I went to Dallas over the weekend. To visit my parents. By which I mean "I went to Dallas over the weekend. To race cross."
(My parents happened to be racing, too, but that's beside the point.)
The main point of the trip was getting up to Spooky Cross over the weekend, but as long as I was venturing into the suburban wasteland to the north I couldn't pass up the opportunity to add another race to the weekend. Instead of acting like a sane person and spending as little time as possible in Dallas, I made the trek up Thursday afternoon and arrived just in time to pick up my dad and head over to Creek Cross, Dallas' take on weeknight 'cross racing.
I've got to say, they do it right. The Creek Cross course is set up on a surprisingly small piece of land owned by a church. They're able to leave the course set up for several months, and anyone is free to ride on it. Every day of the week. At first sight, I wasn't too sure - it's a sea of ribbon and none of the land is spared from being a part of the course. Watching the 'C' race, I couldn't follow what order the turns were in. People on bikes everywhere. I was sure it was going to be a nightmare of constant turns and nowhere to as much as think about going fast before having to slam on the brakes and make another 180. Then I remembered the Texas Cross Syndicate knows what they're doing. I opened my mind and jumped on the course with a bunch of the local fast guys to warm up at the back of the 'B' race. I was pleasantly surprised to find a course that had nothing but fast, flowing turns, false flat uphill drags, (somehow) a forced run up on a hill that couldn't have had more than 4 feet of elevation gain from bottom to top, a couple sections with multiple line choices, and plenty of opportunities to slide out on loose off camber turns.
By the end of the 'B' race, the sun had set and the spot lights in the field and strings of christmas lights in the tree'd sections were on. Visibility was a solid "decent" on the majority of the course, and there were a few sections I hoped I was correct in not remembering anything other than flat, smooth dirt, because they were very questionably lit at all.
Call ups were based on series standings. Luckily a handful of the typical crowd was taking the night off in preparation for the weekend races and I was able to squeak out a second row spot. I toed the line with the likes of Chris Carlson, who (as much as he would like one) doesn't need an introduction, Tyler Cloutier, back in town for a few weeks before heading to Cinci the next morning to continue his UCI campaign, Bobby Etheridge, who'd just demolished the 'B' race, and several others, who all knew the course much better than did. Pre-race instructions, etc, etc, the whistle blows, we're off, and I slot in behind Mr. Carlson in 6th. My thought process goes something like
"Chris is going kind of slow in these corners, I need to get around him. But he's so fast on this straight away! So slow in this corner! So fast on this straight! Alright, I'm going to have to cut him off something real bad..."
After half a lap I found an opportunity to stuff Carlson in a corner, and from there on out it was significantly easier to make passes. I picked off the next guy in front of me each time the course opened up onto a fast section over the next lap and made the pass for second in the same corner I'd gone by Chris on lap one. This whole time I could see Tyler pulling further and further away from the rest of us and knew I had my work cut out for me to do anything about that. It took a bit, but I clawed my way up to him. Unfortunately I timed the catch poorly and latched onto his wheel right before the run up into barriers (forgot to mention that part earlier) combo, and go figure, one of the strongest cx runners I know sprinted right back away from me.
I needed to back off for a minute. Tyler took the opportunity to open the gap a little more. Nathan, third place, took the opportunity to bridge up to me. We came through the finish line seeing five to go, and I could already tell I had gotten myself into a tough race for second place. I brake checked Nathan in a technical chicane and attacked out of it, but he caught right up. He tripped on the barriers and I attacked again. He caught right up. I countered my own attack on back to back straights. he caught right up. This whole time Tyler was holding a gap that would grow by a few second on the run every lap, but was still ...just right there. Eventually, near the end of two to go, Nathan slid out on an off camber corner and I was finally able to get far enough ahead of him to feel comfortable. With only one lap left, Tyler was too far gone, and I decided to play it safe and focus on not doing anything dumb. The race ended after an uneventful last lap, I was sad to find that all of the homemade cake-pops were already gone, but a friend had half of a Modelo for me instead. Tyler, Nathan, and I stood on a podium (which was, without a doubt, actually a tree), and called it a night.
1st: Tyler Cloutier - Richardson Bike Mart
2nd: Kyle Johnson - Team Yacht Club
3rd: Nathan Tew - Rock Riders Cycling
4th: Bobby Etheridge - Dallas Bike Works
5th: John Ryan - Knobbies and Slicks
It's Friday morning. I'm sitting in my mom's office, eating breakfast tacos and doing some work. It's raining. A lot. I've got the feeling that the forecast 0.5 - 1 inch of rain that I'd seen the night before was incorrect.
Saturday morning. A waffle and coffee. Still raining.
