Tuesday, December 30, 2014

End of the Line

By Ben Coleman

I began the 2014 cross season with the intention of writing regular race reports for each

event and every racing weekend. I let that intent slip through the cracks in the roughly four

month repetitive blur of race prep and planning, racing, and recuperating. Now that the

calendar year is over, and along with it my cyclocross racing season, I’d like to take the time to

review the memorable moments of this past season and briefly look ahead to next September

and the 2015 season.

This past year was my first attempt at a full season of racing. That means a lot of

different things to different people, but to me it meant roughly 15 races on the calendar and

traveling sometimes several hours and even a few overnight stays all in the name of muddy

suffering fun. After the literal shakedown of the Cross of the Corn race I headed to the opening

round of the Sportif Cross Cup series with high hopes. Unlike most other series, the Sportif

races offer a CAT 5 only race, and since it is always run first thing in the morning it’s usually a

small field. That along with the fact that I had snagged fourth place in the CAT 5 race at the

finale event of the 2013 Sportif series had me confident in my chances of coming away with a

good result. Unfortunately it takes more than confidence to do well in cyclocross, and my ill-

prepared legs and a minor blood sugar problem left me with 11th and 27th place finishes in the

CAT 5 and CAT 4/5 races, respectfully.

My hopes were still high and my excitement for racing was peaked going into the

following weekend and both days of the Charm City Cyclocross. I was energized about going to

this UCI event and getting to race on a professional level course, and getting to watch some of

those pros race later in the day. It was unreal watching the way guys like Stephen Hyde, Cam

Dodge and Jonathan Page put down the power. They pedal constantly at a steady cadence,

always accelerating, even uphill. And getting to see the great Helen Wyman dominate the

women’s pro field was also a treat. The course was great, very flowing, and the number of

corners and variation of obstacles made for a surprisingly technical lap. My favorite feature by

far was the flyover, which was ride-able on both sides and gave the opportunity to get a little

rad, which I did every lap. I figured if I wasn’t going to be fast I could at least be having fun! The

CAT 4/5 fields were packed both days with over 100 racers, and I was happy to finish in the top

half on Saturday with a 50th place. Sunday brought some changes to the course, mostly the

direction in which it was run, and an even better result as I managed to crack the top 30 with a

28th place finish that I was thrilled with. All in all a great weekend, I can’t wait to go back next

October 5th, Iron Cross XII. This was only my second time to this dance, the gravel-

grinder generally regarded as the Grand-daddy of the North American Ultracross Series. As

such, it’s got a sort of life of its own when discussed in cycling circles. Even more so this year

due to the confirmed rumor that Michaux may not see another one of the events in the

foreseeable future. I always want to do well at this event, as I’m sure every other person who

shows up because they think that a minimum of four hours spent dragging one’s self from one

end of the forest to the other and back is fun. But the phrase “doing well” has more definitions

here than at any other race, as many in fact as there are riders. In my first go, I just wanted to

finish the damn thing before it got dark. I had never done anything like it before, and was

constantly afraid that my type-1 diabetes would factor into some situation where I would be

unable to make it to the finish, or worse. So I didn’t let more than 90 minutes go by without

stopping by the side of the course to check my blood sugar and eat if necessary. I avoided any

medical crises that day, and finished well before sundown, but with a time of seven hours and

six minutes. I even felt pretty good at the finish, making me believe that I could’ve gone harder

over the length of the race. The more I thought about it and talked about it with others over

the following year the more determined I became to bring that time down considerably in the

2014 edition. I did longer rides, learned more about how often and how much I should eat to

keep myself in the sweet spot, and set a goal for a sub-six-hour ride.

