Having pretty much given it everything I had the day before at Bonelli park in 2 cross races, I wasn't sure there was going to be much in the tank for another two race day on Sunday. I didn't sleep that well due to soreness in muscles and I even woke up once needing to make an Advil run to the bathroom. Not the ideal start for what was going to be one of my best days on the bike ever.
After getting in a good warm-up on the course and keeping my legs opened up on the trainer, I was feeling pretty good at the start line. The guys around me looked pretty fit so I knew I had to be fast off the line and be the first one to the turn into the grassy section. It was made up of very tight S turns around trees and the ground was loose with pine needles and big lumpy tree roots. At the whistle I gunned it off the line and quickly jumped out ahead of the pack and was the first one to get to the grassy turn. As my back wheel left the pavement I realized that I made the turn too early and was off the course! The organizers hadn't done a good job marking the first turn, and now I was going out of bounds and and nearly everyone followed me. All at once brakes were locking up and guys were cursing. I had not only made a mess of the race, but lost my good position going into the turn. Now I was four wheels off of the front and had ground to make up. I easily passed my number 3 and 2 riders at the first dismount and climb. After a smooth remount I dropped both of them quickly. The guy out front was another matter completely.
In the confusion of the start he was able to open up a big gap of about 1oo or so meters and looked to be motoring along pretty well. Being new to cross judging distance between opponents can be tricky. Because the courses snake back upon themselves enemy riders can at times seem closer or farther than they actually are at different points along the way. Being unsure of his real distance, I just stayed on the gas concentrating on not falling down. The gap didn't look like it was getting any smaller and before the first lap was even over I was already beginning to mentally settle for second place. And then he cracked. As if the air went out of his balloon he collapsed in on himself. As we ended the last grassy chicane before the long paved stretch back to the start line I was on his rear wheel. The timing was perfect - the one section of the course where drafting could be an advantage, and I was there on the wheel of the number one guy taking a long break before things got hard again.
Past the start finish line and into the first grassy obstacle I punched past him just as the second lap began. Gaps open quickly in cross it seems, and suddenly I was out front in the leading the race. While warming up before the race I had imagined this exact scenario. Me alone at the front of the race. I'd never been there before, and I was telling myself, "This is where you belong." And it was. I was putting big distance in to my closest rival.
At the second dismount obstacle, I was jumping back onto the saddle when I felt my left foot catch somewhere on my rear wheel. There was a sharp pang that sounded like a spoke. Brief rolling pause and the wheel felt OK so I got back on the power down a short hill into a 180 degree hairpin over hellish tree roots. Pulled the rear brake lever and my stomach sank as it snapped dead to the bars. My rear break was out of commission. I decided to press on. If I couldn't get through the next lap smoothly I'd stop to fix the break. There was no stopping. Four more laps and I began lapping the stragglers. I started to think about how I'd cross the line. Zip up the jersey, arms up, maybe with dual number 1 fingers... It wasn't over though. I had to keep the pressure on.
And then it happened. I won my first race after three years of trying - by a lot - completely solo. I looked back just to be sure, then zipped up the jersey as mentally rehearsed. Then promptly fell apart as I crossed the line. Shouting and cursing - clapping my hands. Clapping my hands? That was never in the plan. I was like Edvald Boassan-Hagen after his win at the rainy stage of the Giro d'Italia this year. No composure. But I won.
Later when talking to the second place guy he admitted that he'd never been at the lead of a race. He felt like he would be better off following a wheel around the course. He didn't tell himself that he belonged there, and so... he didn't.
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