Alice Pennington, Tina Brubaker and Serena Bishop lead the women's Elite race early ©Matt Haughey
by Josh Liberles
Temps in the 40s, a steady flow of hard rain and thick mud would deter most outdoor enthusiasts, but it seemed the perfect recipe to attract almost 1,300 cyclocrossers to Portland International Raceway for Cross Crusade race #4. Chris Sheppard (Rocky Mountain Bicycles) once again made mincemeat of the Elite men’s field, and Alice Pennington (Team S&M) used her technical skills to distance her primary rival in the series, Wendy Williams (Specialized-River City Bicycles).
If anyone had second thoughts about the safety or racing on a mud-soaked course with puddles deeper than small children, a glance across the way to the motorcycles tearing it up on the slick pavement of the PIR raceway beside the ’cross course quickly put those concerns in their place.
The sun came out briefly as the Elite men and women got underway. The course started out wet and surprisingly fast – the mud was so full of water that it quickly made way for oncoming wheels. But the sun started drying things out and slowing sections down to all-out power mash efforts. The relatively flat terrain had a run-up with double barriers, a cement obstacle made famous in Nationals several years back, an added-on steep U-turn run-up that most of the Elites were riding, a few off-camber sections and some puddles that required full-speed commitment.
Anona Whitley (Ironclad) is pure focus ©Matt Haughey
Pennington and Williams Battle in the Mud
Pennington got to work early and carved out a lead that would be challenged, but ultimately stick. “I opened up a gap that stayed at 10 to 20 seconds for most of the race. Wendy closed it down on the second to last lap, and I took a hole shot through a couple of the masters guys remounting after the barriers,” said Pennington. “I think she got hung up there and I was able to get enough of a gap to the finish.”
Multiple races on course concurrently is just part of the Cross Crusade game, according to Pennington. “Having the guys out there definitely affects things for the women. I was using them for drafts on the higher speed road parts. They’re part of the race like any obstacle or course feature. They can be an asset or a detriment and I just factor them in.”
The two-up battle highlighted the different strengths of the two protagonists. “I’m pretty good at the technical stuff in the mud and probably made up time there. I have more trouble with the long straight slogs where you have to keep motivated to push it – sometimes it feels like riding a trainer,” said Pennington. “There was a lot of that today. Wendy’s good at it and did an amazing job of reeling me in.”
Serena Bishop (Sunnyside Sports) climbed onto the third podium spot, followed by Anna Christiansen, aka “Ace” (Ironclad Performance Wear), who’s a newcomer to the sport and racing on her MTB-riser-bar-equipped singlespeed. Christiansen started off the season beating up on the women B’s, then proceeded to ride away from most of the men’s singlespeed field in her next couple of events before racing her first Elite women’s race Sunday. Heather Clark (Bend Memorial Clinic) finished in fifth.
Damian Schmitt out to an early lead ©Matt Haughey
Sheppard Combines Power and Technique, Cements His Series Lead
Sheppard calls the high desert of Bend, Oregon, home, but somehow has managed to fine-tune his mud riding form to outdistance his rivals on a sloppy day. Sheppard also credits a revised riding position with helping his control. “Bendites were blessed with much precipitation throughout the spring and first part of the fall. I was lucky enough to have room in my schedule to pedal on most wet days, which helps my cause,” said Sheppard “The most influential factor to bettering my mud riding has been a change in setup. This year I’ve dropped my bars 20mm, which weights the front tire a wee bit more.”
Shannon Skerritt (Corsa Concepts) looks at home in the mud ©Matt Haughey
Shannon Skerritt (Corsa Concepts) again started out fast and on the front, and Damian Schmitt (Sunnyside Sports) followed his trend of attacking early and creating a gap. “I wanted to slot in with Shannon, Erik Tonkin (Kona) and Donald Reeb (Rocky Mountain) going into that first corner to avoid any chaos – it’s tricky for sure,” said Schmitt. “The tight line on the left is the best if you’re able to hit it just right, otherwise you’re dealing with potholes and a huge puddle. After the next 180, we hit the mud and people just started going everywhere. Brett Luelling (Buy Local Cycling) punched it, and I rode a pretty clean line, so I found myself in pursuit. I didn’t really want to ride that hard so early, but I got caught up in the chase and set off after him. I found myself in the lead on the pavement that led to the added run-up. I squared up, punched it up the hill and down the other side into the next mud section.”
Sheppard accelerates towards the platform ©Matt Haughey
After a stretch of pavement, Sheppard caught and passed Schmitt on his way to a long time out in front solo. Schmitt would lose ground, but finish at the back of a strong group to eventually claim 11th – his best ever result at the tough PIR Crusade. Sheppard, for his part, had a teammate lend a hand in bridging to the front – and that was all the help he’d need. “After a poor start, Donald (Reeb) pulled me into the long headwind section to the back woods. After the S-turns, he lit it up again all the way back to the Shimano pits,” said Sheppard. “Damian had about 50 yards and chose to ride the right side, I took the left and powered past him. Behind me I saw a group with a couple of my Rocky Mountain compatriots, two Corsa Concept riders (Skerritt and Aaron Tuckerman), two Kona (Spencer Paxson and Tonkin) and Michael Gallagher (Cyclocrossracing.com). Odds were in my favor at that point. I definitely would rather give it a go off the front and choose my own lines versus having some slip up take me out or cause a mechanical. This was a great opportunity to test myself on a wide variety of technical terrain during a general all-around toughman cycling event.”
Huge gaps would soon open up in the lead group, as Sheppard plowed his way off the front and Skerritt used his excellent motor and handling skills to separate himself from the other challengers. Spencer Paxson (Team S&M) was the next in, while Skerritt’s teammate, four-time New Zealand national MTB champ Aaron Tuckerman, put in an excellent performance to claim fourth on the day, sprinting in ahead of Erik Tonkin (Kona-FSA).
This is Tuckerman’s second season racing ’cross, although in addition to his MTB experience, he raced on the road for the Jelly Belly Land Rover-Orbea professional teams. “I really don’t know where my strengths lie in cyclocross yet. I would think that coming from an Elite level mountain bike background helps the skills, but now that I’m working, my training consists of riding to and from work. My road fitness seems to have not completely gone yet,” said Tuckerman. “Conditions at PIR were crazy, I’ve never really raced in anything like that before. Crazy! I’m still getting bits of mud out of my eyes.”
Check out this composite shot of Tony Kic (Gentle Lovers) showing how to handle the cement obstacle mid-race:
Tony Kic panorama compilation shot - bikes are for riding ©Matt Haughey
The Cross Crusade heads to Astoria, Oregon, for its traditional Halloween double header next weekend. The first day is a more typical Crusade, with the Sunday race more geared towards wearing costumes while pedaling as hard as possible.
Results beneath Photo Gallery.
Photo Gallery by Matt Haughey (read and see more from Matt on his blog):
- Chris Sheppard (Rocky Mountain Bicycles)
- Shannon Skerritt (Corsa Concepts)
- Spencer Paxson (Team S&M)
- Aaron Tuckerman (Corsa Concepts)
- Erik Tonkin (Kona-FSA)
- Alice Pennington (Team S&M)
- Wendy Williams (River City Bicycles)
- Serena Bishop (Sunnyside Sports)
- Anna Christiansen (Ironclad Performance Wear)
- Heather Clark (Bend Memorial Clinic)