I’ve been on some good form the past few weeks. The whole pedaling a bike for an hour hard has been going well. Unfortunately, the results sheet has not always really reflected that.
I’ve noted before how much deeper the elite fields have gotten on the US Pro CX circuit. At Gloucester and Providence, the elite men’s fields had four and half rows of guys with UCI points. In races like that, having great legs is awesome, but it means starting 35th and riding into the top 20, on a good day. Now, that’s a great ride, but not really a result.
This weekend, at the HPCX races in New Jersey, I got to start in the second row, which hadn’t happened in a while. I couldn’t contain my excitement and blurted out, “Second row — how I’ve missed you!” Which I think made Todd Wells give me a weird look.
By most accounts, HPCX is considered a “light” field for a UCI race. But then you look at the front row, and you got a former national champion and seven guys who have either been on the podium or have won UCI races. This again illustrates how big the talent pool has grown.
I’d won the holeshot at this race the previous year, on a bet. This year, I figured I’d try that again. I slotted into the first corner 12th, and that’s how it stayed for the first lap. The last obstacle before the finishing straight was a few up-and-down switchbacks leading to a small set of steps. It’s totally rideable when guys give each other space, but a little trickier in the first-lap scrum. Someone always messes up stuff like this, forcing everyone behind them to run. I was that guy today. Sorry to everyone who got gapped off the lead group!
HPCX slowly settles into your legs. It’s not quite as bad as Ellison, which is like 2,100 feet of climbing in an hour, but it is hilly, with sharp, steep stuff and more gradual grinds. So I knew that guys up the road would eventually start imploding.
Eventually, from the pit I heard Richie Sachs, my team boss, yelling that we were racing for fifth. This is where the voice in your head starts freaking out because you had better not mess this up for yourself.
A competing voice in your head starts trying to do the simple math of counting the guys in your group and figuring out what place last in the group would be.
It sounds simple enough, but at 190 beats a minute it gets more difficult. Two laps to go, I put in a dig on one of the longer climbs. I went hard, but it didn’t shake my rivals. In road racing, this is when you back off and reevaluate. I decided to double down and keep going hard down the decent toward the small steps.
As I hit the pavement, I checked under my armpit and saw a guy sprinting for my wheel. I had a gap. Maybe it was only a few bike lengths, but if he had to make an effort to try to get back to me, it meant the three guys behind him were too. I continued to ride harder to make my worst-case-scenario placing from the group better.
When I heard the last-lap bell, I still had a gap on a couple of chasers. I remembered that USADA was at this race, and I used my desire to pee in a cup to fuel my last lap. Maybe that’s unconventional motivation, but whatever. It’s nice to have goals.
I finished fifth, my best UCI finish in over two years. Stoked doesn’t begin to describe it. The only letdown was that no one from USADA wanted me to pee in a cup. One day …
I didn’t sleep great Saturday night, even though I was beat after racing. When you have an awesome day on the bike, it’s totally satisfying, but at the same time, you’re racing again in 24 hours, which gives you the perfect opportunity to screw up all the good vibes.
The saying “you’re only as good as your last race” is true for me. So I knew that despite my great race Saturday, if I had a poor showing Sunday I’d be bummed.
The course for day two was similar, except the sections were arranged in different order. Instead of hitting the tiny steps last thing, they was now the first obstacle after the holeshot. I really didn’t want to be That Guy again, but some dude named Todd Bowden (an accomplished masters racer) decided to cut into line on one of the switchbacks leading to the steps.
With my clean line blocked, I ran around him. On day one, this gapped me off the lead group; on day two I stayed connected, in eighth. When I started the second lap, I had to come to terms that my front tire was set up too soft. I was having a hard time keeping it on line at speed. It felt fine during my pre-ride, but at race speed it was no good. I hit the pit and lost only one spot. But this disconnected me from the leaders and left me chasing the main chase group.
I did eventually make it there, and once again found myself in a group that was moving on up. With three laps to go I was again racing for fifth and doing the mental math of counting my rivals. With two to go I attacked up the start-finish, which seemed to work OK the day before. It didn’t day two.
On the last lap a guy jumped me despite my best efforts to not let anyone come around, and I got smoked in the sprint by one Jerome Townsend. Still, I happily rolled across the line for seventh.
After the past six weeks of getting my face smashed in at these races, despite riding my best, I was beyond stoked for back-to-back UCI top-10s.
Now it’s time for a rest, and then back to the face smashing in two weeks in Northampton.