4-5 inches of rain later I find myself at Dallas Heritage Park, the venue for Spooky Cross. Somehow this is the first time I've been to this race. All I've really heard about the race up to this point is that the course scares everyone I asked about it. I had no idea how a cross course could be "scary." Then I walked the Spooky Cross course.
If you've never been, Dallas Heritage Park is basically the city's pioneer downtown. The race course weaves in between old buildings and houses, on and off sidewalks and cobbled roads, through groves of trees where there are numerous line options, sometimes shooting gaps between trees and a wrought iron fence. On an off camber hill. In mud. You don't have to take these lines by any means, but in some cases here, high risk = high reward. It's a rad venue that feels like you're in olde-towne New England or some European village. The type of place where a cyclocross race should be.
I spend the morning cheering for friends, heckling my parents, and walking who knows how many laps of the course watching how it's developing throughout the day. Somewhere along the way the rain stops and before long, everyone racing is no longer struggling to turn corners, but instead struggling to move at more than 4 miles per hour on any part of the course. By time I go off and warm up the conditions improve a little. A good portion of the course has a decent line through it, some of the higher ground is borderline dry if you can find some grass at the edge of the course, but the rest is still that nasty, thick mud that sucks the life out of your legs. It's not sticking to bikes too much though, so at least there's that.
The Saturday start line was stacked. Tristan, Mat Stephens, Derrick Saunders, Luke Fleming, a handful of guys from Dallas I'd never raced before... And I was stuck with another second row spot with call ups once again based on series points. Right from the gun, Tristan was gone. He was smart in not wanting to deal with the rest of us fighting for position in the thick mud. Derrick had a good start as well and was riding in second, with a small gap over the main pack. I was riding in around the fourth spot in the pack, right on Carlson's wheel (again). This played out exactly the same as it had Thursday night: I was able to stuff him in a corner again, and after making that pass, moved to the front of the pack relatively quickly. Colin Bromley followed my moves to the front and as soon as we were clear put in a hard dig that the rest of us weren't able to respond to and got free.
So far, we're half way through the first lap and to recap, Tristan has already won the race, Derrick is in second and has a sizable gap on both sides of him, although Bromley is doing everything he can to close it down. I'm riding about 10 seconds down on Colin and there are a few guys on my wheel, but they seem to be coming off and back on fairly regularly. I figure I don't have much to worry about there, and focus on staying smooth in the mud, picking lines that look like they'll bog me down the least - which are changing every lap - and holding a steady gap behind Colin. After the CX7s race in Austin the week before, I know that Colin has the power to ride a course with thick mud, but I'm hoping he works a little too hard trying to make his way up to Derrick and comes unglued in the latter part of the race.
I should have known better.
The middle laps of the race were uneventful, but the mud was taking a toll on me and Colin was able to keep his pace steady more so than I was. He slowly started opening up the gap, only a couple seconds a lap, but I saw my chances at catching him going down every few turns. And then I suddenly had much bigger problems. We hit three to go, and there was someone on my wheel. I didn't know who it was, or where he had come from, but any move I tried to get away again proved futile. I slowed the pace just a tad to save some energy for what was turning into a much tougher end to the race than I'd been expecting. The rider behind me wasn't content to take a rest though, attacked into the barriers, and things began to make a lot more sense as soon as I realized it was Mat Stephens coming around me. He was on a mission. (Turns out he'd flatted early in the first lap, and had come all the way back up from last place.)
I jumped to stick with him, and from somewhere found the energy to counter his first attack on one of the thick, false flat uphills in the middle of the course. Right after the stairs he put in a little dig and we were riding through the next few corners side by side. Until I clipped the edge of a concrete block... And slid into the side of a building...
I gathered myself up, shook it off, realized that Mat was gone and already closing in on Colin, and once again adjusted my strategy. This time to holding 5th, and not hitting any more buildings. I could see Luke behind me, but there was a good amount of time between us and not much course left. He ended up getting a little closer than I would have liked, but ran out of time before we hit the finish line.
1st: Tristan Uhl - Giant South
2nd: Derrick Saunders - Smooth Operator
3rd: Colin Bromley - Phenom
4th: Mat Stephens - Elevate Cycling
5th: Kyle Johnson - Team Yacht Club
Back out at Heritage Park on Sunday after more coffee and another waffle, it looked like we were in store for a fast course. The ground was still slightly damp, but the early races were beginning to wear in a dry line across a good portion of it, and the mud in corners was pushing out to form small berms that were letting anyone who knew what they were doing rail the turns.
Then it started raining again.