The first Sunday in October arrived, and I was ready to go. I had pre-packed as much of

my gear as possible the day before, had my cooler stocked with baggies of provisions identical

in variety and quantity to what I would start the race with, ready to be switched out at the

midpoint, checkpoint #2. I went harder right from the start than the year before, confident in

my planning and preparation. I rolled through checkpoint #1 without stopping, and straight

through to CP#2. When I got there, I was well within the pace I knew I needed to keep to make

my six hour goal. I replaced the empty and even only partially empty packages I’d prepared for

full ones from the cooler stash and grabbed some full bottles too. Rolling out onto the second

half of the course I could tell I wasn’t as fresh as I had been at this point the year before. I

remembered how last year, the second half didn’t seem nearly as difficult as I had thought it

would be. I felt secure in these thoughts, and in my plan working out as I had hoped it would.

Jump forward, and I’m at the bottom of Hogshead. In my easiest gear. Cross-eyed. I was

passed by the particularly badass individual who was doing this race despite having an artificial

leg. I wondered if I had just imagined that. Imploding. Rapidly. I finally made it to Buzzard Rock,

and plugged on through the forest and towards Bunker Hill. I entered the doubletrack which

would shortly turn to singletrack with a pair of guys on mountain bikes who weren’t from

‘round these parts. We rode along, hopping logs and rocks to the bottom of the hike-a-bike to

Larry’s Tavern. The companionship made me momentarily forget about how much I was

suffering, and the sweet, sweet SlyFox at the Tavern made me forget about it completely. At

least until checkpoint #3.

I sat at CP#3 filling bottles and looking at my computer I tried to figure out if I was still

on pace or not. I couldn’t do math any longer. I decided that I probably was, but only just. I met

up with Ralph Pisle and we rode out of the checkpoint and to the bottom of Bendersville Road

together. My memory had returned, my ability to do math hadn’t, and so had the suffering. I

watched Ralph ease away up the paved climb, not that he was trying to drop me, but at that

point you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to keep moving forward. I somehow caught back

up with him again on the following bit of ATV trail and we stayed together until Piney Mountain

Ridge Road. I had told him about my pace and math issues, both of which were just terrible by

now, but I didn’t feel so bad when not even the both of us could make sense of the numbers.

Ralph stopped for a brief respite, I wanted to, but didn’t. I trudged the rest of the way to the

finish, certain that I wouldn’t meet my goal, but finding solace in knowing that I gave it all I had

that day. I wouldn’t finish with gas still in the tank like the year before. I would be lucky to be

running on fumes. Then, I realized where I was on course, how close the finish was, and what

time it was. The six-hour goal was still a possibility, and even a probability. I pushed. Somehow.

I popped out of the final ATV trail climb and onto the blacktop. I could hear, smell, and see the

finish. I looked down at my computer, elapsed time five hours, forty minutes and change. I

rolled down the gravel path, broken, burned-up, and dizzy with exertion and disbelief that I had

met my goal. I finished Iron Cross XII in a time of 5:47:54. Even though the real race winners

had been done for hours, in my mind, I had won.

After a weekend spent not racing to fully recover from Iron Cross, I once again toed the

line at Whirlybird Cross in Bensalem PA. It was a wet, gray, chilly morning on the course

comprised of sections of tight corners strung together with long straights. It was during this

race that I decided I would definitely need to train a lot more in the coming summer to be a

regular contender for the podium. I had no problem carving through the corners with enough

speed to pass more than a few other racers, only to be blown away on the straights. I hung in

through the cold and rain and came away with a 53rd place finish, exactly middle-of-the-pack,

albeit rather disappointed after what I thought were fairly good results at Charm City.

Another few weekends off, and then back into it at Swashbuckler Cross on the grounds

of the PA Renaissance Faire. I had heard a lot about this race the year before, how the course

was unlike any other and featured unique obstacles and therefore unique challenges. During

the pre-ride Greg Mitstifer made the comment that if there were ever going to be a course

designed just for me, this was it. I wholeheartedly agreed as we made our way through sketchy

gravel corners, tight grass sections, pump-track style rollers and a few fast downhills. Looking

back on it now this was the best course I raced on all year, for sure. I had a front row starting

spot, but was less than thrilled about the first quarter mile or so being a fairly sharp paved

climb. Expressing my concern to Greg during staging he gave me what turned out to be the

perfect advice. “Think about it this way” he said, “your race is over at the top of that hill. Just

get there first and everything else will follow.” Easier said than done, I thought, but nonetheless

