There’s only one word for it.
When the remnants of a typhoon from Japan hit Portland on the same day as the USGP in Portland, the result can only be referred to as epic.
The morning is black and cold and we pull into the parking lot before the sun rises. Wind-whipped and wet, we help Ty set up the team tent, rig extra tarps for windblock, crank up the propane heaters, and pile on the layers.
Earlier that morning, laying in my insanely comfortable bed, staring at my alarm clock (which read 4:15am), I was done with cyclocross. I wanted nothing to do with it. I was done with giving up my sacred weekend day to ride my little white bike through the cold and rain and mud. I was done with loading and unloading the truck. I was done with hours and hours cleaning and maintaining bikes.
I wanted out.
I thought of my cousin, driving three hours from Seattle to watch me race. I thought of how she’s read every single blog entry I’ve ever written. How she understands the full meaning of what this sport is for me – the fear I overcame when I started, the uncertainty I had to work hard to crush, the determination with which I kept trying, over and over and over again, until I started to finally get it.
Those were the thoughts that got me out of bed. They were the thoughts that got me through a grumpier-than-usual morning. They were the thoughts that got me on my trainer as the "Storm of the Decade" waged just outside the team tent.
She and her husband arrive with 15 minutes left before my race. I am on the trainer, doing my usual princess act of asking people to grab me stuff: "Is there any way you can hand me that water bottle?", "Hey, would you mind pinning my number on?" "Is there any chance I can convince you to take my jacket for me?"
Our tent is filled with beer, whiskey, and people. Members of our cycling club, guests, family, and random strangers drawn in by the warmth of our fire. You’d be amazed how much fun can really be had with one double-wide pop-up tent, two blue tarps, a row of camping chairs, and a big-assed grill. Our vehicles are circled like wagons around us, creating windblock.
Screw the storm – the Portland Velo party never stops.
Two women from the cycling club (at least one a future cross racer :) ) come with me to the line to take my jackets before the gun. I love them. They stand close to me to keep me warm. They press against the fence when we are positioned on the line. They cheer and huddle in the sideways rain.
My start position is cherry. I mean – seriously sick. I pre-registered for the event and scored a low number, so I’m right on the front row in the middle. I’d wanted to be to the far left, but I’ll take the middle – I usually have enough in my legs to accelerate out to where I want to be for the first turn anyway.
It is my first race as a B racer, and I feel ridiculously calm. "This is just kids and bikes and mud today," I told Emily Moon before I started. I’m happy to have upgraded – I feel good about the conditions. I feel good about the field.
The UCI officials prepare and the I take a deep breath through my nose. The moment before the gun is thick and heavy. It’s the moment of a million possibilities. The sound of rain falling on the pavement is soft and calm. The wind dies down for just a moment.
And then the gun.
I find the pedals immediately, stand up and accelerate. I’m third going into the first turn on the pavement and then fourth hitting the first muddy section, a long off-camber slog.
I’m half-surprised to be on the front of the race, even for a moment. "Shit," I think to myself, "I guess it’s time to race."
A strong rider on a Bianchi cuts me off heading into a tight right-hand turn and I decide to forgive her, because I know she’s probably in contention for a place in the USGP series finish. The field is full of out-of-towners – racers I’ve never seen who are following the circuit. I remind myself to watch and learn. I remind myself to breathe.
Then we head into the mud in earnest. The course loops over a section of a BMX track in the back. The loop-de-loop drops are the stuff of legends. Just as you muscle your way up one slippery, steep hill, you crest and see two consecutive monster drops, slick with mud.
I used to hate descending. I used to hate those drops. I mean, I used to dread them to the point of tears.
But somewhere along the way this year, I learned to ride them. I learned to give my front wheel a little freedom to find a line. To put my weight way back, trust the bike, and follow it down.
And now I love them.
I bomb down them, pedaling fast at the bottom to use my momentum to climb the next rise. We twist in, around, over and through trees, roots, mud-puddles, and slippery off-camber climbs. My lack of remount costs me four positions all in one go at one point during the race.
I note this and then forget it. I focus on my strengths. I’ve got an entire off-season to dig up a decent remount, for now it’s about holding out for as long as I can.
I want to vomit. No – I mean I really want to vomit. I am racing as hard as my body will take me. On the pavement sections I reach for big gears and accelerate. I want to rest and recover but I resist the urge.
I see my cousin on the infield as I snake in and out of turns – I can hear her screaming. When I pass the team tent, the crowd rushes from the shelter and presses against the fence, cheering.
I love them.
It’s absolutely awesome.
At the end of the second lap, the sign tells me that I have two to go. Two more!? I have no idea how I will do two more laps. One, yes. I can do one more. But two? I promise myself that if I ride this next lap as hard as I can, I will figure the next lap out when I get there. Besides, there’s always the chance that they’ll cut the race before I have to do that last lap – it’s happened before.
I am riding with a junior racer whom I’ve caught, or who’s caught me – I can’t figure it out. They started half the juniors ahead of us, and the other half behind. He’s a cute kid – small with longish black hair and braces. We’ve been trading places for a lap and a half. I can see him sit up to take some recovery on the pavement so I pull up alongside, stand up and say, "C’mon – let’s go together."
I never know how juniors will react. He might have thought, "Stupid dumb girl." and ignored me. I was prepared for that.
