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Valmont CX - And Away We Go

5:30am always seems to come much earlier on race day and last Saturday was no exception. That's because it was the start of my 2016 cyclocross season at the famed Valmont Bike Park in Boulder, Colorado. Valmont is a special venue for me as it is where my coach won the 2014 Masters National Championship.

After a 4-hour drive down on Friday afternoon from the mountains of Central Colorado that I call home, I spent a couple of hours pre-riding the course and preparing myself for both the physical and mental challenge that awaited me the next day. The atmosphere was alive with riders of all abilities rehearsing the technical nuances of hairpin turns, tricky sand pits and strategically placed barriers to ensure not only speed but also a smoothness that will allow flow around the course on race day. It is also the time riders text, call and even facetime their coaches for some last-minute advice or just a bit of encouragement. 

Last Saturday was the first time I had raced in almost nine months and I was eager to test both my fitness level and my new race steed, a bike I have named Mr. Hyde. My coach and I had spent the spring and summer building up my engine with almost 4,000 miles and 200,000 feet of climbing, most of it at an altitude of 8,000 feet or higher. In fact, in the week prior to Valmont, she had put me through my most difficult training block in an attempt to top off my physical and mental reserves for the season to come.

Fueled up on numerous cups of high octane coffee and my usual pre-race bowl of oatmeal loaded with real maple syrup (I'm a New Englander after all) I took my call-up into row 7, which meant a full-gas start was imperative. The 30-second warning came and I remembered the words my coach had texted me the night before: 'rush tempo, pass quickly, use the force' (the last reference pertaining to my nickname of Yoda).

As the whistle sounded, all 63 riders exploded off the line in a cloud of dust, literally, in a fierce attempt to win the holeshot and get clear of the other riders. The race would end up being 5 laps and each rider knew that the faster he could separate from the main pack the easier it would be to navigate the series of daunting obstacles. By the time we had reached the first sandpit about two minutes later, my heart rate was pinned at 185bpm but I had managed to navigate my way through the pack and was sitting just inside the top 30.  

The first 3 laps for me were fast and uncomfortable. I soon settled into a high tempo and strategized about how I was going to move up further in the pack. By now I had also discovered that several weeks of riding singletrack back in the mountains was coming in handy as the course had several fast and flowy sections where significant gains could be had.

Near the end of lap 3, a former road teammate of mine, who happens to be an exceptionally strong rider, had caught me and I quickly began thinking of how we could work together to chase down other riders. We managed to latch onto a group of about five others just after the start/finish line and began the punchy climb on lap 4. I knew that if I could maintain contact with this group for the next eight minutes, I could use my climbing skills on lap 5 to hopefully create some separation and hold them off to the finish.

However, cx is often a cruel sport as I was about to find out. About halfway through lap 4, I came into the long sandpit carrying too much speed and too much weight on my front wheel. I managed to ride my line for about 25 yards before my front wheel buried, bucking me straight over the handlebars and onto my left side in the pit. It took me about 30 seconds to stand, run with the bike through the remainder of the sand and then remount. By then the group I had been with was long gone and several other riders had passed me.

Several weeks earlier, after an exceptionally difficult training ride which left me standing next to the side of the road wondering about my abilities. My coach wrote me a note about dealing with adversity, and that the next time I found myself in a challenging on-bike situation I was to sing the Taylor Swift song 'Shake it Off' in my head. Well, there was no better time than the present so that's exactly what I did for the next one and a half laps! At one point during the final lap, I even passed a group of three riders on a particularly fast and flat section of the course just like I had practiced during my weeks of interval training. 

Crossing the line in 41st place and completely spent from the effort, I was happy to have the first race under my belt. More importantly, I had, for the first time since racing a bike, learned to deal with race-day adversity by channeling my energy into something other than my own anger or self pity.

It's been a great week of training, including a fun skills days with my friend and experienced racer Brian, and I'm looking forward to lining up with the other crossers on Saturday and Sunday. HereUs hoping that the coming weekend is a bit faster and a whole lot smoother than the last.