Cyclocross Magazine columnist and Masters racer Lee Waldman ramps up the intensity, courtesy of a short track MTB race in Colorado. In case you missed it, go back and check out Lee’s previous column as he Relearns Old Lessons.
by Lee Waldman
It’s May. ’Cross season for most of us is still four months away. You might be racing on the road, or looking for the perfect “off-season” training regimen. Well, I can tell you: it’s short track mountain bike racing! By this time of the year I’m starting to feel the need for pain. It’s sick, but I need to suffer again in a way that I can’t on even the hardest training ride. I’m sure you know what I mean. It’s that effort that takes you way past discomfort into the realm where you’re praying for a flat tire. For the last few years I’ve turned to short track mountain bike racing to meet that need. It’s fast, highly technical, painful (sound familiar?) with an added bonus – no frozen ruts, no freeze-your-butt-off temperatures. The greatest meteorological challenges are wind, rain, heat and the occasional random tornado. But hey, if it was easy everybody would do it.
Last week was the first short track of the season. When I race cyclocross I reach to raise my level by racing down (a relative term, by age) with the 45+ men. The field size coupled with the more aggressive riding make me better. On the other hand, when I race short track the category ‘C’ men are enough of a challenge. They are much, MUCH younger than I am, so I feel OK allowing myself to race in there. I’m sure I could move up to race with the ‘B’s, but I use age as my excuse. Come on now! What’s the point of getting older if you can’t use it to your advantage every once in a while? Nevertheless, I still feel guilty doing it. Not because I’m breaking legs, I’m not! I haven’t won a race yet, although I’m getting closer. It’s just so much fun, and so good for my ego to be able to sit on and then pass guys who are half my age.
My goal last year was to crack top 10 at least once. I actually got close, finishing 10th in the last race I rode. So with increased confidence as a result of great coaching this year, I lined up with “men” who weren’t even born when I bought my first USCF license almost 30 years ago.
If you read my last column, you’ll know that I had something to prove to myself as well. I needed to convince myself that the questionable bike handling I suffered with in my 50 miler was an equipment malfunction, nothing else.
My coach, Ben, told me to get a good warm up of at least an hour before I raced. So, I snuck out of work early and got to the course just as they were finishing set-up. Seeing that registration wasn’t open yet I dressed, slammed wheels onto the bike and jumped on the course.
It’s been raining in Colorado for about two weeks now. Race day was the first sunny one in a while, but the course was pock marked with mud holes. Naturally, I found one on my very first warm up lap, going around a tight 180. Trying to carry too much speed into and out of the corner, trying to prove to myself that I can handle a bike, straying just a fraction off the line of choice, my front wheel washed out in some greasy mud, dumping me face first and covering the front of my bike with the typical Colorado Front Range clay. After picking the stickers out of my hands, I rolled back to the car to scrape off what I could before it turned into cement, knowing that if I didn’t the stuff would harden in another five minutes.
Things did get better after that. I like having an extended time to pre-ride courses. I can ride slowly, scoping out the corners, looking for the best lines, planning out gear selection and tire pressure. It always surprises me that some riders simply ride around during warm up. They rarely take the time to actually pre-ride and think about what will make their races more effective. To me that’s one of the attractions of something like cyclocross or short track racing. That thinking process turns a rider into a complete off road racer. The integration of mental and physical challenges is what separates this sport from others. By the time we lined up for the start, I felt I’d gotten the course pretty well dialed and was loose and ready.
Because I’ve raced for so long now I can smile, lean on my handllebars and look relaxed while a thousand butterflies are tickling my stomach wall. I don’t know if it makes any difference but I love that I can be smiling and joking while the riders around me grow more and more tense, looking increasingly more serious. They must look at me and think, “Who is this wanker?” And then I get to drop them like bad habits about two laps in.
And it happened again. Got an OK start, about eight riders back going onto the first narrow section. Sat in the wheels through my nemesis mud section and then started jumping past guys. It made me feel great that I was carrying more speed into and out of the corners than they were. The other reason I love racing short track is that it allows me to work on my weakness, technical riding. When I see that I’m going around corners better that everyone else it gives me tremendous confidence. Every time I wanted to pass, I could, and I was never passed by anyone else. I suffered, but that’s what I came for and I was glad to see the lap counter showing three to go. Eventually I rolled across the line in fourth place! A great way to start the season.