King Poser – Cyclocross Diaries

Mark Vandermolen - Lake Shore Drive Cyclocross, Chicago 1997
Mark Vandermolen – Lake Shore Drive Cyclocross, Chicago 1997

Stories from an old poser – 1997 Illinois Cyclocross series, a seven race series culminating in the state championship. I’m a 34 year old cat3 roadie / cat2 track racer who for reasons yet to be determined by science or therapy continues his mediocre racing career. In the series I ride the open class of Cat 1, 2, 3, Pro. My teammates on Team True Value have chosen to abandon me at this juncture of the season but I ride on…

First the Track (Velodrome) season ends. Then the road season. It’s Cyclocross time! Cyclocross (Wikipedia – Cyclo-cross) is an excellent way to stay in shape, improve your technical skills and stay sharp on the bike. Or you could cut the crap and say – Cross is like doing a 1hr individual TT dragging a fifty pound boulder on a rope interrupted by jumping on and off the bike at speed just to check and make sure you’re suffering enough. And suffer you will…

Race one – 9/27 40+ riders in the open class, beautiful day. So I hear as I didn’t make it. The only medal I got today was for Family Man. I did a two hour ride, one hour at the local forest preserve hammering the old cross course. Kinda like doing a Tour stage on a Computrainer. Good workout but it just ain’t the same.

Race two – 10/4 Another good turnout, another beautiful day. Sixty degrees and sunny, just doesn’t feel like cross, then the gun sounds. Handlebars bump, the spazes spaz, the hole shot is made and it’s cross time. We’ve got a couple MTB studs and the normal cross hammers in a group of eight. Hey the road isn’t flat, and there must be some new OSHA thing about dismounts. Seven dismounts total, three triple. Looks like I’ll be obtaining my dismount form pretty quickly this year. A semi pro MTB’er is bunny hoping half the course including the uphill triple set. We’re doomed. Early in the second lap Robby Ventura (Navigators) gasps and dodges me as I dismount for a barrier and he flies by my shoulder at speed. Sorry Robby. By the start of the third lap I’m the last in a group of six and slipping. Eight minutes in and the sound of labored breathing echoes through my head, I’m ripped. In a daze I labor on, like a mountain climber who wishes nothing more than to stop and lay in the snow from exhaustion. The sun shines, joggers pass, the lake water lashes, cars zoom buy and I want to lay down. With the top five way ahead and no one close behind, I do my mid race bag and sag. As my senses return so do the racers. I get lapped, then I get passed by a rider on my lap and then another. I finish in ninth, maybe tenth. On the ride home, as those who who have been beaten often do, I look for answers. 15 laps x 7 dismounts = 105. I ride home in the big ring, wind at my back not a dismount in site.

Race three – 10/11 Recovered from and Psyched for, the racing begins. Once again I’m back of the lead group. Educated last week I ride with the knowledge of the pain this lead group can give. I ride at my own pace and settle in at six. If I feel good I will advance, but I will not go backwards dammit. Well maintaining my own pace is a task near midpoint, and I’ve slacked. Leaders long gone and the poor starters lickin there chops. I get it rolling again but to late. I’ve got company. And he wishes to pass. So I latch on and stick my tongue to his jersey. I will back off only if my eyeballs actually pop out. The bastard is getting air on bumps and sprinting out of the dismounts. He curses loudly, I take the lead, I drop him. I waste in no mans land. Laboring, checking the marks behind to see who’s close. I can do no more at the three quarter point as a rider passes pushing some huge gear. I easily make up ground in the technical sections, but he absolutely lays me out on the flats and hills. We do battle till two to go. I decide to lay it out and see if he slips in the technical stuff. With one to go we dice on a paved backstretch and a rider neither of us had seen two laps ago passes. We attack his wheel. As we hit the courses southern apex and leave the pavement our new member drops our jaws by coming out of the 180 turnaround, jumps the dismount,lands and immediately re-launches jumping a three foot wide drainage ditch. There goes seventh. My focus quickly returns to the task at hand. Jumper man came out of nowhere and was gone as if some oxygen deprived aberration. Two sets of triples ahead, so I blow through to the best of my abilities, get a gap and put the hammer down through a windy section, hit another triple dismount set on the fly and resume the hammer. Three more quick corners and the a sprint. I feel a gap as I come out of the last corner I crack the twist shift forward and jump out of the saddle in full sprint. I’m flying and no one is going to come around me now. The sound of knobbies on loose lake fill draw closer, my spirits sink. He passes. In the saddle twisting some sick gear. Dammit.

