(Author's Note: I apologize for the tardiness of what I hope was a hotly anticipated breaking story nearly a week ago when it was still current. I would blame India for tying the computer up with thesis papers and the like, but I'm not one to make excuses. Anyway, it's the best I could do with limited time and energy. I'll do my best to be more prompt with next week's race report. -RK) The course was dusty, bumpy and very fast after a solid week of clear, crisp beautiful Northwestern fall weather. Two sequences of twisty, off-camber corners, one abrupt run-up, a creek-hop and a grueling gravel climb were connected by hoof-marked downhill straightaways and little slices of woodsy single and doubletrack. A classics specialist would excel here. The best riders would be the ones with the power to hammer the flats and levitate over the bumps, those who weren't afraid of taking the bad line to make a pass and who corner with one eye on the apex and the other on the rider ahead, threading the needle to squeeze by on the exit. Lady luck must have been on our side, because India and I were awarded with yet another solid starting position out of the bib number lottery. The crazy-8s would be called to the start third from the front, same as last week when I managed to drag 20th place out of the muddy scrum at Rainier High School. This would be a good opportunity to secure the coveted and elusive series points awarded to the top 18 finishers. Not only would some points put me in the running for some prizes at the season's end, but would also get me called up by name to the start of every subsequent race. Since I earned only a single point for an 18th-place finish at the last race of the 2009 season, I have never gotten to enjoy the benefits of the all-access pass to the front of the race. If things went my way today, I would have a real shot. My confidence was bouyed by my scary-fast and shockingly beautiful new bike (still yet to be named) who would be lining up for her very first race. I knew I had the right tool for the job, but did I have the talent? A summer of long, dusty rides on the open roads of Oregon has worked wonders for my overall fitness, but did little to prepare me for the white-hot intensity and quick turns of speed required in a 'cross race. I've barely gotten a chance to practice my remount through the craziness of the last few months. I tried to remain confident and relaxed despite the self-applied pressure and nerves, and I arrived to my start warmed-up and ready to give this course my best shot. Despite my best efforts, I was a twitchy bundle of anxious energy by the time all the riders were called to the line, the race officials gave their talk, the singlespeed field took off and the two-minute wait between starts started to wind down. When the horn finally sounded, the charge for the first corner took off. I quickly found myself forced off-line by an aggressive race and ran over a cone on the left margin of the start chute, but managed to stay upright through the first series of dusty, hoof-marked s-bends as the 100-rider phalanx snaked its way into the woods. The particularly fast and bumpy section of ground leading into the wooded section must have caught a rider or two off-guard as a handful of riders hit the deck, causing a pileup right in the middle of the bottleneck. I managed to sneak by on the right side and entered a zippy section of wide, smooth singletrack. This brief respite was cut short by a 90-degree uphill corner leading to a steep, sticky run-up packed four-abreast with riders and shouldered machines. Usually I'd be able to thread my way through lesser runners and move up a few positions on these sections, but with a group this dense there was no chance. I'd have to wait until next lap when things spread out a bit. After the run-up and remount, the course carried us immediately downhill to pick up speed for the second section of powdery switchbacks that would give me fits all day. I never quite got the line dialed, but still managed to pass a plenty of riders through the corners. Then it was a quick descent, followed by a punchy little climb and the twinpack of barriers set into some very bumpy grass. I had to twist backward on the handlebars in a vain attempt to keep my saddle from bouncing around as I remounted. A straight section of relatively smooth doubletrack allowed a moment of recovery or an opportunity to pass before heading over the ditch of doom and up the gravel climb back up to the staging area and start-finish line. After the first lap, the field began to spread out and I was able to choose better lines and make some good passes to move up the field. I had plenty of people to chase down after my less-than-stellar start and quickly started picking off B riders while threading my way around singlespeeders off the back of their race. The new bike and I settled into our groove about 3 laps into the race and proceeded to speed around the course, chasing the derailleurs ahead. I put my faith in the side knobs of my Challenge tires and leaned a little deeper into the corners, trusting that my treads would stick and carry me through the apex and out with speed. I winced in pain when I heard the chain brutally flogging my unprotected chainstay on the bumpy descent. A wave of sadness washed through me and I apologized under my breath to my poor bike for chipping her otherwise pristine paint job, but that's racing. You're gonna end up with scars. She knew what she was getting into and didn't complain. In fact, I think she might have gotten a little pleasure from the pain. I finished the race totally worn out and leaned on the top tube to support my failing legs that wobbled like those of a transoceanic sailor setting foot back on land. I slugged down some water, wiped the dusty tears from my eyes and blew the concrete boogers from my nose while I struggled to catch my breath. I was beat, but felt certain I had finished well and would be rewarded with a good result. I would have to wait a day to find out just how well I did, but was elated to learn of my 6th place. While I was busy rallying to 6th, Ira Ryan Cycles team boss and framebuilder extraordinaire, Ira Ryan was smiling his way to a strong 17th place in the stacked field of singlespeeders. Although there are plenty of doughboys off the back of this race, the guys at the front are some of the strongest riders in the event. Many could, should or used to race with the As, but prefer to take their 'cross a little less seriously. But there was no time to think too much about that, as India's B women were being called to