Mid Season Cyclocross Musings

Words by Nik Van der W00ts, Photos by Brett Stakelin (@das_guy)

Cyclocross is a niche within a niche, but there is something I love about this high energy, gritty sport. I got started grinding my gears on the grass, sand, mud and barriers on the east coast. Some would cite this as the unofficial heart and home of American cyclocross. The days spent racing and volunteering in Gloucester and Providence were cold, muddy and certainly epic affairs. Those memories have stuck with me and often are the first that come to mind when I think of cyclocross.

After a hiatus from cyclocross (prompted by grad-school and a 2,000 mile relocation to Colorado) I re-tested the waters. I was in for a shock. The climate and terrain were unfamiliar compared with my first dirt-covered memories. Gone were the days of racing in parks with pristine grass that turned to rutted muddy lines. In Colorado if a race is on grass, it is spiky unfriendly blades. All the moisture is evaporated, leaving dusty loose conditions. Many a time I have come home from racing and felt like a miner, hacking up dust for the next few days. Some of the rugged courses tested my nerves on cantilever brakes and left my hands sore from trying to modulate my speed.

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Rodeo Road Trip: Tulsa Native Lands Classic (Gentlemen’s Race : 22 March 2015)

Photo by James Gann

So, apparently, this is how plans/ideations for road trips for amateur bike racing start these days:

<Facebook> “A good friend is running a new event for the first time that is very much in the spirit of what Rodeo is about. 100+++ miles of Oklahoma’s paved roads, flat roads, gravel roads, back roads, hills, oil fields, open pasture land, long horns and tall grass to challenge you. We’ve been invited. Roadeo trip, anyone? https://nativelandsgr.wordpress.com/about/” </Facebook>

The entire road trip logistics to race this event as a team were hashed out on one long stream of collective consciousness comment thread, which atomic mushroom clouded into over 150 comments (now 200), questions, quips, and retorts. I hadn’t road-tripped like this with friends since college, and I was in.

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Oredigger Classic Crit: A few photos and a few words

Yesterday was the kick off of crit season and the second race with riders under the Rodeo banner. (The first was the Carter Lake road race done by Patrick Charles).

The course for the crit was almost as brutal as can be created for crit racing. A short and intense wall led into the start-finish area, followed by a mean climb in to a headwind, followed by a fast s-turn descent through some tight 90 degree corners… followed by that first brutal hill again. The effort profile for the course actually looked like perfectly spaced interval efforts. Sometimes only a few hundred watts and some coasting were required, but a few times per lap the wattage spiked to 500-800 watts for extended periods during the tough bits. The net effect was that the races all but shattered shortly after starting and often became loosely spaced TT efforts for dropped racers. There was nowhere to hide from the course, nowhere to sit in and rest, each racer just had to go go go until the bell.

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Mead Roubaix

This is a member repost from a previous season while we boot up 2014. We are reposting certain blog entries that we think represent the Rodeo vibe.

Mead Roubaix: Another one of Colorado’s cobbled classics. Initiated in 2011 as a replacement for Boulder Roubix, but continued in 2012 even though Boulder Roubaix itself returned to the calendar. Every mention of Mead Roubaix I’ve ever heard from the guys and gals that rode it last year included the phrase “that course sucked!”. Tales of bike eating and soul destroying sections of the gravel course abounded. People swore they would never race it again. I searched online for pictures from last year and this is what I found:

So it was with great relief that I heard that they had changed the course this year to take out some of the worst gravel and sand sections. This year the course was a 50/50 split of pavement and freshly graded gravel.

Coming off of the surprise win last week, and having ridden an especially brutal Meridian on Tuesday, I was pretty confident that I was in good shape for the race. My goal was to be active, try some breaks, and generally not suck wheels the whole time. I was looking forward to the gravel sections of the course because I thought they suited my added heft a bit more than the lighter riders. My teammates Chris Lundberg and Randy Fuller were also out for the race, and I knew both of them were riding really well. Having them there took a lot of personal pressure off: You only need one teammate to have a good result in order to feel like the race went well.

I think I’ll skip ahead a little here. The race started like every race, and was like every race until we hit the first stretch of gravel. It was then that everyone in the peloton had a major reality check: This was not Boulder Roubaix gravel! Boulder Roubaix “gravel” consisted of mostly smooth hardpack road surface. It was dirt/gravel in name only on most of the course, but was actually pretty easy to ride. This Mead Roubaix gravel was real gravel, and it was deep! Not five feet into the first gravel section I felt the 2″-3″ deep gravel grab my wheel and start yanking my bike around. Whoa! I immediately adjusted my attitude from confident to cautious. Others appeared less affected by the gravel, and someone hit the gas pretty hard at the front. For that first 2.5 mile gravel section I was totally pegged while both trying to keep my bike on the road and at the same time pedal hard enough to not get dropped.

We exited the gravel and my first thought was “Wow, that was sobering”. Luckily the next stretch of course was nice paved downhill rollers heading North. Everyone rested, probably each contemplating riding that section three more times.

