After briefly surveying the previous night’s damage by rummaging through the pockets of my pants (three Molsen Golden caps and a couple of Pabst pull-tabs) it was off to I-91 North via the Molly Stark trail. Fog and confused New Yorkers slowed things down over Hogback Mountain, so there was only about a 40 minutes ’til start when I hit the the exit 4 off-ramp. Ah, Putney, VT. So nice a place for a bike race, and just over an hour from my current Babylonian Captivity (in Williamstown). Heck, one doesn’t need an excuse like a bike race to go to Putney; Putney, in and of itself, is reason enough to go.
The shop is literally right next to the interstate, so getting lost was a virtual impossibility. Despite my early start (first race of the day), things were already crowded, because it’s Putney, and going to bike/ski races is what people there do. Registration was quick and simple and came with a free Ibex hat. Not too shabby, considering the race entry fee was $15. Anyone know why ‘cross races in the glorious fall woods of VT are such a bargain, yet Tour of the Hilltowns costs me $35 and ends with over an hour of slogging back to the start on a state highway? USCF, I’m looking at you, here.
The course was a very “heaven and hell” sort of affair. The start ran up a wide dirt road, then around the flat parking lot for the first set of barriers. Then it looped, cornered and twirled around the backyard of the West Hill Shop over all sorts of 180-degree corners, weird little lumps and whoop-dee-doos, a second barrier set (uphill logs in mud), and a gnary-but-beautifully-made off-camber sidehill singletrack chicane. That would be the “heaven” section. Then the course rolled predictably down over a narrow-but-not-quite-singletrack section and out into a moronically conceived, dead flat section of cornfield. “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate” indeed.
I am much better at road racing than ‘cross, so you think I might like this part better? Oh, hells no. The joy of ‘cross comes from conquering the entropy of constant transtion, and this section made it so that a full half the racecourse had none. During warm-up there had been a set of barriers halfway through, but apparently, someone complained that this made for “too many barriers,” and so they were removed, making for about a k and a half of mindless, hard-packed tripe that I, not even for a second, would have hesitated to ride on my road bike. Even the corners were easy, save one 180 right at the beginning. Oh, and after about a K of cornfield, it turned to dirt road. Fortune did provide for a long, amazing run-up (like running a steep pitch of Moosilauke with a bike on your back) that dumped you off with 100m to go, for a hop-on-and-hammer sprint to the lap/finish line.
I roll through the top of the course after attending to the needs of nature and suiting up (still too fat for the skinsuit, I’m afraid), and, having not yet seen the cornfield, after scouting a few lines, I’m like “wow, this is tough.” Then I hop in behind another C rider, from cyclonauts, who is just drilling everything. Super-smooth dismounts and flying mounts (I still can’t do those, by the way), confident cornering; the whole nine yards. Unless this guy is way, way out of shape, he’s sandbagging like no other. He loops around over the start section, while I pull off and try the run up. It becomes immediately apparent as I walk it and find myself stuck behind other people that this will be the strongest part of my race by far.
Start line is loose and disorganized. Perhaps the only downside of this gentle Green Mountain Burg is that the hippie spirit of say, Aspen, runs deep within it. Nowhere else in New England would you be able to arrive with 30 seconds until start and still get on the front of the race. After a last-second hello to Rossman and Ed Meyer (who are not in my race), whistle goes, and we are off. I don’t understand how people could possibly have trouble with ‘cross starts. It’s simple – go as fast as you need to so that you are in the top 5 riders when the race strings out single file. Easy. If you have any thoughts of “I don’t want to go out too hard” before a linear field order is established, you are doing it wrong. I’m pretty quick off the line, but so are several other folks. This is my first race with gears, and I start spinning up like mad until I remember “oh, yeah, shifting,” and I drop into position as we go linear, maybe 4th or 5th (I gave a spot or two on one of the road corners. Losing spots is bad, but crash or get caught in a crash at the start and your race is over.)
First set of barriers I get over fine, even without a good remount. Over some lumps, around some corners and its the second set. I unclip late, but get on my feet in time to hop over the logs. Then someone ahead of me kicks my front wheel with their heel, launching the flat part of the bars right into my teeth. Fortunately, I just rewrapped with some cushy tape, and through the magic of adrenaline, the impact zone just sort of went numb and I forgot about it pretty quick as I tore through the chicane and into the corn field. The rider ahead of me (on a Ridley is all I remember) apparently has not seen Cool Runnings (high in, low out!) and has to essentially track stand to follow his impossible inside line. I use this opportunity to go by him, but in his haste to re-accelerate, he rams into my rear wheel and goes careening off into the cornfield, while simultaneously apologizing for his antics. Nice fellow.
