Riding the Frozen Tundra

The ground was frozen solid, despite the sun’s best effort to break through the trees and thaw it out. The large grass field that served as the focal point for the race was doing its best imitation of a skating rink, sending those that were negligent slipping to the ground.  Spectators huddled to patches of light which provided a little warmth, following them as they inched along while others crowded around a propane fire pit strategically placed near the barriers. This is cyclocross in January, and we all converged on Cornwall Park in Bellingham to take part in what would be both the last race of the season and, as it happens, the first race of the new year.

The propane fire pit. A must for cold winter cyclocross races
The propane fire pit. A must for cold winter cyclocross races

The series ender for Cascade Cross was in a familiar venue but with a few alterations in the layout. Gone was the stone staircase that had made my knees quiver in past years, replaced by an equally challenging technical section full of flat inducing roots that required precise line decisions. The remainder of the course followed a similar layout of trails and grass with the addition of a punchy climb that had me aching each time up. While the course was difficult enough on its own, the frozen earth added its own element of challenge. Bone jarring bumps made riding across a seemingly easy field incredibly tiring. Dismounting before the barriers was done at one’s own peril. I saw many a rider unclip from their pedals and step down only to have their feet slide out from under them sending them crashing into the barriers.

The long-standing tradition of the Cornwall race is the Le Mans start. Placing bikes on the ground way out in front, riders back up to the starting line, and on the horn, everyone does a mad dash to grab their bike and make it out of the fray. A few key pointers on this type of start: Make sure your bike is in the gear you want it to be when you take off, and more importantly, remember where you put your bike. It’s easy to lose sight of it in the sea of bikes. Fellow Canadian rider Dave Hodgson grabbed what appeared to be his bike in the Men’s C race, only to have someone else yell “hey, that’s my bike” as he attempted to take off on it. Due to the precarious traction on the ground, the run to my bike was more of a gingerly step. I grabbed it and was off.

During warm up, the low sun was wreaking all kinds of havoc on my scratched glasses, making it impossible to see what lay in front. When it came time to start, I opted to race glasses-less, something that I rarely do, and I was quickly reminded why. On the first lap, a speck of mud flew straight into my eye causing temporary blindness. I was in the middle of the gnarly technical section and I was suddenly unable to see any of the roots in front. I had to pull over to frantically try to wipe my eye clean, something bordering on futile with dirty gloves, but I eventually did clear it enough to regain my sight. My brief attempt at sticking with the main group was thwarted and I began an extended time trial in attempt to regain contact.

The women's race heading into the tech section
The women’s race heading into the tech section

The corners were deceiving. Just when it seemed as though the ground might have softened, I’d hit a frozen chunk and slide out. After an early crash on one particularly slippery corner, I reverted to being over-cautious, something that I felt was costing me time. It took the majority of the race for me to develop any sort of confidence in my cornering and even then there were a few that I could never get right – the series of two back to back 180 degree corners had me at practically a standstill each time. I tried different approaches each lap, but nothing worked. Slow and steady became my mantra in the corners.

Running the gauntlet. Photo: Chris Howard http://www.hidrivephoto.com/
Running the gauntlet. Photo: Chris Howard http://www.hidrivephoto.com/

The frigid temperatures did not deter the crowds, and despite being the last race of the day, many stuck around to cheer on riders. The majority lined the technical section egging on racers to try riding it, and rewarding anyone that did with enormous cheers. Impromptu human barriers lined the ground offering up dollar bill handups to the coordinated few that were able to simultaneously avoid stepping on someone and grab the bill. I opted to run each time, and received some cheers along with other words of “encouragement”.  Go “hotsauce” someone yelled, referring to my Hot Sauce Cycling cap, followed by “you’re right – his cap does say hot sauce” the next time around. It definitely put a smile on my face, for which I was promptly told “you’re smiling too much. you can’t be trying that hard”.

I eventually did end up in a small group for the last 20 minutes which gave me motivation to push harder. After riding on my own, it was a welcome sight to catch up and I did my best to stay with them. For the remainder of the race I hung on the best I could and crossed the line, toes frozen, and feeling exhausted.

This was my first time racing with the A’s and overall I felt it went well. My biggest worry about upgrading was the longer race times. When finishing a 40-45 min race with the tank completely empty, I wasn’t sure I had it in me for a 60 minute race. As it turns out, racing that extra 15 minutes wasn’t as painful as I thought it would be. The entire race was painful – don’t get me wrong – but I was so focused on racing hard and seeing if I could catch up, that the extra time wasn’t too noticeable. The one thing that was a bit of a shift for me was my hopes for the outcome. All season my goal had been to race for a top ten spot with hopes of getting near the podium. This time my goal was to not get lapped and not finish last. A bit of a shift in mindset, but hopefully one that will push me into next season.

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