We’re back in the groove after three weeks of cyclocross racing, which is important if you want to ride through a sand pit — or ride through one 64 times.

Words by Dan Chabanov // Image by Christopher Lee

At the back-to-back Charm City Cross races in Baltimore this weekend, each lap featured no fewer than four passes through sand, which proved to be the decisive obstacles for just about every group finish.

During the off-season the Charm City course had gotten a makeover for its 10th anniversary. It’s now hillier and has more stairs, and it’s got a flyover, all of which have really changed the character of the race.

But there was one constant: UCI cyclocross races are still freaking hard. Especially when it’s 90 degrees out. I hadn’t started a ‘cross race with an ice sock in my skinsuit in a long time.

Saturday

The holeshot was at the bottom of a set of stairs. Fortunately I managed to get going quickly, and even with my third-row start I didn’t get stuck in a big bottleneck, but a lot of guys did — they had to stand there waiting to climb the stairs. So their race was over 20 seconds in. Needless to say, I’m not fan of this kind of course design — let’s not put dismounts 20 seconds into hour-long races.

This video shows the start of Saturday’s race:

At any rate, I made the initial selection with a dozen guys and was, briefly, racing top 10. When you’re in a good spot early it’s important to try to relax and focus on being smooth. But after a few sloppy rides through some sand, coupled with a midrace implosion, I finished 15th.

Oh, and that Cameron Dodge kid, the one I keep talking about, won the race. He beat a stacked field, too. So remember the name.

Sunday

On the second day the course was layered in a way that made it feel hillier, but the sand pits remained the deciding feature. The holeshot at the stairs was thankfully removed.

I managed to get to the first corner in the top 10. After that I tried to stay on the wheel in front of me and not go too crazy as it was again very hot. Having gas left in the tank in the last 15 minutes was going to be critical.

Life at the front is about measured efforts, I’ve learned. If you “make the group” you can ride fast and not have to worry about getting chopped by other riders at every opportunity. Because that’s exactly what’s going on 30 seconds behind you. At the front, the race develops in a measured way. Farther back it’s a nonstop battle for position.

I was happy to avoid the chaos behind and get another chance to ride for a good result. It’s wonderful what having your head in the game and a fast clip-in can do.

All the same, I suffered and eventually drifted out of the top 10 and into a group with Wes Schempf and Jake Sitler. On the last lap Wes was replaced by Robert Marion (aka that dude with the beard who is not Dan Timmerman).

Going into the sand pits for the last time I knew they would dictate the outcome. I heard Robert coming up on my right, and I hit the gas as hard as I could to close the door on him. We hit the pits side by side, but he had the better line and he exited first. The next pit had only one line, so we both stuck to it. The third pass was tricky as the rut was good at first but quickly disappeared near the exit. On the final pass Robert got bogged down, so I tried to pass him running. We were evenly matched in the sand but he just managed to find the rut again, and he exited a hair faster than me into the final stretch. We finished with a duel. It didn’t matter we were racing for 12th — we were racing.

Up ahead, Dan Timmerman formally announced his return from health problems with his first podium since 2012, in second behind the day’s winner, Stephen Hyde.

At this very race one year ago this week, Hyde beat Jonathan Page, who at the time was the reigning US national cyclocross champion.

While I was in Baltimore I recorded an interview with Hyde (you can listen to below). We talked about the injury that sidelined him for six weeks midseason last year and how he worked through it to come storming back at US nationals (where he finished 16th) and race his first pro road season. He’s one of the best cyclocross talents in the country right now.

As for me, I walked away from this weekend with two top-15 finishes and my head firmly in the game. I’m a little disappointed I haven’t scored a top 10 yet, but I’m happy with my legs and my head. I feel like each day I raced off the line with intent and placed myself into a position to get the result I wanted. Even though I fell short both days it felt great being in the mix and near the front. This positive mental attitude is a significant improvement over last season.

This weekend we head to the big one, Gloucester CX, aka the New England World Championships.

Also, if you’re in New York City on Oct. 6, I’ll be moderating a Q&A with US cyclocross champion Jeremy Powers at the Rapha Cycle Club. Come say hello.

Till next time, enjoy the ride.