Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Slip Sliding Away: The challenge of Baystate CX & "true 'cross"

The penultimate round of the Verge New England Cyclocross Championship Series often gets short shrift. Sure it falls on the weekend after Thanksgiving. Some racers will take that as an excuse to skip the race. But those are the same folks that have had enough racing by the first of November. The diehards, the true cyclocrosser's are eager for this event. This year the course and conditions made it a true 'cross in every sense.
Jeremy Powers riding the steep hill
Tom Stevens is the maestro of course designers in New England. He has had a part of putting together every long standing event in the region. While others have taken over laying out the courses in Providence and else where, Sterling remains Tom's signature event. In the BTB-TV weekend preview Colt stated that the one key element at Sterling is the horse jump. He could not have been more wrong. Only a handful of riders ever attempt to hop the horse jump. So the jump is not a decisive element. Even smoothly hoping it only gains a second or so. I think there are two key elements. The first is the steep run up. A very small number of racers can ride the whole thing, likely not many more than can hop the horse jump. The difference is that the remount at the horse jump is fast, at the top of the run up the remount is slow. Curtis White, Austin Vincent, Jeremy Powers, & Peter Gougen took full advantage of riding up the steep hill on Saturday, gaining 4-5 seconds each time they could clear it. Any weakness in running is amplified by that hill. I watched Mo Bruno-Roy gain precious seconds each lap on Laura Van Gilder & Arley Kemmerer on that section. Unfortunately for Mo, both LVG & Arley have the speed to close down that advantage in the flats.

the first tough off camber section
The second key element is the off cambers. And there are plenty of off cambers at Bay State CX. The difficulty of these sections was amplified Saturday by slippery frozen conditions & on Sunday by mud over frozen ground super slick conditions. Finesse was critical to simply ride the off cambers, much less race on them. With 5 tricky off camber sections, the racers with the best technique gained valuable time every lap. Tire choice & tire pressure were also critical decisions on the slick off cambers. I tried my FMB Griffo's for a test lap & felt they had too little grip. The FMB Gripo XL were much better, but I should have dropped the pressure another couple of psi. I spotted Alan Starrett on the new Challenge Chicane tubular. When the course was still hard frozen I thought this would be a great tire. As we started to race the track began to soften. I was glad at that point to have more center tread than the Chicane. I'm convinced the Tom is the Picasso of cyclocross course designers. While there do not seem to be any spectacular elements, the flow and less obvious challenges of the Sterling course makes for very tough racing. Add the slippery conditions on both days and Bay State was the most demanding race of the season in New England cyclocross.

As for my own race, I started well. I was moving up into mid field through the first two laps. I got caught behind a falling junior on the steep ride up on lap 1 and bobbled after the barriers on lap 2. But I was well positioned attacking my old friends Dan Coady & Scott Livingston. Then the wheels came off. Specifically, I  went down on the stairs when my feet slid out. I fell on top of my bike and jammed my right shoulder. After I got on my bike again I could barely hold the bars with my right arm. Shifting was difficult for a lap too. I gritted through the pain, but lost ground on the group I was racing with plus another few spots. I was relieved to finish, but only to be done. At least I had a big shoulder to rest on afterward.

Still, a tough day of racing in New England cyclocross is better than an easy day on the couch. I was happy to watch Peter Gougen & Austin Vincent crush our field. Curtis White & his younger sister Emma showed their immense talent in each getting on the podium of the elite races. The youngsters of NECX are very fun to watch as they develop into top racers. Racing in challenging conditions on a demanding course can only make anyone better next time. I did not get to Sterling for the super challenging conditions & course on Sunday. Both my wrenched shoulder and the wrecks on the highways around Fitchburg meant there was no chance of me making the start. I wish I could have. Each time I push myself in the cold, wet, muddy conditions of a true 'cross I gain knowledge & skill. I'm confident that all who did were improved by racing in the toughest course NECX has seen in a few years. We only get so many difficult mud courses each year. Each one should be savored as an chance to enjoy "true 'cross".

All photo's by the incomparable Russ Campbell. Full gallery available here: