Nationals

My mouth is agape, my heart pounding and my legs burning.  A third of a lap ago, I pulled ahead of the rider that I’d been battling for 2 laps and now I’m holding a slight advantage nearing the finish.  A rabid spectator is running along side of me through the mud slog.  Her voice is familiar as she screams at me to pedal as hard as I can while her blue cape flaps behind.  I want to look over and tell her that I’m going as hard as fucking possible, but I can’t.  I’m at my limit and it’s taking all I have to push the pedals and concentrate on the next corner.  We approach the long, steep stairs and although my legs want to shuffle its steps, I bound, two steps at a time until I reach the top.  As I run the corner and remount I have no idea where the other rider is.  Riding away, the announcer is running along side me with a microphone, but I can’t hear a thing.  The wall of sound is deafening and it’s all for me.

I’m on my home turf for the Masters 30-34 category at the National Cyclocross Championships and I’m about to take the most important corner of my season.  My right hand is out on the hood, but my left is on the top of the bar.  I want it on the left hood.  I need my brakes.  I can’t mess up this corner, not after these people have pushed me to where I am.  I’m cross-eyed and can’t seem to move my hand to where I want it.  I keep pushing and cross over to set up for the turn.  I reluctantly let go of the bar and move my hand out.  One way or another, this next corner is going to define my season.

The day did not start off as a normal cross race day.  Most cross races require me to travel 3 hours to the Portland area, race, then travel 3 hours home.  Unpack, eat (again), shower, and then sleep.  When the Monday work day comes I can barely wake up and I am reminded of how crazy cross makes me.  Why do I do this to myself?  When the next race comes around and I’m pushing my limits, I remember.

No, the day was not a normal cross race day.  For one, it was the National Championships.  Second, the race was in my town, 5 minutes down the street from my house.  What does that mean?  It means I slept in my own bed.  It means I actually slept in.  I made my own breakfast.  I watched one of my favorite shows.  I worked on my bike in my garage.  All week people were asking me if I was ready.  My response?

“As ready as I’ll be.”

Well, how do you feel?

“Tranquillo.”

The only thing I knew for certain was that I was calm and when approaching your biggest goal of the year, what more can you ask for?

I rolled down to the venue to start my race routine.  Unload wheels.  Unload bike.  Unload the trainer.  Go eat Bob’s Red Mill oats.  Thump Coffee.  So good.  I missed out on some teammates races, but cheered on others.  The previous days were about others, but today I had to be selfish.

I hadn’t ridden the course all week.  No need to.  It changed daily.  I didn’t want to stress about crappy conditions when I knew that Saturday at 3:30pm would only be like Saturday at 3:30pm.  When I finished getting dressed, Adam Myerson rode up to the Sunnyside team tent.  He was working with Mike Schindler for the weekend and I am coached by one of his Cycle-Smart coaches, Ben Turner.  I hopped on the course and he rode ½ a lap with me giving me his take on the course.

“I like to ride the tape,” he told me.

“Me too!”

“The ground is usually firmer, but you run the risk of hitting course markings.”

“I know, I have skin missing from riding the tape at the USGPs last weekend.”

The fact that I had similar course lines as Adam brought on a confidence that I needed.  He pointed out the line NOT to take through the ditch before the flyover.  He had flatted on a course recon lap when he rode through the middle.  DO NOT RIDE THE MIDDLE.  I would pound those words into my head as I readied for my race.  We walked the stairs and at the top he stopped to give me what would be the best advice of the day.

“The line on the left is way faster, but don’t ride it if you’re towing people around.  Save it for when you need it.  Use it for your attack and if you cross over before the corner, you’ll be fine,” he told me.

After that, he left me to ride at a quicker pace for my warm up.  I got 2 laps in and felt that was enough.  A trip to the car for some dry clothes and shoes and I was ready for my final prep.

1 hr to go:

SportLegs, Hammer gel, dry clothes, olbas oil, on the trainer, iPod

Lil Wayne

Not joking around with surrounding friends like usual

Concentrating

Focused

2×3 min at low threshold

3×1 min high cadence

164lbs

31psi in my rear Schwalbe Racing Ralph

29psi in my FMB Grippo (old Racing Ralph tread) Molly Cameron Special Edition

Change in to my Castelli cross speed suit, Hammer gel and head to the start

The only hitch in the whole things was that I missed my call up.  I didn’t let that stop me though, and I made my way to the second row where the previous day’s top 10 TT had landed me.  Lucky call up #13.  Almost proved to be Unlucky, but who really believes in that stuff…

I downed a Red Bull on the start line, as I knew we would be standing around for a few minutes.  One piece at a time I handed my legwarmers, jacket, bottle and helmet cover to my friends, who for this day had transformed themselves in to my “Damian Kicks Ass” fan club.  These are some of the people I want to do my best for.

