At the start line when the call-ups were being made the race organizer mistakenly called me out at the series leader. Rob Langone, the actual leader and I corrected him, and he announced to the crowd that we were the race to watch as the leader's jersey was on the line. In Cyclo-cross, series leaders or past race winners get the advantage of pole positions for the start. As Rob and I lined up next to each other I told him that I was not so secretly hoping that he wasn't going to show up today. He admitted that he was hoping the same.
At the whistle we were off and Rob jumped out ahead of me looking strong. From the start line there was a fast down hill section that bent hard to the right through a taped off section. In past races these were exactly the sections where Rob had the advantage. He's got good power, but he's an even better bike handler. To my surprise he took a wide line and blew the first turn. I slipped to the front and stepped up the pressure. From out of no where some giant guy on a Giant brand bike shot out ahead of us up the trail. We both knew to let him go. We were the race within the race and it didn't matter what our over all position was. All that mattered was which of us finished before the other.
I stayed out front for 1/2 of the first lap until we got the the steep barrier dismount and run-up section. Here I blew my line and lost control of the front wheel. To keep things upright I had to hop of the bike sooner than I would have liked. Rob got smoothly through the turn and rode up to the barriers, pulling ahead. With our bikes slung over our shoulders he was opening a gap on me as we ran up the hill. This was a critical moment. Following the run-up was a very technical descent over loose ground and through some trees. If I didn't stay close to him the race could be lost on the first lap.
I buried my fear and followed his line down the hill. Staying off of the breaks I slid through loose stuff and jinked through the tree chicane at the bottom. We hopped through the second obstacle section and as we passed through the start/finish I tacked myself to Rob's back wheel. The announcer called out our names as we rode over the line, reminding the huge crowd of 20 people that we were the race to watch. The series championship was on the line.
Back on the climb for the second time another rider came around us and we let him go. Still on Rob's wheel our over all position was 3rd and 4th now. As the trail narrowed I sensed that Rob was holding back, which was smart. There was a lot of racing still to do and we weren't out to win the race that day, just beat each other. But something was off. The pace was getting a little too easy. Sitting on his wheel on the climb I was actually starting to recover. Heart rate was coming down, breathing was getting a little easier, the tunnel vision that comes with oxygen debt was clearing up. "Just stay with him," I told myself as we bombed back down the dangerous single track section.
Back at the bottom of the dismount and run-up section, Rob made his fatal mistake. He caught a toe on the barrier and tripped. While I didn't actually see it happen - this was where I opened up a gap. Through the start/finish again with 5 laps to go I stepped up the power. Unlike me, Rob had some actual fans at the race cheering him on - I could hear them calling his name from behind. He was still close enough to be dangerous. This was the time kick hard. Back on the climb I pushed it at my pace this time. Missing, was the sound of his bike behind me. The gap was beginning to widen.
If there's one thing I've learned about racing Cyclo-cross, it's that the race is never over until you cross the line. There are too many things that can go wrong. The key is to stay focused and ride to the best of your ability preparing for, but not being overwhelmed by things that may go wrong.
Suddenly, I misjudged an obstacle hop and felt my back wheel bottom-out hard on a metal pole. A cracking sound began from the back wheel on each revolution. Heading up the hill alone I started to worry. I had just had the rear wheel fixed from an incident at the Storm the Beach race. I now had a dilemma. Do I stop in the pit and put on the spare wheel, risking that Rob may gain back some time and catch up? Or, do I press on with the noisy carbon Zipp 303 Tubular risking a cataclysmic wheel failure that may end the whole race. Carbon fiber doesn't usually give the bike rider any advance warning of failure - when it fails it goes from seemingly fine to total failure with no in between! At the dismount through the creek felt the rim before remounting and didn't feel any obvious damage. I decided to stay with the bike and not loose time in the pit.
Two laps to go and I was running up the hill over the barriers with the bike over my shoulder, when the uncertainty of Cyclo-cross struck again. Jumping over the first barrier I cracked my shin on the two foot high wooden plank. The bike launched off of my shoulder and tumbled up the hill while I smacked the dirt face down. Adrenalin surged and I was back on my feet with the bike on my shoulder in an instant. The remount revealed that my left break hood was knocked inward 45 degrees. I punched it pack into position and made a payer to the bicycle Gods that the bike would still roll. It did! and the awful noise from the back wheel stopped as well.
The next two laps were just about keeping it under control. In the gravel pit Rob and I crossed going in opposite directions - having never beaten him before I asked if he was OK and he reached across and gave me a high 5 conceding the win. What an amazing good sport and a good guy. The announcer declared me the series winner as I crossed the line. I stopped after the and waited for Rob. I shook his hand and told him that he set the bar this season and it was great racing against him.
Here's his account of what happened:
Going out on a high I decided that this was going to be my last race of the season. There have been great highs and awful lows. This year I learned how to win. But more importantly, I learned how to loose. It's never over and there is always that next race. Each time on the bike is a learning experience to get better and smarter. So for this year I'm hanging up the cross bike and looking ahead to a big season on the road with my new road team.