I’m going to be honest, when I got in my car on Sunday morning and drove off, I thought I had a good chance of becoming state champion; and after last week’s disappointing showing at the ‘cross race, I looked toward this race for some redemption. Maybe my newfound confidence came from my snooping around the the USA Cycling webpage where, after a few clicks, it showed me ranked first among Cat 3, 35-39 year olds in California. It made no sense because it listed the person with the fewest points as ranked first; but it did, nonetheless, show my name next to the number 1 under the worked “Rank.” Confusing as it was, it obviously gave me some confidence.
Dave Williams and I made the long drive out to Vail Lake in Temecula, as usual talking about bikes and beer and wives. We both weren’t sure what to expect, as neither of us had ever ridden there and all we had in our knowledge bank was the map posted on uscup.net.
After we registered we stopped to to talk to Gary Stewart of ESI Grips who gave us an idea of what to expect out on course; he said it’s a lot of fire road, with some single track and a couple of rocky descents near the end. That was enough to scare me, but I told Dave that I would keep doing what I’ve been and not thinking about it and keep going when I get to the top. After seeing Gary I witnessed a rare Chris Bautista sighting. It was good seeing Chris and talking to him, if only for a short while.
We went back to the car and got ready for the race. We checked out the start of the course and rode around to see the end of it. In all, it was probably less than 5% of what he had to go through. It didn’t give me any idea of how tough the climbs were or of how tricky and dangerous the descents would be. We headed back to the truck and found fellow Celo’s Kermit McGovern, Jeff Sigua and Andrew Dickinson. We talked for a bit, and as Andrew was talking about the course Jeff said, “Is that Coday?” Mike Coday pulled up in his ’63 Impala . . . it might’ve been a mid-90s Crown Victoria, and as he stepped out of the car he declared, “This isn’t a ‘cross race!” I think we all thought he was joking until he mentioned that it was probably a good idea for him to have thrown his mountain bike in the car. It was probably a case of just hoping for the best because it turns out Mike will be running the Long Beach Marathon and will not be at the ‘cross race. So it was indeed a good thing he brought a pit bike.
During the drive Dave and I talked about employing Geoff Albert’s method of warming up at the ‘cross races: “Ride around the course for a little bit” and Dave said he would also be adopting Gary Stewart’s philosophy of going slow early and pouring it on later. So I chatted a little more with the guys and then went out and rode around a little before staging, then a few minutes and a bathroom break later, I was at the start next to Eric Hatfield of Sho-Air, whom I credit for making me a competitive racer. Eric, loyal readers may remember, was the first to point out that I was a serious points contender in the series way back when we raced Sycamore Canyon. We talked about who was there, and on cue, almost as if he was waiting for me to announce him, Max Flaxman appeared immediately after I said, “Max was registered for this race, but he always stages late.” Like I’m the Ed McMahon to Max’s Johnny Carson. The three of us talked some more, I told them how much fun ‘cross was and how they both should try it, and we tried to figure out who was in our group. I turned to Max and said, “I think you’re going to be state champion.”
As they sent us off, I decided to stay behind Max. Eric and a couple of other guys took off ahead and I paced Max knowing that he is consistent for the entire race. As we left the grass area and started our first easy climb, I went ahead of him and slowly caught up to Eric. We shot down a hill quickly that was more technical that I would want it to be, but not more technical than I could handle, and before we knew we were climbing again. It was a steep climb averaging over 10% grade with a max reaching almost 18%, but it was less than half a mile long. I was impressed how well Eric was climbing and thought I should stay with him until Max passed us, then I’d try to go with Max.
A few undulations later and I was flying down a hill that was both more technical than I wanted it to be and more technical than I could handle. Luckily, I was behind a guy in a Simple Green kit who picked a good line and I followed him. I tried not to use my brakes and definitely did not use my front brakes at all. Jeff and Andrew had mentioned something about staying to the left when you got to the ridge line, so that’s what I did, which was the best general line with a few important exceptions. When we hit the bottom I shifted into my granny ring and my chain bounced off. I jumped off, put it back on, ran up a little and remounted. Eric was way ahead at this point. I caught a guy and as we went up the winding single track there was a woman walking up. Two guys passed her after they yelled, “On your heel!” which I found a little odd because I don’t think I’ve every heard that expression and there I heard it twice within a matter of seconds. It may have been a case of monkey-see, monkey-do, but I didn’t want to yell out the same thing so I said, “I’m going to pass on your right.” The woman didn’t give and I had to dismount again and run by her. Eric was gone and so was another guy in our group wearing a Universal Cycles kit. “Bad luck again,” I thought and it was precisely at that point that I decided I would follow Dave’s model and go easy the first lap.
