With no school tomorrow and a couple of beers down the hatch on an off day I figured it was time to write a race recap. If you’ve never done West Hill you are missing out on everything that is right about grassroots New England cyclocross. Incredible fan support, pastoral Vermont setting, and the gnarliest run-ups in New England. This year tacky mud was added to the fray which made for a day to remember.
Waking up at 4:11 after inadvertently setting my alarm when I changed the time for Daylight Saving time the previous night I was instantly nervous. This years West Hill Classic would mark the anniversary of my first ever one, two, three race two years ago to the day. That race happened to be my third race ever on a cx bike and was marred by unfortunate and ill timed bad luck. Coming off the pavement twenty seconds into the race I pinch flatted my rear tubular. Despite a quick wheel change I was in no man’s land the whole race and despite my best effort I finished 16th. Fast forward to last year and again I was nagged by bad luck and poor timing. Twenty minutes into the race after making contact with the lead group after a third row call up I rolled a tubular a ways away from the pit. Crestfallen and frustrated in the same instant I threw my bike to the ground in the pit refusing to go full gas for another forty minutes alone in the woods. I came back in the ¾ and won by over two minutes in a hail of heckles telling me that it was time to upgrade. My nervousness was clearly deep seeded and founded following the previous two editions of the race.
Things brightened up on the drive to the race as the overcast sky opened and started dropping a nasty sleet that dropped the temperature below forty degrees. The weather was on my side and it was looking like a hardmans kind of day.
Upon arrival the West Hill vibe set in with its usual bohemian flair and panache. During the late summer and early fall I head over to West Hill every Wednesday night for practice which makes this my home course. Pumpkincross is ten minutes from my house but West Hill is my home course.
My warm-up was given an extra bounce when my buddy Ned came back to the parking lot after the cat four race with his first CX win in his pocket. The stars were were moving into place and I was becoming increasingly certain that I was going to have a great day.
At the line I was jitter free. Coach Cratty was in my head demanding a fast start. My head was in my head telling me to ride and drive clean. My power numbers were screaming at me to inflict pain on the flats. I was ready. No excuses. Put up or shut up. This is going to hurt so freaking bad. This is going to feel so freaking good.
Off the line I was clipped in and rolling full gas right away. Chris Niesen took the whole shot and was drilling it with everything he had the first few minutes. I knew that Chris was less than confident with his form so I let him take the initial salvo as the contenders stacked up. The guy to watch the first lap was Adam Saint Germaine. The winner of the last two editions of the race and an annual top ten finisher at 35+ nationals he was someone that I wanted to beat. The early laps were hard but manageable. Watts were pouring out of my legs but the effort felt like something I could sustain for the entire race. The third lap I was feeling especially good and decided to try and hurt some folks and break the race up. My plan had the desired effect and the race literally detonated in the wake of the move. When I finally sat up after crushing the run up at top speed it was clear that it was a three man race. I kept working but I was smart and allowed the others to share the load as we continued to telescope away from the chase. I distinctly remember seeing the sign for five laps to go and thinking. “Five to go? I can do this effort for five more!”
As the battle continued and cross brain set in attack after attack came. I weathered every storm and dealt out my fair share of blows when disaster struck. Leading into the run up I went a little too hard. As I pumped my bike through the mud rut I hit something that caused my chain to jump off. As I ran up the hill I begged the universe to have let the chain fall off on the inside. As I continued to lead up the run an unfortunate sinking feeling fell across me as I felt the chain slapping against my backside. I remounted and tried to jump the chain back on but the writing was on the wall. I need to stop and manually put the chain back on the ring. The quick repair cost me roughly thirty second after my two breakaway companions attacked my bad fortune.
Rather than panic I set about the absurdly difficult task of trying to bring back the leaders. Throughout the school year I have been trying to teach my students about growth mindset and grit. Never was there a better real life instance than the last third of a silly bike race in Vermont. I couldn’t quit. I wouldn’t quit. Rather than falling into a fixed attitude that I couldn’t catch up I fed on the energy of the crowd as they willed me to make it back to the front. Mary was an absolute pro and seemingly knew the right thing to say every time I passed. After the initial panic subsided she looked at me and simply yelled “RIDE!” As beautiful as she is she is also wise and incredibly practical. Right just ride! Who knows this course better than I do? Who has suffered here more than I have? The next lap as reality set in she forcefully yelled “GRIND” which is exactly what I always hope to do.
The gap slowly came down as I turned myself inside out trying to get back to the front of the race. Through the bell I found legs that I had never had in a sixty minute cross race and I clawed down the gap and had it to five seconds. The whole chase I knew what I was racing for. The reality was that I was racing for third. I wasn’t settling for third I was grinding and riding for third. Just as I was about to make contact with the leaders they surged again as the last of my energy stores evaporated like the spilled beer from the hecklers in the mud. The last few minutes are a blur but I do remember doing my best Belgian and hitting the bars as I crossed the line. Somehow it’s not a race at West Hill without a little bit of bad luck.
Despite the mechanical this was the best cross race of my life. I raced a clean race and drifted my tubulars in the mud like a genuine Belgian. I fought harder than I’ve ever fought and was rewarded with a spot on the podium of the classic New England cyclocross race.
Thank you Mary for the yelling and continued support! Thank you Darren for the equipment hook-up! The Crux is amazing! Thank you Chris and Katie for being such a positive support structure this season! Thank you Jeremy for getting me fit and ready to race! Lastly THANK YOU Minuteman Road Club for giving me the opportunity to race bike with baddest bunch of badasses in New England!