We drove up to WI on Sunday night, taking the day off from work. We made it without incident, a stop or two, but mostly smooth sailing. We found a parking spot, I unloaded and got ready, and went to check out the venue while Morleigh rested in the car. We made her a nice little nest in the back of the rented mini-van where she could lay down for a bit. I went and explored the venue, and found the course.
I hopped on the trail to pre-ride, and fell in love with the course. The starting loop was not straight up a hill for a change, a little sprint off camber into a hill climb that was again, not straight up. It climbed, turned, descended, climbed again as we wound along the side of the ski hill. We then dropped into a valley named "Fern Gully" which was beautifully carpeted with rich verdant green ferns. It was my favorite part of the course to pre-ride. The loop continued up the hill, but never straight, small punch switchbacks which were perfect for me. I finished the first lap and was surprised that the loop was only 3.81 miles. I was expecting at that point a 4 - 5 lap race, so I immediately went around again. Halfway through I let a little more air out of my tires which helped immensely. They were a little firm and I was bouncing off stuff rocks instead of rolling over them.
I went down and registered, returned to the car and found Morleigh as well as some of my Chicago friends (Mike, Matt, and Mumford) had just arrived to pre-ride, so we chatted with them for a bit, and Mumford and Matt borrowed my pump. Mumford said he didn't bring one because someone always brings a pump. Morleigh and I always bring everything.
Our last act before leaving was to drive part-way up the ski-hill and stake a claim for a spot with our tent. We had to lug everything down and through a shallow drainage ditch, but it was by all accounts a great spot as the the Cat 1-2 course wound by 3 times within less than 30 yds, and the tent was visible from the parking lot / road.
We headed back to Wautoma, checked into the hotel, and went to get something to eat. Our food took forever to arrive, but was at least good. After a good night sleep, a quick hotel breakfast, we were back at the venue early the next morning. We carried everything we needed up to the tent, and got set up for a full day of racing.
The fact that this was a sanctioned USAC Midwest Regional Championship meant that it had to be run under USAC rules. The normal division between "Sport" Cat 2s and "Comp" Cat 2s was erased, and all Cat 2s were run together. However, the Cat 2 field was too big to fit into a single race course, so the Cat 2s were divided into two races by age category, with the men under 40 racing at 8:30AM and the men over 40, Single-speeds, clydesdales, and women racing at 10AM. Needless to say, I was happy I was not racing at 8AM.
We were set up at the tent before the first wave of Cat 2's went off. I was out in the woods nearby with my camera snapping some photos when they arrived at our corner of the course. As they rode I changed, got everything ready for the race, had Morleigh pin my number on my jersey (I had decided the night before to do hand-ups instead of a camelpak), and started to tool around. Morleigh was in the woods with my camera when I went down to the tent to start my final warm-up. My parents, Mel and Jane, were just crossing the drainage ditch. I said my hellos and then went out to the roads to warm up for 15-20 minutes or so. I came back, spent a few minutes chatting, and was off to staging. There were no call-ups for the combined field, so it was just a regular CX-style pile up.
I was there at a good time, and in a good position, most of the riders were piled on the downhill side of the course so I rolled in on the uphill. As the waves shifted forward I maintained my position in the front row of clydesdales, and when we were invited to the starting line I surged forward and claimed a spot on the front line.
I surged off the line and easily moved to the front. When the course turned up hill I burned a match and powered through knowing that if I could hold the lead until we hit the single-track I would be in a good position for the rest of the race. I burned a second match climbing up and over the bridge as I passed the first stragglers from the previous wave. Warning flags were raised in my head that we were coming up on slower riders already. My fears were realized when we made the sharp downhill turn into Fern Gully and I had to slam on the brakes on a downhill and come to a complete stop because a single-file line was backed up from the turn. I waited and rode at this slow pace until we hit the uphill and the line came to a halt. When I dismounted I grabbed my bike and ran up the inside, on the off-camber leaves while others plodded on the main trail. The rest of the first lap was like this, no matter how many people I passed, just when I got to the kind of technical section I excel at, I slammed into slower riders. In that sense it was a rather frustrating race. But still no riders came up from behind, and I continued to burn at a high speed trying to maintain my lead.
When I made it to our tent, my girlfriend had my camera shooting photos and my Mom and Dad were working as a team to see if I needed hand-ups. I was one well-supported Sprocketeer. I had one bottle with me, and I realized that in my first lap I had not taken a single drink instead grabbing a cup at the feed-zone at the top of the hill and pushing on to pass a few more people before getting into the single track.
It was halfway through my second lap that I saw him. I was going up a switchback and I could see another guy in a red-kit whom I did not recently pass. He was not bulky but he was tall, and I guess (correctly) must have been from my wave, one of the Comp Clydesdales who was trying to close the gap. I put my head down and started to grind onward. I just kept trying to pass people, climbing up the field one person at a time. There were a lot of slower riders still, guys who were fading from earlier waves, and even on the third time through Fern Gully I was held up by a slower rider as we crashed into the back of the Sport women. Despite that section of the course being my favorite in pre-riding it was the bane of my race. I made it past the woman, and caught up to a group of men who were riding only marginally slower than I wanted to ride. That meant passing them was a challenge, it required matches I had already burned, matches I didn't have left. My blood O2 levels were low enough that my handling was also starting to get shaky. I could sense the delayed reaction time, so I was trying to make up ground and put more distance between me and Mr Red, I was trying to crawl past these riders who were moving at basically the same speed as I was, and I was also trying to slow down enough to let more O2 get to my brain.
It did not at all help the cause that heading up a steep and tight switchback I jammed my front wheel on a rock and went down. I lost two spots that I had just burned matches to claim, and worst of all I had the adrenaline shock of crashing, and couldn't catch my breath or get my legs underneath me. Mr. Red made his move and passed me. I tried to contest it, but I could only spin up the hill. When I reached the top, at the water station I could still see him, and I mentally re-engaged and committed to not letting him have his podium spot uncontested. I got lucky a couple of times, and got in the clear on the single-track descents and closed the gap to the point where I was immediately behind him as we headed up a small climbing section.
Here he played a better game of chess than I did, as he passed a slower rider heading across an open ski-run and squeezed in just as he hit the single track, leaving me pinched behind this slower rider on a technical descent. He opened up the gap to 10 seconds like that. By the time I got around that rider, he had put two more between us. As I was passing our tent I jettisoned my water bottle looking for any savings in weight. There were now three riders between us, and I struggled to get around them in the campground. I finally made it passed on the way back up the hill, but the gap had only increased. I wove through "more fun" and grabbed a hand-up from my Mom, taking a quick drink and then dropping the bottle as I entered the final two climbs.
Here it was my legs that gave out. It was everything I could do to keep on the bike, and keep them spinning much less worry about closing the gap. I did not give up, the race by any stretch, but my thoughts of closing the gap became thoughts of finishing, and finishing 2nd among all Cat 2 clydesdales. I kept an eye out behind me but saw only the riders I had just passed. I crossed the finish line just 21 seconds behind first place, but I was really happy with my performance. With zero mechanicals and only one fall it felt like a pretty good effort. I was a little frustrated that I lost the chess game at the end, but Eric raced a great race.
I also looked at the final results for the earlier race and placed Eric and I in the total pool of Cat 2 men aged 30-39. He had the 14th fastest time and I had the 15th fastest time. This means that, in addition to being the first Sport Clydesdale across the line I was also one of the top 15 finishers in my age group. According to my understanding of things, this means I qualified for Nationals in Leigh, PA next summer. Goals accomplished.