SeaTac Park might appear to be a new course to the CX newbies. But, in fact, it was a regular on the 1990's cyclocross schedule. The actual newish course, just its second year, is the Frontier Park course just outside Graham. Both courses consisted of primarly single track trails. Both courses offered enough technical challenge to keep me competitive. But they also differed. SeaTac was subject to the near defeaning air traffic noise while Frontier Park, with the presence of vacant barns and outbuildings, gave the feeling of a wooded country farm.
Course knowledge was important for both venues. Trails can lead to bottlenecks and I knew that to be competitive I needed to keep moving. At Seatac I prerode the first corner. Then I prerode it again. I didn't see anyone else studying this corner which, later, became even more evident. The course surface wasn't challenging. But figuring out how to link the sections together while saving energy took some figuring.
The start at SeaTac park used a first lap only course alteration. The first lap only first corner was a tight uphill 180 degree turn. Not every rider seemed prepared for this and I found myself easily at the front with Erik as we exited that first corner. Eric set a conservative pace and I held his wheel for the first half lap but I could feel the riders chomping at the bit behind us. On a short climb at about the halfway point of the first lap their patience gave up. In just a few seconds three or four riders went by as they took the pace up a few notches. I responded too slowly and found myself well back but still in the lead group.
Near the end of that first lap a lead group rider went down. Eric went right and I went left to avoid the rider. I came to a complete top off the trail but was able to resume quickly. Eric hit the deck and required a detangle before resuming the chase. From this point forward I was out of touch with the other racers.
So I focused on racing my own best race. This required balancing the energy usage from the two substantial runups. And finding the few spots where a powerful acceleration could be complemented with a short rest or descent.
To this end I succeeded in maintaining a fast and consistent pace. Eric later reported that, in a places where the course doubled back, he could see me and our gap stayed the same throughout the race. Relative to each other anyway. The leader was well off the front and finished over 30 seconds ahead. I finished alone in second. Eric came in fourth.
Looking back on the day it was no surprise that a mostly singletrack course could be good for me. There were plenty of spots where a little preparation, like preriding that first corner, could even the odds against the power brokers. The winner, of course, probably prepared AND brought the power. But I did do my part. My suffer factor was at ten. (Only Fort Steilacoom Park generates an eleven!) And my tired factor was pegged. After the race I felt like I had given my all and left not even fumes in the tank.
SeaTac Park marked the middle point in my CX season and a time for reflection. I concluded that my improvement curve was still up but that it was becoming less steep. I alco concluded that I was having a great season. In five races I had visited the podium four times. My season points total for the Cross Revolution series was on pace to finish at the top. But finish at the top for Category 3 35+ was something I had done the year before. I felt it was time to step aside and let someone else earn that crown. So I graduated myself to Category 2. Kind of.
My USAC license was still Category 3 and, for USAC races, that's where I would be staying. But I decided that for non USAC races, which often take place on the more technical courses, I would elect to share the course with the Elite riders by changing to Men's Category 1/2 45+. This decision was not taken lightly. Dr. Doane's comment 'Those Cat 2 guys take their racing seriously...' continued to concern me. I needed some time to prepare for the tougher races and lower finish positions.
Men's Category 1/2 45+ starts as the third wave of the Elite race. I would be altering my race day preparation schedule. I would be seeing new faces. And I brought a belly full of nerves to my first Cat 1/2 race start.
Race day also brought the rain. Frontier Park is on what is probably a glacial moraine and the soil is generally well drained. Yet there was still some mud on top where the topsoil was thick. In the places that the course layout included tight corners and the ground was turning slimy, the course was as technically challenging as I've every seen in a CX race. I was able to ride those sections. Barely. I pre rode as much as possible and found that the course was changing from lap to lap. I settled for finding lines that may not have been the fasted but at least weren't the slowest.
Going into this race I did not expect to win. I wanted to get a fair representation of how I faired at this new level of competition. I also had the goal of not getting lapped by the leader of the Open Category 1/2 race. Going into this race my strategy was pretty plain. Race for an hour at the pace I felt I could sustain. And, to give myself a better chance at avoiding a narrow trail bottleneck, execute a start sprint from the last row.
Starting from the back row meant I had a lot of riders to get past to even see the front. The start was on a crowned dirt road with shallow ditches on each side. Which is how I found the space to move forward. By using the right side ditch I found some space. I had to bunny hop some roadside debris and by the time we reached the barriers, which immediately followed the second corner, I was in about 6th or 7th.
Cross Revolution typically uses two successive two by twelves for the barriers. But at Frontier they found four ten or twelve inch logs that resembled barked telephone poles in length and taper. These logs were easily rideable. But the course was slightly uphill and running turned out to be significantly faster. Although I'm typically more efficient when I can figure out how to ride obstacles, I did find a decent technique for the logs that felt good enough to run them every lap.
So I entered those logs easily in the top ten, passed one rider who decided to ride them, and remounted on the other side feeling pretty good about my start. But the course was long and about half way into the first lap it was time to stop following the wheel in front and dial back to a pace I could sustain over the entire hour.
The Frontier Park course was long, took over ten minutes per lap, and consisted of mostly trails with plenty of hidden rocks ready to bash an aluminum rim. It also consisted of plenty of short climbs and and opportunities to accelerate and then coast. Over the first few laps I concentrated on finding this eb and flow of effort and recovery. Making sure to miss the rocks and roots. And at about the fourth lap I did find that just right rhythm that allowed me to suffer properly when appropriate but also rest just enough to stay out of the red.
Of course, I was loosing positions. But Mark and Mario cheered me all the way anyway. At the end of the fourth lap I was comfortably in the zone and saw the 'two laps' to go board.
I sat on that data for about two minutes. I hadn't been caught by the leader yet and I decided that I would burn some matches to keep it that way. I clicked my effort level up in an effort to prevent going a lap down. And it worked. For most of that 5th lap I was burning as many matches as I dared and I passed the 'One lap' board before the eventual winner passed me.
After exhausting many matches on lap five lap six got real tough. But I was slowly reeling in another racer. I closed that gap with about a quarter lap to go and then followed him while trying to regain my composure for the finish. It was not to be. He made his move a little earlier than I anticipated. And when I attempted to respond all I could do was go through the motions. No extra power was available. I was cooked.
After a few minutes of cool down I learned that I had finished 12th of 28.
Not bad. And not lapped.
I was congratulated by a number of people who had taken notice that I was out in my first Category 1/2 race. I also noticed that the venue was markedly different than at the end of a Category 3 race. There were almost no spectators. The sun was setting, it was cold and quiet, and the only action was the Cross Revolution crew continuing to remove the course markings.
As I loaded my gear for the drive home I quietly reflected on my first 'big boy' race. I was pretty pleased to not have embarrassed myself while wearing the Puyallup Cyclopaths jersey. Finishing mid pack felt pretty good. And I was no longer second guessing my choice to self upgrade. Men's Category 1/2 45+ seemed the be a good fit for my skillset. At least when racing on the trail centric Frontier Park course.
My next event will be USAC sanctioned, at my home course of Fort Steilacoom, and I'll be racing with the threes again. I'm hoping that I can parlay some recent racing success back to the venue that usually makes me feel most humble.