Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Natz Race Report

'Cross Nationals 35-39 Race
Friday, December 9, 2005

I don't think I can fully capture how extreme the conditions were at this race, but I'll attempt to describe the day from my perspective.

I awoke to heavy snow out the window ensuring that the course we had pre-ridden the day before would be completely different for our race. I grabbed a huge breakfast with Sean, Phil, and Chris at a diner around the corner. Blueberry pancakes, eggs, hash browns, and OJ would provide the fuel necessary to drive the engine and keep the heater going. Those guys were all doing the 30-34 race after mine, but they were cool enough to give me a ride to the park early.

Road conditions were shit and when we hit the interstate the snow changed over to rain making everything a slushy mess. Phil got us there safely and snagged a sweet parking spot just down the hill from the Alan team tent. I lugged my gear up to the tent and put on rain pants, rain cape, etc. for the warm-up. Thankfully the Gerlak's took care of my pit bike and delivered it right to the pits. That was a huge help.

After getting geared up I chugged an Extran to get a few more calories in my system since it was clear that I was going to need them. The wet and cold was sure to drain my energy quickly.

Once the 40-44 race/death march finished I hopped on the course in the blowing rain for one lap to check things out. It was a lot different from the prior day. In terms of surface there was a bit of everything: snow, ice, mud, ruts, leaves, and deep puddles. After letting more air out of my tires I started to get good traction and felt pretty comfortable on the course. Some of the short & steep ride up's from Thursday were now slippery mud run up's. That meant that there were 6 or 7 dismount and run sections per lap. This was good.

With all of the clothes on the cold was not bothering me, though my fingers were getting numb. Keeping the fingers warm and working was going to be a big challenge during the race. I opted to go with just a thin pair of full fingered gloves in hopes that I could keep enough circulation going to maintain some feeling in my digits. Thick gloves would just give me even less dexterity for shiting and braking.

I headed down to the line to begin staging. Riding around had been ok, but standing still in the cold pouring rain sucked royally. When we got the 5 minutes to go call I started to take clothes off. I would have liked to have waited until the last minute to strip down, but I had nobody to take my stuff so I had to tie it up in a grocery bag and stash it on the side of the road. With the rain pants and jacket off my core temperature dropped dramatically. I tried jumping up and down to keep warm, but it was no use in that wind and rain.

I lucked into a money spot on the front row because I was one of the first people to register. Did I belong on the front row? No...but I didn't make the rules. With 14 lanes across and a wide road there was plenty of room for racers to move up in a hurry.

The opening stretch of road was a mess as it was covered in snow, ice, and slush. There was one good line on the inside that had been cleared by the previous race. I was lined up on the outside in the slop.

Waiting for the start I was excited about the race, but nervous about the start. 100+ racers playing demolition derby on the snow and ice was not a comforting thought. Just prior to the whistle fatMarc let out a primal scream in the spirit Ric Flair. Good stuff! That broke the tension briefly and then we were off!

I got into the pedals cleanly and hauled ass up the road. Eventual winner Shannon Skerrit came screaming by me on the right and just lit it up. If I could have grabbed his wheel I would have, but he is at a different level. I was slipping a bit in the slop so I tried to work my way over into the clear lane. Guys were all over the place trying to move up before the turn onto the grass. My bars got hooked by somebody that gave me a body check in an effort to squeeze past. I got a foot out in time to tripod skid long enough to regain my balance and keep motoring. I didn't go down, but I lost a lot of speed and got passed by a ton of guys. Things slowed down in the first turn so I moved outside and hopped the curb.

That got me some daylight, but now I was in some deeper snow and slush in the grass, not the good line. I kept going and took the first dip into the candy bowl on the outside. It was chaos everywhere with bikes and bodies all over the place so I dismounted and hoofed it up onto the flat before remounting. Defending champ Richard Feldman was off his bike here fixing a dropped chain...bummer for him.

Onto the off-camber paralleling the start-finish it got crazy again. I took a nice shoulder from someone on the high line and was pushed to the bottom of the slope. I kept going, but lost more spots as we approached the u-turn by the pits. In the turn somebody decided to body surf the muddy snow and we came to a halt. I picked my way up against the fencing and got moving again.

