Ben Popper at Jingle Cross Day 2, © Amy Dykema
OK, so enough with the pressure. All you super-nice people always asking me whether I’ve gotten my point yet makes this all so awesome that it just raises the bar. Sometimes this season I’ve wanted it so badly that it makes me go a little crazy, and it makes the riding a bit more stressful, and sometimes the forest gets lost in the trees. I ride ‘cross because I love it. This season I’ve really struggled with “expectations,” whatever those are, and I’ve learned that the best expectation is to have fun and ride it like there’s no tomorrow.
When I made my schedule for this year, I looked at Jingle Cross as probably having the thinnest field of the year and I kept it in mind as that last-ditch effort for that point. Lemme tell ya, I ended up in the ditch on Saturday, for sure. But Sunday? I let go of the point-chase and things fell into place. Redemption.
I raced Jingle Cross last year and took 20th both days. This year, I expected better. Of course, the field was deeper and the racing faster, but I was determined to get in the single-digits or at least close. I pre-rode the course, studying its anatomy, loving how technical some parts were, and plotting. This is gonna be fun. I lined up in the second row – my best start at a UCI this year – and waited for the start. From the gun, this race was different. The start was less aggressive and the pack sort of poked along for a bit, all together, and as we rolled past the pit Julie called my place out – 12th. Yeah! But that’s the problem with your place in the first lap – it never sticks for 60 minutes.
Seconds later, just a quarter lap in, a crash in the front took us all down, an equalizer that shuffled the deck. Suddenly the Wells brothers were mixed in with our pedestrian pack and my coach Brian Conant was off the front for a hot second. I got stuck in the wrong group and had trouble picking up places. I wasted a lot of energy trying to get where I wanted to be but just never made it up. As my placing slipped, I just didn’t have it in me to get back up there and instead just tried to hang in and save up for Sunday. I left the course completely done with my bike, ready to throw in the towel, then set the towel on fire, and then waste a perfectly good beer trying to put the fire out. Saturdays…my new nemesis.
Then, it snowed.
A fresh, wet few inches of the white stuff pulled up the slick muddy goodness and took what was an interesting course and turned it into a course that gave anyone with trail racing experience a gold star with a get out of jail free card on the side. This is what I’m good at. Too bad I was still grumpy from the bad Saturday. My warm-up was replaced with practicing my best emo face while hanging out in the registration building and dreading the race. I actually asked Julie if we could just leave. She said no.
So, humbled by Saturday, I rolled to the start. Out of the second row and down the start straight. It only took about 100 feet before I could hardly see through my glasses, but they were keeping my eyes clean during the most important and dirty part of the race. Being so slick, the start was not as fast as other races, but some guys were taking it just as aggressive and paying for it. I was focusing on staying upright, being faster than falling, and it was paying off. Past the pit for the first time I was sitting at about 14th with 10th place in my group. I tried not to get too worked up and just ride smart. 10th and 11th place put a gap on the group shortly thereafter, I’m not sure how, but I guess that is what I get for being at the back. The group dwindled more and more over the second and third laps and soon it was down to two other riders and myself. The announcer talked about the three of us being the only race left on the course since everyone else had huge gaps both in front and behind them.
I started getting nervous about becoming lapped traffic, but Julie insisted we were no where close. My practice of rather safe than sorry started to pay off. One rider went down on the off-camber section after the first run up with two laps to go and the other rider and I gapped him immediately. Then later in the same lap, the other rider washed out a couple turns before the sand pit. I stepped on it and focused on climbing up the hill strong and fast. I flew through the finish line into my last lap and didn’t look back. I kept the pressure on and really focused on riding clean yet fast. I made it through the lap without incident at 12th place. My best finish yet. But still 1:30 behind the points.
So, kind readers, this closes this year’s chase for the point. Next comes the Portland USGP, then nationals, and unless everyone but me flats this weekend, I probably won’t be in the running anymore. There’s always next year. But really, what’s a point? In the process of not getting that point this year, I’ve racked up plenty of $20 paydays, mud from several states and one province, a pile of crapped out cables, a check in Canadian Dollars, a ton of new friends, and a great collection of local coffees. Gotta put the time in and maybe this year was that time.
Thanks for reading.
CXM Columnist Ben Popper was on a season-long mission to achieve one goal – earning just one UCI point. Follow Ben on this journey this season through his regular journal. You can find his other columns here.