My World Championship
Thirty years ago I was a crummy bicycle racer. I love bicycles and I loved the racing; but I gave it up for a lot of reasons. Then, I was seduced by motor racing. Now that I’m back to bicycles, I’ve lost sixty pounds. I’ve had more success as a masters’ bicycle athlete than I ever had as a young man.
Surprisingly, for an adrenaline junkie with motorcycle and car racing experience, there is plenty of adrenaline in mountain bike racing and cyclocross. No problems there.
So, this week I found myself in Louisville, Kentucky for the Masters’ World Cyclocross Championships. I entered the race. This is only the second time in history that the event has been held outside of Europe (last year’s Master’s were here as a prelude to this years Elite Worlds). This may be the last in my lifetime – so let’s go racing!
I loaded up all of my gear and drove to Louisville on Monday. Checked into the Galt House, race headquarters and one of Louisville’s major hotels. Frankly, the Galt House is down at the heel, but they upgraded me to an apartment, with a kitchen and laundry; so who am I to complain? Now, with a kitchen, I can stick to my diet (which I have, mostly, done).
Tuesday morning, we got to ride the course. The Masters course was not the same course as the Elite World Championships. In fact, the Masters course was a bit bush-league. It was fairly uninteresting; it had poor parking and no real road for warmups. The narrow two-lane road fronting the venue was crowded with gravel trucks the whole time. I saw the Belgian national team as well as Steve Tilford (world champion for men 50-54) almost get whacked by trucks. The course was only technical in a couple of sections, and that was more due to weather conditions than layout.
Tuesday morning, the course was fairly dry and hard. It was great to be out on a world’s course, warming up with some very elite athletes. I felt pretty good (a bit of a cold, but nothing too much). My training and diet have been okay, and even though I am not in peak condition, I was ready to ride. The pre-ride was great.
I ran into my mountain bike compadre Stewart, who had also come down, for the experience of riding in a world championship. I admire Stewart. He seems extremely fit and he is a true sportsman. He competes for the love of the competition. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why I am faster than he, given my girth and his fitness. I bet in a long race, say four hours or more, he would shine.
Tuesday we ran heats. When I saw that on the schedule, I figured it would be hard for a Category 4 (meaning “slow”) guy like me to make the final on Thursday. As it turned out, with 65 entrants, there were slots for all of us in the final. The heats were for seeding, as the real contenders want to be on the front row. All I had to do was to finish the heat and I was in the final.
It was warm – in the sixties, but it was damp and felt chilly.
Really, I thought I ran the heat pretty well. Since we started at 2:30 in the afternoon, it had warmed up and softened up. It was just a little bit muddy. I even did a bike change in the pits, just to get a clean bike. Its amazing how much poorer a bike rides with a couple of pounds of mud stuck to it. So, I was glad that I had a pit bike. The fast guys have multiple pit bikes, with pit crews cleaning them between bike changes. Bike changes might be done every half-lap. I had to content myself with 1 bike change per race, as I had no crew. Also, I had to find my bike and switch, as opposed to a fast bike hand-off.
Well, I was not the slowest guy out there. Stewart and another guy had that distinction. And, for the whole first lap, I was hanging on the back of the field. Amazing! Then, the pace picked up and I could not match it. Still though, I pushed hard. The funny thing was the relatively flat, boring course kind of came to life at speed. The little bumps and twists were far more challenging. Two really hard laps in twenty minutes, over mud, grass, across a ravine (more of a ditch really), a twisty short downhill and a steep short downhill. No real climbing other than a couple of off-the-bike runups.
“Finals on Thursday, and I’m ready for this!” I thought I could move up a few places, maybe even be the fastest Category 4 (slow league) rider out there. I placed 53rd. I think the fastest Cat 4 guy was around 49th or so; so if I could move up a few spots, that would really be something.
Tuesday night, though, it rained…and rained…and rained.
Wednesday I pulled the single-speed mountain bike out of the trailer and rode down to the venue. There was standing water everywhere. This was an old golf course, in a flood plain along the Ohio, without drainage. It was unbelievably muddy. And it wasn’t all the soupy mud; some of it was the sticky mud with grass in it. The temperature had dropped to the thirties. Things had changed dramatically. I rode for an hour to stay loose, got a massage and chilled out.
Thursday morning dawned. I took a pre-ride from 8-8:30, finals at 10:30. It was 30 degrees. The ground was still soft, not frozen; but the air was cold and getting colder. The mud was a quagmire, like nothing you have ever seen. I rode one lap in the pre-ride and my bike was caked with a good ten to twenty pounds of mud. This was a slog – what the vets call a tractor-pull. Especially on the poorly-drained flats, which were most of the course, it was a struggle to move the pedals even in the lowest gear. The mud just sucked the wheels to a halt and caked the bike.
