by Ben Popper
Have you ever had to explain to your boss why you’re coming back from Vegas with a black eye? Because thank the Belgian gods, it’s fall again, and there’s nothing that gets me bruised in style like a good old cyclocross race.
Year two of my quest for UCI points has started with a score of Gravity 3, Ben 1, UCI points 0. The first week of the season was long and rough week. My first race was a local Chicago Cyclocross Cup race, where gravity and a dropped chain took me out of contention for the win, making me first loser. Score one for Gravity. There’s nothing as fun as a local race, though, and since the Cat 4’s race after us, I got to have a little fun, doing dollar handups from my crotch and heckling the guys. Like this:
Round two was just three days later, under the lights of CrossVegas. Lining up with that field, you know you’re not racing to win. You’re racing to finish. You’re racing to not get lapped. You hope those Euros aren’t going to throw elbows as they come around you on the lap. You’re in it to survive, and hopefully break the top 40. It’s like early nationals, with “Eye of the Tiger” on repeat in your head. It’s hard.
The gun goes off and the stampede rolls off at a breakneck pace. With my 7th row start, the leaders had an almost 30 second lead before I even touched my left pedal. It was hard, fast, pounding, cheering, loud, lights, surreal. I love this sport, it hurts so well. I was in a good rhythm and moving up- by Julie’s count in the pit I was in the mid-thirties, when gravity had its way. Something bumped my back wheel, my bars popped up, they punched me in the eye, threw me on the ground, and let everyone pass me. Well, not everyone, more like a dozen people, but it was the dozen people in MY race. Either way, I got back up foggy, unsure whether I was bleeding, but toughed it out to the end. A disappointing 53rd, but I wasn’t lapped.
This is where things start getting hard. I raced Sunday, worked 8-4 Monday, flew to Vegas Tuesday, raced Wednesday, flew home Thursday, worked 8-4 Friday, THEN drove to Madison, WI on Friday night. And now… raced Saturday. As much as I love flying through the air in a hermetically sealed metal canister, it ain’t fun, and whizzing across the ground in a miniture German version isn’t much better. It all just gets old. So does my job. So do all of our jobs, right folks? And put it all together and you get another battle where the odds are stacked.
Lined up on Saturday and rode like I knew what I was doing… for a few laps. Then gravity chased me down in the form of another rider washing out in front of me and tossing me over the bars and through the tape. I’m getting used to the view from the ground, and all this practice has taught me how to get back up and in it faster than ever, but this time it wasn’t there. The air was knocked out of me, my arm was all screwed up, and I had lost another dozen places. My eye still hurt, to boot. I rolled into the pit and called it quits. Later, while Julie tried to butter up the media (i.e. Cyclocross Magazine’s live-updates guru Jake Sisson) with margaritas, I joined some friends for a quick fly fishing session. Race weekends rule!
Sunday, though. Sunday I was exhausted, sore, brusied, and still looked like I had just walked away from a bar brawl- perfect for ‘cross, right? My expectations had sunk to the low of trying to finish this race without falling, and as the rain started to come down 15 minutes before the start, I knew that even that modest goal was unlikely. Fresh legs on the weekend helped me get a pretty good start and managed to keep it in control for half a lap or so and then sliiiiiiiddddddd through a corner right in front of the pit. And an announcer saw it. “BEN POPPER IS DOWN IN A CORNER!” Well, thanks for that, friend. I’m finding the best way to get my name on the PA is to injure myself, and thankfully, I’m getting good at it!
I rode solid, I rode strong. I lost the group I was with in that fall, but after that, I just danced on the pedals, dug in up the hill, and rode my bike. It took 20 minutes, but I did remember why I love this sport. Page and Vervecken were duking it out somewhere 25,735,435 minutes in front of me, and they were just flying. Before I knew it, Julie warned me that I was in danger of getting lapped. Game on.
You know you don’t have a chance in hell of placing when your race goes from “beat the guy in front of you” to “don’t get lapped!” That penultimate lap was the hardest effort of the week. I finished Vegas on the lead, I wasn’t going to get lapped in Madison. I grabbed the Gentle Lover near me and we pounded it long and hard and managed to hold off the leaders. Took our parade final lap, reeled in one or two more riders, and went home satisfied.
See, here’s the thing though. Last year Madison was a UCI but not USGP, the field was tough but not completely stacked. This year, there was no chance. These races keep getting bigger, the fields keep getting faster, and I keep having to work nights at my day job. It’s awesome to think that an American could have a shot at, say, a World Cup podium, but that means that folks like me are slipping back in the field. It’s just reality, and it’s still fun to ride with the big shots, but my results are getting worse, not better. All the same, it’s fun. All of it, even the black eye. This will be my fastest year on my bike reguardless of what the results pages show.
Wish me luck, and thanks for reading.