Bend, The Mind - Pt 1 PDF Print Write e-mail
Thursday, 23 December 2010 17:33
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I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  My cyclocross experience has been unchartered territory since day one, and frankly I expect it to continue for awhile to come. 

With zero off-road training or racing experience I have been timid and apprehensive, but from the beginning excited as all get out!  I am accustomed to lacking answers and relying on gut instincts to see me through adventures, but this latest one has come with a high level of anxiety.  My week at cyclocross nationals in Bend amplified those feelings ten fold! 

Though I have known I would be in Bendfor nationals for over a year it was not until late summer that I decided to take the plunge myself.  I had to overcome the hurdles of not having a cyclocross specific bike or any off road handling skills to do what I wanted to do most – race cyclocross nationals!  I was going to be in Bend anyway so why not compete like the locals right? 

When I made the decision to take the Cumberland University cycling team to collegiate cyclocross nationals I did not think past that primary goal.  What I failed to consider was just how much work is involved in between the decision and the doing.  Had I given it appropriate thought I might have changed my mind after facing the overwhelming truth - I am in way over my head.  Forget about build up or incremental development; let’s go straight to the moon!  However, after living the experience of cyclocross nationals in Bend I can confidently state my ignorance was a blessing, and it provided a “chance of a lifetime” I will draw upon for years to come.

I am not known as someone who lives and plays with reckless abandon, but there were moments during the Bend experience where it certainly felt that way.  I lost count how many times I have asked myself lately, “How in the world am I going to do this?”  There were situations before and during Bend where I was staring down fears I never imagined existed.  There were many unknowns just within the framework of my coaching position with the Cumberland team, but when I decided to race I became overwhelmed with uncertainty.  I was concerned about the issues surrounding racing as well as our travel arrangements, which provided a level of stress I did not particularly enjoy either.  Every single aspect of the trip was a new experience, and without confident answers to draw upon it made me quite uncomfortable.  The only way to figure it out, however, is to simply do it.

Long before our trip to Bend I had just five weekend opportunities to race in order to have a clue about what I was doing.  My first ever ‘cross race at MSG in Bristol was incredibly nerve wrecking, and it did not get much better the second day either.  I was surprised at how well I actually did, but it was mainly due to the strength and fitness I brought to the table.  My handling skills were skittish and my remounting skills were atrocious, but the fun meter was pegged in the red zone and not easing up!  I became determined to race as much as possible and to ride my ‘cross bike at least once or twice during the week to get comfortable.  My handling did improve and I had some racing success, but I was still making plenty of mistakes.  I was able to race in nine races prior to racing in Bend, which of course is nowhere near sufficient experience to tackle something as big as cyclocross nationals.

Traveling out there required a few mind benders as well.  Deciding which city to fly into, securing the proper rental vehicle with room for five bike boxes, and choosing the proper driving route in order to avoid a winter storm were all serious decisions.  We flew into Portland and the first thing I did was stop buy a set of chains for the van.  I prayed we would not need to put those on for our drive up and over Mt. Hood!  The snow buildup was tremendous on the mountain, but thankfully did not encounter treacherous driving conditions.  One bullet dodged!  Our lodging at Mt. Bachelor Resort was top notch, mouth watering, and far better than any place we’ve ever stayed.  Our housing allowed us to ride our bikes back and forth to the race venue, prepare meals in our full kitchen, wash muddy clothes, and enjoy the beautiful view of the Deschutes River from our balconies (which included a private outdoor hot tub!).
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I pre-registered for my Masters 40-44 race a few weeks in advance, and was amazed to see 180 total registered for my race!  Typically the 40-44 and 45-49 races at road nationals are also the largest fields, but 180 guys on a ‘cross start line is nuts.  To help manage the chaos USA Cycling added a time trial to be completed the day before our race, which served to seed racers for an organized call-up.  Personally I like the idea because it is the best way to have the fastest more capable riders starting towards the front.  The time trial was a one lap effort on a completely different course in Bend, but it did not mirror the design, landscape or openness of the nationals race course at all!  To make it more interesting the time trial was filled with snow, ice and gravel while the nationals course was 50% mud and 50% sloppy grass with obstacles.  There was no escaping having every bit of your skills being challenged!

