“Coming through now is rider 485. It says here that’s Zach Schuster. That can’t be the Zach Schuster racing his bike, can it?” The announcing comedy duo of Julie and Scot Herrmann speculated during the Saturday Masters 35+ race at the Trek CX Cup.

“Well it does say he is from Madison, so it must be.”

As I went back out for another lap, I could hear the Herrmanns talking me up from the announcers’ stage. I am not really one for attention, and frankly in the past, when I was getting talked up at cyclocross races it was usually local announcer Nate Phelps giving me shit for being a Ph.D. student for. ev. er.

However, this time, I was kind of okay with it. Somewhere between my last race in 2015 and that Saturday in Waterloo I finished my Ph.D. program, so there are no more painful reminders of my academic plight. That’s not why I was okay with the Herrmann love though.

That Saturday race at the Trek CX Cup was my first real cyclocross race since Jingle Cross in December 2015. As I was suffering, I told myself the Herrmanns were talking me up because they knew it was a BFD to me just to be out there racing.

Two laps later when I got to the finish of my race, I half celebrated and waved to the Herrmanns because for the first time in nearly four years, I finished an actual cyclocross race. At least this one time, I more than welcomed someone talking about me on the mic.

I am not really sure why I decided to say back pain be damned and make this the year of my not-so-triumphant return to cyclocross racing. My back still hurts and I’m on my worst fitness since 2012, but here I am, out there doing The. Thing.

It has been interesting re-learning the sport, but one thing I have quickly learned is racing ’cross is harder than I remember. Like, way harder.

Sure, Why Not?

When I first moved to Madison, I would occasionally go out and ride my old Specialized TriCross on the bike paths in and around the city. I never really considered myself a cyclist until I got a for-real road bike in 2012 and started riding regularly.

Having that TriCross, however, proved fortuitous when someone invited me to pre-ride a cyclocross course in December 2012. Despite riding with a slick rear wheel and taking home a souvenir chain ring to the ankle, I was hooked. I bought a cyclocross bike the following spring and raced the full Wisconsin schedule the following fall.

I tend to fully commit to athletic-type things, so I rode and rode and raced and raced the next two years. In the fall of 2015, I was maybe the 6th-best Cat 3 in the state of Wisconsin, won a race—Cross Shooshko, not that I remember the a race I ever won or anything—and earned enough points for the dreaded Cat 2 upgrade after everyone better than me moved up.

I wrote about this two years ago, but the following year, I overtrained while dealing with stress from my PhD program and then threw out my back washing my bike after pre-ride at the first race of the 2016 season. I missed the rest of that season, and then in 2017, I haphazardly attempted an Elite race midway through the season. I finished DFL, almost getting lapped by second-to-DFL. I requested a downgrade to Cat 3, which our head official mercifully granted.

I am more accustomed to photographing races than participating in them. photo: Kiersten Kloeckner

I am more accustomed to photographing races than participating in them. photo: Kiersten Kloeckner

Fast forward to 2019, and well, it is tough to explain exactly why I chose this year for THE BIG COMEBACK.

Regular readers will probably note I write a lot of stories about athletes dealing with injuries and setbacks. As I said on a recent podcast I did, you often end up writing what you know.

The balance of 2019 was a comedy of health issues and injuries for me and their associated medical bills I cannot pay. In April during a ride with a friend, I noticed my heart rate was up at 120 bpm while we were stopped at a gas station. I had put in a quality Wisconsin winter Zwift season, so it was not a lack of fitness.

I was soon diagnosed with Graves Disease, a cause of hyperthyroidism. When I picked up my scrip for beta blockers, the pharmacist’s only instructions were, “You won’t be able to work out while you take these.”

“No one tells me I cannot ride my bike!” I thought to myself. It turns out, I … was not able to work out. I went from planning a full gravel season with centuries galore to hoping I could average like 190 watts for an hour on the trainer.

I finally got the hyperthyroidism under control and returned to riding on the road for *checks notes* two weeks. At the end of June, I woke up in the middle of the night to extreme pain and my right shoulder dangling dislocated next to me. In perhaps an all-time low, I had to call an ambulance to get me out of my bed and to the ER.

As an aside, you know you are poor AF when you are laying in bed in excruciating pain debating whether or not you should call for an ambulance because you cannot afford it. That discussion took a good 10 minutes before my partner said, “I’m not trying to move you. I’m calling 911.”

Decision made, I guess.

The coup de grace for the summer was a case of Lyme disease at the beginning of July, which took me off the hyperthyroidism meds and set me back another month and yadda yadda yadda come August 1, I still could not do a 2-hour trainer ride at 200 watts.

So what was I thinking returning to race cyclocross this year?

I think a big part of it was my trip to cover Montana Cross Camp. I was skeptical of spending multiple days hanging out with a group of teenaged women, but the campers were a blast and I made several new friends to talk to during race weekends. More importantly, for me at least, I got really stoked about the upcoming cyclocross season. Win-win for everyone.

Here in the People’s Republic of Madison, the massive cyclocross practices that took place when I first started racing quietly disappeared before coming back in recent years thanks to the yeoman’s work of Rob Lewis, Isaac Neff and Corey Stelljes. With the first practice at a park near my house, I decided to go and found the dismounts and remounts did not hurt my back as much as past years.