The company “WD-40 Bike” had set up bike washers, with guys who would wash our bikes. This is a feature of high-end cyclocross races: power bike washing in the pits and paddock. I waited in the line for the bike wash, and the fellow next to me noticed that the mud on our bikes was freezing solid. It was getting just a bit cooler, and when the mud got up off the ground onto the bike, it was starting to freeze. This was gonna be good!
I staged in the back. How cool was it to line up against Bob Downs, Don Myrah, Benny Anderson and other Olympic, elite athletes! Of course, from the back it was hard to see them, but……
GO! We were off! I was racing for the WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP! Hell, if the 52 guys in front of me had trouble, I might win a RAINBOW JERSEY!
The first few hundred yards were on some pea gravel that had been laid out with traction and drainage. We stomped it. It was a fast start. We were pounding and I was keeping right with them. Then the pea gravel abruptly ended with a puddle of six inches of mud soup and a little bump. Chaos in front –hit the brakes!! I braked hard, avoided trouble and stomped it.
The rest of the race was a fight against the mud. Forty minutes of mud sucking your wheels, freezing to the bike, clogging your gears, your brakes, your chain and your wheels. I though I had a chance to get in three laps (I was wrong) so I planned a bike switch at one and a half laps. The fast guys switch every half lap. When I saw patches of the really wet, soupy mud, I aimed for them. The watery stuff actually washed the bike a little bit.
In the past, I had heard a race announcer talking about riders carrying “thirty pounds of mud.” I figured it was hyperbole. It wasn’t. The bike felt like it weighed 200 pounds. When I picked it up for the run-up, I could tell that there was a good thirty pounds of mud on it. A few times I used my hands to clear the mud away from the wheels and brakes. It helped a bit, so I kept going.
The last section of the lap is a runup – then a run along the top of the ridge, then a down the ridge in a twist, another runup and straight down. I shouldered my heavy bike for the runup. At the top, it was so caked that my wheels would no longer turn. They were frozen. I rolled the bike and it loosened somewhat. The top of this ridge was one of the muddier sections, believe it or not. Since it drained just a little better, the mud was less soupy – but more sticky. Like many riders, I ran the whole thing, probably 150 yards of mud. At the bottom there was a ditch full of muddy water. I stopped and used the muddy water to wash my bike. There I was, standing in my spandex in six inches of freezing muddy water, heart pounding out of my chest, panting, using my hands to wash the bike, thinking “I am, at this moment racing for the world championship. Weird!”
I kept going.
I could hear the race announcer talking about the leaders running up on the back-markers. I didn’t seem like I was about to be lapped, though…so I knew there were people behind me. The race announcer was talking about the leaders “pitting through the back-markers” and I was nearing the pit, but I still didn’t see them. I pitted and switched bikes. No big rush for a fast bike change – it didn’t matter since I was crawling out there anyway.
My goodness the clean bike felt GREAT… for about two hundred yards. Then it was almost as caked up as the first bike. More slogging.
It’s easy to get into a negative frame of mind in these situations. I call it, “playing negative tapes.” I mean, thinking things like, “This is so hard,” “I not good enough for this,” “I don’t belong here,” “This really hurts,” “I didn’t train hard enough” or “My diet wasn’t good enough.”
One of the real challenges of athletics is to maintain a positive frame of mind, in training, in dieting, in life and in the race itself. The negative tapes not only diminish the sheer exhilaration and joy of the sport, they diminish performance. I have caught myself playing negative tapes more than a few times in the middle of a race, and I knew to be alert in this race especially. So, when I caught myself thinking “I’m not fit enough for this,” I told myself to stop the negativity and remember that every competitor from the front to the back is struggling the same as me, and that I belong where I am, doing what I’m doing. It’s a lesson that I try to apply to life in general.
The crowd was great. Someone yelled “All the suffering will be worth it, when you finish!” Rich, the Wisconsin Cycling Association guy who officiates at our local races yelled “Go Milwaukee!” And Diane Ostenso, 64 years young and one of the best athletes in Wisconsin, cheered and cheered for me. After my race, she hugged me. I went out and cheered for her this morning in 12 degree, icy conditions as she rode an incredibly gutsy, fine race to finish 4th in the world and first in her age group.
I was lapped near the end of my second lap. The leaders had done three laps. My time in the heat was 10:51 for a lap. In the final, I was closer to 20 minutes. The leaders did the heat-lap in 8 minutes or so; but, for the final, even with frequent clean bikes, they were at 13 minutes per lap.
And, I didn’t finish last. Stewart was behind me. According to the scorers, we were the last two finishers. I was 51st. Bob Downs, the national champion didn’t finish. Henry James, a really good rider that I noticed at Nationals, won the world championship.
That was yesterday. Last night, I treated myself to a fancy steak dinner, oysters, martinis, dessert and port. I overindulged.
This morning, it is back to training and diet. Today, it is back to work. It is time to start preparing for next season. Do you think I have a chance to beat Henry James? I’ll give it my best shot!
Picture 1. American Champion, Bob Downs leading a group in the heats.
This is as close to the podium as I got: a photo op when no one was looking!
Bikes after the final.