Cyclocross Lessons from Golden Gate BASP: Don’t Race From the Back
Golden Gate Park. Sunny and cold. I have been thinking about this race for two weeks.
Every night before bed, playing out the starting straightaway in my head. It’s a false flat (uphill) on pavement. The course fence narrows on the left side a little bit. The first turn is to the right, from pavement onto soft dirt. From there it’s onto winding singletrack. You’ve got to be at the front of that race when you hit that transition if you want to contend.
I want to contend.
Last year in the same race I finished second to last. It was ok because I was fat from working too much, drinking too much beer and making silly videos every week. I wasn’t in shape. I gave up on the season before it started. I was the just-for-fun rider in the back. I told myself that was fun (in hindsight, it actually wasn’t very).
This year, I’m after redemption. Top five. I want top five in San Francisco. My old neighborhood – in front of old friends. Under the sunshine with the ocean just a few blocks away. I’m going for it.
I know I’m going to be lined up in the back row because this is a local series with call-ups. But I wasn’t planned on getting funneled into the center lane.
Center lane, back row. No problem. Don’t panic.
I panicked so much that when the gun went off I spent the entire straightaway trying to clip into my pedal and hit the opening right hand turn in dead last.
Not just dead last. Dead last and gapped off the back of the field.
Are you kidding me?
I have been thinking about this start for two weeks and I just blew it. Blew it. BOOM!
Here’s what happens at the back of a race: clusterfuckfusion. We hit a scrap of mud and someone is down, then there are bikes everywhere and you’re dabbing and pushing through turns that the race leaders took at 15 miles per hour.
The front of the race is riding away from me at high speeds and I’m lifting my bike over turtled-up ladies who flipped in a one-inch rut. It’s my fault for putting myself back here but holyjesusshitballs. This is nuts.
For half a second, I think about giving up. The situation I’ve put myself in is a worst-case scenario. To get where I need to be, I’ve got to make at least 25 passes on a course that isn’t really set up for passing.
I run through more chaotic traffic at the first set of barriers, remount inelegantly and then have to unclip as the woman in front of me misses her saddle and comes crashing down. I’m rattled and riding like shit. No rhythm, no calm zen cyclocross focus, no mojo. Mr. “smooth is fast” Damian Schmitt, who’s been helping me figure out training this year, would not be proud.
Pull yourself together, Swift.
There’s only one thing to do, so I do it. I get in the drops, find a bigger gear and ride like fucking crazy. My eyes are wide and desperate, mouth open, chest heaving, saliva forming in the corners of my mouth.
On a short narrow pavement section on the back of the course I ride face first through a hedgerow to make up five positions. I take people on the inside on tight turns (public apology to Roaring Mouse rider who did not like this tactic). I ride every shitty line on the course as hard as I can to go around people.
I have no idea where I am in the field but I end up in a battle with a rider in a Specialized jersey. Back and forth, back and forth. I come around her on power sections, she makes a pass through technical roots. Back and forth, back and forth. I’ve stopped pulling people back. This is what it is.
Am I mid-pack now? Did I claw my way up that far?
I throw down one last attack, gap the Specialized rider and hold it to the finish.
Standard post-race procedure: dry heave, lay bike on ground, dry heave, find bushes, fight back vomit. Pick up bike, lean over it, dry heave.
Disappointment sets in as I stand there on the finishing straight, looking over at the first turn, remembering how badly I fucked it all up.
But here’s the truth: Something will always go wrong.
I could not have ridden harder.
It’s not until later when results are posted that I realize I almost did it. I almost made it back to the top five. I’m seventh. I’m fucking seventh.
Something will always go wrong.
All photos below from my beloved buddy Chris Matthews.