When I arrived to pre-ride the TT course my friend Brian Sheedy stopped me to say, “Oh man, it is a sketchy and scary course!”  Brian is an amazing mountain biker and ‘cross racer as well as former professional road rider, and if he is telling me he is freaked out then I am going to require a bib change!  Sure enough, Brian was right.  It was early in the morning and the ground was still frozen.  The course had a very narrow tire trail you could follow in order to avoid the ice and snow.  To add to the difficulty you could not see too far ahead in order to gauge the trail ahead of you.  One wrong move two inches on either side and you were going to crash or struggle mightily in the snow and ice.  On the last half there was a huge snow and icy run up followed by a fast descent surrounded by you guessed it, more snow and ice.  After completing one practice lap I was officially freaked out and overwhelmed, and I am not overstating that fact.

My friend Brian Sheedy crushing it to 9th place in Masters 35-39

I began hoping the sun would work its magic and soften things up in the 90 minutes before my TT start time.  I warmed up as best I could considering the cold temperature, and prepared myself for what I thought would be a very punchy effort.  I was not brave enough to fully open up the throttle, so my goal was to simply stay within myself and not be too aggressive.  I watched as rider after rider was going off at 30 second intervals, and as my time neared the edge had worn off a little.  As I get onto the start ramp I am a little bummed because the 90 seconds before me there was nobody to chase, they did not show up to start.  This meant no rabbits to chase in front, but I had plenty of greyhounds chasing from behind!

At 10:21:30 I rolled down the ramp, pegged the sprint start through two immediate paved 180s, and then onto the trail.  Ok, well here go!  I wasn’t 30 seconds into the effort when through a slow technical turn, boom, I went down hard on my left side!  I’m not sure what I did to cause it, but I jumped up confused to see my chain off too.  I know my outburst included some inappropriate language, but considering I felt sucker punched it was to be expected.  This crash had to cost me at least 20 seconds in total, but I got going again and was able to open up the speed.  I can feel my right leg has suffered cuts and is throbbing, but I motor through the softened course and regain my momentum.  I get faster and faster as I reach the icy snow run up.  I pedal farther up it than I expected, about half way, and as I am dismounting and planting to take a step, boom, down on my left again!  I bounce up, grab the bike, and run as best I can to the top.  Good grief, chain is off again!  I estimate at least another 15 seconds is lost because of this mishap.

I get back going and manage the final minute of the course pretty well.  I pegged the descent leading into the right hander before the barriers, and then a straight section before a little rise left to the finish line.  As I finish up I can hear someone just behind on my wheel, and at the line he passes me – my minute man caught me, not my 30 second guy though.  I’m glad it’s over, but I knew this would mean a terrible start position on race day.

When the results are posted my fears are validated.  I finished 119th at 7:22.35, which put my start position at 126th.  You can view the TT results here.  The winning time was 5:57.01 with other top riders in the low six minute range.  Had I not crashed twice I estimate my starting spot would have been around 70th considering the total time I spent on the ground along with lost momentum.  The opportunity cost is sinking in and it is frustrating me, but what is done is done as my focus now turns to the big day tomorrow.  What matters most is how we manage the consequences of our actions; that at-bat is over Tim, get ready for the next one.

I try to put the TT effort out of my mind as I rode over to the championship course to watch Knoxvillejunior Stephen Bassett race.  After a solid start he drops from 3rd down to his finishing spot of 9th.  It is exciting to see such promise from a fellow Tennessean.  I saw him after the race and saw a familiar expression; you could tell he felt something had slipped through his grasp.  I remember thinking, “I hope this increases his hunger and motivation.” 

I hopped on the course to get a feel for tomorrow's adventure.  I took it pretty slow in order to soak up as much detail as possible because I knew the weather conditions were changing the course several times throughout each day.  The sloppiness was fluctuating greatly depending upon the temperature, sunlight, wind, rain and snow.  After a couple of laps I ride back to our house to unwind and digest all that has happened. 

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I am one huge ball of soreness and disappointment, but I am balanced by excited nervousness about tomorrow's championship race.  I find comfort in thinking about what I would say if I were coaching someone in my situation.  I know the words to say to motivate the fearless Cumberland kids, but for myself, well...

I am pondering my fate as these images of tomorrow loom large.....

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