Cyclocross Nationals Race Report

A year ago, I remember spectating at the National Cyclocross Championships in Madison. It was unseasonably warm and the course was ridiculously muddy. I was in awe watching the women’s elite race. I knew then that I absolutely wanted to try cyclocross when the season started again in the fall. Part of me even dreamed about toeing the line when the National Championships returned to Madison the following January. It was a pipe dream for sure. But nevertheless, I tucked the thought away in the back of my head and kept it to myself.

Earlier this month (January 8-13), Madison hosted the National Championships for the second and final year. By then I had worked my way up to category two, so I was eligible to compete in the championship races. I registered for the women’s 30-34 championships on Friday and the women’s elite race on Sunday. I knew I wouldn’t be competitive in either, but just being there, having the opportunity to race at the national championships in my hometown during my first season, was an incredible opportunity and really, a dream come true.

Granted, when I signed up, I didn’t realize the course conditions I’d be facing on race day—a ridiculous mud fest on Friday, and deep, frozen ruts on Sunday. I didn’t have a clue how to ride in either. Luckily before my race on Friday, I overheard Van Dessel pro racer Rebecca Blatt telling another rider that the only way to learn how to ride in tough conditions is by riding in tough conditions. I realized that I could learn a lot from the experience.

The mud was wet, slick, and several inches deep on Friday. Since I don’t have a second (pit) bike, I skipped doing a practice lap in an effort to keep my bike clean and rideable. But that also meant I had no idea what was coming. And maybe that was a good thing.

There were 25 of us in the women’s 30-34 race, and I was called up 16th (call ups are in order of ranking). I found a spot in the middle of the second row. The start was fine and I hit the grass/mud in a good position, and held it for the first half lap. But then I began riding too fast for conditions. That, or I hit a nice patch of ice under the mud. Either way, I suddenly found myself out of control, slipping through the mud and off the course, finally crashing into a wooden sign post. I remember one woman behind me yelling at the top of her lungs “Oh my God,” obviously not wanting to follow my lead. At least six or seven women passed by as I struggled to release myself from the course tape. Luckily, I was okay and my bike was still rideable.

The rest of the race was just more of the same. The course reminded me of a slip-n-slide covered in several inches of wet mud. The steep descents were the worst. I grasped my breaks in fear, eventually causing my break pads to wear down to nothing. Which meant no breaks. I probably fell off my bike and into the mud at least a dozen times. It was like a combination of cylocross and women’s mud wrestling. By the end of the race,  I was covered in wet mud from head to toe. I ended up 14th, which seemed like a small victory since it was two places better than I was predicted to finish.

Sunday’s deep frozen ruts presented an entirely new challenge. This time I did do a practice loop, and nearly started crying a few minutes in. It wasn’t as muddy as Friday, but riding on the frozen ruts was like riding over train tracks. I heard one racer describe it as being a pin ball – forced to move in whichever direction the mud ruts take you. It was a entirely new experience for me.  Part of me told myself that I didn’t belong in the race, I couldn’t do it, and the other part of me was saying, just try it. It’s all about the experience. Everyone is going to struggle, and there are many women in this race that you’ve competed with and done just fine against. You’re not alone.

After the practice lap, I realized all of the mud that had accumulated on my bike during the loop (quite a bit) was now rock solid frozen on my bike. Larry and I frantically tried to chip away as it, while I simultaneously got dressed, ate, and set up my trainer for a quick spin. It was a little stressful and the closest I’ve ever come to missing a race start.

I found my  friend Julie at the start and was relieved to see a familiar face. I was called up 69th and she was 70th. We were toward the back of the pack. Of the 95 women registered, 17 didn’t start the race. I saw at least one woman I knew was signed up in the crowd spectating. When I looked at her questioningly, she just shook her head. The course conditions and cold temperatures were enough to convince her to sit this one out.

The start was exciting because I’ve never raced with such a large pack of women. There were 78 of us, compared to the group of 12-15 I compete with in regular season races. And there were so many spectators, which made it fun, too. I did what I could and felt pretty good on the first loop. I was definitely near the back of the pack, but seemed to be holding my own. While most racers had at least one pit bike and were exchanging bikes every half lap, I did what I could on my one and only. My bike was quickly covered in heavy, frozen mud, and by the second lap, it really started to slow me down. On one descent halfway through the second lap, I slid on a patch of icy mud and ran into another sign post. I hit my knee hard, and also realized I broke my shifter in the crash. That meant I’d be doing the rest of the race in one gear. I hoped, and thought it was pretty likely, I’d be pulled from the course after I finished my second lap. But I also really wanted to make it to that point and not be forced to abandon sooner due to a mechanical problem.

I rode on, very slowly, but surely. When I spotted Larry, I told him I was having bike issues and all of the built up mud was making it very difficult to pedal. He suggested that I stop in the pit and he’d be there to help me. When I arrived a minute or two later, he was there armed with a long stick, which he then used to poke at my bike to loosen the caked-up mud. I had to laugh at the site of Larry and his stick against the backdrop of teams of professional mechanics cleaning and preparing multiple bikes for one rider. But part of me felt proud, too, like I’m doing what I can on my one bike.

I was pulled from the course at the end of the lap. In cyclocross, once you’re lapped, or about to be overtaken by the race leader, you’re pulled from the race. Katie Compton, the reigning national champion, was just a few minutes behind me at that point. Forty-four of us were eventually lapped and pulled from the course. Only 28 women finished the race. Katie Compton won and said the course conditions were among the toughest she’s faced. In the end, I made it two laps and finished in 59th place. And that seemed like a victory to me.

Category: Racing and Training One comment »

One Response to “Cyclocross Nationals Race Report”

  1. Kels

    Bad ass! You are an inspiration, kristin.

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