I stood on my pedals from the whistle, furiously stamping up the incline at the front of the wave

of riders stringing out behind me. I hit the crest only half a bike length ahead of the next closest

racer and settled in on his wheel, weaving through some difficult corners. We hit the first flat

straight section and I finally glanced backwards, something I had been afraid to do until then

because of what I thought I was sure to see, several dozen riders nipping at my wheel. But no,

there was no one there at all really, especially not within striking distance. We spent most of

the first lap like that, me trying to regain some breath from the effort I’d put into the start, yo-

yoing at the leader’s wheel until we were joined by a Team Rohan rider who had bridged the

gap. After a short time of trying to work together as a three-man train the Rohan rider dug in

and created a commanding gap over myself and the early race leader. My yo-yo string was

getting rather worn by then, and I gradually slipped back to an eventual fifth place finish. Even

though I had a shot at the front early on, I was over the moon about making the top five for the

first time of the season. Thank-you, Swashbuckler course, and thank-you Greg Mitstifer!

A night spent in a cheap but impressively clean motel had me lining up the very next

morning for the PA State Championships at Stoudt’s Brewery Cross in much colder and blustery

conditions than the day before. I was also much less excited about the course, as the majority

of it was on a single hill to be climbed no less than three times per lap. I didn’t have a great

race, but not a bad one either, ending up 19th out of 69 in the end.

The second weekend of November brought SlyFox Cross, a rowdy race at a craft

brewery across the street from a craft whiskey distillery nestled in a business park in Pottsville

PA. None of that seems unusual right? It may have been their first attempt at hosting a cross

race, but you never would have known it if you hadn’t been told. They pulled out all the stops,

and then all the yields, and eventually all the other signs of direction and reason. The whole day

was a non-stop party for bike racing weirdoes and their not-quite-right friends. Swashbuckler

may have had the best course of the year but SlyFox had the best everything else for the most

part. Type “slyfox cross” into youtube and see for yourself, just remember that once you see

something you can’t un-see it! It’s on my list as a “can’t miss” for 2015 for sure. I did alright at

this one too, finishing just outside of the top ten in 13th.

I was all revved up for the next weekend’s Kutztown Cross, but I unfortunately had to sit

out with a sinus cold. At least after explaining my situation to the promoter via e-mail I was

refunded my entry fees for both days, and I’m still looking forward to trying that race out next

winter. Turkey day came and went, and I went to Taneytown MD for the penultimate round of

the Sportif series. Since my previous race at SlyFox I had been upgraded from a CAT 5 to a CAT

4, and was eager to get some use out of it. Not the best planning on my part, as I attempted to

hold on to the CAT 3/4 field in my first race of the day, which didn’t happen at all. Not surprised

by my 19th out of 22 racers finish I set my sights on the CAT4/5 race later in the day. Rolling up

to the line, I felt like a slug. My legs were heavy, stiff, and generally unresponsive. Not a good

way to be feeling sitting on the starting grid. The feeling in my legs at the start more or less

summed up the entire race, and I left Taneytown with a disappointing 29th place heading into

the last two races of my season.

December sixth I was back below the Mason-Dixon for another brewery-hosted race,

Bike Doctor’s Milkhouse Brewery CX. The day would turn out to be defined by the weather,

which I was told had been fairly nice earlier in the day. But by the time I arrived in the

afternoon for my 3pm start the rain had been falling for a few hours and the very hilly course

built on rolling farmland had been transformed into wide swaths of deep mud in most places

and knee-deep stream crossings in others. The rain kept falling, along with the temperature, all

of which resulted in a generally miserable set of conditions to be trying to ride a bike in. There

was a lot of trying to ride, followed by a lot of giving up on that and running up the hills. That

was followed by trying to run, which for me degenerated into a heavy-footed slogging. Reveling

in the misery of it all, I somehow managed to get myself near the front and stay there, holding

on for a season-best-tying result of fifth. I hope they keep the same course next year, but order

better weather, as I think this race could turn out to be a real classic-style romp and a bully