Spurred on by less pain than expected and decent riding during hot laps, somewhere during the next few weeks, I decided I was going to race this year. I planned this weekend’s Grafton PumpkinCross as the big day. The only real question was whether Wisconsin ’cross would be ready for the Cat 3 mediocrity.

Jeez, This is Hard!

That I am really excited to race cyclocross at a time when people are leaving the sport left and right for gravel, CrossFit or whatever else is not lost on me. To be honest, I was always a bit surprised by the GREAT CYCLOCROSS BUMP of the mid-2010s because ummm, cyclocross is really effing hard. I guess you can ride around and take handups and hop over stuff for funzies, but to effort during a cyclocross race is to completely bury yourself.

I have always been kind of okay at the particular skill of going very deep for a very long time. I do not really have much snap, my power climbing sucks and I am even worse at starts, but I could always utterly bury myself and make it through the experience, probably thanks in part to getting dropped on group rides, Zwift races, mountain bike races, you name it.

Even with my skill of suffering, holy heck, I forgot how hard cyclocross is. At our practices, we typically do 2 15-minute “practice races.” I have decided to use them for training, so I have been smashing as hard as I can during the weekly sessions.

After a recent set of hot laps at the mid-World-Cup practice Gage Hecht, Brannan Fix, Sunny Gilbert and Team S&M CX came out for, I was sitting with Brenna Wrye-Simpson, and she said, “Dude, you have like a thousand-yard stare.” I was smashed. And that was just practice!

As I mentioned several hundred words ago, I was planning on kicking off my brief cyclocross season off this coming weekend. I had work trips to Rochester, Iowa City and Waterloo on the calendar in September and potential work-related functions in Cincinnati and Midland in late October and early November.

However, when Chad Brown of Trek gave me the secret password for the Trek CX Cup club, I decided, sure why not, let’s race on Saturday in Waterloo. I would probably never try racing on work days, but since there was not any Elite racing on Saturday that weekend, it was the perfect opportunity to jump in a race. THE BIG COMEBACK would be sooner than expected.

I mentioned that even when I was at the Cat-3-okay level, I was terrible at starting. I would get super nervous before races, awkwardly joke around with other racers at start lines as a crutch and usually miss my pedal and go straight back after the whistle. Even when I had front-row call-ups, I frequently found myself in like 15th place in no time fast. And by no time fast, I mean the end of the holeshot.

Returning to cyclocross after a two-year hiatus solved my start-line problem because I had 5 glorious scores of 600 in the USA Cycling ranking system. While the 50-plus other riders got called to the line one-by-one, I waited and waited and waited. Finally, “485,” literally the last call-up in a field of 55. In theory, nowhere to go but up.

Ostensibly, having a result goal is a good thing, but after that race in Waterloo, I was questioning that plan within minutes. Looking over the start list, I convinced myself I could get in the top 20. However, with Matt Effing Shriver and other hitters in the field, I knew I would have to move up from my DFL start spot in a hurry.

I did move up, passing a ton of people on the first long straight after the holeshot and powering up the climb to the barn flyover. The result was a mid-pack position—and 1 minute into the race, I was already dying. I quickly realized superman, I am not.

After the 1st lap, I looked down at my computer and it said 8:30. I had no idea how I was going to do 5 laps of this. Two laps in, another computer check had me questioning my life choices. I could be taking pictures of other people doing this suffering. Or drinking a beer. Or watching the Badgers football game. Or drinking a beer while taking photos of the Badger football game.

It was so much harder than the practices, intervals, Zwift races, everything.

Although we were mercifully spared the slop of the World Cup Waterloo course, the Trek CX Cup track featured several spots where bike handling skills were super important. This was relevant to me for two reasons.

One, I knew coming into this experiment that my running would be a disaster. With chronic back pain, getting on and off the bike still hurts and despite everything I should have learned at Montana Cross Camp, I am still unable to run in training, lest I risk collapsing in a heap at the local park. The Trek CX course had three forced runs for most amateurs—the Segafredo Run-Up, the stairs and the barriers—and two features that should be rideable—the Sven Nys Nose Wheelie Wall and Trek Factory Hill.

On Labor Day, Amy and I did a cyclocross date to Badger Prairie. Part of the cyclocross loop there includes two sets of logs that are, theoretically, for someone who aspires to again languish in the Cat 2s, rideable. I pulled up to the logs and as I stared them over, Amy said, “Just remember your $1,000 ER bill before you try riding those.”

Her logic spoke to me and the pain I experience each time I receive a new and exciting bill for that ER trip. I decided I would be conservative during THE BIG COMEBACK and not try anything dumb.

I ran the Sven Nys Nose Wheelie Wall and completely botched the steep part of Trek Factory Hill every lap. The result was 5 dismounts a lap times 5 laps by the time I was done. My back was less than thrilled.

Even with increasing back pain as my one-bolt saddle clamp slipped upward—seriously, no one-bolt clamps for cyclocross—I finished the race and dumped everything I had into it. My result? 29th. Not bad, not quite what I wanted, but cest la vie.