The gun goes off and a flurry of spandex flies down the start straight.  Without going to deep, I find myself taking the first corner with only a few in front of me.  I go wide and only a few more take me on the inside.

Goal 1 accomplished: Make the first corner without crashing or being behind a crash.

Hard, bumpy pedaling, another corner and some puddles.  A tight right off camber.  Riders down.  Weave around the chaos and hit the first grassy mud bog.  Low cadence, high power, tight corner, more power and then pavement.  The pavement brought on a little relief after the hard start and I realized only a few riders were in front of me including the pre race favorite, last years 2nd place finisher, Matt Pococha (who killed me at the USGPs).  After another quick off camber that merged to more pavement, I set off in pursuit of who I thought was going to win this race.  Before we hit the steep ride up/run up I had made contact with Matt and one other rider while a lone rider was several bike lengths off the front.  I was right where I wanted to be.  4th wheel and with the pre-race favorite.

As we crossed on to the Deschutes Brewery property and rounded the right hand corner, the Sunnyside tent erupted.  More people I want to make proud.  A long grass stretch and a left corner where all four of us went wide to the snow fencing.  Disaster struck.

I think a previous rider hit some course markings.  I think.  All I know is that the snow fencing was leaning in to the course and as I stayed glued to the wheel in front of me, I hit a course stake and went crashing to the ground.  I landed on my back and slid away from my bike.  It seemed like an eternity and I remember being impressed that the grass, which was now covered in mud and snow, was acting as a slip and slide.

Fuck!  Fuck!  Fuck!  Get back to your bike.  Too many people are going by.  There goes the winner!  Shit!  You crashed last year and never saw the top 10 again.  Go!  Go!  GO!  Collect yourself and pedal your bike.

As I remounted my bike, it was hard to not question if the entire season had come down to this.  Lap one and done.  These guys have been thinking the same thing all year.  They came here to win and now I have to eat my way through them just for a shot at the top 10.

Initially my legs did not want to move very quickly.  The lactate that had just exploded through my legs was now pooling and making it very hard to move fast.  The grass before the flyover seemed to sap all my energy and what was left disappeared as I crawled up and over the other side.  I settled in to my grass bog rhythm and as I approached the corner by the stairs I was reenergized.  The Sunnyside tent was yelling, the stairs and top stretch were lined with people I knew and they were going crazy.

Hit the start straight and accelerate.  Corner, accelerate, corner and accelerate.  Repeat.  Don and Mike are cheering me on from the pits.  Can’t let them down.  Grab a group and then ditch that group.  Keep moving forward.  My second time up the flyover, I thought I was going to fall over.  How am I going to make it over this 3 more times?  I’ll find a way.

Eventually I made it up to John Curry and we continued to move through the field.  Top 10.  Done.  Top 8.  Done.  Top 5 is just up ahead?  Are you kidding?  The Old Mill side of the course was nice for getting splits.  John had friends on the least populated side and they were telling him where he was in the race.  As his new best friend I was also getting the info.  We made our way in to the top 5 and for 2 laps we beat the crap out of each other.  If things went well the worst one of us would finish would be 5th and we would both be on the podium at Nationals.

Photo: Heidi Swift

I felt stronger off road, but he would pull me back on the pavement and accelerate past as the next dirt section approached.  I would pull him back in the technical spots and I rode the bogs stronger.  With 1 lap to go approaching, and a slight gap in the bog after the flyover, I busted out my secret weapon.  As I remounted at the top of the stairs I stayed left and tried to ride away for 4th on my own.  I crossed over to the right, took the downhill off camber corner and hit the pavement with several bike lengths.  I stood up and gave a dig, but Curry made contact.

Bell lap and we took corner 1 shoulder to shoulder.

I led through the pits, grass bog and to the second pavement stretch.  That’s when he accelerated past me and got a gap.

DIG!  Make this corner and stand up!  Ride back to his wheel!  The effort came easier than I was expecting and we continued toward the podium as 6th place seemed to be making up ground.  As we rounded the pit for the last time and blasted through the puddles I was getting ready for my final push.

