As we reported on Friday, New Zealand hosted their second-ever Cyclocross National Championships last weekend with much success and even more mud. American Colin Reuter crashed the event and sent in his report below of the memorable experience.
by Colin Reuter
One of the perks of dating an elite female athlete with dual citizenship is that you get brought along to places most New England B racers would never go. Linnea (my girlfriend) has been trying to get me to come along to her homeland (New Zealand) for years, but it wasn’t until the prospect of racing ‘cross in their National Championships was dangled in front of me that I finally agreed to plunk down $1200 and two weeks’ vacation time for it.
You might think that as an American, I have no business racing in the NZ Nat’l Champs, and you’d be right, if this event was anything like the U.S. Nationals. In “the States” we have four days of racing with thousands of competitors, while the inaugural 2008 NZ CX Champs drew a field of 16 riders in the one-field race. This year, entries tripled to somewhere over 40 racers, but nonetheless the event remained firmly a grassroots affair. As such, proof of citizenship was not required (or at least not checked), and so long as I kept my mouth shut no one could tell I wasn’t a native Kiwi.
For just a second-year event, the course was a fantastic approximation of a European cross course – no barriers, but two sharp run-ups and two brutal mud pits had you off the bike at least three times a lap. The mud was truly horrible, soft peanut butter, the kind that clogs brakes and derailleurs hopelessly. By the halfway mark, my bike was five pounds heavier and making an unrelenting hissing sound as the grass packed into my brakes dragged on the wheels. Had I brought a pit bike, and a pit crew, I’d have been taking a clean bike every lap or every half lap. But then again – there was no pit (I said grassroots, remember?), so we were all in the same slowly sinking boat, flogging unrecognizable machines through ever-deepening mud. As a New Englander, accustomed to flying grass crits and 20 mph barrier dismounts, I was nearly as far out of my element as most of the locals.
Since I had as much ‘cross experience as the rest of the field combined, I spent most of my pre-race time rolling around and turning my nose up at the competition, who had either singlespeeds, mountain bikes, or both. I was on the only carbon bike in the race and nary a tubular could be seen. Since every bike racer knows it’s all about the bike, not the engine (training?!), I figured I had the win in the bag due to my superior machine. My confidence only increased when the pre-race lunch of sausages was served (the $15 NZD entry fee included lunch!) and my competition dug in. I passed and ate my PRO lunch (a gel) and prepared for battle. The fact that I’d hardly eaten anything else since an 8 am breakfast barely crossed my mind…
The race began with all racers clustered in a rough line in the parking lot (there was no starting line), after which we blasted down a gravel road and onto the course. I nailed my clip-in and was on the course in second, quickly moving up to first. I thought, I’m leading a NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS! Yeah baby!
The turn off the gravel, and then later, the first mud hole, bottlenecked the field quite a bit, so I was soon off the front by five seconds or so – and if there’s anything watching Matt White has taught me it’s that winning the first lap is as good as winning the race. So I killed it.
I came through lap one with a large and growing lead. I started composing my victory speech.
On lap two my lead ceased to grow, but no matter! I will just “settle in” now and go about winning these NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS!
Yeah, right. At about the 12 minute mark I bonked my face off (should’ve had a sausage) – and what the Kiwis lacked in cyclocross skills they more than made up for with good old-fashioned cycling fitness. I could barely see straight when the first guy passed me. Previously I had scorned his singlespeed cross bike, but now I couldn’t shift, and it turns out he’s the New Zealand SS MTB Champ. No sooner had he passed than another Kiwi came by, hot on his heels on a plain old mountain bike.
I flew straight backwards for the next half hour while being firmly reminded that it’s a bike race, not a fashion show, and it doesn’t matter how PRO you look if you aren’t going fast. Some my competitors had one gear, some had mountain bikes, some couldn’t dismount, some couldn’t remount, but they all were going faster than me, and it sucked.
When I finally staggered through at the 53 minute mark (45 minutes + 1 lap), I had a broken spirit and a healthy respect for how fast talented cyclists can go in their first cross race. Luckily, the trip was never about me (hard to tell from this race report!), and Linnea acquitted herself against the natives far better than I, winning the women’s race and placing fifteenth overall to be the 2009 New Zealand Women’s Cyclocross National Champion.
Based on this year’s growth, epic mud, free sausages and stoked racers, this event is only going to get bigger and better next year. There was even some post-race talk of doing a series next year – I’d hate to see how fast these guys could go if they started racing cross more than once a year!
As for me, I learned a valuable lesson about disrespecting the competition just because they aren’t serious cross racers. Us ‘crossers like to pretend that technique and experience are the key to going fast, but these guys reminded me you can do without both if you’ve got the legs and lungs.