However bad that first section of gravel was, the second section was way worse. We took a hard right off the pavement and dove back into the suffering. The gravel on the second section was deeper and more unpredictable. Men wrestled with their bikes and their bikes wrestled back in surreal battles playing out mere inches in front of me. Each and every rider struggled to hold on. Keeping your bike on the road was a real achievement. Just to pile on the savagery, the deep gravel was interspersed with mind numbing washboard. The washboard was so intense it was hard for me to focus my eyes at times. Water bottles were unceremoniously ejected in spades. Not only were bottles ejected, but the shaking was violent enough to snap the plastic mounting tabs on my Garmin. It flew off my bike and shattered, only later to be collected and returned by a kind spectator.

When we exited the second gravel section and returned to the gloriously smooth pavement, some attacks went off the front and got a good gap. I was sandwiched in the group and couldn’t really chase. I felt some panic. I really didn’t want to miss a break in this race. Thankfully the peloton wasn’t having any of it and the group was reeled in.

Laps two and three were similar to lap one. We rode tempo on the pavement and drilled the gravel section. Each time we hit the gravel I spent major matches hanging on. I could feel attrition setting in. Riders were dropped one by one. Flats finished off riders who would otherwise have been strong enough to hang. Mead Roubaix was a cruel race and we still had over a lap to go.

I’m always learning how mental racing is, and how my own mind copes with the stress and discomfort of cycling. Since I’ve been riding, I’ve learned that I usually start races fresh on the lap one, hit very low points in the second half of the race, and often rebound for the last lap if I’ve fueled well. So while I was very nervous about being dropped, and indeed almost got dropped on the gravel rollers on lap 3, I told myself to hang tough because everyone was suffering. History showed that in races like this I could sometimes get my legs back for the final push and I tried to remember that first and foremost.

As we exited the gravel for the third time our group had about 20 guys left. I noticed that two guys appeared to have broken away in the gravel and were maybe a kilometer up the road. There was one lap to go, and this was a big problem. My team, RMRC had three guys in the race and no guys in the breakaway. Someone had to do something. The break looked pretty far off, but I needed to try and bridge up. If I blew up and failed, Randy or Chris would still be able to pick up the pieces, and I could fade to the back. Best case scenario would be that someone would break with me and we could bridge up together. Worst case scenario would be that the peloton wouldn’t let me go and also wouldn’t close the gap, and we’d all be racing for third.

I initiated my bridging attack with my only signature move: The passive aggressive surge. I’ve noticed a lot in the past that the more flamboyant the attack, the more likely the peloton is to panic and chase it down. So sometimes when I attack I don’t sprint like a madman, I just stay seated and accelerate off the front as smoothly as possible. Quite often this works. To the group this looks somewhat noncommittal, and if I go alone it looks like a doomed solo effort. Unfortunately if it looks doomed people are less likely to join in, and after about 15 seconds of pushing I looked back and saw that nobody had joined my fool’s errand.

So there I was attacking all by myself. Not very smart. I set my mind on the two riders up the road. I was gaining on them. I was also in pain. The race fatigue was constant. Only 30 seconds into the effort I wondered what I was doing. I had halved the distance to the break but there was the other half to go and now I was tired. Maybe I should fade back and save any chances that I had for the finish?

I passed the start/finish line and the bell rang for the last lap. The DS, my kids, my mom, and my sister in law were all in attendance, and it was really fun hearing their cheers and knowing that at least I was putting on a fun show for them. Even if you do poorly, family always likes to see you at the front of a race once or twice.

I exited the town of Mead and settled into a slower pace I knew I could maintain. My Garmin was gone so I couldn’t evaluate heart rate or watts. It felt like I was doing about 250, which wasn’t impressive. I looked back and the peloton wasn’t chasing me down. They knew the odds: solo efforts don’t survive.

The two guys up the road had let off their pace a bit, and I knew I was going to close the gap all the way by the time we turned north on the pavement outside town. As I drew up to them I flashed three fingers. “Three?” I said. “Masters”, they replied.

*%@#$%@!!!! WHAT!!!!!?

The “breakaway” wasn’t even guys in my race, it was guys dropped off of the masters race! My heart plunged. What a massive tactical error. What a rookie mistake. I should have asked my group if they were 3s before I had gone and wasted all that energy.

What to do now? I looked back for my group and they weren’t in sight. The Masters guys dropped back. I suddenly felt very very alone. “Well”, I thought, “May as well keep pedaling”. I was ruined but I could just keep going and see how far I get before getting caught. The longer I could stay away the better the disaster story would be when I retold it later. “I got 15th but I spent a QUARTER of the last lap off the front by myself!”. I could live with that.

I hit the first gravel section alone. Peloton still not in sight behind me. It was refreshing to ride this part without the fear of being taken out by another rider. Instinctively I pushed a bit harder on the gravel because there is a visceral childlike thrill that comes with riding a bike on the dirt. I was in pain, but I was having fun.

