Today I was signed up for one of my favorite centuries, the Five Lakes and a Steak starting from Watkins Glen. Since I had already rode this century a few times, the forecast of rain made me change my plans. If it was going to rain, I might was well get really dirty as opposed to just a bit dirty. Sometime Saturday afternoon I decided to give cyclocross a try and sign up for Buck Hill Cyclocross. I didn't have the right bike, nor the right tires. But I like getting dirty, and mud was promised, so the fun factor was guaranteed.
Ben Kraft and I carpooled to Mecklenburg, arriving at about 9am. I had some hope of competing in the masters category, since after all I am 31 and according to page 5 of the UCI rulebook I am eligible for that category. Not that I was seeking an advantage, but I knew several masters such as Ernie Bayles, Glenn Swan, Jack Rueckheim, Bill Erickson, Mark Shenstone, Bob Nunnink and Wayne Gottlieb. So I thought it would be fun to race with them. In addition, I could also try to race twice, since the open men's category had a later start. However, I guess I don't have enough gray hair or I'm not bald enough, so I was denied entry. The positive side is that I was be able to cheer for all of those guys, and I did!
At the sound of cowbells the masters came and went like a stampede. Since the start was very close to a triple barrier followed by lots of tight turns, things got jammed up a bit on the first lap. On the second lap the first positions were defined and pretty much remained that way to the end. Of note was Glenn's recovery from an early gap to secure the third position. Bill also fought back on the last lap and reclaimed the fourth position. I remained mostly next to the organizers table and had a good view of the race while I drank cider and ate apples and bagels. Breakfast at home was rather meager. Most of all I enjoyed encouraging the riders as they passed. Some of them acknowledged the cheering, but that was not expected. I also got a sense of what I was in for. You could literally see the pain in the faces of the riders as the laps progressed. Ouch!
I told Ben that all I wanted is not to be last. Even if that happened, I wasn't going to be too disappointed. I was told about the importance of getting a good starting position and to come around the barriers as close to the leaders as possible. On the other hand, this was a first time event for me and I had no hopes of placing among the first finishers, so I didn't want to get in the way. With the sound of cowbell, so awesome, we were sent off. I arrived at the first set of barriers in about 20th place. I passed a couple of riders as we jumped over the barriers and another few as we got to open road. I still could see Ben in front of me, so I knew I wasn't too far from the front. In the first lap I was certainly going faster than what I could sustain for an hour. But it was fun! I really enjoyed the muddy sections and in particular a flat stretch in the woods with a few gentle curves followed by a hump and a sharp left turn. I always seemed to either gain on riders in front of me or distance myself from whomever was behind me on this part. As the first lap ended I passed Eli Robinson on the triple barrier and I thought that was cool. He dropped me a few moments later. I heard Ernie yelling some good advice about pacing yourself and the amount of laps left. Acknowledged.
At the beginning of the second lap I was in a group of riders with Syracuse Bicycle jerseys. For a few laps we just shifted positions a bit. I felt I could go a bit faster, so I tried to pull away a few times, but I was caught on the open sections of the course. I had a bit of an incident with another rider when we came to a left turn. My MTB has disk brakes, so I could wait until the last moment to negotiate some of those tight turns. I decided to try to overtake a rider on the inside before turning, but I felt there wasn't going to be enough room, so I hit the brakes and slowed down to allow the rider on the outside to take the turn. However, he slid and went down. He was pissed. Probably rightly so, I'm not sure. I don't have cyclocross experience but I watch a lot of Formula 1, and there you can overtake on curves, on the inside, outside, as long as you occupy the space first. I felt he could have turned. Maybe he was a bit startled by the squeal of my brakes. In any case, it was a good opportunity to pull away since he kept yelling at me and I was in no mood to argue.
I managed to create enough space behind me, which I closely monitored with my helmet-mounted rear-view mirror, an asset other riders did not have. Only two riders passed me, one of which was the race leader and eventual winner, Steve. He went by so fast I figured it couldn't have been one of the guys I was with. I asked him if I was being lapped, but there was no reply. The other rider who passed me was Ethan Suttner. He managed to create a gap that I wasn't able to close. I had decided to go all out on the last lap and was saving some energy for that, but it didn't happen. Since I was lapped, I did one lap less than everyone in front of me except Ethan, who was also lapped. Oh well, better be faster next time.
At the very end Jeremy Gardner, race organizer and second overall, was about to lap me, but I made sure to put in one last kick to avoid that. Mission accomplished, I didn't finish last, far from it. I ended up in 12th place and was very happy. I was also happy for Ben, who finished 5th.
What I liked so much about the event was the interaction with the bystanders. That sweet sound of cowbell made the day. Ernie was also rooting a lot for me, and that made me want to keep on pushing.
Thanks to Jeremy Gardner, Marcia Swan, Glenn Swan, Mark Rishniw, Sara Barker, and all others involved in putting on this special event. As for cyclocross, I'll be in more events in the future. Thanks to Andy Goodell, I can share the pictures below.