Race Report: Barton Park Carnage
The Barton Park race report is up over at the Wend Blog! You can read it below, too.
Blood, rocks, mud, carnage.
Barton Park 2008 will go down in infamy.
Cue to the quarry. Cyclocross at its best. Sunday mayhem. Bodily destruction. A precarious place for a bike race: acres of loose, small rocks covered in mud and deep puddles. Slippery on top and unforgiving underneath.
On Saturday night before the race I got down on my knees and prayed for rain. I don’t believe in God, but I figured it was worth a shot. Later, as I lay in bed dreaming cyclocrosser dreams of hole-shots, mud bogs and perfectly executed remounts, I stirred to hear a deluge on the roof.
A friend of mine heard the same downpour and entertained the following thought: “Somewhere, Heidi is smiling right now.”
The next morning at 7:30am, the skies were dry but the course was not. Still, the semi-slick turns and mediocre mud-puddles weren’t quite up to par.
Misery. I’m going for downright misery.
I looked up and waited. I ate oatmeal and waited. The sky, she waited too. She waited until 11:55am and then she unleashed. The Men’s Master B field was on the course at the time, and a slippery off-camber descent became a death trap.
From my perch next to the propane heater under the team tent, I watched a rider face plant into a ditch. He went down hard. And then stayed down. Spectators rushed. Medics sprinted. Blankets appeared. Umbrellas were held.
In the next moment we were all scrambling to move cars and tents to make way for an inbound ambulance. A teammate who races in the beginner woman’s category turned gray with worry and put her head in her hands.
Amid the chaos, reports came through that the Director of the Oregon Bike Racing Association had also gone down with a possibly broken collarbone.
Technically, you’re not a real bike racer until you’ve broken your collarbone at least once, but still.
The ambulance made haste for the ER while race directors re-routed the course to remove the offending section of face-destroying camber. Meanwhile, under the driving rain, the course transformed. Soupy. Sloppy. Sketchy.
Puddles like lakes dotted the parking lot. Racers came staggering back to the tent, unrecognizably coated in mud. Huddled around the heater, they regaled us with tales of heart-stopping near-misses and chaos witnessed. We welcomed them as war heroes – with relief and elation. With muddy reverence and respect.
“Are you happy now?” Javad asked me, “You got your stupid rain.”
Barton Park was a complete wasteland. No more good lines anywhere. No hiding. Just wet, cold, mud, and pain. The gravel pit was taking riders out left and right. No one was safe.
I tucked my fear into the side of my race bag and closed the zipper. Clad in only spandex armor, I rolled to the line, determined to return with my body intact. My pre-ride was now essentially useless due to the drastic change in course conditions. I closed my eyes, put my head down, and waited for the whistle to bring me within dangerous proximity to sweet disaster.
Race time. I’ve been practicing the start for weeks. Clip in the pedals and pound pound pound pound pound. In a 45 minute race with the potential for some nasty crashes, the start is everything. Ride until you’re blind. Ride until you think your heart will come through the front of your chest.
All in. All out.
My start is only mediocre. There’s a trust issue between me and my anaerobic threshold which is to say that I don’t trust myself to recover from these explosive starts. I hold back. I’m afraid to open up. My anaerobic threshold and I, we need counseling.
I hit the first turn tentatively but in a decent position. I take lines that feel safer but are slower. My hesitation costs me positions en masse. First I’m 11th wheel, now I’m 16th, then 21st. My internal dialogue system begins to fail me:
“Hey Swift. This race is about going forward not backward. Think we should speed up a little?”
I swear to god I have the most sarcastic internal dialogue system on the planet.
I love mud. Don’t I? What’s going on? I can’t make the bike go any faster. We snake through trails and then shoot out into a parking lot so I stand up on the pedals, looking for more speed. It’s not there.
Heading into a series of bumps through the woods, two riders in front of me bail so I dismount and yell, “run!”. We pop out on the other side, remount our machines, and head into a curving series of turns in deep mud.
I can’t find my pedals.
For the life of me, I cannot clip back into my pedals. I am reminded of the first time I rode this course, two years ago. Deja vu. The pedals. The fucking pedals!!
Every time I put power into the crank I find that my cleat is not fully engaged and my body lurches forward as my pedal slips out from under me. By the time I solve the problem, I’ve reached the next obstacle and have to unclip again.
It’s beyond frustrating.
I attack a run-up out of anger and take the soft mud wall in big, strides, passing two women as I go. As I remount and pedal my way across the ridge, I remember what’s coming next.
The wall. The drop. The descent that I have been trying not to think about all day. This morning when I rolled up to it I stopped to survey the potential for season-ending injury. Just a touch too much on the front brake and its over. Cartwheel time. Endo city. It’s not exactly technical, just scary.
I’m sucking air as I make the hairpin turn that leads into the drop. It is lined with spectators waiting for a show.
The lip of the hill conceals the madness just beyond. As I crest, a wall of mud leading straight down presents itself.
Weight all the way back. Right hand strategically removed from any proximity to the front brake. One finger on the rear brake. Crowd rabid. This could be fun if I was not completely convinced of my impending death.
1.2 seconds of 100% unbridled fear. The girl in front of me is going slower than I am and I’m convinced that we’ll end up a tangled mess of bikes and body parts.
There is no traction. No control. No steering. No slowing. Just a one-way, non-refundable ticket into oblivion. I have the sensation of going over a waterfall.
In a heartbeat, I’m at the bottom. Upright. Alive. Applause and cowbells follow. I pull the bike around a right-hand turn, breathe a sigh of relief and resist the urge to cross myself. One lap down, three to go.
The gravel speeds by me slower than I would like. I find a teammate standing on the side of the course. She is smiling and cheering and I cannot see what is wrong with her bike. Why isn’t she riding? Later we will find out that she had broken her collarbone.
In half a lap I’ll find another rider I know, torn and pulled over on the side of double-track, bleeding. Barton Park is eating people. Barton Park is spitting people out. Soldiers are falling.
I remind myself to stay upright and settle into a pace that will ultimately win me no glory. Who can say what happens from race to race? Who knows why I am lacking fire?
‘Cross is a finicky lover – good to us some weeks, cruel the next. Impossible to predict. Beyond control or calculation. Wild, intriguing, and crazy. Hot. Crazy, crazy hot.
As I make my way to the wall of mud for the final death-defying roller coaster grade descent, I remember why I started doing this in the first place: to crush the pansy voices in my head that scream, “abort!” when faced with such an absurd opponent. To reach inside and demand a bigger, braver me.
To risk and fall and fear and triumph and conquer. And to do so with mud lodged into every crevice of my body and a gritty, shit-eating grin on my face.