Written by Mike Benson Thursday, 12 January 2017 00:00
So it has been about 3 days since I last competed in Hartford Nationals and my mind is still focused on what might be around the corner next week. Unfortunately, it’s over, I’m sad, and I’ve come to the realization that it’s time to recover, focus, and start training for the spring road season ahead. Cyclocross Nationals is nothing short of awesome. My wife and I are already talking about how we can make the trip to Reno next year.
If you are still reading this, you are still wondering about my thoughts on the race course, parking, my week on racing, and what I’ve learned. So here goes. I’m in awe at the amount of preparation that went into this week. For anyone that complains about the money spent to register, compete, and park... boooooo! The money spent is worth it. Having competed at multiple venues this season, this one takes the cake. Every time I pedaled onto the bridge to the venue, it was like I was getting transported to a special cyclocross world of fun. This venue was so disconnected from the outside world that I found myself totally immersed every time I rode down the bridge to the venue which was Riverpoint Park in Hartford, CT. Connecticut has a fearsome cycling culture that seems to get stronger and stronger every year with the further development of its junior program (kudos to CCAP). The park is situated right on the Connecticut River. One of the most prominent features of the park is the embankment wall that outlines the entire facility. Not only is the embankment / dam wall steep and menacing but it would come to be the difference maker in many racer’s dreams. USA Cycling used the topography to introduce all sorts of difficult cambers, run-ups, and steep drops to challenge riders every day depending on weather conditions. Yeehaaah!!
My week would start on Tuesday January 3rd. I would be racing in the Masters Open 40-49 category. The field presented a hundred or more riders. The weather was not promising. It had been raining now for at least 12 hours and the ground had turned to muddy pudding on top of a frozen permafrost layer. Today, I found myself starting around the 6th or 7th row. The goal as always is to get out of the gates clean and free of crashes. Today, like always, a crash came in the first minute but I was able to avoid the madness. Today, the course included every feature that USAC created. None of these features would be used again during the week. Two reasons for this where increased lap times and the introduced danger of icy, snowy, dangerous ruts. After the initial start, the race’s first feature was Bonk Breaker Hill which was a massive camber which encouraged riders to choose between a low and high line, none of which was rideable on Tuesday. From here, riders were tortured with the notion to ride down a super steep hill that later became known as the slip-and-slide due to all the mud and people sliding down on their butts. I would run down the first two laps because of traffic and ended up riding the final lap. From there riders needed to climb straight up again and then remount and ride towards another camber on the back side of the dam. Once through that, you had a sprint down the top of the dam and then negotiate a super slippery chicane and steep drop that led into the river bottom and then back up the dam hill to another camber and another drop back into the field which led to the river bottom again. Agony is the only way to describe the ups and downs on this end of the course.
Once riders hit the river bottom for the second time, they were met with mud at every turn. The river bottom had two or three tough ups and downs which required lots of power and focus to run them clean. From here, you were at the back of the boat house and were sprinting through mud puddles towards a small fly over that led back into the heart of the park which included barriers and more slippery hills, turns, small run-ups and cambers. This course did not let up. By the time I made it through the first lap, I looked up and the clock was at 15 minutes. WOW. Hit the gas and hammer. By the third lap, I was riding things faster and faster while lapping riders at will. It was a grueling course but super fun. I finished the day 26/96 and was very happy with that result. I spent about 45 minutes waiting in the power washer line to clean the bikes before the 2 hour ride home. One guy in line was complaining that he wanted his money back and that it was more of a mountain bike course. I couldn’t disagree more with his reaction. I thought that this was a true CX course that mirrored what we see in Europe and the weather helped to make this a truly epic and extreme race day. It wasn’t just watts that led to winners. Racers needed skill and determination to find lines that kept them pedaling.
For Friday’s Masters Championship 40-44 race, the conditions had changed from Tuesday’s super loose mud to snowy, thick mud that stuck to everything. My son Matt (who would be racing Sat) and I set out mid-morning to scope out the course. As we toured through Bonk Breaker Hill we realized that slip and slide hill had been removed but a new camber and drop had been added. The course had been shortened to minimize lap times and to decrease the dangerous amount of crashes that could happen on the steep hills.
Call-ups came for my 2:40 race and my heart was pounding. CX nationals is cool because they announce each rider’s start position as they stage the racers. Today I would be starting around the 10th row in a 100+ field. When the whistle blew, I hit the gas and looked for potential crashes. As we left the pavement onto the grass about 15 riders piled up in front of me. I hit the gas and sped towards Bonk Breaker Hill. On my first drop down the hill I hit the bottom and cruised super-fast towards the river bottom woods. Luckily I was able to control my front wheel on the ice on this time around. The third lap I would not be so lucky. My front wheel just flew out from under me at about 27 miles per hour and I crashed hard breaking my computer mount. As I remounted, 10 or so riders flew by. I took my wahoo element computer and stuffed it down the back of my skin suit and trudged onward with one lap to go. I found myself behind a fellow nemesis from Downeast Cycling and knew that I had to make my move. As I hit the gas at the little flyover, I never saw him again. As the forth lap unfolded I raced with 2-3 of the same guys. At the finish line, I beat one of them in a sprint at the line to get 60/99. I was happy with my finish. This was not only a battle of riders but also the course for the day. My Kona Major Jake had more mud on the frame, wheels, and drivetrain than I had ever seen before. If you haven’t looked at the coverage on Youtube or cxmagazine, go over there and take a look. I will never forget my first nationals. This will not be my last. Reno here we come!!!
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