My eyes narrowed like a hawk, noticing every movement of the two bodies in front of me. I was third wheel in a train during the closing miles of Monster Cross. We flew, twisting through the park, waiting for the inevitable. John worked on the front just hard enough to keep us at speed, easy enough that we knew he was waiting. The last big pitch came and Dave glanced over his shoulder at my face, analyzing my fatigue from the grimace now painted on. I gave him a good show, pretending not to see him checking on me, gritting my teeth. The truth was I had been recovering a bit from the train-wreck this race had become, and wanted to salvage it somehow. So when Dave accelerated, intending to pop me off the back of our group, I smiled and matched his effort with relative ease.
Looking down, we were now doing 400 watts coming over the top of one of the last climbs before the finish. Dave and John noted my presence and the top and the pace eased again, John still working the front. The last section of trail came and unsurprisingly, Dave attacked. Pouncing on his pedals he shot around John fast enough that no drafting benefit could be retained. It was clean, it was fast, and John didn’t respond. I stayed put.
In a race, even if you know the terrain, the finish often seems like it will never come. As fatigue and exhaustion set in, your mind plays tricks on you and even the simplest calculations become impossible. When Dave jumped off the front, I couldn’t figure out how much further we had to go. “Somewhere in the 5-30 minute range” was what I concluded.
John wasn’t making any efforts to close the gap now forming between us and Dave, so I made my decision, got some speed, and attacked John. I did feel bad for him. He had worked on the front for the past 15 minutes and here we were taking advantage of his tired state. But, that’s racing.
I moved quickly and decisively, eyeing Dave carefully up the trail and made quick work of closing the gap. When I got within 10 meters, my heart sank. We burst onto an open field and I realized we only had 300 meters of racing left. Panicked, I shoved my face against my bar, summoning any aerodynamic advantage I could get and pushed with all I had. At 200 meters to go, I was two bike lengths behind Dave. One more hard left and we were on the final stretch. Dave started his sprint early which I knew was a mistake. He quickly sat, too tired to keep standing and I barreled toward him, finish line in sight. I could taste it. It was possible. I could pass him right before the line. I was right on top of him now!
Then the unforgivable. A spectator told him I was close, that I was about to overtake him. One glance was all it took. Dave stood again and mashed the pedals, rocking fiercely with all he had. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to close the door on me. That was it. I settled for a pathetic 19th overall.
I didn’t go to Monster Cross looking to sprint for scraps. In fact, a mere 3 hours earlier I thought I was positioned to be well inside the top 10. I wanted a good start to the season, to verify that countless hours spent riding in sub freezing weather had been worth it. But instead I got nothing of the sort. I felt like I hadn’t trained all winter.
Monster Cross is a fantastic race of attrition. There are no long climbs, no technical trails, nothing to make it hard really. Ridden on dirt and gravel, the race is staged outside Richmond on a relatively flat course. Dry conditions would make for winning speeds in the 17mph average range. But not today. The question of the race is what kind of bike to bring, cyclocross or mountain. With these conditions, and that course, I was very glad I chose to race my Superfly, with XO1 and the perfectly tacky ESI grips. Sliding around turns, climbing, descending, it all felt good and there were no mechanical issues with the mud to speak of. Big win!
We started fast, a paved prologue loop made for an almost criterium styled beginning as we whipped around, ultimately dropping into the woods a few minutes into the race. Immediately the group lurched to a grind. Mud. Everywhere. All over you and your face (or on your Spy glasses!) From then on, every pedal stroke counted. Each little circle kept your precious momentum intact as we wound around the park. No downhill brought relief, no flat provided respite. It was just a matter of pushing and pushing. No brakes were really needed during the race as the moment you stopped pedaling, your speed evaporated.
We dropped onto the dirt and 15 minutes later of 330 watts, I gave up on the lead group. I watched them grind up some climb, and wondered why I felt so horrible. That’s when I joined Dave and John. We had all been spit out the back, and we stayed together from that moment for the rest of the race. We suffered, pushed and rode our legs dead.
Early season races are tough. The body isn’t accustomed to the rigors of racing, nor is the mind. Convincing oneself to push hard despite your bodies pleadings is never easy. But one step at a time, we recalibrate ourselves. We remind ourselves that this is racing, and the season is finally here. Looking back 19th out of a few hundred racers is a great first step in the season. Can't wait to see where we go from here!