My first cyclocross race ever was the very first Keweenaw Cup in 2008. My Tricross was very new and I pretty much had no idea what I was doing or what I was getting into. I rode hard, but only garnered mid-pack finishes. Really, having a ‘cross bike for the race in Copper Harbor was quite a liability, due to all the bumps and singletrack. The Sunday race at the Tech Trails went somewhat better, but only marginally.
It was enough though. I was well and truly hooked on this lunatic sport.
Last year, I only did two ‘cross races in total: the Sunday of Baycross and the Saturday of the Keweenaw Cup. The course at the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge was just as brutal in terms of terrain and more brutal because of the overnight snow that melted into slush and deep puddles. Riders I know that I could beat smeared me because they were riding full-suspension mountain bikes.
This year, due to skipping most of the rest of the UPCROSS races (okay, pretty much all of them), I committed to both days of the Keweenaw Cup. And while I don’t really like recounting all the details of the races (because they’re boring to everybody except the person who rode it), these memories are recorded for my wife.
After a good night’s sleep (the first in more than a week), I drove up to “downtown” Copper Harbor. The weather was to be fairly nice, but I was shivering when I registered and suited up with my thermal jersey, a light base layer and my Equinox cool-weather gloves. I did a couple laps of the course and was a little worried about it. It started at the Copper Harbor Community Center and headed out into Clyde’s Field via a short section of singletrack. There were crazy blind corners that were really easy to overcook. Then you were extricating yourself from waist-high grass and weeds. There was a sharp 180 that emptied out onto a gravel path for a short time. That led directly into another 180, this one on a nasty off-camber slope. A little more two-track, another quick wiggle through some freshly-cut paths through the weeds and then a bridge. This bridge was worrying everyone, because the transition from the dirt to the wood was not at smooth. It was a pinch flat waiting to happen. After a sweeping right-hand curve, there was a set of triple barriers and more two-track taking you back out to the park area surrounding the Community Center. There was a mean trip through the volleyball courts, around one of the poles (off-camber, naturally) and back across the sand. The lap finished up with a wiggling track through some cedar trees and a set of two barriers around a sharp 90-degree turn.
I lined up at the front of the Men’s B field and did my best to keep things close heading into the singletrack. I was holding third place pretty comfortably at that point. Ahead of me was a guy on a mountain bike and one of the Lakeshore Bike guys on a Pugsley. The first lap pretty much ended with that as the status quo. At the second 180, one of our local guys pulled ahead of me as my chain skipped. We stayed tight like that until the set of triples, when I pulled by the Pugsley. It was still a pretty tight bunch through the end of lap 2. Then bad luck hit. My chain skipped again in the first 180, skipped hard in the second 180 and then just before the bridge, it jumped off entirely. At that point, absolutely everybody in the B-field passed me. This is a hard pill to swallow after winning the week before. So I put the chain back on and started chasing.
It took two laps and lots of chain skips, but I got back into third place, which was to be my final position. As hard as I tried, I could not bridge up to second, and first place had run away with the lead. I nearly lost third place during the last lap, as the chase in 4th was breathing down my neck through the sand pits. I turned myself inside out to stay ahead of him in the home stretch.
I had my mechanic (who was racing too) take a look at the bike, but he couldn’t put his finger on any reason the chain should be skipping. So I just went home to munch some FRS chews and guzzle some POM Wonderful.
Sunday’s race was back up at the Mountain Lodge, but with a completely different course. It started in a similar location, but was going the opposite direction. We rode cart paths towards the Lodge, then a big sweeping turn back down one of the golf course holes. The paved cart path gave way to unpaved, rocky and rooty path and then one of the most evil course features I had ever encountered. The course was essentially shaped like a ‘W’, with a barrier positioned right at the top of the middle point of the “W”. So even as you were coming back up from the first dip, you were trying to dismount to hop over a barrier, finish a little dip and then run up the other side. After that, there was a quick section of cart path before riding partway down one hole and back up the next one over. There was a double barrier, a little 180 and a section of rough singletrack before we dropped onto a gravel cart path back to the start line.
A couple of laps proved that my chain skipping issues had not been completely solved by quick fiddling from Saturday. Lacking time to fix it, I tried not to worry and performed a little experiment during the first lap: leaving it in the big ring. And actually, that worked wonders. Not one skip. There were some times where the 50t ring was a little hard to turn over, but consistent chain performance is worth the effort.
My start wasn’t nearly as good. After the initial selection, I was sitting in 5th, behind Saturday’s winner (“Pletka”), the Pugsley rider (who wasn’t on a Pugsley today, but a Specialized Epic), my rival from Baycross and Saturday’s second-place rider (in a Spider-web jersey). The group stayed tight for the first lap. The Pug rider fell back during the second lap, as did my Rival. My teammate from the Gentlemen’s Ride moved up, and I was then in fourth. At least one lap passed that way. Then a mechanical forced Pletka off his bike, the Spider moved into the lead with my teammate and I close behind. Another lap. My teammate started to falter and I pulled ahead of him, but couldn’t cover the ground up to the Spider. He led and I chased hard for two more laps. I was almost beginning to accept the idea of finishing second until the 180, where I was right on the Spider’s wheel. He pulled away again on the singletrack, but as we got back onto the cart path straight-away, I grabbed a couple of gears and started sprinting for all I was worth.
He had a gap, but I was catching him. Someone pre-riding the course was going to get in my way, and I hollered out, “Coming through!” At that point I pulled even and yelled out to him, “Come on, Ian!” I wanted to spur him on, make it a good fight. I heard him hollering something I went past. As we got up to the finish lip, I threw my bike across the line, even though I had no idea how far ahead of him I was. I coasted out my momentum and then just about collapsed. I thought I was done, so I changed into my street clothes and watched the A race. (That’s called “foreshadowing”.)
I realized during that race that the scorers had a conundrum. Pletka had won on Saturday and taken third on Sunday. The Spider took second both days. I was third on Saturday and first on Sunday. I thought all 3 of us had the same number of points, but apparently only Pletka and I did. They decided as the tie-breaker, we would do a 1-legged sprint down the finishing straight. I couldn’t believe that I had to go get my bike back out of the car, but didn’t bother taking off my jacket or the rest of my street clothes. I don’t know if I would have won in a completely straight-up race, but poor Pletka had another incident where he unclipped and I was able to pull ahead. Amazingly, I had just won the whole weekend.
I feel a little bad, like a “stole” the victory from the Spider. At the same time, a race isn’t over until it’s over. I also feel badly for Pletka, because he seems like a really nice guy who had some of the worst luck.
So that’s another great weekend for me on the ‘cross bike. I’ll have three weeks off before the U.P. State Championships down in Marquette. I’ll only get in one more good Wednesday night practice, so it will be interesting to see if the fitness holds. The equipment is definitely dialed in though. The Challenge cyclocross tubes have been great. The Captain CX is every bit the all-around performer the Captain is on the mountain bike. I need to figure out the skipping chain, but figure it might be the chainring.
Now I’m going to just sit here and rest my weary, weary legs. I’ve done 6 race-efforts in the last 12 days and they are feeling just about spent. It’s a good feeling of tiredness though.