Ben Popper back in the chase at Planet Bike. by Nikki Cyp (on flickr)

by Ben Popper

Last year, we went to races everywhere, nearly every weekend.  It was a grueling, week-after-week process of packing, unpacking, missing work, or showing up for work a complete zombie.  Clothes went from the race bag to the washer, right back to the race bag again.  And it was expensive.  Really, really expensive.

Knowing we didn’t have another year of that in us (or our bank accounts) I chose to sit out the Cycle-Smart International and the USGP Mercer Cup and roll it home-style instead.  Sleep in a little, make my own pancakes, and race the local series.   Don’t get me wrong- riders in the Chicago Cross Cup are fast, the courses are creative and challenging, and nothing holds a rider accountable quite like having people all over the course who I ride with all spring.

I really enjoy racing when I line up and pretty much know where I should be finishing.  This year, that’s second.  SRAM’s Scott McLaughlin has really had a strong season, and as much as I would like to beat him, he has the power to just ride away from me.  Knowing this, though, takes some of the stress away and makes the racing more fun.  But when I am racing my coach, Brian Conant, there is an automatic level of competition almost higher than any UCI race.  You can’t get beat by your coach, and that’s great motivation to stay on the pedals.

Up until this last weekend, I’ve been able to pull off some fast, clean races.  It’s been clean and dry on the course and the bikes have been working great.  Last weekend, though, at the Woodstock “Cross for Life” race… I had replaced my chain on my A-bike and couldn’t seem to keep it on my drive train.  I dumped it two or three times on the first few laps, once right after the uphill barrier on “heckle hill.”  I jumped out of the way to the side of the course to fix it, and my bike tangled with a spectator’s folding chair.  Soon I had my chain off and a folding chair stuck in my bike!  I lost two or three places right there, and wasn’t happy.

Next time through, the spectators were offering me the folding chair of my doom as a hand-up.  Couldn’t help it, I switched from carrying my bike on my usual right shoulder to the left and grabbed the chair with my right, carrying it up the hill before leaving it to remount.  I think that redeems me with that chair, and its owner, but it’s surely going to make my list of oddest things I’ve grabbed at a race.  I ended up in fourth behind Scott and the Coach and my good friend Mike Hemme.

After my race, the Chicago Cuttin’ Crew let me borrow their “money bunny” costume- really, a fuzzy light pink suit with matching bunny slippers- so that I could join in the fun on heckle hill.  I added an aero helmet to the ensemble for that extra touch, and offered beers and cheese puffs (from inappropriate places) and creative encouragement to the category 4 racers.

I love UCI racing, don’t get me wrong.  But in the mullet of racing, that’s the business in front, and these local races are the party in the back.  UCI weekends, it’s all racing, all the time.  These weekends, it’s sleep in, cheer for Julie, race, cheer for the cat 4’s and drink.  I think a good season needs a little of both!  So after four weeks of staying home and sleeping in my own bed, we are heading off on our final adventures of the year; three days in Iowa City for Jingle Cross and then a 10 day tour of the Northwest racing the USGP in Portland and Nationals in Bend!

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