Race four – 10/18 Something is wrong, it’s 50 and sunny… again. No that’s not it. The start line is abuzz, the points leader of the series isn’t here. Illinois cross icon, “The Fabio” isn’t here. I will place one place higher today. Today I vow to stick with the leaders till I puke. No problem, I drop my chain on a wood chip pile and the leaders are gone. But wait, they are putzin around and I rejoin after an assault on some flat rough stuff. Then we turn a corner and an all out sprint breaks out on the uphill stretch. I enter the first technical section last of six. I exit the section dangling. Another sprint erupts! Hey guys! Guys? A group of four escapes, a dangler then me. Back of the front, front of the middle, this is my life as a cyclist. I feel a rider close in, we duke it out trying to keep fifth in sight. He mumbles about margarita’s. I dump him in an effort for fifth. Fifth is making an effort for fourth. I pass fifth, he’s walking, with a woman, he shoots me a look of disgust. I’m fifth. Tequila man shouts at the turnaround, “I’m coming to get you!”. He haunted me from behind in the second race, dusted me in the third. I hammer. My Achilles complains loudly after a weird twist, and I’m hoping through the dismounts like a bunny one one leg. Fifth was secure, now this. Tequila guy flips me the bird at the turnaround I call him bastard (seriously, this is why I love CycloCross). I hammer through the flats, gingerly through the dismounts and bring on home fifth. I’ll take it!

Race Five – 10/25 I live for shit like this. Cyclocross is designed specifically for it. 58 mph winds (so said the news), rain (or was it lake water?), waves blasting over the breakwater and across the course. The freaking promoter gives us a half mile of single track 20 feet from the lake, water spraying all the way across the far side of the course. We have to go through 20 meters of 6-10″ deep sand. Guys getting knocked over by waves, wind blowing them down in the mud. A news helicopter passes over, a blurb about the race is in the Trib’s front page story on the weather. When one races on the lakefront in Chicago, the L.A. weather will end sooner or later. Ahhhh yea right, a lot of words about the weather to cover the fact that I finished in sixth again. Even my love of the being in the elements didn’t help.

When the race started some had the look of fear… some didn’t start. The pace for an unknown reason was extremely high out of the gate, and continued so for two laps, about where I came off the leaders. Just before the finish of the second lap as I tailed the leaders by some 20 meters, I was blasting down a section of pavement lakefront bike trail trying to bridge, when wham I had a full on total high speed road type mega crash. As the front tire slid out from under me I remember being shocked. What the f… how am I crashing, what’s goin on? I was hydroplaning a bike on pavement and the wind just took it out from under me. Not some nimble road bike, a friggin mountain bike. Glad it was raining, makes for good sliding. Bruised, shocked, soaked and freezing I carried on but now all alone. As I started the third lap I came through the sand, feet like big wet sandballs, and saw an amazing site, the early hi pace had knocked two guys back. I pounded to join. I joined. They recovered. I was now in for a 40min solo trek. The old Man And The Sea. Sometimes at the far end of the course as I turned almost directly into the wind, I stood on the pedals and at 10 miles per hour I could see a quarter mile away the flashing lights of Meigs air Field, but not the landing strip. Riders made attempts to come up to me, but I powered on. I went round and round the course, nothing but me my pedals and the sound of wind and water. Part of the quote in the paper mentioned a rubber room. As soon as I quit shivering, I’ll tell you it was fun.

