“Here come’s Brett. He’ll take one!” As I rounded the corner, an outstretched fist gripping a piece of bacon came at me. My mouth was parched and the last thing I wanted was a salty chunk of pork, but I didn’t want to disappoint. I grabbed the cold piece of bacon and stuffed it in my mouth. Chewing it did nothing to alleviate my thirst and I could barely swallow. Once safely out of sight of potential hecklers, I spat the remaining strip into the grass for a happy dog to discover.
Situated in the Olympic rain shadow, Oak Harbor made it’s debut as a venue for the 2014 Cascade Cross season. While slightly further than the usual Bellingham haunts, the journey through the spectacular Deception Pass state park made any extra time in the car quickly forgotten. Fuelled by a medley of Red Bull, Gatorade, Cliff Bars, coffee, and Iron Maiden, fellow Tri-Cities cross racer Owen Wood and I travelled south through downpours to emerge into the welcoming sun of Oak Harbor. Rain shadow indeed.
How Hard Can It Be?
On first glance, the course seemed straightforward. It began with long grassy straights which flanked a multi field soccer complex before heading into a wooded trail network and reappearing on the other side for more grass. With few corners and no real elevation gains, it should be pretty fast – right? I soon found out that I vastly underestimated its difficulty level and the course ended up being one of the most demanding of the year. Heavy rains earlier in the week had left a deep layer of water covering the majority of the field. Maintaining any speed through the grass took all the power I could muster. There was nowhere to sit up and the demands of the terrain made taking a break impossible. Once off the grass, the trails contained so many roots and rocks, that complete focus was required to keep from being bucked around. When the roots let up, four log barriers forced a dismount followed by a fast corner over a slick wooden bridge that claimed many victims. The crux of the course came in the form of a long off camber, so thick with mud, that navigating it became treacherous. Skilled bike handlers were able to successfully ride it, but most were forced to run. In short, it was a bloody hard course.
Finding the correct tire pressure was a tricky task for this course. Too low and you risk flatting on the trails. Too high and you lose traction on the grass. Due to my ongoing tubular glueing saga, I was back on a rear clincher and was very concerned about this. Owen unfortunately fell victim to the rocks in the first lap, flatting and ending his race. It was a long drive for a 1/2 lap of racing. I overheard one racer say that he flatted a brand new tubular on the rocky back section in warm up, so it wasn’t just clinchers that were vulnerable.
We Don’t Need No Stinking Warm-up
After one warm-up lap, my drivetrain was clogged with enough mud and grass to force me to retreat to the wash station. I had a finite number of laps in me, and I didn’t want to use them up with a long pre-ride. With a clean bike I resumed my warm-up by riding back and forth in the parking lot – putting in just enough effort to make me feel productive, but probably not enough to actually do anything to help loosen up. Within the first 30 seconds of the race I felt tired. And hungry. Really, really hungry. In all the prep in getting ready for the race, I had neglected eating enough and I now felt I was running on an empty engine. Not a promising sign.
Twenty four of us lined up in the sun, anticipating the start. We were given the benefit of a slight downhill before heading to the first of two 180 degree corners. Any advantage gained by the descent was quickly negated by the pull of the wet grass. I stayed out front off the start and slotted into fourth heading into the trails. “Stay with them!” I told myself as I weaved through the roots, but despite how hard I fought, I was drifting off the front group. By the end of the first lap I had dropped back and was trading positions for fifth and sixth. I passed at every opportunity, but he always seemed to get back in front. Following behind him into the back trails, I heard the painful sound of rim hitting rock. With a loud expletive and a flat tire, he pulled off to the side, leaving me to ride past. I was able to keep up the intensity to maintain my position and the gap both in front, and behind had grown enough to give me a moment to breathe.
Don’t Mess With A Sure Thing
As the race progressed, I was slowly managing to close the gap on fourth place. Wanting to make up some time, I switched from running the muddy off camber to attempting the ride. Always a bad thing to do in a race. If something is working, don’t change it. Especially if you have not ever successfully attempted it. I targeted the rut that I thought would take me safely through, but it dissolved into a sludgy mess. My wheels washed out and I slid. Prying my bike from the mud, I ran the remaining portion. Just as I was about to remount, I heard the all-too-familiar “Your chain’s off!”. I wrestled with my chain, trying to line it up with the teeth of my narrow-wide ring while the rider in front of me retreated further in the distance. One lap left and any chance of me catching him was quickly disappearing. Finally back on the bike, I kept up enough speed to maintain my distance from the rider behind me, but wasn’t able to gain any ground. Completing my solo ride, I finished 5th.
Owen and I hung around to watch the elites race until the chill got the better of us and we retreated to Flyers, the local Oak Harbour brew pub, to cash in our free beer coupon. In the mix of the Sunday afternoon football crowd were a few exhausted faces speckled with mud and savouring their beer. It had been a hard day of racing and we all truly deserved it.