The end of December and first half of January had been pretty rough on me.  First my nearly 17 year old cat Odin, who I had obtained during Paramedic school when he was 12 weeks old, and had been with me nearly my entire adult life, had a stroke and had to be euthanized.  Then I got the flu, missed the state/district championship race, and was down for a couple weeks with really bad symptoms.  On the plus side?  I had been approached with a great deal on a barely ridden used Specialized Crux (thanks Zach!), so I (with the help and support of my wife) bought myself a late Christmas present and named it OTTO (Official Tribute To Odin).  The bike has his same coloring so it was a perfect fit.

Tricky off camber turn, the photo doesn’t do it justice.

I was starting to recover from the flu just in time for the final CCCX race of the season and showed up on a Saturday morning for one final go to cap off my first season of Cyclocross.  I went through my usual pre-race “ride the course slow to see where the tricky parts are” routine and, I’m not sure if it was the cold or if I hadn’t adjusted things right during my Thursday night maintenance routine, found my front derailleur was rubbing a bit on the low gears.  Trying not to freak out that I was going to be ruining my last race of the season I rode back to the car where I had my tool kit (always bring tools!) and a couple of screw driver turns and I was back in action.  Everything quiet, everything shifting quickly, and I even lowered my tire pressure another PSI or two because I’m getting more confidence in running really low.  Another two sighting/warm-up laps and they start lining us all up for the final start of the season.

Oaks and spanish moss! Does it get any prettier?

I knew from my first couple of test rides on the new bike that I was going to be faster than on my Salsa, but how much faster in a race situation I wasn’t sure.  I knew that I wanted to get a good start, but I also knew that the guy who had won most of the races in the series was here (super nice guy btw. His name is Russell.  I was parked next to him at my first race and we had chatted a bit and become friendly at the other races), and he’s a really strong rider.  So, my plan is to get a good start and try to hold it for as long as possible, and if need be just try desperately to hold Russell’s wheel.  The whistle blows and we are off and two of the guys from our group take off like bats out of hell.  I pull into third wheel and I can hear Russell right behind me.  A sweeping left, then a fast right hand turn and we are onto the hill.  The hill on this course isn’t super long or super steep, but it’s longer than most CX hills and I figured it would be the difference maker for the race.  The guy whose wheel I am following settles into a quick but not too hard pace and the first rider from our group starts to gap us.  Several guys from the group behind us start to pass me and I realize this isn’t a pace I want to keep so I jump into the line of the group going by and follow the first two of them up the hill.

More off camber madness!

We crest the hill in a group of 5, two from the other group in front of me, one behind, and Russell behind him.  The lead guy from their group and the lead guy from my group are 10-15 seconds up the course and the two guys in front of me take off in pursuit so I put in a big effort to stay on their wheels.  We hit another short little uphill and one of the guys stalls so I jump around him and follow the other one into a section of really fun lightly banked single track.  Super fast turns through oaks trees covered in Spanish moss.  If you weren’t working so hard it would be great to stop and look around, it’s spectacular scenery.  Coming around one of the final downhill corners, right as we are catching the two riders that gapped us on the hill, the guy from the other group washes out on a loose berm and the guy from my group locks up his brakes and pushes into the back of him a couple feet off the trail.  The guy I’m following and I are able to stay upright and cut around them and it’s open track in front of us, and I’m pretty sure I’m now the lead rider in my group.

Meadows, ditches, and road cones, oh my.

After a short section of little climbs and turns on fire roads, we hit a tricky off camber downhill left and my cheering section is right there screaming at me.  So after not falling on the turn I get onto the pedals hard and sprint up a short little hill and put some space between me and the other rider.  We go back into another section of banked sweeping single track turns and I catch what I think is the final person from the group behind mine that got away on the opening climb.  This leads to another short uphill section and we are starting to catch some of the slower riders from the group in front of us.  The guy I am following settles in to climb behind one of the riders from the earlier group, but I’m worried about getting caught by Russell so I pass them by crashing through some loose brush off the nice path (still on course and between the tape) and hope that nothing in there punctures my wheels.  There are a couple of fast off camber and slightly downhill corners and then a long downhill into a sweeping right hand off camber turn on pretty rough ground, but we had rain earlier in the week and the dirt is really tacky and grips well and my wheels stay nicely planted.  This leads across a little bumpy meadow and back up to the start/finish stretch.  There are 3 hairpin 180’s in quick succession and then a 90 degree left into a set of three barriers.  Sections of multiple hairpins are still not my strong suit and I know I don’t want to go into the final lap close to anyone in this section as I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to keep up.  I hop the barriers, re-mount and it’s across the line and onto Lap 2.

