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Mud and Cowbells Road Diaries: Entering the lions’ den

  • By VeloNews.com
  • Published Sep. 24, 2009
  • Updated Aug. 5, 2010 at 1:42 PM EDT

By Greg Keller

2009 CrossVegas: The author legging it through the Velcro grass at CrossVegas.

Photo: Courtesy Andrew Yee CXMagazine

“Thirty seconds!” yells the UCI official and instantaneously you see the fidgeting of fingers on hoods and legs clipped into pedals. In cyclocross, the sprint is at the beginning of the race, rarely the end. So racers get their bodies ready for that first shock to their systems from the word go. Legs bouncing all around in fast-twitch anticipation of the gun, eyes focused forward or on the wheel or course in front of them, heart rates instinctively racing without even having pedaled a stroke.

Bang! The starter’s pistol registers and instantaneously the pack launches from the line. A few missed pedals and elbows and the mass is off pretty cleanly. Ten seconds in: faster; 15 seconds in: faster still; 20 seconds in: screeeeech and that unnatural smell of carbon burning and the sound of aluminum and bodies hitting the deck is heard but not seen. I too have to grab a handful of brakes and everything comes to a stop. Someone rams directly into my cassette, implodes a wheel and grunts. I flow away, somehow, out of the carnage as I see the bodies taken out in the first 20 seconds. But I’ll get back to the racing action in a moment.

I made it to Vegas from Flagstaff in no time at all. I had another safe and beautiful drive through amazing parts of our country. You really do have to drive this land of ours (or bike!) to see its beauty. I wove along the Hoover Dam amazed at how compact that thing is, nestled in a valley with super-limited traffic flow for such a major artery to Vegas.

I made it to Vegas in five hours or so and as usual, the town blows me away. It is surreal. The extreme heat gives you perma-swamp butt, your mouth tastes like an ashtray, the casinos pump oxygen and these scents through their ventilation system with God knows what sort of chemicals floating about and everywhere you turn there’s an ad for “services” that men — mostly bachelor-partying men — can call upon. I usually give myself 24-48 hours in Sin City and this trip would be no different.

I spent Wednesday at the Interbike trade show, visiting sponsors and new companies. Something I loved seeing: Nearly every single booth had something to pitch or demonstrate for cyclocross. It’s a growth market and it’s truly being embraced by vendors. I remember when you had to beg, borrow or steal for a set of decent sew-ups (size 30 was about all you could get back then). Now, we are blessed with easy access to the world’s best rubber, including some “new” companies like Clement. They are being reborn with a product line spearheaded by Donn Kellogg here in the United States. The company is bringing back the original molds along with some new ones for the 2010 season. Stay tuned!

2009 CrossVegas: Ridley owner Jochim Aerts pointing out all the features of his bikes.

Photo: Greg Keller

I was also able to meet with the folks at Ridley, the biggest little company in the world., so passionate for cyclocross it shows their Belgian roots. The entire staff was hands on with me from their sales team to owner Jochim Aerts who walked me through the company’s designs, carbon technology and dedication to cyclocross. It made me happy to see this passion and complete access to their team. I know feel a little more Belgian every time I throw a leg over my bike.

By day’s end I was tired and realized I had not just a race, but a UCI C1 race to participate in, chock-full with the best riders on earth, including three-time world champion Erwin Vervecken, Belgian bad boy Ben Berden and Belgian national teamer Tim Van Nuffel. With those lions of Flanders and our nation’s best, I was truly in the den.

My cohort in crime Brandon Dwight made it safe to the venue and we began warming up. The course is simply hard — grass that feels like Velcro and long straights that require you to be part of a train make the course a grass crit. Maybe favoring the Americans tonight? Lots of 180-degree turns, off camber; the TRP-barriered run-up and staircase would be the most ‘cross-like features. Fast and fun with thousands of screaming fans, under the lights. ‘Cross, Vegas style.

By dusk the people were pouring into the soccer complex hosting the event and the energy level increased with each spectator at the tape around the course. Warming up with Brandon, the legs felt decent if not a bit flat. This would be fun. The UCI officials were efficient and every participant was called up by row. Staged for battle, I could feel my contacts start to shrivel in the dry air, my mouth already drying out as we waited for that starter’s pistol.

Bang! That first lap was chaos. Brandon and I made it through the mess and started to figure things out. Forming trains, getting the body to get past that massive hurt you feel before you can tolerate the pain and just ride fast. Lap after lap everything was given. So many people cheering it was like a tunnel of noise every time you’d come through the fun features of the course, like the run-ups. Way out where the crowd was thinner, a gal was doing her own sort of spectating/entertaining by stripping half-naked and pole dancing for the racers on one of the course markers. It provided some motivation to quickly turn out another lap and see what she’d be up to next. Again, only in Vegas.

By 45 minutes I’m still in the same small train of guys. We’re taking turns, pulling, working and suffering together. I desperately need water but in a UCI race, there are no hand ups of any kind unless you want ejection. Combine that with my contacts turning into dried raisins on my eyeballs and you can see that the fun was a-plenty.

2009 CrossVegas: One of world cyclocross champ Niels Albert’s Stevens bikes on display at the TRP booth.

Photo: Greg Keller

At 50 minutes we’re not caught yet. I can’t believe it. We’re rolling as fast as we can, yet part of me is wishing for the mercy kill of Erwin V. flying past me and the UCI official giving me the hand wave to leave the course.

We squeak through yet another lap and by minute 55 I turn to see Jamey Driscoll and Chris Jones bridge to me and continue on their way. I was amazed. These two young’uns had a massive gap on the next chase group. When I say massive I mean 30-40 seconds. They were drilling it.

I came through the start-finish on that last bell lap, finally caught by the chasing group of fast guys, and I about French-kissed the UCI official when she smiled and waved me off the course. I yanked my contacts out of my eyeballs and hunted anything liquid to pour into my parched gullet. Thankfully it came in the form of a cold beer one of my Boulder-based compatriots had one waiting for me. Brandon raced strong as did the rest of the Boulder mafia, specifically Jake Wells and VeloNews test editor Matt Pacocha.

And with that, I am out of here, my friends! I hope you enjoyed the coverage of singlespeed worlds and CrossVegas on this road trip. I wanted to give you the inside scoop on these super-fun races and the fact that we, the working man and woman, can do them. I really had a blast and now look forward to getting back to my wife and children, who’ve inspired me to ride fast — as fast as an old man can anyway.

Thanks for reading, and ‘cross on.

Editor’s note: This column marks the return of a popular rider journal, the Mud and Cowbells report, by Greg Keller and Brandon Dwight. The first report was from the Single Speed Mountain Bike World Championships in Durango, Colorado. For more on that scene, including a large photo gallery, check out our sister site, Singletrack.com.

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FILED UNDER: Cyclocross / News / Rider Diaries TAGS:

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