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After three weeks of hot and dusty racing, even the anti-mudders were happy to see rain in the weekend forecast for the Providence Cyclo-Cross Festival.
Words by Dan Chabanov // Images by Geoffrey Tomes
Much of the prerace chatter was filled with gossip about the course after photos turned up on the internet of a double flyover. Then a course map appeared showing a ramp right next to the beer garden. Late on Friday, we were treated to Instagram videos of people messing up the flyover, to mostly comical effect. The usual internet peanut gallery erupted with outrage over the “unsafe” course design.
I’m not a fan of flyovers; I like natural features. But I get it that sometimes flyovers are needed as course crossings to create a better event. The ramp by the beer garden I will take issue with. I don’t want cyclocross to turn into an “extreme sport.” The best feature at Providence is actually Roger Williams Park. With lots of sharp elevation changes, the course feels like a roller coaster — fun to ride and fast to race.
Saturday it rained. I was happy for a slippery track as I had done a lot of work in the off-season racing mountain bikes and working on my bike driving. But the first muddy race of the year is usually a stressful exercise in realizing you didn’t bring enough plastic bags for your dirty kit and enough rags to clean your bikes.
It started raining steadily during the women’s race, so they got the more slippery stuff, before the rain and the tires started to create mud on the course. Tire choice was mostly leaning toward pure mud tires, but some decided to gamble and started on more intermediate tires with muds set up on their pit bikes just in case. (I went with Challenge Limus tires because it was slippery enough that the extra traction wasn’t going to hurry anything.)
The holeshot at Providence is an uphill sprint into a curb with a wooden ramp. How do you make 88 guys sprinting into a corner more unsafe? Now, granted, that’s the venue that the organizers have to work with, so I can’t expect them to tear up the curb just for us. But the result is that we sprint all out for about 10 seconds, then brake hard as guys in front set up to bunny-hop the curb.
I don’t think I could have had a worse start. I spun my rear tire on the wet pavement, and then I missed my pedal, instantly losing places. I passed a few guys in the first couple corners, but once you’re that far back it’s a fight for every spot. This might seem counterintuitive. I suspect that most people picture the front of the race as being where all the fighting is happening. But the reality is that the front group, for the most part, will chill and ride the first few laps fast but smooth. They realize they’re at the front of the race and chopping people around them into corners is going to earn them no favors and likely gain them nothing anyway. At the back everyone is desperate to move up. It’s not fun there, but it was my mistakes that put me there, so it was time to go elbows out and start pedaling harder.
Racing from behind when you have good legs is not altogether terrible. Passing opponents is an encouraging feeling. But sometimes people don’t want to let you by, and that can be frustrating, especially when you watch them lose ground on the group in front and still they won’t let you by. For the most part you try to be polite, though at some point it comes to push and shove. The thing about that is, once it’s at push and shove, you’ve just given that person fresh motivation to fight back and stay on your wheel, or push and shove back around you. Nothing is going to slow you down more than getting passed by the sloppy dude you just spent five corners trying to get around. So it’s usually faster to keep the argy-bargy to a minimum.
Then the rain came down harder. The course went from slick to sloppy in the last three laps. You can see a dramatic slowdown of the lap times. Or maybe we were all just getting tired? It turned out that the race was running well over an hour, with my finishing time close to an hour and fifteen minutes and the winner’s around an hour and ten. I’m not sure if that had to do with the race being a C1 event, but the long race, combined with a 5 p.m. start, meant we were finishing in the dark.
For the uninitiated, the ranking for cyclocross races is, from highest to lowest, the world championships, the World Cup races, and then C1s and C2s. (The C1 events are the highest-level races in the US this season.)
My efforts put me into 24th. Not bad considering my terrible first lap and how stacked the field was for the first C1 event on the East Coast.
Sunday we woke to sunny skies, and fortunately the cooler temperature stuck around. The course layout was the same, but the conditions were very different. The dirt was broken in from the rain and very grippy, which meant it was going to be fast — a perfect day for file treads.
With Saturday’s winner, reigning US champ Jeremy Powers, not taking the start on day two, the race was wide open. And while Powers has been dominant on US soil so far this season, second place has been consistently fought over by a variety of riders. The list of podium contenders on the domestic scene keeps getting longer, and that is great news for cyclocross.
As predicted, the race was super fast, which meant that the first 30 riders stayed connected for a long time. A few laps in, I found myself dangling off the back of a big group. A few weeks ago this might have meant a slide farther back, but recently I’ve been feeling really good, and that meant I was able to ride up to the front of the group and attack up to the next group a few laps later.
Stephen Hyde took the victory Sunday, and the US women’s champ, Katie Compton, won both days.
As for me, this is the best I have ever been on a cyclocross bike. I’m racing with guys I haven’t been able to keep pace with ever before. The last two weeks I have been content: a couple of top-20s at Gloucester, 24th in a muddy C1 at Providence, and then 19th there on Sunday. Yet success is a moving target. As I get better, so do my opponents. Now it’s time for a top-10.