One lap to go! or, I think I’m in first.

I’m pushing really hard, and I am mostly all alone.  Lap 2 is uneventful other than I can feel some light fatigue/cramps just starting to declare themselves.  Finishing the hairpins on Lap 2 I can see Russell coming across the meadow and guess he is around 40 seconds behind me.  I decide to lighten up just slightly on Lap 3 to keep from blowing up and wrecking the rest of the race.  The 3 laps to go sign is out and it’s back up the hill for the 3rd time.  At the top of the hill I can see Russell about 30 seconds behind me, so I keep my steady-but-not-at-the-limit pace for the remainder of Lap 3.  I lift my pace a little going into Lap 4 and at the top of the hill I can see that Russell is 20 seconds back, so he’s gaining and we are starting to hit lapped riders from the Juniors group.  In order to keep my pace up I take some risks on sketchy lines to not get stuck behind the lapped riders, and hope like crazy that Russell decides to take breather and rest behind a lapped rider for a bit.

Nothing like a high five from your best friend/wife/favorite person to cap off a great race. See the finger on that hand? I liked it, so I put a ring on it.

But no such luck.  At the hairpins I can see that he is still only 15-20 seconds back, steadily working on closing down that gap.  The bell rings for final lap, and I push as fast as I can going up the hill without redlining.  When I make the turn at the top of the hill Russell is 15 seconds back still and he looks at me and yells “I’m coming for you Brad!”.  Laughing wildly (or as wildly as I can at full tilt in a CX race at the top of a climb) I shout back “yeah, I see that!” and hammer hard into the second little incline, and keep pushing through the downhill single track.  I’m right at the limit of my descending ability, nearly losing control but not quite, and I fly through the back half of the course.  I’m pushing hard and not able to think straight and I can’t remember if I’m actually in first place or not, my brain is convinced I’ve lost track of someone.  Unable to process properly, I’m riding the turns mostly on feel and instinct.  I’m not sure how I keep everything together but I get through the final off camber downhill bits smooth and intact and when I hit the hairpins it’s clear I have enough space that nobody is going to catch me.  I run hard over the barriers, re-mount strongly and push across the line totally spent.

Winning a race and looking good while doing it!

Turns out I hadn’t forgotten anybody from my group going up the course ahead of me.  First Place!  I go out to the road to spin and cool down and rehydrate a little and then come back and wait for the podiums.  The announcer calls my name, but then stops me before I get the podium and makes me model the Twin Six kit for the crowd a little, and declares me the best dressed rider of the series.  I am beyond excited to be on the top step.  Sure, I’m in the beginner group but as I am a beginner I am really proud of the work I put into this and my improvement over the past seven races.  They make me promise to upgrade next year, which I had already decided to do even if I hadn’t won, so it’s an easy promise to make.  Turns out that the final race of the season also counts for double points for the overall series awards, and with the win I have enough points to be 3rd overall for the series as well.  Not too shabby for a first season of racing.

The payoff for hard work, regular victory photo style.

At the end of most of my really intense Muay Thai workouts, especially when I’m teaching, I have everyone take a series of 3 photos after the work out.  1 with everyone looking really fierce, 1 with everyone looking happy, and 1 super silly/as dorky as you can be.  Intense physical efforts are already difficult, you should have some fun while doing it.  The other two guys on the podium were very good sports about doing a silly photo after the normal victory photo.  I like bringing one of my traditions from another sport to this one and I plan on making that a regular thing if I’m on the top step.  So now I need to train harder because I really like taking the goofy photos!  That’s it for this season.  Next year I’ll be back again and upgrading to B’s and an intermediate level of comp.  Although…  I might do one more race at the Sea Otter in April…

’til then!

And a silly one, just because.

And a stone faced metal style just for good measure.