On the slight uphill before entering the Deschutes property I pulled even with Curry and pushed through the deeper mud to make the pass.  I wanted to come into the grass in front.  The Sunnyside crew would see me first and that would fuel me.  I would get to take my lines and try to put him on the defensive.  I wanted to earn the spot on the podium that I would occupy, whether it was 4th or 5th.

Pulling around Curry for the final time. Photo: Heidi Swift

Barriers, hill, pavement, flyover.  I had the gap.  Amber and her blue cape are running next to me and I hit the stairs for the final time.  The name Matt Lieto passes through my head as I run up the stairs.  Matt would crush these stairs, so I’m going to crush them as he screams his head off for me.  Like the previous attack, I mount and ride the left side.  The firm ground assures that my cadence rises and I hold my gap over Curry.

Ambeer letting me know I should pedal faster on the last lap. Photo: Heidi Swift

I’m cross eyed, gasping for air and the noise from the crowd is muffled.  My hand is in the wrong spot and I can’t move it.  I don’t trust my arm to get my hand to its destination and I feel like throwing in the towel.  If I slow up, I can move my hand even if that means getting caught.  At least I wont crash off the podium.

slow down.

no.  it’s nationals.

Slow Down and move your hand.

No.  It’s Nationals.

SLOW DOWN TO MOVE YOUR HAND OR YOU WILL CRASH! NO PODIUM!

NO! IT’S FUCKING NATIONALS!

Final Push surrounded by friends. Photo: Matt Haughey

The roar of the crowd re-enters my ears and I hear 3 distinct voices.  Julia, Amber and Sara.  They were at the start line and they’re here for the most important corner of the season.  My vision focuses.  My movement is quick as my left hand makes the move it has made a thousand times this season.  It snaps in to place and lands on the hood.  I cross over to the right, take the corner and rise to the pavement.  I stand up and accelerate down the finish stretch and give a look back.  The gap has held and a wave of accomplishment rushes over me.  I shake my fist and punch the air in relief.

Relief. Joy. Photo: Whit Bazemore

The roar of the crowd makes me feel like I just won.  I did just win.  Not the race, but the battle within myself.  The battle to set goals, do the work to achieve those goals and to reach them.  I wanted the podium at Nationals and I got it.  I earned the podium at Nationals in my home town in front of my friends and Bend family.  Plus, another Bend resident held on for 3rd and my sparring partner for the last 2 laps held on by a few bike lengths for the final podium spot.

Setting my bike down on corner 1 and taking some deep breaths it all settles in.  I was surrounded by photographers who had been following the events as they were being narrated by the announcers.  Friends start arriving and smiles are everywhere.  Handshakes, hugs, laughs and tears.  I felt like the entire community was there congratulating me.

Photo: Matt Haughey

For me, the season ended right there.  Sure I lined up the next day for the Elite race, but Saturday is what I had trained all year for.  After my first lap crash, it could have ended very differently, but I pushed through the mistake and rode the best race I could.  The other 3 were just better than me.  I crossed that line knowing I had done everything I could have done.  I was engaged in a battle for the podium and when it really counted I was able to deliver the knockout blow.  Next year in Madison, I hope I can battle for the win.  Maybe it’ll even be against a local who lives close to the venue, whose friends and family are there willing him on so he can feel what I felt.  The community of Bend made this the most special day I’ve had on the bike.

A lot went in to making this cross season happen and it would be hard to thank everyone, but if you’re reading this and you know that you helped make it possible, thank you.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Thanks for sticking with me through the long post…

Photo: PDXcross

Making Serena cry. Such a dick. Photo: PDXcross

Schindler. Photo: PDXcross

FRIENDS!

Another hug from Colby! (couldn’t figure out how to borrow it from Tracy)

 

Teammate. Friend. Matt Fox. Lea, Serena and Marcel in the background. Photo: another Heidi Swift production

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3 Responses to Nationals

  1. Gary Bonacker says:

    Hey, Damian – Stories about racing are never too long. Great wrap up of Nationals. I was so glad to be able to be there and see you race your brains out. I know the feeling will be with you forever. You worked hard and timed it right. 2011 will be a great year for you. Confidence and hard work will carry you through.

  2. Damian, you don’t know me, but great write up. You beautifully capture the pain and joy that is cyclocross! My eyes were a bit moist by the end. . .

    Nice work.

  3. Thom P. says:

    Wicked ride and equally wicked write up. I generally hate reading race reports, but I liked this…a lot.

    Good to meet you at the “Slummit,” and thanks for you contributing the craziness that was Nationals in Bend.

    - t

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