Yesterday I rolled to the line for my second 'Cross race of the season. I had three goals: A) Stay upright, B) Don't come in last, and C) Don't get lapped.
Two out of three really isn't that bad. Just shy of a D+, actually! O.K., no need for irony or sarcasm; I left the race cold and happy, having achieved goals A and B. Staying upright worried me, as I've still got my wholly inappropriate Ritchey Speedmax tires on my bike. After one warm up lap, the tread had disappeared, turning the tires into brown slicks. Not too much mud adorned the course, although one long stretch, just after the Start/Finish, rode like a Northeastern sand pit lightly watered. The fans made riding that section both A) harder and B) fraught with peer pressure as they piled up a makeshift barrier out of trashed pumpkins. If you looked carefully, you could see spots where a tire might fit, and cranking hard would bring you over without requiring a dismount. Making it over without running brought a huge, drunken cheer from the PDX crowd, while carrying brought whistles and derision. About four laps in I started worrying well in advance of the pumpkin barrier: They won't like me if I dismount! See a great picture of the pumpkin barrier here.
I started fairly well, about 2/3 back from the front, but bobbled badly after the first set of honest barriers and lost the front group, which kept streaking ahead. Soon I was off the back but not riding slowly, and I picked up a few spots. I learned later that I am basically the canary on the 'cross course, as getting passed by me appeared to be the nail in your race's coffin. Everyone I passed (except one crucial figure) dropped out of the race. One bloke left trailing a long strip of race tape, as if he'd just left the bathroom. My cranks were making this sound like they were about to fall off or had been filled with gravel. Although my 'Cross fitness sure isn't where it needs to be, it appears my barrier running remains solid. One spectator, alone in the fields by a set of barriers (placed there, I'm sure, to keep riders honest), lauded my technique each time through, and I did feel pretty smooth going over and back onto the bike. Only problem was, he called me "Big Legs" on one lap. I do forget that I don't quite cut the svelte figure of most cyclists. Final result: 23rd out of 24 finishers (you gotta leave out the four or five that I, personally I'd like to believe, forced out of the race). I did get lapped, on the last time around, but only by the lead group. For racing the As, and only finishing my first race of the season, I'll count that a success.
'Cross in Portland is everything it should be. It's every bit as fast and hard as the races in New England, but the spirit is wackier. Near the other set of barriers (I counted, actually, four full sets of barriers, leaving out the pumpkins; put that in your pipe, UCI!) congregated the bike shop tents, with their beer-drinking crazies, folks who had already raced that day and therefore felt justified in yelling things like "Run it, fattie!" and "C'Mon, this is a race!", all while spewing beer over the riders. Someone had lit a bonfire, and Belgian flags flew. If you want to see the true spirit of cross, head over to pdxcross.com. Someone there knows his or her photography, as I quickly lost count of the beautifully composed and honest pictures. You get the sense, looking at the black and white, sharply focused pieces, of 'Cross's outward pleasure and inward pain. People always say: "Looks easy, they're not going too fast." Get those same people out there on a bike in the mud, and they'll look at the sport differently, afterward. The photographer composed these pictures with that contrast in mind, and I think captured the weirldy Calvinist beauty of this sport: All that work and pain for...what? An afternoon in the mud?
Last night, aching in several places, I went to sleep happy.
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