Stories From The Front Lines: Cowbells, 12 Year Olds, And Masters Racing
by Sal Ruibal
After 14 consecutive days of temperatures above 90 degrees I find myself thinking about cyclocross season.
Perhaps that’s because I have the AC set at 63 and I’m drinking a pint of Duvel. I’m drinking because my mechanic told me my orange Hakkalugi is not going to make it to ’cross time without a new drivetrain, which is Campy Chorus and now costs more than I paid for the entire bike.
I have two backup bikes, but I had my hopes set on a brilliant season riding the Eddy Orange Hakkalugi with an Alpha Q fork. But disappointment is just as much a part of racing ’cross as waffles, cowbells and vomit.
I came late to ’cross, in my 40s. So I have spent many a chilly morn lining up with the wretched refuse of the sport: Masters Men 45+, Girls 12-16, One-legged Korean War Vets 60+ and Chronic Bedwetters 35+.
Our races usually start about 8 a.m., which is OK in early September but horribly frigid in early December. I once heard a race official refer to our status as “icebreakers.”
About five or six years ago, I had the misfortune to have my peak season as a racer coincide with the U.S. National Championship of a certain 12-year-old girl who was perky and sweet and faster than a speeding bullet.
Race after race, town after town, she would crush my soul with her stars-and-stripes velocity. She was truly a phenom and while I knew she had no idea she was humiliating me, it was driving me crazy.
My greatest fear was that she would lap me and I would be pulled from the course. For some reason, my lumbering pace was a magnet for marshals who had little to do once the gun went off.
As long as I could see her red-white-and-blue skinsuit ahead, I was OK. But if I didn’t see her, I would suspect that she was creeping up behind me. It was game she was playing, I thought, misdirected anger at her grandfather for removing the French fries from her Happy Meals back in fourth grade.
Whatever her devious and malicious reasons, I saw myself as the innocent victim of both adolescent anger and race marshal megalomania.
Soon I began to see a wider pattern of ’cross abuse aimed at me. In Richmond, a loose dog appeared not once, but twice on the course. The second time it darted out at a fast corner and I clipped it with my front wheel. The crowd booed me, as if I had aimed at it. Perhaps they misunderstood the gentle push I gave it with my right foot. I really was trying to move it to safety.
But once you are on the course marshals hit list, you might as well buy a side-by-side tandem and move to Sun City Center. At one UCI race at Lake Fairfax, I was actually racing with the leaders for a short time. Then a puffed up UCI official pulled out his red flag and announced he was pulling me for “blocking.”
I tried to explain that my good friend Gunnar Shogren was just ahead of me and I was not blocking the pack of braying hounds, I was just an old guy full of lactic acid and couldn’t get out of their way.
“Don’t give me that,” he sneered. “I could see how fast you were going.”
Me? Fast? That was the greatest moment in my cyclocross career, even better than beating the Bedwetters.
Sal Ruibal is a former sportswriter for USA TODAY and a member of the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame.
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