CX Nationals in Reno (the race)

By Thursday of Reno CX Nationals week I was  accustomed to a routine. Sleep a little long, walk from my hotel to the TA travel center for mediocre coffee, and then slowly pack my bike and gear for another day of racing at Rancho San Rafael Park.

To prevent my nerves from getting the better of me I jotted down a time line of tasks between arrival and race start. I’ve done these lists in the past and they help me remember what to do and when to do it as the clock winds down to race time and my anxiety winds up. The content of the list is not exciting. It usually includes when to have a snack, when to preview the course, when to park my backup bike in the pits, etc.

Between tasks I was mulling over what I knew about the course and how it changed since Tuesday.

Since there had been little rain the course was dry. The descent, a South facing off camber number, had dried and hardened. I overheard some racers talking about running file tread tires.

My tire concern was not tread but pressure. I’ve been working on my technique of ‘riding light’. When done right, this allows riders to carry less pressure for better traction and bump absorption. There were a number of transitions to pavement that were biting rims as were a few outcroppings of rocks. I chose a tire pressure about one pound lower than I’ve averaged all season.

Cyclocross racer riding in sand
Speeding into the sand.

My warm up routine on the trainer keeps me busy right up until call ups. But I found a little too much spare time between placing my backup bike in the pits and starting on the trainer. For the first time in a long time I was visibly agitated as the butterflies churned within. I chose to walk through the spectating areas and reminded myself that I had done all my homework. Reminded myself that I had prepared in exactly the same manner as every other race. Reminded myself that, just like home, I wasn’t racing for a title or a paycheck. I was only racing for my best finish.

As I paced and chanted to myself I was winding myself up not down.

Eventually I found solace in a motto learned from character development coach Travis Daigle. Trust the process.

What does that mean?

For me the ‘process’ is the collection of conscious choices and iterative exercises that have helped me become faster and stronger over the last few cyclocross seasons.

Trust the process is the act of recalling and believing that my research, planning, lists, preparation, and training were well designed and well executed.

Trust the process is understanding that I have completed 99% of the steps and that now is no time to second guess the planned route.

For these reasons when I  remembered to trust the process my nerves were calmed and my confidence strengthened. My conscious mind accepted that the time for expending energy on preparation (or worry) was past. Only the present existed and only the actual race required my attention going forward.

Once settled I was able to complete my trainer warmup and get to the call up area without additional mental stress.

I was the 65th rider out of about 100 to get called up and chose a middle position. Tuesday’s heroics up the margin of the course weren’t going to work from the 8th row. Since I wasn’t going to move up early I planned to race at a sustainable pace while preserving my matches for use when the field strung out a bit.

The start was uneventful as everyone around me seemed to accept that we weren’t going to move up much during the first half lap.

My course knowledge, learned the hard way on Tuesday, allowed me to know when to push and when to holster my guns. For most of the first lap, I chose to holster.

Cyclocross racer running bike up plywood steps
These plywood steps were not tall and were placed on a shallow hill. They were also spaced at about one bicycle wheelbase apart. Successful hoppers, and there weren’t many in the amateur ranks, lifted both wheels in unison.

This knowledge did me no good when the chain came off my front chain ring as I started my first trip down the off camber descent. Up until the most prestigious race of my career the Paul Engineering front chain guide had been 100% reliable. The design captures the chain where it engages the front chain ring. This design also means the chain is not easily allowed back onto the chain ring.

I dismounted, assessed the situation, and quickly decided that my only repair option would be to put the chain on the bottom of the chain ring and pedal backwards. Hard. Breaking the chain guide was one possible outcome. Luckily, I was afforded another. The chain guide flexed up and the chain was allowed underneath. The whole process cost just ten seconds and the chain guide finished the race without further complaint.

My emotions took a full swing during those ten seconds. Fortunately I exited the descent with a functional bicycle and a hardened resolve to start putting riders behind me.

As I started the second lap I closed a small gap up to a group of four and trailed them into the headwind. The slightly uphill section into the wind was my weakest and I wasn’t too proud to take shelter.

I don’t know if riding in the shadow of other riders eased the load on my legs or distracted from the suffer. Either way my second lap went well and I turned my fastest lap so far.

As the second lap wound down I found that, compared to my peers, I had a noticeable advantage on the descent. I was passing multiple riders each time down. The course side hecklers gave me kudos when I completed clean passes. I proudly accepted the shouted comment of “Sun’s Out, Guns Out” as a compliment on my short sleeve Puyallup Cyclopaths jersey.

The third and fourth laps were uneventful. I looked for shelter into the wind. I carefully metered my effort on the uphill grassy section. I passed three to five riders per lap. My pacing was working well as I turned lap times superior to Tuesday’s race.

Going into my final lap I had some matches to burn. The grassy uphill section, however, still haunted me. I followed another rider most of the way to the three steps and then burnt a match to pass going into the steps. The remainder of the lap I stayed calm. I pedaled out of the saddle a few times but was careful to elevate my pace only slightly above previous laps. Going into the red before the descent might have degraded my bike handling. And falling on the descent didn’t seem wise.

Coming out of the final descent all sense of moderation evaporated.

Three cyclocross racers cornering on pavement
A wide angle view of the paved passing zone to dinasaur playground transition.

I could not quite get around a rider on the descent and followed him towards the paved section. He upped his pace substantially as did I. But he did not protect the corner transitioning from pavement to the dinosaur playground. I snuck by in the same place as I had on Tuesday. And just like on Tuesday’s race I was able to stay ahead to the line.

Ten minutes after I finished results were posted. I found that I finished in the middle of the pack as the 48th finisher of 97 finishers.

Since finishing my first championship level event I’ve had some time to collect my thoughts and derive some lessons about my season and cross racing in general. That summary will be posted here soon.