I drop a little hammer (dephosphorylating mad ATP in the process; 26×1.55 knobbies are woefully inefficient on this packed crap, especially compared to the semi-slick 700×27 everyone else seems to have) and fall in with a group of two other dudes (one Cycle-Smart guy and one guy I can remember) having it out for third position (two West Hill Shop riders are well ahead, trading pulls over this road section, and are not coming back). And by fall in with, I mean sit behind. I cruise with them, but as soon as we get to the run up, I surge ahead. I hop up at a relatively moderate pace, and remount. I take a peek back at the line and they’re way back. Like 10 seconds. I roll through heaven, but real sloppy, again, almost plowing into the logs with a late dismount. I still have space by the time we reach the chicane, but they’re back on me as we hit the cornfield. I let one by before the 180, since to catch back up, he’d have to be a semi-competent handler. Ture to my expectations, he rides the corner well, but feels compelled to accelerate like mad out of it. It and every other corner on the field.
We go through the barriers that aren’t there and upon hitting the road, the previously mentioned sand-bagging rider blasts by us. I shout “sandbagger” in a voice that is, at best semi-serious and more accurately tongue-in-cheek. Dude has gas enough to turn around and look at us while he rides away. He never did catch the leaders, though. Dude, if you read this, just because you suck at getting off the line doesn’t mean you should be racing C’s. Then it was another turn up the run up, and another gap, eaten-up as we hit the fields.
Our group is hanging to together pretty well, but it’s clear I’m not getting any recovery together in the field/road section. One guy, not the Cycle-Smart guy but the other guy, calls for 30 second pulls after we hit the road. “We can reel in the sandbagger” he exhorts. Maybe, back at the cornfield, when you were hammering out of every corner, this would have been feasible; but not now, with 40 seconds of riding to go until the run up, it’s a farcical plan. Still, Cycle-Smart guy goes along with it, so now I’ve gotta come through on my fat and slow tires/wheels before the run up. Man, screw this. I don’t get to the the front and don’t get my big run up, and they kinda ride away from me over the next lap. Their progress against me is not impeded by me finding the “mystery stump” atop the second barriers/run-up. Though once spray-painted blaze orange for visibility, it has since been buried in dirty-diaper mud, and is unbelievably slick. After finally getting a good dismount, I lose it all by slipping on the stump and taking a few knee steps.
Coming up to the base of the run up on this penultimate lap, someone passes me. I am like “oh yeah?” and surge by him on the outside. He is not cool with this and surges again. Despite the fact that I have position on him (up by a wheel, at least) he keeps gunning, so I lean in a little. He matches by leaning back. Now, were I a total knob, I could have probably forced him into the inside barrier as we made the left hander into the run up; being the rider in the lead, I am legally allowed to set my line so long as it is consistent. If my line overlaps his, causing him to crash, tough cookies; he shouldn’t have been half-wheeling me. But that would not be very nice. So I pull a little wide, giving him space and more speed coming around, and thus first crack at the run up. He is very slow on the run, and we are both forced around a lapped Woman, further slowing us.
As we ride through the bell, he extends his lead. I muff the uphill barrier dismount again (it comes after a blind, muddy, downhill 90, so it’s hard to judge) and another two dudes pass me. It seems like my ‘cross races so often go one lap too long. But far from giving up, I’m cracking mad tail through the field, trying to steal a spot or two. I know if can catch one of these guys strung out in front of me by the run up, no one can get me before the line. But I’m just so slow over the road. On a road bike, I know what roughly what gears to push and how hard to push them to catch people in a set amount of time. But in ‘cross, I never really know what’s going on, with conditions so different from race to race, and tires and gearing so different between bikes. I think I may have taken it too easy. I didn’t catch anyone before the run up, but I got even with the guy who got by me on the one corner at the top, and blew by him in the clip-in sprint, for 7th place.
Afterwards, I took a scenic Putney cool-down ride, which due to warm conditions that extended only from 10 to 11:15 am, was pretty nice. Then it got cold. Still, hanging out and watching the other events was a good time, especially given the sweet crowd atmosphere and the large numbers of friends and former classmates in attendance. in the Men’s Master’s B race, riders back in the field, who realized they were out of contention, started going for air off the jumps and lumps. Again, the difference is stark between ‘cross and road, as most out-of-contention road racers just shout at each other for not pulling through. Checking the results, I was indeed 7th, but beat at least two other Cat 3 roadies (I was still listed as Cat 4, because I have not updated my BikeReg info, for fear of seeming to be a sandbagger). What was really noticable was that the field size was nearly 30 racers, much higher than at previous races, and my 7th in a larger field might suggest that I am actually improving in this ridiculous discipline. Maybe.