2014 was a growth year for me in terms of off-road skills. I went from riding fire trails on primarily a full suspension mountain bike only occasionally just a few years ago, to racing my first season of cyclocross among the elite/pro women. So when Coach Johnny suggested Cross Nationals as my end-season goal “‘A’ race,” I was excited, yet a little apprehensive.
I have competed on a national playground before – first as a triathlete, multiple times, and also after being reincarnated as a roadie, for Master’s Nationals. I was no stranger to being a small fish in a big pond. I was okay with the energy of competing on a national level in general, but this time around, my two limiting factors for competing WELL were daunting to me – time to train, and off-road skills.
Fast forward through the 2014 ‘cross season: I learned a LOT. At John’s encouragement, I went to a few of Team Oakland cyclocross practices. This is the first I’d ever PRACTICED this stuff; usually, I would wing it in a race and hopefully figure things out from one lap to the next. Through the race season I worked on being more aggressive, especially when it came to the start of the race (not used to bringing it up to anaerobic within the first 10 seconds!), as well as with passing people (I have often been accused of being “too nice” while racing, to the point of doing myself a disservice). The workouts given to me were exactly what I needed in terms of intensity and ability to do them at zero dark-thirty on my trainer, before preparing kids for school and leaving for work, myself. Racing among the elite women in 2014 taught me a lot of valuable tactical skills. I had a few mechanicals during the season at races, and learned to work through the adversity and disappointment.
My workouts did an excellent job of building towards the end of the season, and John made sure to not put too many races in at the beginning to burn me out. My first of a two-tiered peak was geared for District/state championships. I came into this race feeling GOOD. I was to race in my age group division instead of Pro/Elite category, as the State Champ title (and bear jersey) was on the line. The pro women started 30+ seconds in front of us, and I was assertive in my start sprint and also ended up charging through a large chunk of their field throughout the race to win my own division. This was excellent preparation for nationals, which was to come about a month later.
Cyclocross Nationals, the culmination of the 2014 season (held in January 2015) were to be at a new cross venue: Austin, TX. We traveled days in advance, John secured a nice house only a few miles away from the race, and we made sure to pre-ride the course a few times in the days prior. The race course was not as technical as I had anticipated, but the very cold, dry air was not something I was accustomed to racing in (being a spoiled Californian).
The #1 stress for me at this point was race seeding. For those unfamiliar with cross racing, the start is very important. It is usually an all-out sprint to get in front for the “hole shot” where the course typically narrows and the terrain makes it difficult to pass other racers. The entire race can be determined by the first minute of the race. USAC had begun ranking athletes based on a complex system of USAC-sanctioned race finishes and the ranking of fellow competitors in each race, and determined each athlete’s race start place by this ranking. Sounds legit… except if you’re from a region (like Northern California) where most races are NOT USAC sanctioned. I won’t go into more detail about rankings here, except to say that they are still pretty controversial, and in my case, I got a little hosed. I was positioned 3rd row back, with 10 riders in each row. We knew if I didn’t get “UP UP UP!” by the very beginning, I would not have a good race.
John and I formed my race plan. I had my clothing planned for the cold, I had an extra pit bike in case of mechanicals, and warmed up at the rental house instead of at race venue to stay comfortable and out of the elements. They called us up by name according to ranking and we lined up at the start line. We had figured out that I had about 30 seconds of concrete, slight uphill sprint on a wide road before the hole shot. I had pre-planned my line of attack up to the front based on the way the course turned and prediction of where riders may bunch up. I was ready.
The air was frigidly cold, and dry. The gun went off and I went for it, passing as many racers as I could on the pavement before the sharp left turn onto grass and mud. As I turned into the hole shot I had moved from about 30th place at the start up to 8th within that first sprint. My plan was coming together. As the race unfolded, I passed another two riders, one of whom made a tactical error, and the other seemed to run out of steam. Things were going well, I was moving up, and I was especially vigilant, not wanting to make my own tactical errors and sacrifice a place. The race announcers were on the microphone and attempting to give updates of who moved up to what place. They didn’t even know who I was, and were saying the wrong name, due to the dumb ranking system. That’s when my left contact dried up, and blew right out – and stuck to the inside of my sunglasses.
Not being able to see out of my left eye (also my dominant eye, and the one requiring stronger prescription, as well) was NOT an ideal race condition. I opened my eyes wider, if possible, trying to pick my lines as best I could. I became more conservative, as I could not see the course and obstacles as well in front of me. I was passed by 1-2 people. I did some self-talk, and among other things, told myself that it could be worse – I could have lost BOTH lenses. Then, of course, it happened – my right contact dried up and blew out.
Now I was pretty much blind. I couldn’t see turns until I was right on top of them, and the “non-technical” course became much more challenging to traverse without good vision. I did another lap without being able to see. I did hit an off-camber turn and apparently my front wheel hit the sharp point of a stake that marked the course. I was so blind I couldn’t even see if the tire was flat or not, but figured out it was soon enough. I ran the remainder of that lap with a flat tire as girls passed me right and left, ran into the pits where John was waiting with a spare bike (I so wished I had spare eye glasses!), and went out to do another Helen Keller lap. I was so behind now in my race, but I wanted to finish what I started. I was finally taken out of my misery when I finished the race… well, I thought I had finished, but was so blind, I didn’t realize that I had gone off course.
And THAT is bike racing. I was pretty disappointed in the outcome of the race, but still pleased about my progress in cyclocross throughout the season and about my preparation for my two key races. I am looking forward to taking what I learned last year and applying it towards my sophomore year in the elite women’s cyclocross ranks.