After a season of poor results, this newbie finally had a solid race. My fourth-place finish was so shocking that it’s taken me more than a month to come to grips with the power of my success. Nearly clinching a podium spot was about as exciting as any of my few wins on the road.

It was hardly two weeks since I first encountered mud at the Battenkross in Cambridge, NY, and now I was racing through five inches of the stuff at the final event of the series, the Bethelhem Cup, in Delmar, NY. With a little help from a borrowed super bike, and finally getting a good night’s rest before the race, I was able to pull of a coup d’etat equal to the Cuban Revolution of the 1950s, landing mere inches from the podium.

I’ve never been one to think that equipment can surpass physical fitness, metal preparation, or skill; and I love my Kona ‘cross bike, but I have to say that the custom (for someone else) Serotta ‘cross bike that I rode at the Bethelhem Cup is one sweet ride. It stuck lines through turns as if it was on rails, weighed about as much as my Kona’s tires, and accelerated like a Ferrari. Plus, it’s pretty easy on the eyes.

Most importantly, however, I got to feel very pro when I brought my Kona to the pit in the traditional style, riding the Serotta with one hand on the Kona’s stem, the bike rolling along next to me. So pro – and, as any bike racer worth his weight in embrocation knows, looking pro is at least equally important to racing well. Isn’t that why we all shave our legs and hit the tanning salon? Wait … you guys don’t tan? Oh… never mind then.

Anyhow, the race got going fast, and I surprised myself by staying within site of the pack’s business end as we went through a tight section of switchbacks. I wasn’t ever at the front, but I also wasn’t ever far from it, and I somehow managed to pass people where in weeks previous I’d been the one riding backwards, basically from the gun.

On the second lap I was in the top ten. On the third lap, I was in the top five. On the fourth lap I was fighting for the podium. Let me say that again: I was fighting for the podium. Being the racer that I am, I was spurred on by the excitement of finally being in the hunt. I find that it’s a lot harder to motivate myself when riding off the back. But riding in contention for a top placing? That always gets me going in the morning! And, pretty much all the other pieces seemed to fall into place as well, which didn’t hurt one bit.

It was quite an improvement over whacking myself in the head with my saddle at a ‘cross clinic back in September.

Of all the courses I’ve raced on this year, this was without a doubt the one for which I was best suited. There were long grassy straight-aways on which I could turn a tough gear to catch and distance myself from other racers, and there was only one really difficult turning section. However, the course wasn’t all easy-pickings. There was not one, but two run-ups. The first of these was very greasy, and punctuated by log-steps, which helped a little, but I still came dangerously close to falling on my face on just about every lap. Once on top of the first run up, we raced through 6-inch deep mud. The mud was followed by a very technical gravel descent, then another steep and long run-up, this one on damp grass.

On the third or fourth lap I fell in with another racer, we’ll call him John. We were sitting in third and fourth. First and second were up ahead and out of site. Fifth was somewhere behind. John was much faster than me on the run-ups, but I was faster in the mud. We were pretty much even everywhere else.

The last few laps saw me leading into the runs, him catching me, me pulling ahead in the mud, only to have him catch me again on the next run-up. At one point I think John was getting worried, because he kept asking if I wanted to go get my pit bike. Fat chance…

With one lap to go I put in a big acceleration on the grass and got a little gap, which I held on the off-camber descent. I was still leading into the first run-up, where he almost caught me. My plan was to go hard through the mud, and try to establish as much of a gap as I could.

Where I lost third, by John Onderdonk

Where I lost third, by John Onderdonk

The plan backfired when, even though I’d ridden the mud clean on every previous lap, I bobbled, and had to run, enabling my rival to catch me. I still led him into the gravel decent, but we started the last run-up more-or-less even, and he was much faster up the hill. I put in the strongest chase I could manage through the final turns, and very nearly caught him in the sprint to the finish, but in the end, I ran out of real-estate, and he took third with me in fourth.

Damn. The top three all got sweet cowbells, which would have been a very cool addition to my ‘cross trophy case. Because right now, it’s empty! Oh well.

So, it took all season, but I think I’ve finally started to get a handle on this whole ‘cross thing…just in time for the end of local racing. What do they say? “It’s better to burn out than fade away.” Yeah, that’s me.

Andrew J. Bernstein is a category 3 racer on the road, category 15 ‘cross racer, and a writer based in Saratoga Springs, NY. You can read his other entries here. You can learn more about him and his blog here, or contact him directly at [email protected]