 seconds behind her, the gap was barely coming down anymore and the finish line was coming up quickly. Alas, Caroline took the win on Day 2, but I was able to rally for second place.
I was obviously disappointed, because it was not a mistake on my part that put me behind, but instead I was crashed out. Most of us were crashed out. That always feels like something was taken away from you. There were good things about this huge setback on the day, though. I got to put the new mechanic Spencer to the test in the pits, I got to prove to myself that I could chase through the field, showing that no matter what happens especially in those fast world cups that I should keep fighting. I may not always be able to chase back into second, but maybe sometimes I can chase back for the win, or at least chase back into something better than the feeling of just giving up.
Last season, I was chatting with Mark Routledge (Australian CX team coach and owner of Mountain Bike Coaching Brisbane) and he asked about my slow starts. I realized that my starts were often slow because I was thinking of all of the bad things that could happen. He told me to stop looking at those red lights, and look for the green ones. Ever since then I have raced with the mantra of “go for the green” – also works out when I go for that MONEEEYYYYYY. I feel like the media from this crash shows what was going through my mind – even as I knew shit was hitting the fan, I was calmly thinking of a way out. All in all, a sign of huge mental progress. It also helps that I have a lot of practice crashing.
There’s some pretty awesome footage from the crash, and hearing the crowd say how they really enjoyed watching the fight back made it almost worth it! But in the soreness of the days after, I am starting to doubt whether or not the good show was worth the pain and maybe the setback for the weekend ahead. But I keep trying to look for the silver lining, and will again be looking for a strong ride, with less drama, at Rochester.