Race Six – 11/2 Seems a bunch of wussies missed last week and that puts me one point behind fifth for the series. Margarita man is fifth. No mountain bike race today so we have a bunch of bunny hopin guys with graphite shocks and pro looking jerseys. Hey look at Mr. promoter putting up quadruple dismounts, he must have seem the start list. We’re off, and hey look at me I’m in the lead pack and not at the back. Ya, look at me, start of the second lap I go to pass on the inside of tight corner, my tire washes a little in some very loose dirt and wham, I smack a tree with my bars. Hey look at me I’m back of the lead pack. Like I never rode a bike before. Some MTB guy laughed at me when I crashed. I didn’t laugh when I passed him a lap later in an effort to rejoin. But you know, whenever I think it’s fast and I’m jammin with the boys, they take off. This series hero, Mr. Mark Vandermolen attacks as he is prone to do, road like, and things blow apart. Fifth and one point ahead of me for the series overall is Margarita man. Torn between lettin it all hang out in an effort to catch and taking stock because of some virus my kids brought home. I chose to hold, mainly because that’s all I can handle. The man behind me is Mr. big gear guy who smoked me in the sprint three weeks ago so I am very motivated to keep the pace steady but high. He’s tangling with the MTB’er who found humor in my earlier crash. Hope they keep each other busy. I am two points out of fourth at this point and don’t want to be three or more. I lose a little on fifth but keep the guys behind at bay. Past midway and I am now confident I’m not going to unravel so I begin to get on it. This is the zone I enjoy, when I’m suffering but not totally, and I’m flying through the corners and pounding the flats, breezing through the dismounts and generally hooked up and feeling high. Three quarters and I must report I’ve dropped the two behind, they’re now a good 20-30 seconds down. I dropped someone! Now I’m jammin. Nothing to lose now. I try to turn it up a little and it works. I see fifth now, maybe twenty seconds ahead, when we pass at the turnaround I tell him I’m coming. He’s failed in his attempt to catch third and fourth and he’s reeling. The lap card guy tells me I just need to go faster. I do anyhow, in my little zone where it at least feels like I’m flying. Fifth is doing the over the shoulder thing, like he’s seen in videos. I’m gaining. The lap cards flip, two to go. I’m ballistic, hammer the flat all out and don’t even feel it. I fly over the dismount at the bottom of the five foot wood chip pile so fast I jumped midway up the hill and just hoped right over. Top of the hill just before one to go and I’m coming out of the first dismount as he comes out of the second, maybe a ten second gap. I crunch the small climbs two cogs smaller than before, steam coming out my noggin. The race leader laps me as we hit the pave, he invites me to latch on, and he’s got second just a few feet behind. We blast down the pavement hit the grass flying and I figure I’ll either blow trying to match the leaders last lap or I’ll get a shot. I out corner him, but he powers away, gets a little gap on the small hills. I’m feeling it big time but don’t even care. I’m damn close as we start the dismounts on the final hill. As I start the second set someone says to watch out for second place who’s on my wheel. I blurt out “fuck em”. Hey the course is wide. We hit the last corner 1,2,3,4 (except it’s 5,1,6,2) second passes me in his sprint for victory just before we enter the corner, but I am tempted to re-pass (I’m tellin ya if these guys could corner). But I decline getting wild in the corner because my man’s out of reach before the finish so I roll in for a draining sixth.

Race 711/9 State Championships. Off the lake and into the woods. Who needs more than a thirty yard warm-up? Two laps into the Masters 30+ I’m thinking maybe I did need a longer warm-up. But as my body adjusted the other bodies fell away. And then there were two. Me and Bob. Bob has regularly kicked my ass in this series, so chances are slim. But we also have a can do attitude and come to these Championship things with an “on any given day” type attitude. One problem, my strategy of peaking for today’s show has not worked. I feel like 20w-50 on a January morning. As Bob and I toddle around the course I’m looking for his weaknesses, and as per usual the only I can find are corners and some tricky stuff. A silently approaching challenger blows his cover as he clangs over a dismount. The rider poses no realistic threat to Bob, so it’s all me. I tweak it up until the rider fades, then Bob attacks. Smart guy, one and a half to go. I go all out risking it on the tight spots. I shorten the gap but can’t close. At the bell it’s about four seconds and not looking good. I tell myself, one lap effort for a gold. Half a lap to go and he’s gained. I back off, but remind myself he could bobble or have a mechanical. My body rejects the possibility and I’ve got another race to go. I pedal in for one of the few medals in my cycling career. Psyched, but still wanting first.

