It was finally that time to simplify, load up the van, say goodbye to the cat, shun email and text responsibilities for a few days, dial in NPR and make my way east. I opted for a little over 6 hours a day driving, targeted a ride for the middle of each drive, and spent my nights in rest stops along the impressive expanse of I-70 that took me clear from Colorado to Pennsylvania. It’s nothing short of a joy to watch the scenery change as the miles pass by and minus my near constant need for a shower there’s few places I’d rather be.
I regrouped with friends in Ohio and caravanned the rest of the route to the nation’s capital alongside of them, ironically the directions each of us were following sent us in opposite ways before crossing paths again a few hours later. We made our way east in that fashion and arrived in time to stretch our legs out on the bike course.
Rain that night made what has for the past few years been a super dusty venue a little sloppy for the early races but in mint condition when our start time arrived. Held on the Armed Forces Retirement Center grounds, the D.C. event features much twisting and turning and even more roots. I love this course for the solid mix of conditions and needed technical skill as well as the “oasis” feel of being in a fenced in open green space within the confines of a run down, partially dilapidated, urban setting.
The normally dusty DC venue often takes riding to a new level. The topsoil is sandy and comes off in chunks as the racers track through it. It grips and then it gives, with little time in between to decide how you will take a line. the course is fairly smashy given that tree roots, broken pavement, brick, loose rock, the cover of some sort of underground facility, and pretty much any type of footing you could find line the course. This year though it was wet, rain came through over night and left, not pure mud by the afternoon races but spongy with watt sapping, grass cleared, packed in saturated dirt.
I started well on day one, fully in the mix on the front only to ram into a line butts on a woodsy uphill pileup. In the split second it took me to come to terms with the impending crash felt way longer than the time it took me to recover. With the gear I was in from the speed of the start to a now standstill on an uphill spot with no speed, regaining my pedals was a mere doleful realization that I wasn’t going to get very far on the bike. With the swarm of the remaining riders slingshotting around the corner into the pileup, I accepted my losses and let the field pass rather than swing my leg up and risk a tangle in another bike.
I emerged from the stand of trees in last place. So much for that decent start! But again, I enjoy adversity, the job was now clear cut: move up. So I did and managed to surprise myself while doing so. I moved through the stragglers and caught and passed a group of five to ten riders on the flat straightway in the start finish area. Fascinating because even when I’m feeling great, flat and straight is not the usual place I excel. My confidence was building when I heard the rear wheel whack a root and felt my traction disappear. So this was how it was going to be today, I was nowhere near the pit. I soft pedaled on everything sharp, ran the pavement and limped my way back to my other bike. With a successful hand off I once again went for it catching a few riders in my sights and making passes but the real race was long gone. Still I was stoked about how I’d felt, confidence comes from many sources but my favorite is real time application. I was well out of the points but still in the money and there was a whole lot of intrinsic winning taking place.
Sunday is much of the same only backwards, and the warm, rainy, damp was replaced with wind, chill, and well, more wind. It was a much cleaner race for me which afforded me seven places higher than the day before but was still it was a matter of garnering confidence and feeling out my fitness. The race went directly from the start sprint to a quick up and down section known as the “W” where most riders not in the front five are forced off their bikes in a domino effect. I had a silent giggle as I plunged down on my own line avoiding others cued up for the ideal line and kept a level head while girls flailed around me to get back up the consequent steep pitch. I managed to balance and exercise patience while allowing a little luck to guide me through and found myself cleanly putting the bulk of the group behind me as I stayed on and accelerated away.
I held tightly to a near top ten spot as we began to go around but fell pray to a quick mechanical that took me off my bike long enough for two riders to move through me. I regrouped and spent a lap chasing one rider at a time before settling in to what untimely became another confidence builder. Going with the theme this year; I seem to have a lot of the right pieces, I’m just unable to put them together at the right time.
I wrapped up the weekend and headed a few hours north, enjoying the solace and thinking time driving in the van affords me. Aside from the occasional encounter with a few less than agreeable Eazy-Pass monitors that may as well be screaming “go back to Colorado,” I happily left the traffic and congestion of D.C. behind for a week in semi-rural New Jersey.
The state of New Jersey gets a bad rap and for some reason although it seems to be more of reputation than anyone having any applied experience. For the most part New Jersey made up of historical farms, reclaimed farmland, and preserved wild spaces. The roads are narrow and the drivers intense but it’s ripe for beautiful riding. I host near the Raritan River canal and along side the river the dirt trail goes on for something like 70 miles of beautiful tree enshrouded tow path.
