I had tempered expectations heading into the first Chicago Cyclocross Cup of the year. My fitness wasn't where it had been in previous years, there were many strong and skilled riders in my field, and the course, ingeniously designed as it was, was one that would shine a klieg light on my weaknesses (read as: steering, turning and handling). Mostly I just wanted to finish in the top eight, as that would guarantee a front-row call-up in the next race and hopefully beyond.
Fortunately I had a new set of Psimet wheels beneath me. This would be the first time racing with tubulars of my own. Turns that on clinchers I would take slowly and gingerly I could now bomb like a sweeping turn in a criterium: fast and worry-free.
Before the race I studied the starting chute. There were quite a few holes I knew I'd want to avoid. It looked like the best line would be on the far left along the fencing.
I lined up next to top-seed John Gatto, who shrewedly lined up on the far left. Behind him was Eric Drummer, who appeared to have also scouted out the fast line up the left.
Unlike me, Drummer has a great start, and before I'd even gotten on top of my gear he sped by. But he was so far ahead of the rider behind him that I could slip into his draft, thus getting a free ride and avoiding the danger spots en route to the hole shot, where I breathed a sigh of relief: I was still with the leaders and had not lost much ground in the start's argy-barginess.
A half lap later I took inventory. A group of about 10 had made a clear separation from the back. Teammate Chris St. Peter was hanging on at the pack. This was perfect. If I could just hang on to this group, I had a good shot at my goal.
I started taking aggressive lines in the corners to pass people. The Psimet wheels performed admirably, letting me take turns I wouldn't have ever tried before. By the time we hit the U-Turns for the second time I was in second place, just behind Gatto. Now my eyes were starting to get big -- could I win this race?
Just then I was brought back to earth -- literally. On the final U-Turn I hit a hidden sprinkler head and wiped out. I got up quickly but now I was chasing.
A lap later I made contact with a chase group of four. I recovered for a bit, then attacked as we hit the start/finish. These straightaways are my strength, and in the distance I could see Gatto and Drummer, now the race's sole leaders, starting to play some cat-and-mouse. I put my head down and caught up to them by the time we hit the barriers.
It would be the three of us for the rest of the race, closely tailed and occasionally joined by Mike Heagney, one of the area's strongest masters riders. We each took turns leading, but it was clear we were all holding something back and sizing one another up, working just hard enough to keep any chasers at bay.
With two to go I put in a few attacks in the straightaways, and then as we hit the start/finish for the last time I put everything I had left into one final dig. I had a good lead heading down the starting chute. I was hoping that Drummer and Gatto would start battling each other instead of chasing, but they were on my tail by the time we hit the double barriers. The effort had drained me. In the U-turns that followed, they took advantage of my exhaustion and raised the tempo enough to drop me.
But I still had a podium finish in hand -- or so I thought. On the final barrier, Heagney came from nowhere to pass me, then took a brave line through the trees. For a moment I was certain he was going to go straight into a giant tree, and when I, following him closely, clipped my shoulder on said tree's trunk, it was game over for me. I wouldn't get within 30 meters of him again and would have to settle for fourth.
It was hard not to think of what could have been -- a podium, or maybe even a win -- but it easily could have been a lot worse. And now I can look forward to a prime starting position in two weeks in Dekalb.
I had no business in this race, but I needed to build up my fitness, so I doubled up. Somehow I was the eighth seed in this race, giving me the final call-up in the front row, but that meant the farthest to the right, where the turf was bumpiest. I immediately considered lining up in the second row to have the better line, but it was already two late.
My start wasn't terrible, but just as I got up to top speed, the rider in front of me hit a bump and wiped out. I T-boned him, hitting the ground hard and then getting run into by at least one other rider.
After the scrum cleared out, I inspected the bike. The handlebars were about 20 degrees off-center and refused to budge, the chain had dropped, and, most serious, the rear brake cable had snapped.
An official was stationed there and asked if I was going to drop out. I shrugged. I certainly couldn't ride, but I might as well run for a lap and put on a good show. Onto my shoulder the bike went and I proceeded down the course.
At the hole shot a spectator asked what had happened and I explained the broken brake cable.
"What do you need brakes for?"
She was right. What did I need brakes for?
I stopped to remove what was left of the brake caliber, remounted the chain and started pedaling again. Except for the handlebars, everything worked fine. Might was well get a workout in. That was what I was there for anyhow, right?
And it turned out to be a perfect drill. What better way to practice not braking in turns? An hour later my technique had improved greatly. Thanks to my new wheels and halving my braking power, I was darn near fearless.
And despite my much-delayed start, I didn't even come in last!