Planet Bike Cup: National-Level ‘Cross

After my success in cyclocross last year, I decided 2011 would be my year of ‘cross.  Mountain bike season was really about prepping my body for ‘cross by doing shorter, intense races.  I took a big chunk of the summer off from proper training so that I could come back in late August and be ready for the cyclocross season.  I bought tubular wheels and tires, I bought barriers to practice with and I bought my annual USA Cycling license.  And to be ready for CX Nats, I set my eyes on one of the few UCI CX races in my neck of the woods: The USGP of Cyclocross Planet Bike Cup.

When I really started laying out my schedule, the Planet Bike Cup was the first thing on the schedule, but my wife balked a little at the number of races.  She was probably right.  So I restructured a little to be at one of our UPCROSS races instead, but wasn’t really happy about it.  So I took off one more race and put the Planet Bike Cup in.  I’m glad I did.

Sun Prairie is a neat little suburb of Madison.  It’s far enough away from the busyness of the city to feel homey, but there’s more than enough conveniences to not feel like you’re out in the boondocks.  After a visit to the Trek factory in Waterloo a couple of years ago, we drove though Sun Prairie and stopped at the cool little diner there.  The pie was fantastic.  We had always said that we would go back if we could.  Interestingly, my little gluten-free experiment meant no pie.  (Is this where you cue the Seinfeld Soup Nazi?  “No pie for you!”)

Anyways, we were at a Super 8 hotel not far from the race venue.  It was easily close enough that I could show up at 6:30 AM to pick up my numbers and get a few laps around the course before my first race.  It was such a different course than what I am used to here in the U.P.  Our courses use lots of singletrack and very little marking.  The PBC course was completely taped off.  Our courses tend to be pretty bumpy and tight, but the PBC had some sections that demanded to be ridden in the big ring (even my 50-tooth).  There were two passes by the pit area in Sun Prairie — we never have a proper pit area.  There was only one set of barriers, which seemed low.  Sherman Cross (for example) had 3 sets of barriers.

What was also surprising was the equipment.  I was racing Cat 4, but I’ve never seen so much carbon in my category.  Just about everybody had carbon bikes rolling Zipp carbon tubulars.  My Tricross “only” had carbon seatstays and a carbon fork.  I was rolling (gasp!) aluminum tubulars.  Most of the people who race UPCROSS are on old beater mountain bikes or super-cheap CX bikes.  My consolation is that you can’t just buy speed.

Both days we were staged strictly by number.  I think that was stupid.  Most of us won’t race another USGP and will never see the fruits of our labors.  I lined up in the 40’s both days, finished in the 20’s both days and have to wonder just how much better I could have placed on Sunday if I didn’t get stuck behind slower riders.  Because here’s the thing: The majority of Cat 4 riders (at least the ones I rode near) cannot handle their bikes.

If you look back at my race report from Copper Harbor, you’ll see that I was excellent on the climbs, excellent on the flats and one step above “schmuck” on the descents.  That’s not to say I don’t have any technical skills.  I just don’t have really good technical skills.  I think I also lack the guts to really attack a corner or commit to a sketchy line. I don’t want to get hurt, is all I’m saying.

What I found at the USGP is that most riders couldn’t handle the more technical terrain in the race.  Corners that didn’t require braking were being entered with the distinctive squeal of cantilevers.  Corners were being taken super-wide.  People were getting off to run parts of the course that were completely rideable.  Check out this sequence of pictures for a quick example.I’m the rider in the red and black jersey wearing the white helmet.  Oh, wait.  I’m the guy on the inside of the turn.  The guy near the outside of the picture entered the turn first and took it unnecessarily wide.

In one bike length, I’ve moved significantly ahead of him.

He’s out of the saddle now, because he’s got a horrible line going straight uphill.  I’m lining up for a much straighter path across the hill.

Now we exit the turn with me in the lead.  I won’t see him again.

This kind of thing happened on pretty much every lap.  Unfortunately, there weren’t many places for me to actually do this.  After I would come up on somebody’s wheel in a twisty section, they would hammer away on the straights so that I couldn’t catch them.  Once I resolved that I would pass at any cost and sprinted by a rider.  At the end of the straight was a big 180-degree turn, so I slammed on my brakes, threw the bike into the corner and the non-existent shoulder knobs of the Grifos let go.  I slid on my side for a few feet, picked up the bike and watched 3 or 4 people pass me.  I was a little more cautious going into corners (though I did pass all those riders again before the lap was over).

As I mentioned in the Sherman Cross post, I couldn’t figure out why people were pushing their bikes up the STANLEY Run-Up.  (I think I’m required by contract to capitalize that.)  When I watched the pros, they could remount their bike in the middle of the run-up, so it makes sense they would push.  But not one of us Cat 4’s would do that.  We all remounted at the top.  Especially on Sunday, I was passing people there because a.) I had shouldered my bike and b.) all that running I’ve been doing is paying off.

So I finished 29/82 on Saturday and 24/68 on Sunday.  Without doing an in-depth analysis of the results, I think that I did actually improve from Saturday to Sunday and didn’t just benefit from fewer people showing up.  I still can’t help but wonder how I would have finished with a little better start position.

After the final lap on Sunday, I got some attention from the announcers when they randomly decided to announce my finish and then went on to say that I would be cooling down with a pasty and a beer.  I can’t say that kind of meal sounds especially delicious at 9AM (nor does it really fit in that whole “gluten-free” thing either).  All the same, I enjoyed my 15 seconds of fame.

I was also really happy that we started so early on Sunday.  It barely started to rain towards the end of our race, whereas the rest of the racers got muddy slop to ride in.

Watching the pros compete later was a real treat.  I kept pointing out riders until my wife said, “How do you know all these people?!” It’s basically watching too many videos on Cycling Dirt.  It was incredible watching them ride the run-up and it was cool to watch Todd Wells really honor his national champ jersey even after a horrible start.  I watched him closely and never saw any sign of resignation.  Rather, he pinned it all the way to the end. Very cool to see.

So I’m looking forward to Nationals.  I’m also looking forward to upgrading to Cat 3 as soon as I can, so that I can ride with people who handle their bikes better (though they will almost certainly crush me aerobically).  I haven’t decided if I’m heading to this weekend’s UPCROSS race, but I’m leaning towards staying home and just riding.  ‘Cross season is short, but cycling isn’t everything.

I am definitely excited for the rest of the season.  More cowbell!



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