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Adobe Cross at Tall Chief Golf Course 2013

Cyclocross is a mixture of chilly fall weather, bicycle racing, mud, and sometimes beer. Seattle Cyclocross's first event at Tall Chief Golf Course also included a new ingredient. Grass. Not the kind of grass making up the well kept lawn in the neighbor's front yard. Instead the course was littered with long, stringy, and surprisingly tenacious grass clippings. These grass clippings became the theme of the day for many racers.

As is becoming normal for me I arrived early to have time to 'get right' with the event. I walked some of the course, bugged the folks working the pre-registration booth before it was open, set tire pressures at 28 front and 30 rear, and got myself suited up in plenty of time to get a few warm up laps under my belt.

Tall Chief Golf Course has been unused for a few years which is probably why a bunch of bicycle racers were allowed entry. As I took my first warm up lap it immediately became apparent that this (cyclocross) course was like nothing I'd seen before. The first third traversed a hillside. The ground was soft without standing water and quite bumpy in places. This upper third also contained an exciting descent featuring a slightly tricky left hand turn at the bottom and and a short climb up what once a gravel path. Then it transitioned to a flat series of straights and turns where a lawn mower (probably industrial strength) had been used to carve a course out of the tall grass. This section, being flat, was still slow due to the grass and even softer soil.

By the time I reached this middle section during my first lap I realized the importance of these grass clippings. These grass clippings were finding their way around the wheels and clogging up the areas between the brakes and tires. At first they were easy to clear. As the course became muddier they started to show just how much trouble they would become. I could always tell when they were packing in as I could hear them rubbing against the sidewalls of my tires.

The third section of the course was tough. It started with a fifty foot section of marsh that was quickly turning into a mud pit. Then three short slippery climbs that traversed the hillside that looked over the bottom third of the course. Then two more shorter sections of flat mud pit. This really got the heart rate up right before a set of barriers and up the paved road to the finish line. This last third of the course was a real test.

After my warm up laps I was pretty happy with my tire pressures (not ever having run pressures this low) but was not happy with how much friction was being created by the grass clippings. Lots of grass and mud was wrapped up into the brakes and bottom bracket and rear cassette and derailleur jockey pulleys and pedal spindles. Just about any part that was spinning became a nest of mud and grass. These areas were cleared and then it was off for the start area.

My good result at McCullugh park earned me a call up for this race and I would get a chance to start on the front row. On my right was Rick Birdsey. After he introduced himself as 'Birdsey' we chatted about the previous race at McCullogh Park and relived my 'lead them through the woods' strategy and his 'power past for the win' finish. On my left I met Damon Gjording and further down the line I saw the distinctive helmet of Matthew Sweet who also finished in the lead group at McCullugh Park.

During our wait for the start we chatted with the USA Cycling official, were reminded of the beer garden, and then were informed that Hammer Nutrition was sponsoring today's event and that the top 3 finishers should pick up a prize bag after the race. Neat.

Off the start and for the first one and two thirds laps the pace was reasonable and the leaders were tightly bunched. I pushed up to second and then just followed Damon who was setting a strong yet sustainable pace. Damon rode smooth and his conservative style led me to believe he was just waiting until the end before dropping the hammer. Whenever I got a chance to look over my shoulder I saw a fair number of riders hanging on with the lead group. And I felt that I could hang on until the finish.

Then the wheels fell off. For me. Not the bike.

Two thirds of the way through that second lap the course beat me to a pulp. The mud sections were getting difficult to ride. Some riders were dismounting and running through all of them. Some riders were powering through. I made a couple poor run vs ride choices and lost three positions in short order. That had me starting the third and final lap in fifth position, no longer in the lead group, and really gasping for air.

Having not completely blown up but not being far from it I made the choice to slow to a pace I knew I could sustain to the finish. That first third of the course turned out to be a good place to recover and I found myself on Damon's wheel as we started the flat middle third. He bobbled in a corner and I dropped him to fifth. With 2/3 of a lap to go. (This detail becomes interesting later on...)

My pacing was perfect. I was hurting good and keeping the pedals turning. By the end of the middle section I had every so slowly reeled in Birdsey. The final third of the course was now lined with spectators and I heard shouts of 'Go Birdsey, Go Birdsey, Go!' at each turn. As I tried to stay with him up and down the short climbs I also heard 'Keep at it number 424'. (I thought to myself "I have a fan!! A fan that doesn't know my name?") I stayed on Birdsey's wheel until the final two mud pits. I gave it a little bit extra, got lucky on my choice of lines, and put twenty feet between us. We were both hurting and I gave it everything I had over the next thirty or forty seconds to get to the finish five seconds ahead of Birdsey and on the podium in third.

(The photo directy below is Courtesy Woodenville Bicycle All other photos copyright Dwaine Trummert.)

Photo Courtesy Woodenville Bicycle

My finish celebration consisted of coasting fifty feet past the finish line, stepping off my bike, rolling onto the ground, and wheezing. This area was soon full of other racers (most of whom stayed on their feet) who celebrated similarly. When I could talk again I congratulated Birdsey on a job well done and we talked about how treacherous those mud pits had become. Lots of riders were commiserating about the mud/grass and then Damon showed us his derailleur. It was labelled 'Ultegra'. And it was attached only by the derailleur cable.

On my slow mosey to my vehicle I continued to witness acts of bicycle cruelty. Wheels and brakes packed with sticky mud/grass, clipless pedals that didn't clip, chains that just skated over the teeth of their seized jockey pulleys. And at least one broken derailleur hanger...

After getting myself sorted I wandered around and shot some photos. Cyclocross is a family friendly event with lots of spouses and kids in attendance. Many of those same spouses and kids take to the racing too. I tried to get some photos that reflect the atmosphere and scene of these Cyclocross events. And I just enjoyed my time watching the racing and chatting with other racers.

During this time I caught up with Matthew. He had a good race and finished ahead of Kristofer Koehn (who I didn't get to chat with) for the win. Our chat was cut short as he needed to cheer his girlfriend on during her race.

When I picked up my prize bag I found 'CX' socks, a George Hincapie DVD, and a big jug of Hammer Nutrition's Strawberry 'Recoverite' powder. Thank you Hammer.

Eventually I caught up with Damon whom I had followed for the first half of the race. We chatted for a good while and he told me has a background racing mountain bikes and that, like me, he is relatively new to Cyclocross. We shared that we are both driven to race (which I admitted is one of my character flaws). We also chatted a little bit about training. Training for racing the bike. And in the past when he was doing some running. I complimented him on his smoothness and told him that from my saddle he looked poised to take the win. His response was that he didn't feel he could sustain the necessary power level for the entire race and that maybe he might let someone else set the pace next time. He said when I went past him on that last lap he felt like he was fading and he was pleased to hang onto fifth. Fifth? I asked him about the broken derailleur. "Yeah, I just ran the bike in for the last half lap."

Let's put that in perspective. He felt burnt up. I slipped past. Then his derailleur broke off and he ran the bike the rest of the way. Without loosing any positions. Amazing.

It was a great day. The course was crazy tough. The folks I met were great. I got to ride my bike. What else could you ask for on an overcast October Sunday?

Oh, did I mention the beer garden was free? See you at the next event.