The weather leading up to the race weekend was picture perfect, the suns rays filtering through the yellow and reds of the fall trees. The forecast on the other hand was calling for a nor’easter, and it was due to hit on Friday night or Saturday morning. Perfect timing for a robust weekend of racing cross. As promised, upon waking Saturday morning the rain was coming down steadily and for the first time I had not been awoken by the sun slanting through the trees.
The rain wasn’t severe but it was steady as was the wind even though it wasn’t nearly the 50-60 mph gusts I had been made to expect. The race had a few delays and re-routs for trees that had fallen on the course overnight and then as the day progressed small sections were removed to try and shorten the laps to a more reasonable time frame. The mud got deeper and sloppier as each preceding race took to the course and as our race neared the steady rain made it less sticky and more slick….basically my favorite conditions.
I went out for one recon lap, it’s painful to roll a clean non-racing bike out in the muck but a necessary evil. The course was as expected with a plethora of mean little roots hiding under a layer of slime, corners that rutted out to the “commit” level, off cambers that wouldn’t forgive the slightest feathering of the brakes, and normally ridable climbing that now more closely resembled the effort of hauling a 20 lb. pack up a mountain summit.
When it was time we filed in for the start line and received an entertaining “if the nor’easter comes while you are racing” briefing and received the countdown readying us to remove layers of rain gear. We only were allotted a few hundred feet of pavement before diving into the track. I started well and slotted in, my expectations were much like the juniors I had seen tackling the course earlier that day with encrusted bikes that already weighed as much as they did; just get around the course.
The mud allowed for less natural separation within the field. I was up front following the leaders and they were never far out of sight. I battled in the vicinity for 5thfor a while, girls would come up and then they would fade and it was pleasantly surprising I did not. That week’s running workouts were paying off as I felt strong on my feet and competent on the pedals. The slipping and sliding was super fun, I had the roots to avoid dialed and played hot potato with the brakes.
My one woman pit crew was dialed, the bikes were delivered clean and fast. I sat in third for a while until another racer came through, I tried my best to sit with her but rounding one downhill sweeping off camber corer she took a new to me line up high. I tried to emulate her path and got swept off my bike by a low hanging tree branch. I’m not sure what her pine tree avoidance game was but that was enough to create some separation. Still I was happy to be securely in the top five since those can be awfully challenging to come by.
Cleanup commenced and took until late in the evening. It’s pretty entertaining that with so much to scrub out the plan is to just get back out there and dirty everything up all over again. Even though the bikes are mostly clean from the time in the pit there is much more detailed scouring to be had. Clothes must be de-mudded before they can be washed and then there is the matter of drying shoes and rain jackets as well as any other equipment that was outside in the rain that day. When you live in a van it's pretty rough to have it full of stink and water!
By Sunday the storm had passed, the sun was intermittently showing it’s face and the course had turned from quagmire to peanut butter. Once again, the morning races got the short end of the stick as they started with the original planned course before the promoters realized they wouldn’t get one lap much less five for the entirety of their race. By the time the last races of the day rolled around the ground was think and sticky but the circuit was whittled down to remove much of the elevation and any artificial reason to get off your bike besides the natural surface.
Much like riding in sand, there’s a whole lot of point and hope when riding in the mud. The bike will stay upright if you let it, you can encourage and guide it in the right direction but most of this involves giving it speed and altering your response to anything the bike does with more watts and more speed. Tires will grip when moving, they just don’t as much like to slow down.
A large part is also recognizing when to call it and run while stomaching the added weight you consequently hoist up onto your shoulder. I always prefer to ride then run and flat running versus the more mandatory uphill seems awfully silly to me but while the stretch along the pit was a toss-up day one, the knee-deep slop on Sunday didn’t leave room for choice.
I rode well, hugging the tape and cornering under it to grab more traction while catapulting across the course to the next side when that was feasible. It took me most of the race to get the lines dialed and conclude that the fastest trajectory around the course was sometimes not the most obvious path.
Staying clean generally tends to be a priority as an adult as the cleanup largely falls onto your own hands. Not dragging mud into the house, destroying the washing machine, working the stains out, preserving your drive train, bearings, and brake pads or funding replacements all equate to "it's just easier not to." Hence the novelty of repeatedly being willing to literally take the plunge. There are certainly moments during these races where my mind drifts to the outrageousness of it all but by that point I'm already fully engulfed and the finish line is just a matter of forward process away.
I enjoy the unpredictability of it all, that maintaining an open mind and relaxed outlook can propel you forward more reliably then determination to maximize watts on the straightways. Finesse rides a fine line with commitment and knowing when to throw down can be more key than the actual pure power.
New Jersey delivered a solid weekend of excitement that was a welcome homecoming to the east coast race scene. It's good to be back in the heart of it all, knowing that with a shortened US season this year we are nearly already to the middle of it all. For all the dry races in the past few years it looks promising that this season might just make up for it.