In Over My Head at the National Cyclocross Championships

I shouldn’t have been standing at the centre of the second row of the start line. I joked with the rider beside me, “I feel bad for the guys behind who’ll have to get around me.” In a cyclocross race, the sprint from the start line to the first corner is key. It’s easier to keep a position than to gain one, so everyone fights for that corner.

“Yeah, they’ll have to get around me, too,” said the other rider.

He was being modest. I wasn’t.

If the national cyclocross championships this past Saturday were a gunfight, I had shown up not with a pistol, or even a knife, but a rusty pair of nail clippers. Usually I race in a category called M3. The ‘M’ is for “masters,” those 35 years old and older. The ‘3’ means that the master only applies to age, not ability. It’s usually one of the largest categories in the local Sunday cyclocross races. But this was the nationals. Many of the guys I race against were smart enough to stay home. For this race, riders were just grouped by age. My category was 30 to 39. I was up against guys who are M1, two rankings higher, and elite, which means younger and faster. As for my position in the second row, a lottery put me there, and that little bit of fortune used up my luck quotient for the race.

After the start whistle, the riders with their gatling-gun legs did fire around me. I was about fourth from the end at the first corner. We tore along a paved path and then turned off into the woods. Like most of the others, I dismounted for the first tight, muddy turn. I got back on the bike, pedalled along. Then, for some reason of which I’m still not sure, I was doing a summersault along the side of the single track, and my bike bounced to other side. By the time I was pedalling again, everyone was out of sight.

If you are last in a race, like really last, you are an isolated particle. There’s no presence behind pushing you forward and there’s no wheel in front to draw you on. Because ’cross courses are so varied, there’s no “going for one’s personal best” for motivation, or to apply later as an ego balm. So at the back of the pack, you have this wonderful freedom to choose how you’ll lose. I’ve seen a rider mix his physical pain with his emotional dissatisfaction, which just seems sulky. Maybe there is someone at the finish line who will coo for him, “Oh, there there. You just didn’t have the legs I know you have.” I know of another rider who rides with such disdain when he’s losing. He looks back at barriers as if he overhead them say “I don’t get the deal with Daydream Nation” as he was browsing records. His performance is amusing, but he comes across like a prick. I decided to try to not look shitty and to give’er…or a least look like I was given’er.

My mind descended into its race haze. At certain points, the announcer’s words came into focus and seemed to be narrating my ride.

“Riding on the grass really saps the legs of energy, which makes going up those hills even tougher.”

Yes. Yes. Don’t remind me.

“And as a rider continues and gets more and more tired, his judgement also starts to go. The technical parts get more difficult.”

Yes. Thank you. Stop drawing people’s attention to that corner I just took too wide.

A photographer snapped a shot of me as I teetered and fell at the top of a hard climb.

“You just had to get that shot,” I said.

“Yes.”

“Ass.”

I did keep my wits on the barriers: dismounting, running over them and mounting smoothly. Same with the running through the swing-set sandpit. After the race, my friend had the most sincere backhanded compliment: “You did really well at the non-cycling parts.”

The only ray of hope came in the race’s second last lap. As I came down the the hill toward the start line, the second last rider didn’t seem so far away. Maybe I could catch him. I hit the gas on the paved section and went roaring into the forest. I stalked him through the woods around the twisting muddy corners. He had no idea I was gaining. Perfect. At the switchback coming out of the forest and back onto the paved path, he saw me and bolted. Maybe I could catch him in the technical section past the finish line. I had one more hellish lap to salvage something. But at the bend before the start of my last lap, a race official tweeted his whistle at me. Both my second-last nemesis and I were in danger of being lapped, which meant our races were over one lap before the others.

As my friend with the backhanded compliments would say, “Well, you did finish the race ahead of the winner.”

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