CX Nationals in Reno

My first Cyclocross Nationals is in the bag. My experience in Reno was an overwhelming success and I’ll be sharing what was seen, the events that unfolded, and what was learned over a few posts starting today.

Reno’s Rancho San Rafael Park held host to the 2017 USA Cycling Cyclocross Nationals. The course designers utilized this park to create a fun and challenging course with two distinct personalities.

Bus to motorhome conversion in Cannondale livery
Cyclocross Nationals brings out the big name riders. Big name riders bring out fantastic motorhomes.

The first two thirds of the course utilized the grassy sections of the park. Although shallow, the park is built on a slight slope. The combination of the slight slope, the power robbing grass, and a headwind created a real test of my fitness in the first half of the grass section. The second half of the grass section was slightly downhill, downwind, and provided a few recovery zones. Interspersed within the grassy sections were typical cyclocross technical challenges including a three step run up, ditch hop, sand trap, plywood step section, and a set of full height barriers.

Cyclist run up stairs and ride down ramp
The three step run up on the right. Plywood ramp to roll down on the left.

The final third of the course was certainly more technically challenging and bore no resemblance to the flavor of the grassy section. This back section included some freshly cut trails, groomed trails, pavement, and a short zig zag through a dinosaur themed playground. Within this section a Nationals caliber climb and off camber descent garnered the most attention.

Tuesday’s schedule included a thirty minute non championship warm up race. It was my intention to participate in this race as it would allow me to become familiar with the course. It would also provide an excellent opportunity to earn USA Cycling ranking points.

My first preview lap of the course revealed that the soil was damp in the grassy section of the course and a bit slimy in the back section. Many riders were intimidated by the off camber descent and I found it to be slick but ridable despite the fact the slimy soil quickly filled the voids of my Tufo Flexus tubulars. As the morning progressed, however, the soil dried and hardened which improved traction on the climb and descent.

Cyclocross racer riding through sand
The sand feature was flat and easy to ride. Except the the first lap when traffic usually dictated a dismount and run.

Rancho San Rafael Park lies at about 4700 feet above sea level. While this is not an issue for Colorado based riders it is a good 4500 feet higher than my typical training region. On my fourth and final preview lap I increased my pace to assess the effect of the thinner air and found the effect to be significant.

With my reconnaisance finished only one task remained. Race.

Tuesday’s practice race would last just thirty minutes. It would, almost for sure, be finished in just three laps. Despite the status of this race as a ‘practice’ race it paid ranking points on par with any USA Cycling sanctioned event and looked, from my saddle, as a great opportunity to earn a low (better) ranking score. Before I even arrived in Reno I had resolved to focus my resources on a best finish in Tuesday’s non championship race.

My poor ranking points meant I was gridded about 40th in a 60 rider field. I’d like to avoid this situation when the show comes to Fort Steilacoom in 2019 which has been the motivation to improve ranking points this year.

I found a far right start position and leveraged it well at the whistle. I sprinted up the right margin of the start straight and ran well wide of the racing line into the first left hander. The transition from smooth road to lumpy grass was sketchy but I had to share this poor line with no other rider and found myself in the top 15 after just thirty seconds of racing.

After just sixty seconds of racing I was well into the red. My start effort combined with the hot race pace meant I was in well over my head. By the two minute mark I was forced to dial my effort back and let riders slip by.

At the five minute mark my bike handling started to slip. In a fast off camber corner I bobbled, let the bike run just a few inches too wide, found a wooden pole with me left pedal, and catapulted over the bars.

Time slowed. In the first second I was mesmerized by what had happened and how quickly it had happened. In the following second I was amazed that I was unhurt. In the third second I was picking myself up, remounting, and setting out after the six riders that rode around my bike and body as they laid on the ground.

The back section of the course allowed me to recover a bit but my first lap pace had taken a large toll. I rode the back section well enough, passed a rider or two on the descent, and thought I had found a sustainable pace. The start of my second lap over the soft grass changed my mind. I was literally wobbling by mid lap.

On the third lap I finally found my pace. The grass section felt too slow but my respiration rate indicated I was working plenty hard enough. I had just enough energy in reserve to attack each of the technical obstacles. The wobbling ceased. And I had enough oxygen in my brain to plan for my final lap effort.

Cyclists ride under a bridge during a Cyclocross race
The only pavement of this course was tactically important.

The final corner before the finish straight was a single file left then right ‘S’ turn. Before the ‘S’ turn the course was narrow as we snaked through the dinosaur playground. I expected last minute moves to be made on the paved uphill to the playground and, for me, it was so.

I caught a rider on the descent but could not get past. I trailed him to the paved section and then seemed to surprise him with my decisive pass. Once into the playground he had no choice but to follow until the finish straight. Entering single file put the burden of exceeding my final sprint effort onto his shoulders. He equaled my effort exiting the final corner but read the writing on the wall by half distance to the line.

Cyclocross racers ride through a dinasaur themed playground
The course weaved through a dinosaur themed playground. Few riders stopped to play.

I held onto 24th of the 55 finishers in this practice race. It was a solid finish and my best rankings points to date. This race also taught me some lessons specific to racing in Reno.

It seemed my legs could make as much power as at home but my lungs needed more time to recover after any big effort. Even more important was my pacing in relation to my location on the course. On the second half of the grassy section and in the back section I could make large efforts and then be guaranteed a little space to recover. But the first half of the grassy section afforded no recovery zones and I learned the hard way that it was necessary to set a modest pace.

Many matches were burned on Tuesday’s race and my body would see only 48 hours of recovery before the championship race on Thursday. I learned some nuances about the course. The lesson regarding racing in thinner air would not soon be forgotten. All things considered I felt pretty good about my day and my preparation for the final race of my season.

I’ll be writing some more about that race soon.

Update: A short video clip of the practice race is on Instagram.  It shows the field navigating ‘the ditch’ on the first lap.