Ben Popper at Michigan’s Double Cross Race, Day 1 by chimblysweep on flickrWhile many of us may idolize the pros, it’s often the working man that is doing the sport out of love that we can relate to most. Ben Popper is one such guy, and he’s entering his third ‘cross season with a simple goal – earning just one UCI point. Follow Ben on this journey this season through his regular journal. Here is Part I.

Who is Ben Popper?

I’m that crazy BMX kid who got thrown out of the park. Then one day, I woke up a little bit older and needed to do something slightly less likely to injure myself. It took few cyclocross races before I was winning and catting up, and two years after touching a cross bike for the first time, I’m lining up with the big boys in the UCI Elite field. OK, lining up behind them. Which is why I need just one UCI point.

In the off months leading up to this year, I took a few big steps in trying to get myself prepared for an entire season of UCI Elite racing. For the first time, I started getting up with the sun and training, I got an actual coach, and Julie (my wife) is gearing up to the pit for me. I also became a member of the HRS / Rock Lobster cyclocross team. It sounds so serious when I say it all this way. For real, I don’t want to get lapped or dropped or slaughtered, but I’m still out there looking for the same high I get from BMX. I wanna have fun. I like bikes.

Now I am staring down the barrel of 19 UCI races over 12 weeks, a pretty hardcore schedule for the new kid. So much of what will happen this season is unknown, as none of us know how I will stack up against the best racing in the country. Any way I look at it, I am lucky to be able to have a go at this season and the next few months will be a fantastic ride. My goal is to get just one UCI point, which means making the rankings and getting a call-up. I’m lining up with guys who ride full-time, who have pro managers and pro mechanics, who don’t have to arrange rides or sleep in tents or guess whether or not Taco Bell is an appropriate post-race recovery meal. But I’m scrappy. I’m chasing that point, and I’m doing it with a sense of humor.

Tailwind Michigan Double Cross, Davisburg Michigan Day 1

So this is what all the mornings rising before dawn to get my intervals in on the only bike path in Chicago were for. I was toeing the line with the likes of Jonathan Page on an 80 degree day Northwest of Detroit. Like most of the guys racing today, the Michigan Double Cross weekend was the start of my season. The difference between everyone else and me was that I had no clue how I was going to perform. This was the first test of my new training, diet, and bikes.

The course and venue were pretty sweet. Held at a fairground, the course was able to have a few distinct sections. There was a pretty flat and open area with some wide turns and fast straight away sections. This transitioned into an area where the course followed a couple small, but steep hills with some excellent off camber turns and short steep climbs. The last section was almost like riding single track and we had to climb through a wooded section of the property. The laps were fairly long, but they were going to be fast.

On the whistle we were all tearing down the pavement at a super fast pace, but because there were only a few good lines through the loose gravel, the group strung out single-file much faster than I expected. Through the first section of switch backs we saw our first casualty as a rider washed out. Then through the barriers I heard another rider go down. Over the rest of the lap and the beginning of the second I pushed around a couple groups of riders to move up. Past Julie in the pit the first time I was 19th, then half a lap later I was at 15. On the next time through I was 11th.

Page’s mechanic is in the pit with her after that third time he looks over to her and says, “Your husband, he is a diesel.”

I was chasing a group of seven riders, 4th through 10th, working with another rider to try to bridge up to that group. My Golden Ticket of a UCI point was sitting just 12 seconds ahead. I was surprised and really, really excited that so soon in the season the one point I want so badly was so close to my grasp. I pushed and pushed, but never quite made it. In that 80 degree heat I pushed too hard. In the end, this was an effort that put me over the edge, robbing me of my dreams, mistakenly rerouting my suitcase of courage to the wrong destination.

With three to go I was fading fast. A few riders caught and past me. In the end, I crossed the line in 17th place. Not quite as good as I was trying for, but I left nothing on the course. I felt good about my performance. I have to say, it felt great to run through the barriers every lap super fast and hear the people standing around them say things like, “do you see how fast he is going?” I will take a top twenty finish with pride.

Tailwind Michigan Double Cross, Davisburg Michigan Day 2

The second day started just the same as the first, I was less nervous, but still not completely calm. The course on the second day I was only slightly different, with the back half turned from wide open and fast to wide open and twisting. It is strange to have sections of a race course that are ten to twelve feet wide with only one good line through them. I was picturing the race stringing out again very fast.

I was hoping for a better starting position today, but ended up in the third row again. This time though, I was the first to be called into the row, so I took one of the outside lanes hoping to get around some people right away. On the whistle I was not gaining position, but I was not really losing it either. Page, practicing for his upcoming races in Europe, threw down off the line in Euro fashion and it caused the field to explode like a marshmallow in a microwave. Unlike Saturday, after the first short lead out, there were not any big groups, only little ones of three or four racers.

I learned in this first lap that one of the major differences between a local series race and an UCI Elite race is that when someone goes down, they go down hard. I watched a rider in front of me fall in the barriers and he got practically ran over by some of the group that was immediately around him. Note to self: do not fall over during the first lap.

Remembering my coach’s advice, I tried this time to settle in and race at my own fast pace in an attempt not to blow up like the day before. And that is what I did. But there were a couple corners that I could not take cleanly for the life of me. With two laps to go, in front of the entire pit, I missed a turn and was headed straight through the tape. In the smoothest way possible I jumped off my bike and over the tape in order not to wrap myself up in it. Acrobatics with a smile, my specialty. On the next lap, when I made it through the corner clean I proclaimed with satisfaction to the folks in the pit that I “took that corner clean for once.” It always feels good to get a laugh.

With just more than one lap to go I was caught by another rider, who was pretty content with sitting on my wheel, so I prepped myself to drop him. After the barriers, the course became twisty and offered little good passing room, so I made it a point to drive through the barriers as fast as I could and create a gap. It worked. I rolled across the line alone and in 15th. A clean, fast race.

I’m really happy with the weekend. Yeah, I didn’t get any points, and a couple guys I’d like to have been competitive with were a good way ahead of me, but this was really only my fourth weekend racing at this level. To finish solidly in the top twenty is good and staying on the lead lap has to say something. I handled the bike well and I kept smiling. It also helps to have the best support crew and team behind me possible. Without them there is no way I could have made this possible.