by Jamie Mack

Race reports here usually involve top riders, UCI points and epic battles. This isn’t one of those.

I followed a few of my teammates (Christiana Care Physical Therapy Plus/First State Velo Sport) and Delaware training partners to the Hillbilly Hustle in Elmer, NJ last weekend. I’m not an A racer – far from it actually. Racing midpack, hopefully, in the Cs right now is a good place for me. Having fun, learning, meeting folks and just finding out what this ‘cross thing is really all about.

Rolling up to the line I made sure to stay back from those looking to get into the scrum of a front starting position. I’ve been training inconsistently and not feeling well for the last few days so there was no need to fight for a position I was going to give up quickly. Call-ups began and like most C races I assumed they were based on registration order. I had registered a little late for that reason, figuring a mid-pack start would suit my abilities at the moment. To say that I was surprised when I was called into a front row start would be an understatement. I had registered relatively late to avoid a call-up, I didn’t know the race organizers and still have not come up with a reason for the call-up (perhaps it’s my contributions to Cyclocross Magazine that gave me VIP status?). Still a little stunned, and a little more nervous, I took my place at the front. The official ended up filling the front row and then calling for everyone else to fill in.

Standing at the front of an 80-rider field is an interesting experience that I hope not to repeat until I’m a little more deserving. Although, the 70 riders breathing down your neck as the whistle blows do provide a little more motivation, and coming into the first corner I found myself still holding with the guys from that lead row. I was cruising and wanted to see how long I could hold that position, but unfortunately there was a crash in the first corner which took all the momentum I had. Fortunately I wasn’t the rider who crashed, or one of the riders who ran him over. That’s a rough start to your day.

Through the first corner and moving on it was quickly clear that I wouldn’t have the legs to hold my spot today. I relished riding among traffic even if most of it was riding past me, and just tried to maintain a pace that pushed my abilities technically. The course was a wonderful mix of forest and field, fairly smooth with a few bumps here and there. Most of the course was dry with a couple of slick spots and one puddle with enough mud to clog the drivetrain if you picked a bad line (guess how I know that?).

Out of the woods and into one of the fields we came upon the first barrier. There were riders able to bunny-hop this one since it was a single barrier with a high speed approach. I ran through the barrier, maintaining speed as I dismounted. High speed barriers are not something I have encountered before and I need to work on, since a couple of times it took a couple of steps for my feet to catch up with me.

Another section through the woods and the course lead us back to a fast grass section that took us into the announcers and spectators area, then 180’d back into the fields again. Another short trip through the woods and we headed for Mt. Doom. Now, normally a simple pile of dirt is nothing to get excited about. Riding a skinny-tired bike and staring down that pile, it now looks like a mass of soil ready to give way just after you’re sure you’re over it, with just enough height that you can’t see what’s on the other side until it’s too late. This is where having good teammates watching can really help you, because I knew that if I took the optional detour I would never hear the end of it. So up and over I went.

Then through the pits, two 180s and a double set of barriers. Thankfully I have been working with a training group, so while my fitness may have failed me, my mounts and dismounts were pretty smooth. Through the finish and out for lap number two. Each lap felt a little better and by the fourth, I started to feel a little flow. And I used that flow to plow right into the trees in the last wooded section of the lap. Pulled myself up and the bike out, mounted without even looking and got about 5 feet. I was dragging a branch. No big deal, just stuck in the wheel.

Well, it was “just” stuck in the wheel but wrapped multiple times around the cassette. I stopped counting after unwinding it five times and still not getting the gears cleared. I don’t know how many positions I lost there, but I know quite a few went by. A few more went by on the next lap where I was either churning too large a gear or spinning out a smaller one, since I could only shift between chainrings. Any move toward the rear shifter and I heard the leafy crunch and slipping gears.

I certainly didn’t put in a stellar performance here, and I have no shortage of excuses for why not. But it was still a great day and a good way to start the ‘cross season. As rough as a ‘cross race may be, at any good race there is a community of like minded folks waiting to hand you a beer as you swap successes (or excuses). Especially at my favorite type of ‘cross race, where the beer is free.