Monday, September 12, 2011

At Home Again in Mud

Although watching summer give way to fall brings some sadness, Cyclo-Cross has brought the love back into fall for me. I am not exactly sure what it is about this crazy sport, but being in the company of mud-splattered smiles seems to help make up for losing those wonderful long days of summer.

Last Saturday was the season opener at T-Town with the Nittany Lion Cross. The race fell on the heels of hurricane Irene and a tropical storm, both that soaked much of the northeast with rain causing major flooding. I was a bit apprehensive when the promoter kept sending out updates of flooded parking and road closures the day before the race, but much to my surprise we had no problem parking or getting there.

This would be my first race since MTB National Championships in July. I knew it would be muddy, but I was more nervous about lasting 40 minutes than I was about dealing with mud. I do not consider myself an experienced cyclo-cross mud racer, as it was dry most of last year, but I suppose I do have several decades of mountain bike race experience in all conditions, and I was somewhat curious to see what this mud stuff was all about on a cross bike.

I pre-rode the course in the morning and it was somewhat muddy, flat and not technical. However after the Cat 4 race went, the mud puddles got bigger and one became a giant long slog that would need to be run or walked. I felt fairly confident in my technical skills on this course and was looking forward to plunging into the water on my first lap. I always get a chuckle on a first plunge of the day. I don’t think I ever ran through puddles as a kid, and who would have imagined I would get into that when I was 50?

I went to the line and although I had some “first race of the year” nerves, it felt good being there, and I quickly felt at home with this group of women. The women at the Mac series are a nice bunch of ladies, and it is a thrill to see so many women that come out to race. I was not certain of how the mud thing would pan out, but my main mission was to move ahead whether on foot or bike and figure it out as I go. The nice thing about multiple laps, is that you have the chance to master it by the last lap.

I did not pay close enough attention at the start, and was alarmed to hear clipping in while I was daydreaming for a second. So although I was last out of the start, I stayed calm and safely worked myself up to maybe 5th within a minute. This was not a bad place to be, and before I knew it, I was chaffing a bit, but steadied up a tad until passing space looked good. By the end of the second puddle, I was in the lead. That only lasted a short while, and the eventual winner came by me.

As soon as things opened up a bit, she started to pull away as I started to pull away from those behind me. The first lap is always exciting as a wet course can change greatly as the races go on. Having to run a long section while shouldering your bike sends your heart rate through the roof, but I kept moving forward like I had planned. On lap 3, my bike, which was covered in mud, slipped out of my hand while setting it down from my shoulder and bounced up and struck me hard behind the knee. For a second, I wanted to give in to the pain cave, but I resisted and moved ahead. I think my last lap was my smoothest, placing me in second place with a two minute margin on both sides of me.

This was a much better result for me than I expected. Spent 40 minutes on the bike wash line with all the other muddy chicks, and then it was time to pack it up and head home to get ready to race Jungle Habitat mountain bike race on Sunday.

Jungle habitat is uber technical and on top of that, it was wet. By the time Cat 1 raced, it was extremely slick and would be a race for bike handlers more than fitness. My plan on Sunday was to ride technically clean, and to look at the race as a longer and more aerobic paced ride. Considering the slickness of the course, it was probably the most sensible plan.

I decided to ride my Titus 26” full suspension, which I had not ridden in 6 weeks. It was probably not the smartest choice, but I was thinking the 100mm fork on my 26" bike would be better than 80mm on my 29er at Jungle. I struggled a bit on the first lap readjusting to the feel of the smaller wheels, but eventually settled in by lap 2. Once again, I think my third lap was my smoothest, cleaning the entire chute and only 1 dab on goat. I cruised in for 4th place in the elite field. I was a good distance off 3rd place, but a strong finish none the less.

More bike washing, then time to rest my little legs....

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