Hot off of my epic fail it The Rhythm & Blues Revue, I woke up early Sunday morning, downed way too much coffee, and headed out to St. Charles, Illinois for Campton Cross. Campton's reputation preceded it - everyone who found out I was racing the Chicago Cross Cup for the first time was eager to tell me about how much I was going to love Campton. I heard tales of woods, logs, and railroad ties. The weather looked awesome. What could go wrong?
The day was already starting rough. I made it to the park just barely in time to make registration, pin on my numbers, and warm up before I had to stage for the single-speed race. It was actually cold - far colder than predicted - and I was struggling to stay warm. I put arm warmers on, full-fingered gloves on, ditched the coat, and spun like a madman up and down the road to feel warm, but that warmth left me when the wind bit in while waiting to stage. Oh well. I didn't know the course, but I knew it would be at least a little muddy based on asking around. I hoped I wouldn't have to dismount in the mud. I hoped I wouldn't crash. I was starting in the back half of the pack, 48 in a field of 66, and I didn't know what direction the first corner was. The stress was keeping my heart rate up at least. I decided I would take the first lap really easy and treat it like a pre-ride. Don't be aggressive, just let whatever happens happen and don't do anything stupid.
The whistle blew and the pack thundered ahead while I sat in the back of the pack spinning as fast as I could. I may have been slightly under-geared this time around. The course opened on a long, packed gravel sprint and I watched the pack disappear as my little corgi legs went round and round and round and we were in the woods. It was a mess. People everywhere, some riding, some walking. I didn't want to get off my bike, so I rode around some of the guys walking only to find slippery roots everywhere. I dismounted, heaved my bike over the log, got back on, and tried to make up some speed. There were a couple of muddy hairpins, and I took it easy on them and then blasted up a short paved climb only to coast down it again the other way, More slippery hairpins, another climb, and some off-camber sweepers. The mud was deep, but surprisingly grippy. I was finding a rhythm getting into a series of switchbacks - apex really late to stay on the grass, power up the hill, no brakes down and then just a smidge to move the weight forward - and found myself on the back of another pack. I followed them down a short sprint, hung on through a sweepy section, got perilously close to making a pass jumping the world's cutest barrier, and had to let them go on a sprint following the more single-track. I caught them again heading back to the gravel, but it was too late. We'd hit the fast section and I was spinning madly while I watched other riders fade into the distance. But that was a lap, and now I could attack. I knew where I was going.
Or rather, I could attack just as soon as I caught back up. I got them again at the log and dropped them in the muddy corners. I caught another group at the off-camber section, but didn't have the spin to pass. And so I sat behind them for the rest of the lap. And the next one. And then that was the race. I'd finished 36th, which wasn't terrible (and actually exactly where my spreadsheet said I'd finish), but was disappointing all the same. I'd played it too safe and gone too easy on my first lap while I learned the course.
But it was a moot point. I needed a jacket and some food ASAP.
The food was delicious, but despite my jacket I froze until my next race. I used pre-riding in between races as a way to stay warm as well as refine my line and keep an eye on the changing course conditions. By the time my race rolled around, much of the mud had solidified into a hard, tacky dirt. It looked like it should be slippery but provided ludicrous grip in the corners. I knew if I could get a clean shot at some of the course sections I could just bomb them, and I hoped that my rivals wouldn't know that going in. It would give me some advantage. I staged 42 out of 105. I had gears and I knew what was around the first bend. Time to go.
And we went. Blasting out of the gate, heading wide to get on the gravel so I could get power down, passing some of the group and slotting back in for the front sprint. I was going to play it smart. No more of last week. I stayed in the group through the woods, and slowed down a bit through the muddy hairpins so I could get a better line and attack up the climb. Repeat in the next section. I was clinging onto the back of a pack heading into the off-camber section, one place I knew I'd be able to power through. The corners looked sketchy because they were steep, but they weren't sharp. I entered wide, waited for the pack to brake, and then powered up the inside hoping to pass them. It sort of worked - I ended up in the middle. I'll take it. I hung with them through the straight sections where I'm slow, and passed in the slippery grass switchbacks. There was one rider up ahead, and I set my sights on him. I made up ground on the microbarrier, and was on his wheel by the time we got through the singletrack but he got away from me on the descent over the railroad ties. And then we were on gravel and I could shift. I slotted in behind him to catch a draft and ran through the gears. He turned in towards the front straight, and I kept going wide to stay on the gravel, then ducked in and made my pass. Sprint down the gravel and fly into the woods, over the log, through the mud, up the hill and he's gone. I finish my lap alone. I have no idea where in the field I am, but there are a few riders ahead of me by quite some margin. I'm coming around to the front of the course again when I hear a familiar voice yelling to me. "You're in 8th!" It's Troy, the guy who runs the practice sessions I go to and one heck of a fast rider. And he's cheering for me?
"Don't smile, pedal!"
Right. Head down. How the hell did I end up 8th? Is that right? Through the woods, over the log, down and up through the mud, here come some riders the other way. 1,2,3,4,5,6,7, and I'm around the corner behind them. I guess I am in 8th. Heh. Cool. Let's see what we can do about that. Someone in a Reno 911 costume is in front of me. I will get by him. I'm on his wheel in the corners, but he gaps me on every straightaway. I don't pass, I won't be able to make it stick. I'm going to have to get crafty.
I fall back a bit. He knows I'm behind him and that I gain in the corners because he's always checking under his arm to see if I'm there. I keep a gap in the corners and let him gap me further on the straights. We fly through the woods and down over the railroad ties, but I don't brake and take the last corner wide and deep intot he grass, carrying as much speed as possible. I'm on his right heading into the gravel, and I'm overlapping his wheel. He checks under his left arm and doesn't see me. I slot in behind him for a draft, run up through the gears, and pass heading onto the front. We have one more lap and I'm in 7th. Maybe 100 feet before the line, he passes me again. No matter, I'll get him in the woods. But we're over the line and everyone's stopping and I guess that was the last lap. Oops.
Hey, I'll take 8th.
What a race.
The lessons to be learned are really more affirmations of what I've said before. I was patient and it paid off big time. I didn't do anything dumb and as a result I did well. But I will throw this out there, directed to the hecklers who tease me for my braking points -
The biggest misconception about brakes is that they make you go slower. Effective braking is free speed. Braking later lets you go faster longer, and very careful braking mid-corner can shift weight and traction between wheels. It's not about speed, it's about weight and grip. Brake until the apex so the rear is about to skid out, and once you find that balance you'll be braking later than anyone else on the field. Power on the exit the moment you let off the brakes. Strive to eliminate deadspace. Get so much power down on corner exit that the front wheel threatens to wash out and watch your rivals fall off your wheel. Get a clear line, and they'll have to reel you in on the straights. Or at least, that's how it works in cars. It seems to work OK on a bike, but I don't see anyone else doing it so maybe they know something I don't.
Next week looks to be a whopper of a technical course, I guess we'll find out.