Crusades (part 3) – Oh the Crusading…

In what has become long over due (life is busy), welcome to my first cyclocross race. In reference to previous posts (1 2 3), the primary reason and what initiated our epic trip to Oregon was the Cross Crusade race series, possibly the largest and certainly the best (yeah, I said it) cyclocross circuit in the US. Race #5 was our target, which fell on Halloween day. Normally the Halloween day race features costumes, but for some reason the organizers put the official costume day on the following day. For my sake, thank God. Racing with a costume would’ve almost certainly ended in catastrophe with some fraction of the costume and/or my body mangled. Racing without a costume would’ve made me cannon fodder for the hecklers (more so than usual).

I had no race experience and @the_danno only had a single race under his belt, or rather bib shorts. Our intention to race the beginner race meant we needed to be on the road no later than 6am to get to Astoria in time for the race. We register with a little spare time to pre-ride the track. First observation: it’s muddy. Time is limited so I only get to ride 2/3 of the course before heading to the starting line. Then it’s call-ups. Racers with points from previous races get preferential stops in the start pack. Then randomly based on the last digit of your race number. Apparently 3’s get to go first (the first random number is referred to as the “beer number” apparently), which means that I get to head out in the first batch.

Before we know it, the race starts. I’m ok off the line, but pretty timid through the first patch of mud beyond the start line. Immediately we are zooming down a hill surrounded by the pack of racers. I am getting passed like there is no tomorrow and @the_danno is past me in a flash. The first section is a simple loop leading up to the first big hill of the course. It’s a deceptive one. A long gradual stretch leads up to a steep lip at the end, which just got muddier and less ridable as the day went on.

Huffing and puffing from the hill, it’s immediately into dimly lit, surprising bumpy stable that were jarringly stiff compared to the water-logged grass fields. Down in a stable, back between the stables, down in a stable and out and around. As I turned around the end of the last stable, some combination of mud, wood chips, and probably cow pie provided an amazing bog that didn’t sink down too much, but was like pedaling through molasses. For a moment I am dreaming about slowly pedaling through soggy water-logged grass. Around another corner and up ahead was the other tough hill, mostly because the bottom was a mud pit. First time around I am far enough behind and my legs still have some juice, so I climb it successfully. Then a long run along the hillside and quickly back down the hill.

Onward through a few zig-zags, up and down a few short steep bits. Then a long straightaway with a hair-pin turn around a chainlink fence. A paved section of uphill is a welcome alternative to the muddy alternatives. Down through some tree cover and back into the open, eventually these curves lead us to the eventual finish line. I am far enough behind that the announcers have plenty of time to get my number so they can mention my name and that it’s my first Cross Crusade race. That is what you call star power. When you’ve got it, you’ve got it.

The race then takes it’s first detour into the larger indoor section. A couple tricky lips and a short steep section as you head out allow me to spin the tires a bit as I grind things out. Around the corner are the series of barriers, which I’m actually decent at somehow. I remount and there is some sort of gravity vortex that makes the next section of gradual uphill devastating and slow (our best guess is something to do with the side slope and muddiness). A few more hairpins and a detour back inside and we are triumphantly back to where we started. Now just keep going.

Just prior to the big hill I see the first rider walking his bike. His chain is absent, which decidedly makes cross racing more difficult. Another guy heftier than me is sucking wind at the hilltop and I don’t feel quite as bad. The next lap is pretty uneventful if you ignore the fact this is the hardest bit of bike riding I’ve ever done. I fail the second hill and slide into the bark dust pile that lined the edge. May as well pick yourself up and get back at it. All I remember is hearing “2 laps left” and thinking “dear lord I like the sound of that, I may finish after all.”

Next time around on the first big hill I pass the other big guy I was keeping pace with. Did I mention he was in a pink tutu? He is done. This is too fucking hard. This time around I am just smart enough to know my limitations and dismount and run up the second hill. It is just steep enough that I don’t bother to remount until the top, where a spectator shouts the quote of the entire weekend: “You’re a gazelle, you’re a gazelle in a beer-drinker’s body.” This is like a shot of adrenaline. As I remount I get some encouragement “alright, that’s looking better,” followed by “wait, nevermind” as I have difficulty getting clipped in. There is a fine line between heckling and encouragement in cross.

At this point the Oregon skies are conspiring to make things interesting and gradually start giving us some rain. Within a minute the heavens let loose and it is pouring. A proper Oregon rain. So good. My first cross experience has gone from demoralizing to painful to hopeful to downright amazing, and the best is yet to come.

The whole race I am in pursuit of the rider ahead of me, never really gaining ground. It isn’t until we’re out of the big barn for the last time that he seems to start slowing down. His lighter frame makes it up the first hill a bit easier, but after making it up the second hill I seem to gain a bit of ground. Just after the hairpin at the chainlink fence he turns it on a bit but I keep pressing as well as I can. Up the paved section I’m out of the saddle pushing as hard as I can.

With three curves left, someone on the side of the course shouts to him “someone’s behind you, don’t let him catch you”. He hears this and I can see him put the hammer down. Fuck. I heard it too, so I know I’ve got to nail it. There a bit of a downhill followed by an uphill before returning to pavement and the short section before the finish. He seems to let up a bit on the downhill. I can tell I have a chance. I’m just going to give it everything I’ve got. On the uphill curve into the finish, the inside line opens up just enough for me to pass on the inside at which point I’m pretty sure I heard him mutter “oh, shit” out of what seemed like complete surprise. On the pavement I popped out of the saddle and drove as fast as I could through the finish. @the_danno who had already finished provided the description of my opponent’s face: “defeated.”

Through the whole race, I was convinced I was holding onto DFL, so that last pass felt amazing. First, no DNF. Second, no DFL. With half-way through the race thinking there’s no way I can make it, I was proud of my finish and first completed cross race. Later I find out there are another 4 racers that I beat beside my friend at the finish. Not too shabby. All told the roughly 40 minute race corresponded to about 6 miles of riding.

Alternatively, the full recap of the weekend’s races is covered in full by the fine folks at Wend Magazine.

At this point, all that was left was to enjoy some beer, cross food, and cowbelling, but that will have to wait for our next installment. For now, you can check out an approximate race map (whoosh!):

View Interactive Map on MapMyRide.com

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