Basically, my start sucked. By all rights I should have crashed at least twice in the opening minute, but I managed to stay on my bike. Plus, my fingers were numb within the first 100 meters. Once we got to the barriers things started to go my way. I passed a couple of guys over the planks and then found a clean outside line in the next dip as 4 guys came down trying to squeeze through on the inside. I got by them and kept going.

From then on I felt amazing. I was so focused on riding the course cleanly that I wasn't bothered by the cold, the wind, the ice, or the deep puddles. With each section I gained more confidence. I really felt in tune with the flow of the course and knew where I could open it up and where I needed to back it off. The tires hooked up on everything, the pedals cleared easily, and the bike handled like a dream. I was aware of the conditions and the other racers on the course, but I was really riding in a zone where all of that was far in the background.

I was riding my own race and each time I came upon another racer I would make the pass and keep going. Usually I'm looking over my shoulder, but that day I was only focused on catching and passing the next rider in front of me. I didn't have tremendous legs, but I wasn't making any mistakes and my transitions on and off the bike were smooth. My riding was efficient on a day when riding cleanly gained you a lot of time and places.

My fingers were frozen so shifting was very difficult and even holding onto the bars became a challenge, but it was all good. I kept it in a pretty big gear and only shifted a couple of times per lap. When I did shift I had to visually guide the finger to the lever and will it to move. It was an adventure.

As the conditions got worse I felt better, knowing that the weather was taking it's toll on the competition. I had visualized horrible conditions the day before and promised myself that I would keep going no matter what. I was prepared for the suffering. The weird thing is that I was actually having a freaking blast. I think I was smiling most of the second half of the race.

One part where I wasn't smiling was on the finishing road stretch. The wind and ice were pummeling me and making forward progress a real struggle. Tents were blown everywhere and the metal fencing lining the road had been knocked over by the gale force winds. The venue looked like a ghost town as most everyone had fled for shelter.

After crossing the line I started to realize how bad things had gotten. All of a sudden I realized how cold I was. My fingers wouldn't work and I was starting to shake. I made my way towards our tent, but I couldn't find our was gone courtesy of the wind. Thankfully, my teammates yelled at me from a minivan telling me to get inside. I dropped my bike and climbed into the driver's seat. Suzy and Morgan Gerlak were in there helping Auer thaw out.

Immediately my fingers were throbbing in pain as they thawed out. They assured me that the pain would subside in about 5 minutes, but that didn't help me much. I was practically screaming and on the verge of tears as the pain became worse.

As I wailed they helped me out of my soaking wet gear and into dry clothes. After a few minutes I was able to laugh, even as I continued to shiver and shake. We shared stories from the race as the blizzard raged outside coating our bikes in a thick layer of frozen muck.

157 people had registered, 115 had started, and only 68 had finished (43 on the lead lap). Kris had ridden to 11th place, just short of his goal of top 10, but still an impressive ride given the conditions. I ended up 35th...nothing too impressive, but after a horrible start I was very proud of my ride. I rode as aggressively as possible, didn't crash, and passed a lot of guys the last 3 laps. This was my first big race against a high quality national field and I learned a lot from the experience.

After I had thawed out I grabbed my frost covered bike and made my way down to Phil's car. Conditions were so bad that the final two races of the day were postponed until Saturday. Conditions were really that bad. I've heard many stories of hypothermia, frostbite, and overwhelmed medical personnel. It was rough. Phil drove us back to the hotel in horrendous traffic. The 3 mile trip took us over an hour. However, his heater was cranking and the stereo was working so we listened to tunes and shared a bag of Jelly Belly Sport Beans as we creeped along in the blizzard.

Later that evening I got the call that Thor had come down with the stomach flu that I had battled earlier in the week. I felt horrible that he was sick so I threw my crap in the suitcase and grabbed a cab for the airport. I was able to get on a 9pm flight home and walked in the door at 11. I was sorry to miss the B race and all of the festivities, but there was no way I could stay in Providence while my son was sick for the first time.

I'll be back next year with renewed confidence ready to race and party for the duration!


Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,
I just stumbled onto your blog ... good stories from the Nationals.
Since you lined up on the first row, you can see a short video clip of your start here:


Chris said...

thanks Henry...great videos!

Hatch said...

Hell Chris, from the looks of that video even the Belgium's called in sick. Awesome ride. THAT IS CROSS!

Chris said...

It was really bad and really fun. Cyclocross is the absolute racing, bar none.