From high up in the lodge at Mount Washington, the course looks like a work of art. Set in the beautiful alpine backdrop of Strathcona Provincial Park, Cross “on top of” the Rock weaves back and forth between the two magic carpets, course tape flapping in the wind giving it almost a sense of calm. Down on the ground however, calm it is definitely not. The course is hard. Very hard. Right from the gun, racers are cruelly greeted by a steady uphill climb that lasts just long enough to make sure that legs are screaming before spitting bodies into a series of bumpy, tight corners that rob them of any speed previously gained.
The pattern continues throughout the race: tight, technical, and difficult to gain momentum. The rough ground and relentless corners that dominate the course means that navigation takes maximum effort. Speed gained is immediately lost in the next turn, requiring frequent surges in power. The crux of the race, and the crowd favourite given the number of hecklers gathered, is a steep, off camber switchback descent that leads into a deceptively steep run up. A prime of $100 was offered to the first person that could successfully ride it (on a cross bike). Upon first inspection it looks fairly easy, but many made it only about three quarters of the way up before grinding to a halt. The final little kick is enough to force those that try off their bikes. Morgan Harker and later Drew Mackenzie made the climb and generously donated their winnings back to the kids races.
The intermediates take to the field under an overcast sky, but halfway into the race the heavens open and the rain pelts down turning the already slick corners into a thick, muddy mess. Bumps in the ground became obscured by raised tracks of mud, making navigation a tricky and tiring process. At times, line choices into the corners are dictated not by the best route, but by the already established rut.
Thanks to a decent result at the Pro City Cyclocross GP, I have a front row call up, and painful hill be damned, I am determined to make use of it. The start comes fast, almost immediately following the warning, but I am thankfully able to clip in without issue and take the holeshot up the first climb. It is enough to send me into the first few corners in the lead, which doesn’t last.
The laps are fast and short which only means that each punishing feature of the course is repeated over…and over. The run up. The climb. The crazy off camber descent. There is barely enough time to recover from the previous iteration before being mercilessly thrown back into the trenches to go another round.
Most difficult is the run up, if you could call it that. There is no running to be seen, well except by everyone that isn’t me. Each attempt I throw my bike over my shoulder and crawl to the top. A few jabs thrown by hecklers about the steel frame being too heavy for me make me wish it were true. But the fact is that running and me have never been on good terms.
As the race progresses I start to feel a bit stronger and more comfortable in the corners. I power through and am sitting in fourth place when the rider in front of me suffers an unfortunate chain drop. I feel his pain (I had dealt with chain issues at the beginning of last season), but I also take the opportunity to burn a few matches and try to stay ahead while he wrestles with it. The plan works and is enough to give me a third place finish.
By the time the last race of the day is underway, conditions once again change. The sun shines down giving spectators a chance to shed their layers and bask in the glorious view that Mt Washington provides. The mud has mostly dried up and in it’s place is hard, rutted dirt which offers a whole new set of challenges for the elite racers.
It’s hard to find a course that works for everyone. Some favour the fast grass crit style courses with big open sections, while others excel when the terrain becomes more technical. It’s not a one size fits all sport, and that’s the beauty of cyclocross. The big melting pot of skills and talents that need to be called on and utilized in different ways vary every weekend. I personally was unsure if Mt Washington could offer up a decent course, and I was happily proven wrong.
Big kudos to Dave Nowak and Chris Sykes for coming up with a layout that was both challenging and fun. The circuit may be made even better if there were longer laps and with all the available terrain at Mount Washington, that should be a possibility. I loved every painful minute of it, and am excited at the prospect of returning next year.