A couple of 40+ guys and two guys from my group kept playing leap-frog with me and each other. I tried not to pass on the climbs because I knew they’d catch me on the descents. As we descended again it got sketchier. There was one particular section of the descent that will stay with me for a very long time: It looked like a wall going down, followed by a short yet steeper downhill with a large bump in between. The bump was almost as if the Earth had hurt itself there and a hematoma developed right at that particular spot. I became very afraid as I approached it but stuck to my left. My front wheel did something and bars followed and I thought I was a dead man, but I refused to use my brakes and lo and behold, I rode right through it. A single track followed that was fun to ride and then we started climbing again. Still behind the 40+ guys and the Simple Green and OUCH guys from my group, I decided to pass everyone, but that was short lived because they caught and passed me as the single track turned to a winding double track.
At mile 7 I was expecting the last mile to be the tricky descent that Gary had mentioned before the race. “One mile of descending like Big Bear,” I thought to myself. The end was nothing like Big Bear, however; “I’ve seen this already,” I said, remembering that Dave and I were there before the race, and I started to hammer. I passed the Simple Green and Ouch guys who almost seemed to be working together, and the two 40+ guys. I quickly came around the start/finish are and kept hammering. After turning off the grass before the first easy climb I caught and passed Max.
“There are two guys right behind me,” I told him. Max is nice guy who smiled through every race, maybe so people could he say, “That guy beat me with a smile.” As I hit the first climb I saw the guy wearing the Universal Cycles kit, who passed me when my chain fell off, just in front of me and I kept the pressure on to catch up to him. I wasn’t trying to pass him because I knew he descended faster than I did, and my plan was to try to follow his line. When he crested I was still a few seconds behind him and I as crested I saw Eric ahead.
“Alright Chuy,” I told myself at the top, “This is for the state championship. You’re either going to catch these guys or your gonna crash.”
I believed it when I said it and even as I went through the short – yet steep – undulations before the really scary stuff. As I approached the steeper, longer descents I forgot all about my previous declaration; instead, I conjured up the old “It’s faster to go slow than it is to crash.” Eric and Universal picked up some distance, but I wasn’t too worried. I thought I had a chance if I could keep them in sight until we started climbing.
The descent was scarier the second time around. I hit that bump on the road and flew. In the air I saw my life flash before my eyes. I had time to pray an entire Rosary, write my will, call my mother and pull out my wedgie before I hit the ground. I don’t how I landed on both wheels, but I did. Somehow I kept my hands off my brakes and rolled off into the sunset. The worst part was over so I remembered that I was going to catch those guys or crash. The winding single track was fast and fun, and in the hyper-confidence I’d gotten from the jump, I think I went too fast for my own good.
My bars suddenly crossed over and I unclipped my right foot and slammed it down to keep from crashing. A cramp shot up from my foot to my butt cheek and I somehow managed keep the rubber side down. I got back on and my right calf muscle was complaining a bit. I practice my good roadie skills, pulling through the bottom with my heel as I heard Lee Willmore say “Be smooth!” like Obi Wan’s “Use the force” to Luke Skywalker. At that point I had conceded 1st and 2nd place and was pretty sure I wouldn’t catch the two guys in front of me. My hamstring started complaining when I started going back up and eventually I cramped enough that I had stop and stretch and walk it off. The guy in the Simple Green kit passed and asked if I was ok. Now I knew the best I could do was 4th place.
I finished the race feeling a little better and saw Dave, Kermit, Chris and Eric all at the finish line. I asked Eric if he won and he said the Universal Cycles guy passed him near the end. I was very disappointed and almost upset about the bad luck I had. The more I thought about it, however, I realized that the bad luck was erased at the start of the second lap and it was a stupid mistake that snowballed into a bad finish.
When they posted results we learned that there was a guy so far ahead that we didn’t even know he was in the race. Eric ended up in third as a result and I in 5th. Eric and I agreed that if you’re going to beat the 2nd place guy by more than 5 minutes then you’re a sandbagger and should be in the Cat 2 race. It made me feel better anyway.
Kermit got 4th place and Mike got 6th in their respective races. Dave got 3rd place in his race and was having trouble accepting that he is as good as he is. He beat a couple of the guys who were beating him earlier in the year, which I think threw him a little. But I say, it’s ‘cross season and he is ready.