the line. I dropped my helmet, grabbed the camera and a cold bottle of my delicious, well-hopped recovery drink and headed to the start. I hobbled around the course for the next 45 minutes, sipping my Belgian-style IPA, snapping photos and cheering India on to a lucky 13th place finish in her new category, earning a handful of points and a start-line callup for the remainder of the series. She looked strong, though she might not have felt so mighty at certain times, and really seemed to be getting a feel for her new bike and tires. We lowered her tire pressure pretty significantly from what we ran last year, and she reported a major improvement in traction with her Hutchinson Bulldogs rolling a little softer. Her cornering technique has also improved, adding to her increased speed. She has become so taken with the act of cornering on skinny, knobby tires that India's "perfect day" would now include railing perfect corners on her 'cross bike in addition to soaking in an eternally warm bubble bath while reading Jane Austen and sipping a mug of delicous coffee. With both of our races done and out of the way, we were free to relax and watch the elite ladies and gentlemen turn themselves inside out for a full hour. Former National Champion and 2009 USGP overall winner Ryan Trebon showed up to give Crusade series leader Chris Sheppard a run for his money. Local superwoman Sue Butler was in Aigle, Switzerland taking on the world's best in the first round of the UCI Cyclocross World Cup, leaving the women's race wide open for challengers. The pair of Trebon and Sheppard put on a good show, duking it out off the front for the majority of the race. They entered the woods together with only a scant handful of laps remaining, but when Trebon emerged up the grinding climb toward the start/finish line, Sheppard was nowhere to be seen. Wether he was dropped, cracked, crashed or just plain beaten I don't know but Trebon rode the last lap all on his own, threading his way through lapped riders like they were flags on a slalom course. The battle at the front smashed the field across the racecourse like a double-deuce of Old English across a cracked sidewalk and left the regular humans struggling to pick up the pieces. Only seven brave mortals managed to hold onto the coattails of the frontrunners to finish on the lead lap. Ira Ryan Cycles rider Matt Hall was one of the infantrymen caught in the carnage. Hall's engine redlined from the start and began to overheat as he fought to maintain the furious tempo set by the masochists at the front. "I had to sit up for a whole lap just to recover," he said at the finish while wiping the dust from his eyes. Despite his struggle for survival, Matt held on for a mid-pack finish in one of the strongest regional fields seen this side of Gloucester. Alice Pennington took home the win for the ladies, followed by Brigette Brown and Serena Bishop in 2nd and 3rd place positions. The race for the series overall features the same trio, in order at the top of the standings, separated by a scant 20 points. Perennial strongwomen Wendy Williams and Tina Brubaker are also still in the hunt for the Crusade title, only two and four points off the podium after Sunday's race. The fight between these five will be a great one to watch as the season rolls on. One bobble or off-day by any of the top three could turn the leaderboard on its head! After a tough day in the mud at Rainier High School the previous week, Rachel Bagley rebounded with a smooth, confident ride for a solid 11th place finish, bettering her 15th place at the Alpenrose series opener and bumping her to 16th overall. Trebon may have won the day, but he'll have bigger fish to fry this season. Sheppard earned another 20 series points for his second place and held on to his commanding overall lead with 72 total points. Shannon Skerritt who was eighth on the day and is the closest potential usurper to Sheppard's throne sits well in arrears with 47 points. Barring disaster, it would appear that Sheppard has the series crown secured and waiting on a velvet pillow after only three races. We're looking forward to next Sunday's race at the Portland International Raceway. The proximity to the city always results in a big field and great crowd of spectators, and while we can't expect the kind of insanity we saw last year at the Singlespeed Cyclocross World Championships held at PIR, it looks like we will see some of the muddy, wet conditions that the venue is famous for. Until then...
Finally! I've been working and waiting for so long for my new, handbuilt bike to get finished that I had started to think of it as this distant, abstract concept that would never materialize into a rideable bicycle. The frame construction took a while, mostly because I was unable to put in very many full days of work on the bike and still have a job. I was tempted to build her up and ride her unpainted, but Ira encouraged me to relax, slow down and make it the bike I really want. Good advice, but dang does it take a long time to get a bike powdercoated! I've been a nervous wreck the last few days while I waited for the call that the bike was ready.
But at long last, it's done! Picked her (no name yet...) up from Class Act Paint and Powder on Wednesday morning, built 'er up that afternoon. Class Act did a beautiful job. The color is even better than I thought it would be. It's more of a pumpkin orange than I expected, but the wet paint on the carbon fork matches perfectly and it looks really good with a liberal spattering of Northwest mud! All the components bolted on just as smooth as you please, only had to file a little of the powdercoat off the dropouts to allow the rear wheel to slide in and out easily.
First ride was this morning with Matt and Ira out at Pier Park. We sucked chilly morning air into our tender lungs, threw down some hot laps in the dirt and gravel before the disc golfers started to claim their space. I held back a bit on the first lap; afraid of crashing or washing out and damaging my freshly-finished beauty. After a little while of following Matt and Ira's lines and letting the awesome tires do their thing I was railing corners as fast as I ever have. The bike fit like a glove, felt totally natural and did everything I asked it to do without question or hesitation. It was much quicker, nimbler and more precise than any other bike I've ridden. The third episode of the Cross Crusade takes place this weekend at the Sherwood Equestrian Center, and my new baby and I are ready to carve up the racecourse! Here are a couple of photos:More photos on Flickr.