But he didn’t. He smiled wide, found a bigger gear, stood up, and got on my wheel. We battled the off-camber section together and then I dropped him in a foot-deep pit of mud a few yards later.
The last lap is absolutely excruciating. It is some of the most intense pain I’ve endured in a long time. I am losing my edge – slowly becoming unable to handle my bike. My hands are frozen solid and I can no longer feel them. I press my fingers together in a "paddle" in order to make my shift-levers work. I abandon the idea of braking. I put my head down, plaster a pain-face onto my head, and grit my teeth.
My face is numb so I cannot even smile as I race past the team tent and all their beer-fueled cheering. I turn from the pavement back onto the mud and dig deeper. Around a right-hand turn I lose control, dump the sled, and find the left side of my body submersed in mud. I pop up instantaneously – more in reaction to the freezing cold than due to any intense driving spirit. A skinny junior rider passes me and shouts, "Great recovery!" and I wish I could race with the juniors all the time.
Those kids are phenomenal.
Coming through the last, grueling mud section before the finish line, I am praying to every god in the sky that I do not have to do one more lap.
Please let it be over.
Please let it be over.
Please let it be over.
And it is.
The UCI official waves at me to pull off and I signal back, just to confirm that I’m not supposed to keep going. I roll back to the tent to find it absolutely bursting at the seams with people.
Someone calls out, "There she is!!!" and they press to the edges, congratulating me and cheering. Inside I want to jump up and down and shout. I want to smile and give them all muddy hugs. I want to put my hands up in the air in fists. I want to laugh.
But all I can do is think about the fact that I absolutely cannot, no-matter-what, vomit in front of all these people. I stumble behind one of the cars, put my head down and breathe. I don’t want to throw up. I can almost taste the Shot Blocks and I do not want to throw up.
Thankfully, I don’t.
And as the oxygen starts to slowly return to my brain, I head into the tent to find a propane heater. Ty takes pictures. I take off my shoes and cringe as my frozen toes start to sear with the stinging pain of the defrost. Someone hands me a flask and I partake.
Now I start to feel the adrenaline. Then the endorphins.
I’m done! I’m done! Cross season is over and I kicked serious ass at a national level event! The adrenaline is keeping me warm but Kender wisely orders me off to change into dry clothes. It takes 25 minutes for me to change in the front seat of the car with numb fingers and legs. It is an exercise in appreciation for fine motor control.
The effort is worth it.
I get back to the tent in time to see a few laps of Sal’s race. His eyes are filled with mud and he can barely see. He is brown from head to toe and I can tell he’s gone down at least a few times. He looks strong and determined, as always. I cheer for him in my super-softball-cheering-voice that has become my trademark. I cheer for Ben Johnson, who is also having a fantastic go of it. I cheer for Jeff, who finishes two spots ahead of Sal.
And then the beer starts to flow. I’ve been gifted with a bottle of Stone Imperial Russian Stout which is, arguably, the best beer on the face of the earth. The fact that it is 11% doesn’t hurt either. Guzzling this stuff is akin to guzzling wine. The effect is immediate and perfect. Things become fuzzy and soft and crazy.
Ben Johnson pulls out an iPod and speakers and start to crank tunes. He and Sal are huddled, post-race, under blankets next to the propane heaters. Strangers are stopping by randomly to warm their hands at our fire. A hottie named Alex works the tent in her black platform boots and turns the boys into mush. Ty fires up the grill and starts dispersing cheeseburgers.
I pull out a wide angle lens and begin my slightly drunken documentation. The storms rages on outside, at times threatening to lift our tent straight away. The race course fences blow over and we rush out to right them. Fallen leaves scream sideways across the grass on the course – you have to turn your back into the wind when the big gusts kick up.
And then – suddenly there is a drum line. The big rumble of the bass penetrates the entire course. The snares drive the beat forward, urging us on, riling us up. The elite women are off and the crowds move in waves from one section of the course to the next to see them pass by. People in full fisherman-style rain-gear, goretex jackets, high rubber boots, and cheap plastic ponchos that have been provided by the race organizers.
A typhoon, a field of some of the nations best female riders (Georgia Gould, Katie Compton, Lyne Bessette, Katerina Nash!), and a roaring drum line. The rain falls sideways as the women battle. Their power is inspiring and humbling. When Gould finally comes across the line for the win, her once-blue jersey is brown, her face unrecognizable under a coat of mud.
Later, Ryan Trebon delivers a crushing performance, taking the race by over a minute. His domination is almost inconceivable. He sprints through sections that I could barely ride. His legs, which are possibly as long as I am tall, mash the pedals over and over and over. He is an animal. And the drums roar on.
There on the side, in cargo pants, rubber boots, my father’s 30 year old fisherman’s sweater, and a $16 rubber raincoat from the seed-and-feed, I revel in what is likely one of the most intense feelings of bliss that I have ever felt. My body is spent and has done me proud. My head is light and spinny with the joy of the darkest dark beer. My cousin is here with me standing in this rain and I can tell that she is not catering to me when she says she is having fun.
This is madness.
I asked for a King-Lear style storm, and I got it. I’ve been lamenting the lack of rain all season and now I see that the skies were just saving up.
I forgive you, Weather Gods. It was worth it.
It was all worth it.