Unlike Friday and Saturday, the rain was very light. Coupled with the course that was already worn down through the grass and the course quickly turned from tacky and fast to that good slick mud that makes you fall down just for looking at it funny. The course was running the opposite direction from the day before and although most if it was fairly similar, there were some new interesting and potentially sketchy spots including a new good place to run into a building at the bottom of a root-y descent, a couple transitions from pavement to sloppy mud in the middle of corners, and plenty of off camber turns around trees. This made for a great morning of heckling and when the rain had not let up before my race, made for superb course conditions and what was sure to be the most fun race of the season thus far.
During the pre-race rituals, I somehow spotted something looking funny on my rear tire. A short investigation revealed that the not-good-sound that I remember hearing at some point during Saturday's race was a good quarter of the tire rolling off the rim. Although it had apparently worked well enough the day before, I figured it was better to not push my luck and ran off to borrow the rear wheel from my dad's bike. Like the saying goes, when your can't use your tubie, the next best choice is a clencher with a tube and somewhere in the neighborhood of 32 psi.
A quick wheel change, and not so quick moment to adjust my brakes, true the wheel from my dad hitting a manhole cover in his race, and fine tune the shifting, and I was finally off to warm up for approximately 3 minutes before rolling over to the start line for a #wetboyzofcycling photoshoot and staging. Between a few people having not signed up for the Sunday race, and earning a few points in the North Texas series the day before, I was honored with the last front row call-up, conveniently located ~50 feet in front of a giant mud hole. I didn't feel like getting muddy that soon into the race, so took the holeshot instead. After a short start loop we were going back through the start line and Tristan felt it was time to relieve me of the lead. Bromley followed him.
My plan was to ride at a pace bordering on conservative for the first couple laps and try to stay out of trouble until I got a good feel for the course. Laying on the ground is typically pretty slow, and it was the type of day where just about everyone was likely to be doing a good bit of that. During the first lap Derrick, Mat, Luke, and I formed a little group. We traded positions often as we took turns sliding through corners while the others stayed closer to upright and were able to roll by. Around the end of lap one, Luke started pulling away from us, but had some mechanical issues and had to stop in the middle of the cobbled road finish stretch to make a quick adjustment. Mat took the opportunity and relatively not slick surface to launch an attack, and I followed him. We got a little gap on Derrick and pushed on back into the mud. For the next few laps, Mat continued to open little gaps by attacking out of corners, but my steady pace was paying off and I would roll back up to him on any moderately open sections. Derrick was riding about the same way and would occasionally ride back up to us before falling back again.
This whole time we could just see Colin ahead of us on the course, and Tristan was long gone again. Colin had an unfortunate moment and cracked his rear wheel, after running to the pit and taking a spare wheel, he decided that the smarter idea was to stop and find a beer instead. We still had no idea where Tristan had gotten off to, or what had happened to anyone behind our group of three.
Somewhere around the end of the third lap I finally felt like I was warmed up. The switch flipped and I had the epiphany that Mat was actually riding a lot slower than I wanted to go. I threw down a big attack on the finish straight and opened up a sizable gap. Then, completely ignoring my race strategy, proceeded to crash five times in the next two laps trying to extend my lead. Each time Mat and Derrick, who were now riding together, would get within feet of catching me before I was able to jump back on the bike and start pulling away again. The last of the five crashes was on the root-y descent, because bailing out into the mud seemed like a better choice than hitting a building two days in a row. This time, Mat passed me back while I was running to get back on. There was just enough of a gap for me to get between him and Derrick.
Fueled by the extra adrenaline from the last crash, I put in one more attack on a false flat hill and got around Mat and clear of both of them before the most technical section of the course. I had my smoothest run through it of the day, and kept the pace up back on the more open top section. I could see Mat and Derrick fighting it out behind me, as well as Ethan Storm coming out of nowhere and closing the down the gap to them. We were on two to go, and I re-focused on staying smooth and upright on the corners, and pushing the pace anywhere the course opened up. Somewhere along the way I realized I was seeing Tristan again, but only because he was almost half a lap ahead of the rest of us.
I felt strong the rest of the race and continued opening the gap over Mat, Derrick, and Ethan. It definitely helped that they were now locked up in a good battle for the last podium spots, too. I stayed smooth on the final lap, showed the root-y descent who was boss one last time, and rolled into the finish safely ahead of the battle for third.
1st: Tristan Uhl - Giant South
2nd: Kyle Johnson - Team Yacht Club
3rd: Mat Stephens - Elevate Cycling
4th: Ethan Storm - Dallas Bike Works
5th: Derrick Saunders - Smooth Operator
Now it's time to replace a chain, bottom bracket, derailleur pulleys, and re-glue a tire. Just in time to do it all again, I see there's an 80% chance of rain in Houston for Friday and Saturday. See y'all there!