Delivery Time at The Biggest Cross Race in America

I looked down at my five-dollar plate of steak, eggs and hash browns, the graveyard special at the South Point Casino. I glanced up, past my dad on the other side of the table and saw scores of heads hunkered over their plates. The slot machines flashed in the background as these Vegas zombies feasted on their early morning meals. We had made it to one o’clock in the morning, and Coronado’s Cafe rewarded our achievement with a killer deal on breakfast.

Andrew Juiliano / Images: Alan Davis

I rarely make it to such an hour any more. Magazine deadlines would occasionally force me into that realm. A good party and bottle of gin also used to launch me toward the witching hour. But now, I’m a neurotic bike racer with sleep habits more akin to an AARP member than a 29-year-old buck. Most nights, I’m lucky to make it to 10. But this was no ordinary night. At 10 p.m. that evening I was already 30 minutes and 190 heartbeats per minute into the pain cave of CrossVegas. As with most worthwhile spectacles in Sin City, even the ‘cross racing comes out late at night.

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CrossVegas has been repeatedly billed as “The Biggest Cyclocross Race in America” and for good reason. At its peak, the event drew nearly 12,000 spectators, and the 2015 race became the first cyclocross world cup held outside of Europe. For 11 years, it has run in conjunction with Interbike, the annual bicycle industry tradeshow in Las Vegas. The loose affiliation with the show makes for a crowd predominantly composed of cycling diehards who’ve dedicated their lives and careers to two wheels.

Under the stadium lights in west Vegas, the spectacle has been the closest a U.S. race comes to the size and fervor of a Euro event. It has the exposure. It has the media. It has thousands of fans. It has the prestige of an international field and a C1 UCI race status. It has all the things that racers hope for. With all that, it also has the pressure to perform.

It wasn’t like I needed any more pressure. I’d spent the last six months foregoing traditional employment to plan a full-time race season. I’d convinced companies to hand me parts for bikes and cash for plane tickets. I’d sent out a press release to three years worth of publishing contacts announcing CrossVegas as the debutant ball for my big silly adventure. I’d flown my dad in, so he could watch one of my few races on home soil. I’d told my peers, friends and sponsors–many of the people who would actually be at CrossVegas–that I was going to be a pro bike racer.

“Pro bike racer” was, and still remains, a strange identity to me. Pedaling a bike has always been a source of pleasure, not a sole means of sustenance. “What does it really mean to be a pro?” I thought as I walked into Interbike early on Wednesday morning. A 20-foot banner of yours truly, surprised me at the Voler booth. I’d spent the last six months talking about my plan to race full time, and now the expectations seemed larger than life. It was time to deliver.

That anxiety to perform lingered all day, even as I wandered through the tradeshow catching up with colleagues and friends. It nagged me through warm ups and crouched in the back of my mind until start lights went green at 9:30 that night. The opening sprint did little to alleviate those feelings. My foot ripped from the pedal as I pounded through the bumpy grass, and 10 people sped by me. At that point I was 25th wheel. I was pissed that I had squandered a second row start spot. I was mortified more by the fact that much of the bike industry was watching.

“Everyone is going to think I’m a blowhard asshole.” At least that’s what they’d think if I just gave up and stayed in the back. The pre-race plan of making the front selection disappeared. Tactics became a long gone fantasy. Only one race strategy remained. Ride on the limit, and keep moving forward. I put my head down and pushed through the grass at Desert Breeze Soccer Complex.

That grass has been the defining characteristic of the brutal CrossVegas circuit. The thick carpet grabs wheels and saps momentum. Just how sappy? During warm-ups, 250 watts resulted in a mere seven miles an hour. That same effort on a flat road usually yields upward of 20 miles per hour. The grass demands consistent power to just keep moving, and it commands new levels of suffering to maintain race pace. In recent years, a new course design has only toughened the circuit. The courses added an uphill sandpit and a cluster of four punchy climbs including Taint-Punch hill, an aptly named 20-second slog that caps off the section.

It was the kind of course where tactics helped, but they wouldn’t save you from that evil green carpet. Burn too hot, too early, and your ass was grassed. With nighttime temperatures still at 81 degrees, the race was a delicate balance between riding on the edge and succumbing to the suffering. As riders popped off the front group, they slid backward, and I’d creep up behind and then motor past perched on the limit.

Through the twists and turns of the VIP section, the roaring crowd offered motivation. The backside was lonely, with only hot desert wind howling in my face. Forty minutes in, the steep climbs, uphill sandpit and heat took their toll. Twinges of cramps crept into my calves. “NOT NOW. NOT TONIGHT!” my mind screamed as Taint Punch Hill hit me hard.

An hour and ten minutes after that bumpy start, I crossed the line in 12th place, nursing a calf cramp that fully erupted in the last half lap. The relief was undeniably glorious, even though my heart throbbed in the back of my eyeballs. I hadn’t made a total fool of myself in front of the entire bike industry. I’d gotten a top 15 at a C1 event. My pressure cooker had built for the last six months, and this race had finally blown off some of the steam.

By the time we loaded the car, caught up with friends and rolled back to the South Point Casino it was well past my bedtime, and we hadn’t even had dinner yet. Thus my dad and I wound up at Coronado’s with our early morning breakfast specials and rest of the gambling graveyard shift.

“So how do you feel? Are you happy with that result?” My dad inquired.

I poked at my steak and eggs. “Yes and no. I mean, no one ever really goes out to race for 12th place. But it’s good for my first UCI points at a C1 race.”

“You put too much pressure on yourself. You need to figure out how to take it easy and be happy with what you’ve accomplished. I sure am proud of you.” He said. “You should be too.”

Dad smiled at me, and I thought for a moment.

“You know,” I said, “on second thought, I really am too.”