Our newly elite racer, Donny Green, post-race at Nittany. Molly Hurford

Our newly elite racer, Donny Green, showing off just how muddy his legs were post-race at Nittany. © Molly Hurford

It’s every racer’s dream to upgrade to the Elite field, to line up at the start with the pro racers that we love to read about. Every year, more and more racers are starting in the Elite field, and we wanted to hear what it feels like to go from winning in the lower categories to starting in the back of the grid with racers like Jeremy Powers in the front.

With that said, Donny Green is a bit of a phenom on the East Coast. A bike messenger in Providence, Rhode Island, he went from a Cat 5 on the road to a Cat 2 by the end of the summer. (Some of you might recall his last race as a Cat 3, from The Girl With The Cowbell Tattoo: Death Before DNF.) In cyclocross, he quickly moved up the ranks in the past couple of years, and by the end of the season last winter, he had earned his Cat 2 and was winning races in the 2/3/4’s. This year, he’s racing his first season as a UCI Elite racer, and we’ll be checking in with him as the season progresses.

by Donny Green

This past Saturday at Nittany Lion Cross marked the beginning of my 2011 cyclocross season. It was also my first ever UCI race.

As I lined up on the starting grid, I had no idea how I would measure up to the other 50 or so riders in the field. On the bright side, I had just finished up a strong first year on the road. Starting as a Cat 5 at Battenkill in April, I moved quickly through the ranks and finished the season with a second place finish overall at the Green Mountain stage race as a Cat 2. But even with the success I had achieved on the road, I couldn’t help but feel unprepared for the hour to come.

My bike had been put together the night before and I couldn’t shake the thought that it might not be the best idea to race on a tire I had glued less the 24 hours earlier. Worst of all, I didn’t even have the normal race jitters. Without having some sort of preconceived notion of what to expect, I didn’t know what exactly to be nervous about.

With no UCI points, I was designated to the second to last row, and looking through the sea of riders in front of me I realized that I had my work cut out for me. Two years ago when I started racing, I never expected to be competing at the level I am now. So just lining up with professional athletes is really exciting to me. And then, the start light turns green and we’re off.

The mud had to have been the best part of Nittany. All over the course, there were sections of mud inches deep, including a long section that you had to dismount and run. It made for such a different race than last year, which was hot and dusty. Since last season was so dry in New England, this year at Nittany was actually only the second time I’ve ever had to race in the mud. It felt like a fitting start for the season.

Once we settled in after the first lap, the race played out better then I might have expected. I made up ground throughout the rest of the race and kept moving up with each lap. I ended the day in 18th and was quite happy with my result. I was able to move up the whole race and get inside the top 20 in my first UCI race.

Racing in this field is hard, because it’s one hour at full gas and then it’s over. You can’t really “sit in,” and every decision you make effects your outcome, second by precious second.

It’s a little intimidating, being in the UCI race, but at the same time, it’s really exciting. I get the chance to be in the same race as some of the best ’cross racers in the world. That said, I’m not really in the same race as a guy like Powers. Our race starts together, but his finishes minutes before mine does. It’s exciting just to be there.

Now if I could learn how to start as strong as I finish I just might be able to put together a good race.

Right now my biggest goal of the season is to finish top-10 in a UCI race. I would love to get that point and move up the starting grid. Other than that, it’s hard for me to have real set expectations for the year. It’s my first year racing in the Elite field, so I’ve got some learning to do, which I guess is another goal. I just want to race hard and learn from the guys around me who have more experience than I do.

I’m coached through Cycle-Smart by Shawn Adams, and he’s been really helpful — especially when I was really stressed out before Nittany. Road season had ended only days earlier, my bikes weren’t together, I didn’t have wheels, and there just didn’t seem like there was going to be enough time to pull everything together. While I was talking to Shawn, he said something to the effect of, “It’ll work out, it’s just bike racing, right?” I know that might not sound like much, but it really resonated with me. It’s easy to get wrapped up in it all: the training, the travel, the expenses and the fact that all your spare time is consumed by bikes.

But what it comes down to is that I’m doing this because I love racing my bike.