This will be important later.
Before that we must talk about the first race in the Surf City CX Series, the All Hallows Cross race. Most everyone enjoys Halloween, and Surf City has one of the longest running costume races in the country and people really go all out to find a semi-bikable and spectacular costume. Surf City evens puts up some haunted barriers for you to run during registration.
I’m always a little conflicted about Halloween. For several years, when I was still working in the field in EMS, I would work a unit dedicated to our downtown area to run calls with a friend of mine. We were never regular partners, but every Halloween we would take care of the revelers out for the night. Many years ago he ended up in some non-work related legal trouble, spent some time in jail, developed a destructive substance use disorder, and ultimately took his own life. So, Halloween brings up a lot of conflicting feelings for me. He deserved much better than he got and I’m still not happy with how I handled supporting him through his incarceration and post-jail time. It’s all a really long story for a different day, suffice to say I miss him, I miss our friendship and our time together, and I’ve still got some guilt about the erosion of our relationship.
Registration ends up taking a little longer than expected, having nothing to do with the haunted barriers, so my warm up ended up being really short. I don’t get to ride the full course so there will be some unexpected sections, but I ride 2 or 3 times what I’m assuming will be the crux of the course on a steep downhill switchbacking off-camber grass-ish section. The map posted ahead of time looks like we will go down the start straight and then fast onto the crux section. Which sounds pretty hairy. The start straight runs backwards down the only real straightaway on the course, which is somewhere near the midpoint of the course proper, before routing the group into the correct direction. With my poor warm-up, my nervousness around descents, and my blown up legs from my final night (for now) teaching Muay Thai 48 hours before, I decide its probably prudent to not go out too fast. Worst case scenario, people pile up on the crux and I’ll dismount and run around.
The fields look pretty big this week, 20-25 in the open C’s and another 20-25 in the 35+ C’s (my group). We line up, the Opens go, and 30 seconds later we get our whistle and we are off. I hang about 2/3rds of the way back in the group and we rocket straight by the crux section on the nice flat path we will come back up later, and then route back into the course after leveling out and taking a big left-handed sweeper. Poor planning on my part; I could have started much higher, I think I’m around 15th. Maybe lower. So I start upping my pace and trying to pick people off, one at a time.
The course is divided roughly in half with a lower and upper section. The lower section is first and is a lot of back and forth between livestock barns and horse areas (we are at the county fairgrounds). There is a section running around a horse arena on pretty bumpy grass that runs just slightly enough uphill to be really fatiguing. Then a couple sections of semi-deep loose dry dust, but they are short and if you go in with good momentum they are over quick. Then it’s back up the little hill that we came down to start.
This leads into the upper section which starts with a long out and back on more bumpy un-mown grass/weeds, then a really fun zig-zag down the fence line of the fairgrounds, with tree roots, loose gravel, a drainage ditch or two, and then a short downhill into a tight right-hander into a short steep run-up. Then, it’s onto the dirt auto-racing course for a half lap (I can’t get Southern Culture on the Skids- Dirt Track Date out of my head each time we go around), and then a couple twists and turns on more bumpy velcro-like grass/weeds before the barriers and the finish line. The barriers end up being the great equalizer in every race. There are six of them (which I take as a very good omen given my team affiliation and fondness for running with my bike. I only wish there were TWIN barrier sections of SIX each) and the first two are about an inch higher than then others, placed close enough together that bunny hopping is prohibitively difficult, and painted dark blue while the other 4 are white. I think the darker color and the slight height difference cause people to not realize how tall they are, and all day long, multiple times in every race people are running their feet into barrier 1 while they and their bikes go crashing into barrier 2.
Quik remount and it’s a pair of lefts and through the finish line, then through a hog barn (yep, totally serious), and then into the crux section for real this time. I stay totally off my front brake, feathering the rear a little, and keep pedaling through the off-camber grass section that follows the first rutted drop, and the traction ends up being much better than I thought. Second time through I end up being able to carry decent speed and actually pass someone on a technical turn, which is a first for me, so that feels pretty good. I’m in 12th after Lap 1 and manage to run my way up to 9th after lap 2. Going into the final lap there are 3-4 of us that keep trading spots back and forth. For the first time, I’m not getting swamped by people in the corners, mostly because I’m staying off my brakes and trusting my tires a little more (Rock Lobster Cup really showed me where my traction loss actually happens so my confidence in the corners is growing), so if someone wants to pass me they have to put out some effort on a straight which helps me in getting on their wheel and drafting a little until I want to put in an effort and try to take the spot back. Lots of swaps back and forth, plus people from the other groups make it a little tough to figure out exactly what is happening, but we come into the final barriers section and there are two guys from my group on the same straight. One maybe a little too far to pick up, but the other one is on barrier 3 when I jump barrier 1 and try to make my legs fly, when I hit 3 he’s on 4, and on barrier 6 I draw even. I hear him mutter “yeah, I hear you coming” kinda derisively, and I get excited and jump back on my bike maybe a little too quick. It’s bumpy and I lose a little momentum getting the pedals under me, and he takes that moment to run a little quicker and drift left right in front of me forcing me to either stop or hit the boundary posts. I slow slightly and he remounts and stays on the inside line. I get up on the pedals and try to pass over the outside but I can’t get enough rhythm to get speed going and finish right behind him.
I end up 10th in a field of 21. My big win for the day is this. First race I was 4 minutes back from the leader, second race was 3 minutes, this race is 2 minutes. My confidence in the corners is growing, and now I don’t get passed like I’m standing still every time the course bends. I’ve still got many things to work on, like I need to try to start much faster especially now that I can keep some speed in the corners. Playing catch-up in a CX race is much more logistically tough than doing the same thing in a running race (my preferred tactic because I like the psychological boost of passing people the second half of a race) so I need to work out a new strategy. I need to get up to speed a little quicker coming out of corners, but overall I’m feeling much better. Being closer to the lead group, and able to hold speed throughout the course, has made it feel much more like I’m actual racing other people vs out for a really hard solo ride.
And next time I catch someone in the barriers on the final lap, I’m waiting for them to remount first so I can keep the inside line.