That brings me to my 14th and last serious race of the year. Well, as serious as I get at a

cross race. Limestone Cross at the Kiln was the event, and Matt Pisano had cheerily volunteered

to be my co-driver, mechanic, coach, and cheerleader for the day. In fact, there were a lot of

familiar faces there, not even racing, but supporting myself and Michael McCormick in his bid to

secure a podium finish to his 2014 MAC Series conquest, and Bill Haley in his Master’s category

race. Matt and I arrived at the race venue before dawn, which actually was only a little over an

hour before my start time. We walked the course in the dim light, Matty all the while pointing

out lines and being his generally jazzed self. It was something that I appreciated, his guidance

and support, and his inevitably psyching me up for what he was sure was going to be a killer

course and race for me. I was inclined to believe him as we traversed the well-laid out corners

in the grass, the several woodsy sections that each held their own technical aspects and

features, and the ripper of a decent down a steep, swooping grassy sweeper. I was feeling good

about the course and my chances of doing well, so long as I could do two things in the race. The

first of which was getting a good start from my second row spot and being able to hold it

through the always-volatile first lap. The second was finding a way to get myself to the top of

an almost ride-able run up that seemed to go on forever until it terminated in a wall of small

boulders at the summit. Running is not my strong suit. Running while carrying a bike that

weighs nearly 30 pounds is a suit that isn’t even in my closet.

Myself and the rest of the CAT 4/5 field assembled at the grid for call-ups and eagerly

awaited the start. I didn’t have the greatest launch off the line, slipping my right foot and not

clipping in until the second try, but I managed to slot in with the initial top five and held it into

the bottom of the run-up. I think I managed to pseudo-jog the whole grade on that first lap, but

that was the only time. Every subsequent ascension was made at a tortoise pace, head down,

bike on the shoulder, looking forward at the mud until the mud turned to rock. It seemed like

most everyone else was having similar issues with this climb also, so it turned out to not be a

race-breaker for me like I feared it would be. I kept Matty’s lines in mind, in one corner in

particular, stayed off the brakes like we agreed I should, and swooped through it every lap. It

was awesome, that feeling of railing a corner and swinging out of it on the wheel of someone

who had led me into that corner by 20 yards, jumping on the pedals to keep the momentum

working, flowing it into the next series of switchbacks. Matty and ‘the boys’ were excited too,

as any other sounds were drowned out completely by their cheering every time I was within

their sight. It made me a little lighter, a little faster, and one time even gave me the pep to

sprint out of a bend, out of the saddle, and throttle past one and then another racer as I

screamed into the next corner. My mind may be embellishing this memory a bit, but that’s how

it happened in my head, that’s how it made me feel, and that’s the way I’m going to remember

it. I rallied in this support and put all I had into this last race of the year on a superb but tough

course, and came away with another top-10 finish, this time eighth, and a feeling like I raced

the way I always want to race. What a way to end the season!

It was definitely a bit of a roller coaster ride, from the good times and good results to

times when I felt as though I was merely suffering through and ending up in the back of the

pack, and the plateaus in between. Looking ahead, there’s Fast Forward’s own Highpoint CX

Relay, which is guaranteed to be a proper hootenanny to roll up the season of this big crazy

shag carpet of a sport we love. Come on out and join us!

Looking a bit further, beyond the January blowout bash relay, there is a sort-of

restructuring happening. My desires, focuses, goals and determinations are changing and

evolving, and I’m looking forward to giving it my all in 2015 to come away with a consistently

successful cross season. All of this combined is supporting my move from the Fast Forward

Racing Team to Blue Mountain Velo in the New Year. The kits will be different, the name will be

different, but the faces will generally remain the same. This is cross after all, and what’s more,

this is the cycling community, all disciplines included, we have here. I’m looking forward now

more than ever to making myself into a better bike rider and bike racer with lots and lots of

help and support from those around me, doing the same for others whenever I get the chance

to, helping out at events, and sharing in the good times we collectively create all the while.

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