I exited the first gravel stretch very tired. I had probably gone too hard, but it didn’t matter really. The catch was inevitable. I looked back and to my surprise I still couldn’t see my group. “Wow. They must be letting me dangle!” I thought. “Ok, lets try to make it to the second gravel stretch”. That way I could say I soloed for HALF a lap. Whoop de doo! I pedaled hard then tucked and coasted as much as possible on the pavement. There were a few 30′ rollers that hurt like hell to go up and over, and I knew I was cooked. I looked back and saw the peloton way off in the distance behind me. They were clearly gaining.

They were gaining but they didn’t catch me by the second gravel stretch, and upon hitting it I once again I felt the urge to mash pedals a bit. Again it was a huge relief hitting the gravel alone. I could pick my line at will, and I was moving pretty fast A thought crossed my mind: “I wonder if I could win this”. That was ridiculous. Nobody can ride fifteen miles by them self. The peloton had an insurmountable horsepower advantage. I was probably down to 230 watts maxed out, and they could do 250-350 all day long just by pulling through and rotating. I was going to get caught, but I didn’t have to give up either. Nobody says you have to stop pedaling and give up just because you know you are going to get caught, so I didn’t give up. I just kept pedaling as fast as my body would allow.

I made it up over the difficult gravel rollers out of the saddle, in the granny, and seemingly at a snails pace. I looked back and the gap was much smaller now. I rested briefly on a downhill before one final short steep hill. If I could get up that at least there wouldn’t be any real hills between me and the finish. Up and over I went, still full of doubt, still exhausted, still in pain. I had stopped eating and drinking. Did it matter anymore? The race was almost over. I was so thirsty! PEDAL PEDAL PEDAL!

A mile in the distance I could see a line of trees that defined the upcoming return to pavement, which was the final turn south and the final two miles to the finish. I looked back. They hadn’t really gained on me much. The dust made it difficult to even make out how many guys were left. I felt a bit of hope mixed in with all my doubt.

DON’T HOPE! YOU ARE DOOMED! My mind scolded me for hoping. I was still alone, still exhausted, and a bunch of angry dudes who were less tired than me were chasing hard now because the end was near. Still, I could at least keep pedaling right?

I made it to the pavement. I had about 600 feet of gap still. I sprinted briefly up to speed then settled in for the slog to the finish. It was so close but agonizingly far away. I knew what was going to happen now; I was going to get tantalizingly close to a once in a lifetime win, and they were going to swarm past me at 200 meters. Maybe they would say “nice ride!” as they blew by? Everything hurt SO bad, I really just wanted to be done, laying in the green grass at the park in Mead.

I looked back, they really weren’t closing me down very quickly. I felt a little more hope. I pedaled just a little faster. Maybe this could actually happen? I should try. Head down. Burning lungs. 1k sign. Look back. Still had a gap. This was happening! More speed. Desperation. 200m. “I AM GOING TO WIN”. Do I sit up? Yes I think so!

@$%@! I’m winning!

I won!

“How? I don’t know. Winning like that doesn’t seem possible. Will people think I’m a doper? How did that just happen? Where are the kids? Where is the DS? There they are! I’m so tired.”

I’m not exactly sure why my suicide breakaway worked, but I’ve tried over the last 24 hours to deconstruct it and here is what I’ve come up with: The break was just a perfect storm of almost unrelated events.

1. I only went because I made a mistake
2. I was let go because the attack was so dumb. I later learned that some in the peloton laughed out loud as I rode away. They didn’t take me seriously.
3. I later learned that at least half of the peloton didn’t even know I was gone. My wife took a picture of the 2nd place finisher celebrating as if he’d won. People weren’t paying attention and I slipped away.
4. The confusion in the gravel made it difficult to keep track of what was going on in the race, which discouraged any chase.
5. The group was tired and nobody wanted to spend their individual matches chasing me down for the benefit of the group. Many people were suffering just as much as I was, only 800 feet behind me.
6. A few really strong guys flatted while trying to reel me in at the end. Bad luck for them, good luck for me.

In the end though I guess I won for an even simpler reason: Even though I was doomed, I never fully gave up and the peloton did. I just pedaled my bike as best I could in the face of my own constant doubt. The odds of any one person winning a bike race are ridiculously low, so why do any of us race in the first place? We don’t expect to win, but I think at the end of the day we all want to have put in a respectable effort. I wouldn’t have been able to respect myself if I had given up even with such stupid odds. I’ve trained really really hard this year, harder than ever before. I put in my base miles and I wheezed my way through Meridian every week while learning to suffer in new ways. When off the front by myself I thought back about all of that and really wanted all of it to add up to something. Giving up adds up to nothing.

Once again I don’t expect anything like this to ever happen again, but I take deep deep satisfaction that I foolishly soloed off the front and won on one of the most challenging courses I’ve ever raced on. What a great day!