The sound of rain pelting the roof woke me from a restless sleep. My legs ached and the sting from cuts and scratches that layers of mud had previously kept concealed was now distinctly noticeable. The previous day’s race had taken a toll, and as much as I love cross, the warmth of my bed was more appealing than the thought of trying to locate my gear. An unhealthy amount of coffee roused me enough to load the van and set off. I squinted through the rain lashing on the windshield in search of the highway exit signs for Aldergrove and by the time I neared the venue, the clouds had parted and blue sky was visibly lifting my spirits. Maybe this was going to be a good day after all.
The last Vancouver Cyclocross Coalition race of the season was held for a second year at the hilly Aldergrove Lake Park. My apathetic mood was partly fuelled by my memories of last year’s suffer fest. Sheer power trumped technical prowess. I didn’t have it then, and I certainly wasn’t feeling like I had it this time around. I was delighted to find that the course had been revamped, eliminating some of the long straight sections and replacing them with corners and climbs. It was also a hell of a lot harder than last year. The run up had been doubled, the grass was soggy and slow, and the descents had me up on the pedals, hands gripping the drops. Thankfully, the course still incorporated a section of gravel path which after slogging through the mud, wet grass, and climbs, was a relief even if only for a short period of hard packed surface.
Wake Up Legs
A few no shows in the series call up had me lining up in the second row. The sun was shining, but it was far from warm. The wind cut through my skinsuit sending shivers throughout my body while we waited. Any benefit a warm up provided was fading away, along with the last of my remaining body heat. Cross starts are always a stressful affair, going from resting to maximum heart rate while trying to negotiate the party of riders, and this one was no exception. Heading into the first corner, the dreaded sight of a rider hitting the ground sent all those behind scurrying in every direction trying to avoid a pile up. I managed to slip around the side without losing too much ground.
As we headed onto the gravel footpath, I was surprised at how aggressively every rider tried to get ahead. Wide enough for two riders comfortably, three or even four abreast were hammering down trying to pass at any opportunity. I held my line and matched their speed. Everyone knew what was waiting at the bottom of the path, and nobody wanted to be stuck behind. We funnelled down into the tight muddy corner where many – either by choice or necessity – elected to hop off and run. I had enough room to cut tight on the inside and pedal through, picking up a couple spots.
Over the next couple laps the legs started to come alive, defying any pre-race excuses I had made. My season goal had been for a top ten finish in a local race, and although I wasn’t fully aware of my position, I felt that I had a shot. Between all the climbing and the run ups my legs were burning but to mitigate any negative thoughts, I told myself that I only had to do it 4 more times, 3 more times, twice more, last time. It helped me compartmentalize the effort required and keep pushing. I knew from warm up that portions of the course favoured my technical skill set and I used that to my advantage.
Mind the Branch
There were two areas on the course that I was able to make up some time. Right after the short descent was a nice line where I cut dangerously close to an inside tree alongside the mud pit. The mud was lighter on that side and it was possible to stay out enough to power through and ride up onto the flat path. I made contact with the overhanging branches each time, crouching to take the brunt on the top of my helmet while carrying enough speed through. Most times it worked and I overtook those who dismounted. The big descent was another section I felt I had dialled, and was my favourite portion of the course. Each lap I gripped the drops, hands hovering over the brakes, and pedalled hard downhill, building speed to ride the fine line between control and chaos. My teeth clenched as I shot wide through the bottom of the sweeping corner, maybe a little too close to the course tape. Man that part was fun!
In my endless quest for a flawless race, there were two sections that I consistently struggled with. The run up was one – I never could get it right. Attempts at riding were usually thwarted halfway by the peanut butter mud causing me to gracelessly hop off the bike and stutter step up the remaining portion. When I did try “running” it from the bottom, every possible muscle in my leg that could feel pain, was feeling it. I was slow and awkward and close to moving backwards. Additionally, the transition from the last descent back onto the wet grass saw me faltering each lap. The waterlogged ground had me feeling as if I was riding with the brakes on and I just couldn’t get a line through the muddy, off camber corner. I took a different approach each lap, none of which worked. I probably should have ran it.
All’s Well That Ends Well
I approached the final climb on the bell lap with two riders just out of reach. My last chance for glory in the series, I stood up and hammered up the climb as hard as I could, catching them on the descent. As we transitioned up onto the grass they lost me in the corners and I watched them slip away. I ended up 11th out of 53. One spot shy of my top ten goal…
The course tape came down for the final time this season. The prizes were handed out for the series winners and slowly the parking lot started to empty out. I sat in front of my van trying in vain to scrub the caked mud from my legs with a dry towel, feeling happy with my effort. It had been a good season racing the Vancouver Cyclocross Coalition series, and I can’t thank the crew enough for all the work that they do putting on these races.