On Saturday's team ride, Nick asked me what it would take to beat Lou Kuhn, one of Chicago's cyclocross statesmen who has been demolishing the 30+ field this season. If you can beat Lou, you have probably won the race.
"I think it can be done," I said, "but absolutely everything would have to go right."
I've had some modest success this season, but each race has followed a familiar pattern: First I'll have a terrible start and lose a lot of positions in the argy-bargy rush to the hole shot. Then I'll kill myself for a lap in order to catch up to the lead group. I'll hang for a lap or so, tongue hanging out, then bobble a corner and get dropped, doomed to spend the rest of the race cutting my losses.
Sunday's race in Woodstock was no different. Despite a front-row start, I was maybe 20th heading out of the hole shot. Fortunately the course had great, wide-open lanes and some climbs that suited me, so I was able to navigate through the field until reaching the front group of about 10.
By this point, Tim Yuska of Iron Cycles was setting a blistering tempo at the front, and this group was getting stretched out like saltwater taffy. One by one riders fell off the pace, opening gaps for me to jump across.
When we hit the steep downhill for the second time, there were only five or six of us, and it was here that Lou skidded in a corner and slowed. I took an aggressive line and passed him. "Hot damn!" I thought. "I'm ahead of Lou!" In eight races, this had yet to happen.
(Why on earth was I ahead of Lou? Only because he had a flat tire -- and was a long, long way from the pit. Nonetheless he would finish 7th. Respect.)
Soon the elite group was just three: Yuska, Tim Boundy from Verdigris, and some roadie on clinchers -- me.
I sat in and measured my efforts. Many times I have found myself unexpectedly in the elite group and gotten greedy: My eyes would get bigger than my legs and I would attack or ride too aggressively, only to crash or red-line and crack. (See an example of this at the 3:45 mark of this video from last season.) So this time I let the others do most of the work, chipping in only when I felt chasers were gaining ground. I was also concerned that Boundy was easing up in order to let his teammate catch up.
During this time it was great to get so much support from the sidelines, especially the live coaching from Randy and Seguin. Of course Yuska and Boundy were getting lots of encouragement, too -- and since they were both named Tim, every "Go, Tim!" counted double. I was being two-Tim'ed! Not fair!
With two to go, Yuska had a mishap on a tricky barrier, and Boundy and I were able to exploit it. Now it was just the two of us, and like the final 10km of a successful breakaway, it was time to stop being friends and start figuring out how to win this thing.
I let Boundy pull for the final lap and a half. We were safely out of the reach of 3rd place, so I had more to lose than gain by helping him. That's racin'.
This much was clear: This mustn't come to a sprint. In seven years of racing I've won exactly one sprint. Indeed, in both the two previous weeks I had lost sprints by the width of a tire. (Perhaps I should just get wider tires?) To avoid a sprint I would have to put in an early attack at some point. The question was where.
Earlier in the race, one of the Tims had put in a hard effort on the tough dirt climb on the backside. I had been able to mark it and then put in a dig of my own on the paved climb that immediately followed. Although I didn't keep it for very long, it yielded a good gap. It seemed likely that this scenario could repeat itself.
Sure enough, on the final trip up the dirt climb, Boundy put in a huge acceleration. He got a gap, and it was bigger than I was counting on. I still hadn't closed it by the time we got to the second hump, which is where I had been planning to counterattack
I gained some ground on the descent and almost caught back up. The mistake here would have been to sit in and recover. Yes, I was at the end of my rope, but as I am fond of quoting Tim Krabbe: "Shift, when you’re really, truly at the end of your rope, to a higher gear."
We made the fast, sweeping turn into another long, paved climb. I shifted into a higher gear and went all-in.
First I regained Boundy's wheel. Then our front skewers were even. Then I pulled ahead. Then I pulled away.
I resisted the urge to brake and flew through the next two chicanes. I glanced back. Boundy was maybe 5 seconds back. Good. Now to hold it for the remaining half a lap.
I continued to take risky lines in the corners. Luck was on my side and I took them clean. I focused on the fundamentals, including following Adam Myerson's advice to jump out of each turn like it was the final corner of a criterium.
Boundy continued the pursuit. He seemed to be closing in as we hit the final barrier. Knowing that it was followed by a slight downhill, I shifted up before the dismount so I could mash a big gear as quickly as possible following the remount.
Finally I was in the home stretch, and only here did I feel secure enough to zip up my skinsuit. Never did I expect to ever win a cyclocross race, so I had never given a second's thought to a clever post-up. I resorted to the traditional "Pointing to the team logo with both index fingers."
Everything had gone right. The course suited me, I managed to go a record 45 minutes without a bobble, and I had strong rivals driving the pace.
And of course there was the matter of Lou's flat. That's never how you want to see an opponent fall behind. I'm hopeful that there will be another race where everything goes right for me, and I look forward to seeing how we size up on such a day.