One down, main event to go. I’ve got a medal in pocket, now it’s time to sew up my fifth for the series or possibly steal fourth and see if I can do top five or even medal in the open class. Twenty eight line up. Twenty yards later we must all fit onto a three foot wide piece of pavement, cones on one side, drainage ditch on the other. Like a freaking crit we blast onto the pavement, guys passing, cones flying. We jack left, and hit the dirt. It’s a thing of beauty being part of a bicycle locomotive flying through the woods. It’s such a mad rush at the start, you’re hammering, guys trying to pass, dismounts like a Japanese train station at rush hour. A top contender tries me on the left sees a tree and tries me on the right, sees a tree and comes again before a hard ninety. Third times a charm and he smacks the tree just as we enter the corner. He comes back by me a few seconds later and soon has a gap on us all. Caffeine is a drug. The dismounts are huge, the course is wicked and we are flying. Mountain bikes are at an advantage here today and I’m ballistically bombing the course, the cross bikes are scatting all over fighting just to keep up. I absolutely suck on the key uphill triple dismount, even after a warm-up race to figure it out. I loose huge chunks here and hammer it back on a snaky ridge trail. Amazingly Mid way through the second lap I’m in third. Hey and nobody is knocking to come around. I’m feeling way better than in the 30+. Three laps of ten and I’m still in third. Wowsa. I got the flow. Fabio in second looks back and doesn’t see Vandermolen or Rozman or any cat two bonehead, just me. His eye’s got big. So were mine. Fourth lap and three guys passed me all at once. The electricity was fading. I fought hard with the last two guys for a lap and then my nemesis Margarita man came calling. He was in fourth for the series, I fifth. Only two points separated us. We had finished beside each other in all but two of six races. For five laps we battled it out in sight of fourth but were unable to bridge the gap. He punished me on the dismounts, I hammered him and his cross bike on corners and the sticky stuff. Oh, the frickin triple dismount. One lap he got five seconds on me. I told him to take it easy on me “ya goddam ex football player” (he was). So at the second log dismount he jumped atop the log and stopped, right by his side I too jumped atop the log> Margarita man asked “how’s this”? I replied “yes” we high fived and the race was on (true story and oh so fun). Two laps to go and we got passed screwing around, I asked “what shall we do”? He said it’s all you “I’m not putting anybody between us”. He had a point. I tried, somewhat lamely. The bell rang, with no chance of overtaking him for the series, there was nothing left to do but damage my body with a massive effort. He passed me going through the first dismount section, the dreaded dismount yet to come. My body half crying “you’ve got fifth wrapped up” and the other half crying “take him, you can do it you’ve got all winter to recover”. On the downhill section before the big dreaded dismount he backed off while in the lead. I immediately sensed he was setting me up for the dismount. I made the move that has lost me countless crits and road races, I jumped too early. I came around him with the hammer down, half a lap to go. I got a small gap up the hill and into the triple dismounts. As I came over the last dismount he was at my rear wheel. I landed, popped in and was gone, flat out. Several corners and only one real passing section ahead, I blasted. Flew over the first log dismount, ran up the clay hill and popped in, sprinting on the section where I’d been beating him all day. Down and up a roller coaster, over the last log and a long uphill sprint with legs on fire. I could feel a gap so I blocked the pain and envisioned the finish. Top of the hill before the finish and he was coming. We swooped right before the final hard left and he was on my wheel. I took the final corner off the seat and sprinting. I took it as tight as I could, not as much as a tactic but because of speed and a desire to not land in the officials tent. At a hard angle and sprinting my knobbies were spitting grass as I blasted out of the woods turning hard toward the finish. I came out wide with my shoulder under the bell of the lap card and my tire probably on the base, I crossed the line with his front wheel even with my back. Bike racing I love it! It must have been great for the crowd as sixth and seventh pace blasted out from the dark woods as if from cannon (whaaat is this for first again?), side by side sprinting wildly, causing the officiating crew to back up. Exhilarating! I’m sure the official at the lap card stand would agree.

Pyschlo Cross I love it!

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