The Segafredo Run-Up was a physical and metaphorical challenge. I could not  help but post-race collapse after the CCC Indian Lakes race. © SnowyMountain Photography

The Segafredo Run-Up was a physical and metaphorical challenge. I could not help but post-race collapse after the CCC Indian Lakes race. © SnowyMountain Photography

I have been fortunate to cover U.S and international cyclocross for the past two-plus years. I have met so many amazing people and gotten to analyze impressive athletic accomplishments. Since we usually focus on the proverbial pointy end of the races, that means talking strategy, tactics, efforts and the like with the days’ top finishers.

Starting last row and blowing myself up immediately, there were no tactics and no strategy to speak of. Just pure red-lined suffering. Anythimg I learned as a journalist was completely irrelevant to my real-world racing experience.

However, I did end up in a fun back-and-forth battle with Jason McDowell of videotaping the Katie Compton rolled tubula fame. The two of us were with a few other dudes early on, and then after some moved up and some dropped back, it was the two of us battling for the coveted 29th-place position. I was a bit stronger on open parts, he rode the wall and was better on technical features.

Coming up on the last lap, I pulled in front of him heading into Trek Factory Hill. After a race of not attempting to ride the last climb, I decided to give it a try. I biffed and had to dismount. This kept Jason behind me, and as it turns out, earned me another lap of suffering. He got pulled—maybe I was supposed to be pulled too; I have no idea because completely drilled—while I got a fifth lap.

I ran into him after the race, and we chatted for a good 10 minutes about the experience. You can photograph, announce, write about and heckle a race, but I always felt distant from the full cyclocross experience because I was unable to share post-race stories. I really enjoyed getting the chance to break down our race like we were Maghalie Rochette and Katerina Nash racing for a World Cup win even though we were competing for 29th-place glory in a September amateur race.

Managing Expectations

I am admittedly terrible about dealing with results. Nine times out of 10, I am disappointed with how I race or even how I do on a meaningless group ride.

I was not immune to some self-downtalking after the Trek CX Cup. A buddy of mine, Jason, came straight to the race from work and had to line up on the back row with me after missing his call-up. Jason was always better than me at cyclocross, and that continues to this day. He ended up finishing 12th, which of course made me feel less good about finishing 29th, even though I passed nearly half the field.

The following weekend, I managed to fit another race in at the Chicago Cross Cup on the day after a wedding back near home. With rain dumping on the Midwest at the end of last week, the hosts xXx Racing had to move the race to a new venue on Friday afternoon, and the resulting course was still a giant mud pit reminiscent of World Cup Waterloo.

I started 4th row of a 40ish-person field and had visions of moving up to maybe the top 15. The race was like the hardest thing I have ever done, with no lines to ride and deep, soul-sucking mud covering every inch of the golf course track. We did four laps of that slog, and man, was it terrible.

I am not one for the post-race finish-line sprawl, but I could not help but go full Frenchie and lay motionless, full of mud and devoid of the energy to move two inches in any direction.

I could not  help but post-race collapse after the CCC Indian Lakes race. © SnowyMountain Photography

I could not help but post-race collapse after the CCC Indian Lakes race. © SnowyMountain Photography

I ended up finishing 17th, passing nearly an entire row of starters, but of course, another 4th-row starter finished on the podium and the WiscoDisco Brian Matter went on to win the Elite race from a last-row start, showing what maybe I should have been able to do.

Seventeenth was the absolute best I was doing in that race; I poured everything I had into my muddy slog. Two races into my return to cyclocross experience, I have had to accept that killer results will not be happening for me this year.

If you are a frequent Pessimistic Patrick like I am, it definitely helps having good people around you. Midway through Sunday’s Chicago Cross Mudder, I could hear Nathan Schneeberger of SnowyMountain Photography yelling, “You’re doing really well for someone who doesn’t race!” and Amy reminded me, “Dude, you have hyperthyroidism. It’s going to affect your racing.”

Saying thanks to Nathan from SnowyMountain for his kind support. © SnowyMountain Photography

Saying thanks to Nathan from SnowyMountain for his kind support. © SnowyMountain Photography

I also tried giving myself some comforting reality. Checking back through my Strava account, I realized I had a CTL of freaking 41 on August 1 and could not ride in Zone 2 for 2 hours, so maybe I have come a long way, even if I will not having a podium photo to post and garner kudos for any time in the near future.

Entering this weekend’s races at PumpkinCross and Hopkins Park, I am unsure on how a process-based analysis of my racing will go. After all, if you ride strong, pace yourself well and rail corners, the results with follow, right? I have biffed features in races I have gotten good results in and felt particularly dialed in ones with disappointing results.

Saturday, I am starting last row of a 60-person field, so the door is quite open to be disappointed in my result.

When I asked Chris Mayhew what Cat 3s stuck in the Scrub Zone should focus on, it was an asking for a friend situation. Now that it is asking for a friend, it is probably worth re-reading and applying his advice to my own Scrub Zone experience.

Thanks to SnowyMountain Photography and Paul Vassalotti for the images.