Race #2 - Chicago Cross Cup - Dan Ryan Woods

I am ready. It's the night before the race and I'm actually ready to go. I did some rides of varying intensity during the week, went to a real 'cross practice, upgraded my bike, packed, and I feel good. I just need to sleep, but the sleep doesn't come. My mind is still going over every nut and bolt on the bike, every cable run and every crimp. It had started off innocently enough. The stock tires on my bike felt bad and some nice shiny Clements were on sale, so I got a set. The tread blocks were all soft and square, and the sidewalls were supple. They felt fast, and the bike felt fast until I had to shift or brake. Because I'd bought my bike at the last possible minute, I didn't have any options for groupsets and ended up with Shimano Sora 9-speed. Sora is serviceable, but it's not without issues. The levers pivot in such a way that they jam with dirt and grit easily. The shifting itself feels... rough. There's not much feel. But it came on the bike and it worked. I just couldn't get over it and I'd just gotten paid and so I woke up on Saturday morning and decided to convert my bike to 1x10. 

1x drivetrains are all the rage now. Time was everyone rode triple chainrings with a small narrow-range cassette in the back. Now the standard is doubles in the front with 10- or 11-speed cassettes. But apparently if you're into mountain biking or cyclocross, you don't need all that faff and can just go to a single chainring in the front and a nice wide-range cassette in the back. It looked clean, weighed less, had less parts to fail and if I converted to SRAM well I was at it, I could race in single-speed category as well. As a hopeless gear junkie, I was sold. So with 22 hours left before I had to leave for the race I went out to round up parts. One of many great things about Chicago is our proliferation of amazing bike shops. By walking in a one-mile loop from my apartment, I can hit three shops. One had a cassette and chainring, one had shifters, and one a derailleur and cables. The shifters didn't match, one was a carbon rival lever and one an aluminum S500, but they did the job.  The swap was fairly painless. Rip off the old Shimano kit and throw it in the parts bin, bolt on SRAM, apply profanity liberally to ease threading the cables, and go for a ride. I left an old chainring on the crankset outside the one I'm actually using to act as a chain keeper and to confuse the other people on course. Perhaps it would give me an advantage, though probably not as big an advantage as the red cassette I was rocking. I went for a ride, everything worked, and so I went to bed.

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After a fitful night of wondering how badly everything would break, I headed out to the race. The Race Predictor Algorithm of Truth had me pegged as coming in 48th place in cat4/5, I felt good, and I remembered to bring a pump and pressure gauge this time.  I met up with my teammates, we piled into the car, and missed Chicago Marathon traffic on our way South to the race. We registered, and on a whim I got on the wait list for the single-speed open race. That was the other advantage of swapping to SRAM - a zip tie around the shifter and my bike can race in two categories. Registration done, I went to watch the masters race while waiting for a chance to pre-ride.

The course at Dan Ryan Woods had a rather interesting feature. Whereas Hopkins Park had one set of barriers to run, Dan Ryan typically had a short set as well. These barriers were only six inches in height and could either be run or jumped, but this year they made a moat out of them. Barrier, pool of water, barrier. Staying dry today was out of the question. But no matter, no time to dwell on it. Time to sort out the bike and pre-ride. Get out the pressure gauge, bleed tires down to 35. Ride. The course is long and tricky, and the slick mud doesn't help. There's a sweepy dry section on grass with lots of flowing corners and hairpins. I know I can make time here if I work out a line. From there it dumps on to a sprint over broken pavement and veers off onto another straight through some soft, soft grass. It's badly rutted and hard work to move through, but there are more good corners on hardpack dirt immediately after. The course then turns into singletrack weaving up a comically steep hill in the trees, and I could probabl ride it but everyone is off their bike and I'd need more speed. Back on the bike at the top, blast down the hill and back up into the trees. More people walking, then back on the bike and over to the moat. Bypass the moat, ride behind the building, get ambitious and ride up the stairs. Have to dismount for the ledge at the top anyway. Probably faster to just run the whole thing. Around a switchback, up the hill, down part of the hill, off the bike and up a very steep muddy corner, down some singletrack, wind through mud at the bottom of the course, off the bike to get over a barrier and run the hill, on the bike, down the hill, and that's a lap. Phew. Practicing my remounts over the week helped a lot, but I'm still not good at them and it's going to hurt me. if I'm off the bike that much during the race.

