Sometimes the toughest opponent you face is the one in your head. The little voice that has a way of magnifying the pain and reaffirming that the fatigue you feel is indeed very real. The one telling you that you might not be strong enough to hold off the riders behind you for the next forty five minutes. When your legs are burning and you are feeling on the brink of exhaustion, feelings of self doubt can be enough to determine the outcome of the race. After a strong start to the Cross Border Clash, I wrestled with these thoughts as I fought to maintain my lead.
Cascade Cross hosts the annual Cross Border Clash, pitting American and Canadian riders against each other in a points battle to determine the victorious nation. Traditionally, the race takes place over two days, with points tallied up at the end and the Clash Cup awarded to the winner. Scheduling conflicts reduced it to a one day event this year, but what a race it was! The mud that we saw the previous weekend at Bellingham BMX was nowhere in sight. We were instead treated to a soft but incredibly bumpy course that spread out over the Transitions Bikes headquarters taking us through a pumptrack, a sand pit, a short run up, and the seemingly never ending spiral of death. Maintaining an aggressive position in the saddle was crucial to allowing the legs to absorb the bumps, but it made for an incredibly tiring race. Faint signs of leftover makeup from the previous night’s Halloween festivities decorated some racers, while others were still embracing the holiday in full costume. Handups of bacon, beer, and fireball were dolled out – not all mixed together of course – and everyone was shaking off that candy hangover with some hard racing.
In keeping with the USA vs Canada theme, riders were split on the starting line with the Yanks on the left and the Canucks on the right. Due to a small Canadian contingent, my twenty ninth place call up still had me on the front line. The field was twenty five deep, but it was heavily stacked with Americans. We had our work cut out for us. The horn sounded and I shot out of the gates like a dog after a squirrel. I was feeling prime for the hole shot, but a wide line on the first corner allowed a fellow Canuck to slip past on the inside and into the lead. I stuck with him for the run up and we headed into the pumptrack with enough distance to be clear of any potential pileups.
I stayed as close to his wheel as I could, and halfway through the first lap I surged past and into the lead. I was now in unfamiliar territory. My initial thoughts of “holy crap I’m leading the race” were quickly replaced by “what am I doing leading the race?” and “how am I going to hold these guys off for 45 minutes?”. I’ll admit I had a brief vision of crossing the finish line in a victory salute, but as soon as I took a glance at the twenty four rider freight train close behind, fear and stress started to creep in. I have never been good at squelching negative thoughts when I start to struggle. Growing up as a competitive swimmer, my races had only lasted between 25 seconds and two minutes which is not enough time to worry about pacing and race tactics. By the time any sports psychology voodoo entered my mind, the race was done. I’ve never done any road racing or endurance events. In cross races I tend to feel more comfortable in a position of trying to catch up, than trying to stay ahead so as we rounded the pavement on the first lap and the three closest riders passed me, I actually felt a sense of relief. I could give my head a rest and go back to my usual position of trying to catch up.
For the remainder of the race I held my position. Going into the last lap there was a rider glued to my wheel. I kept trying to plan the best moment to try and drop him, but no matter how hard I went, he stayed with me. As we approached the sand pit, I knew it would be my last chance to shake him. After that it was a pavement sprint to the finish, and that isn’t my forté. Previous attempts at riding the sand were only marginally successful – and never fast – so this time I dismounted right before and sprinted as hard as I could. I must have looked determined because I heard “wow that guy is really running” from some spectators. It was enough to open up a small gap and I crossed the finish in fourth place.
I sat back after the race completely drained with a post-race burrito and beer, to watch the elites show us how it is done. It was a tough day of racing and it was nice to watch some others suffer for a while.