I headed over to registration and checked in to the waitlist for single-speed. I got lucky - got a number. Back to the pit, put a zip tie around the shifter so I can't shift, and I'm good to go. Hope I'm in a good gear. I line up on the back row of the field. It's an open field, and there are some intimidating figures up at the front, but I can't focus on them. Just get a clean start.  The whistle blows, and I don't miss my pedal on the start but I know before I've gone 50 feet that I'm over-geared. It's gonna be a long race. The ground is slippery and muddy and soft, but I power ahead. This is the only time I'm going to have fresh legs and good lungs, might as well make the best of it. Make a couple places up in the sprint, and find a wide line that's grassy to catch a few more folks in the first two corners. Passing more this soon isn't going to happen, everyone around is too fast and it's a 45-minute race. Off the bike, hop the barrier, pass a few more guys running up the hill. On the bike, miss the pedals, get passed on the downhill and mash into my section of the course. It's dry dirt and grass with technical linked corners. It's mine. It's also narrow and I can barely get by anyone. I make a couple passes, fly down the pavement in a bunch, and dig deep to get through the next muddy straightaway. More dry corners, and it's up into the woods. If I can keep my cadence above 20rpm I can stay on the bike. I ride fixed usually, so I can do it. I know it. But everyone else if off the bikes and so I have to dismount and lose more time on the remount at the top. Weaving around on top of the hill my lungs are on fire and the downhill isn't enough to catch a breath. I get in the drops on the flat sections and just try to keep pace, but before I know it the moat is looming ahead of me and I'm not carrying enough speed. Get off, run it, get on. Lose a place. Damn. Gain it back running up the stairs. Back in the drops, climb the hill, just keep pace. The second lap is also survival mode. Just keep pace. Lap three. I can feel myself dying inside every time I have to accelerate. This was a terrible idea, making the toughest course of the season my debut for single-speed. Press on. Finally ride up the hill in the woods. The pace is slowing, everyone is tired. Breathe on the downhill, run the moat and the stairs. I'm feeling better now. Time to attack. Take it really easy up the next hill, and the guy in front of me is hurting. Hold his wheel on a corner, fly by on the exit. No brakes all the way down the singletrack. Really wide to avoid the mud, and apex stupid late entering the last bit of woods. Two more passes. Survival mode in the drops heading up to the hill, run the hill, down the hill, and it's finally over. I collapse in the pits, then drink some water and eat a taco. It's a sad excuse for a taco, but at the moment it might as well be some sort of heavenly nectar. I go to rest and cheer on Leah in Women's cat4.

Four hours after my race, it was time for cat4/5 and so I cut off my zip tie. I was recovered, my legs felt good, and I had gears again. Time to shred. After last weekend's slugfest of a race I was relieved to start 62nd. The CrossResults Race Predictor had me placing 48th, and I was determined to do at least that. The whistle blew. I got my pedal first try. And flew. The course had dried out a lot over the day. What had been deep mud was now firmer, and the slick mud on the hills was hard dirt in most places now. The starting section was shaded though, so we had no such luck. Barreling through the first corners, off the bike, up the hill. Make only a few passes. The guys nearer the front are better than the guys at the back. Go figure. Back on the bike, down the hill, into my favorite technical section. Can't pass. Into the woods, ride the hill, pass some guys walking. Fly back down, mash the sprint. The moat is coming up, and I'd been chastised for not jumping it earlier. There's a gap in front of me. Go big or go home. Jump it. It's easy and the crowd loves it. The gap is closed and I'm on someone's wheel. I try to pass outside on the pavement, but my tire rolls over, I hit rim, and go down hard. Back on the bike. Catch up on the stairs and chase up the hill. Barely squeak by with a pass riding a corner he walks. No brakes down the singletrack. Flat section in the drops. Breathe. Run the hill, get back on, and go go go. Pass a lot in the twisties. Ride the hill. Jump the moat and go down hard in the mud on the net corner. Get back on. I'm out of breath and I can feel my legs burning next time up the hill. Maybe two races was too much. Nonsense, go big or go home. Come to think of it, going home might be nice. I could have a nap when i get there. Down the hill. Around the flats, I'm in a bunch. I just have to keep pace. Lap three I'm dead set on attacking like I did last time, so I go for it but my legs don't cooperate. I'm stuck in the bunch. I can eek out a pass or two but I lose it on the remounts. Back half of the course, no options left. Dead sprint, struggling for 18mph. Heart rate is pegged, off the bike, up the hill, grab a cookie from a spectator. Eat it. Immediately want to vomit. Back on the bike, gotta close the gap. Miss the pedals, and the possibility of passing evaporates. The race is done. I'm done. I eat another taco, hoist my bike onto the car, and collapse in the back. Check the results. 30th. I beat the statistical analysis. Nice.

It was a rough day. Two races was a lot to handle, but I somehow managed and came away with a few lessons at the end of it:

Be Prepared. I keep doing this - I buy a bike the day before a race, convert the drivetrain the day before, next time I want it done on Tuesday and ready to go so I don't have to worry about it.

If you're going single-speed, don't choose a gear in haste. I could have done better with two more teeth on the cog.

Pre-ride throughout the day. This one is big. I learned the course pre-riding before single-speed, but it was totally different by the time cat4/5 rolled around. Some people who also did both races were caught by surprise and lost time.

Know your limits. I successfully completed two races and even did pretty well. But I think I got lucky. On a slightly off day I could have thrown away a race by pushing too hard. I'm not sure if I'll do that again.

I'm missing Carpenter Park this week due to racing cars at LSPR, but I'm going to train my ass off and ride at Sunrise Park. Perhaps two races if it's flat. Perhaps one. I think I'll wait and see what my legs say at practice this week.