Here’s a quick question for you: how does a British Graduate win a U.S. Collegiate championships? It’s a difficult one to answer, but I seem to have achieved it! After many years of floating around the University of Colorado cycling team, it was finally my turn to pull on the Black and Gold jersey and line up to contend for a national title. Just like BUCS in the UK, participation is based on University affiliation, rather than nationality, and I was very proud to be able to represent CU in North Carolina.
We had a nightmare journey to North Carolina thanks to the ineptitude of United Airlines. A three hour delay on the tarmac at Denver led us to be five minutes late for the connecting flight in Chicago. That wouldn’t have been the end of the world if they hadn’t said the plane would be held for us. Cue 15 people sprinting across one of the busiest airports in the world, to see the aeroplane taxiing away from the gate. After all the delays, the two hour drive from Greensboro to Banner Elk was thankfully painless. The moonlit hillsides were beautiful; flurries of leaves indicating we’d missed the peak leaf season by just a couple of days. We pulled into the team house and collapsed into bed just in time to wake up early for the racing to commence.
We brought a strong Men’s team for the endurance events (short track and cross country), and we would have been disappointed if one of the five of us couldn’t get on the podium. With collegiate racing, each university is given a fair chance to get a rider at the front. Sam had won the Rocky Mountain conference (attesting to his consistency throughout the season), and this meant that I was the second call up for CU; about 20th on the grid. Within 15 seconds of the start I had weaved between most of the pack, and joined Sam at the front. The lap was short; even for a short track. A steep 15 second climb up the ski slope, then a series of grassy turns before a long loop around the base area and back to the finish. With all the grass, it was more like the cyclocross races I’ve been doing recently than any short track I’d done before.
As expected, the temperature didn’t rise from the bone chilling -6 Celsius. I made the calculation that I couldn’t actually get that cold in 25 minutes, and I’d be going hard enough to warm up anyway. I was wrong. Within a few minutes of the start, my hands were burning with cold, and then the feeling slowly left them. It got to the point where braking was an exercise in trusting that my fingers would follow the directions relayed by my brain. The short track race itself was about as simple as it could get: As soon as I made my way into the lead group, Sam pulled a little gap on the descent. I quickly sat up, then blocked a couple moves from coming around me. Within another minute, Sam was comfortably out of sight around a couple corners, and I could relax whilst everyone else did the work. Kerry Werner came to the front and ground out a solid pace for the next 15 minutes, whilst I sat on his wheel. The heckles got louder as it became apparent that Sam and I had executed the perfect team tactics, and no-one was surprised when I attacked with two laps to go. Although I gapped Kerry quickly, he came back at me, and it was a close race to the line. Sam got his first National title, and I made it extra special by taking second place.
There was a huge sense of relief in the house that afternoon. That unspoken goal that we’d been working towards had obviously been weighing on us more than we thought. We relaxed into studying; a blur of compression tights, Macs, and hot drinks.
With the forecast set to warm up for the cross country the next morning, it was anybody’s guess what the conditions would be like. I took my normal position of “run what you brung” and didn’t worry about tyre choice or chain lube consistency. I awoke at 5am, like normal, the first person to rise. After years of choking down porridge by the bucketful, my morning race routine is now a little more enjoyable. Three and half hours before race time, the coffee machine is switched to ‘turbo’ mode, the bacon is set sizzling in the pan, and eggs cooked using whatever kitchen apparatus is available. Against all advice from the dietary establishment, my mix of fatty goodness and coffee seems to treat me much better than refined carbs. Maybe that’s a post for another day.
The condo slowly got noisier with the approaching deadline of lycra-time; 15 minutes before departure time it’s anyone’s guess whether the full team will assemble, but it always seems to work out OK in the end. We pedalled gently up the road towards the ski area with the cold biting at the small pieces of skin we’d left exposed. The small gaps on my cheeks where my neck scarf didn’t quite reach. To arrive at the start area and be greeted by a base camp already set up is an amazing feeling; I envy those riders whose teams have the resources to do this every weekend.
I jumped on the trainer for my warm up and got into my own world. When there’s plenty of people you don’t want to speak to during your warm up, headphones are a great idea. The effect of music on me is pretty small; I’m normally nervous and anxious enough that I don’t need music to get “pumped”. Today though it was all about blocking the distractions.
Unlike the Short track where I’d been lucky enough to get the second call-up for the CU team, in cross country I was our third rider. It was only fair, based on our team results this season. Sam had raced enough to take the leaders jersey in our conference, and Sepp Kuss, a 19 year old first-year from Durango, had beaten me convincingly in every XC we’d done this year. Once again when the gun went off, it turned out that start positions were immaterial. Amid the scramble for the first turn were a mix of crunching gears and missed pedals. Both Sepp and I were in the top 10 within 3 minutes of racing, and by the top of the steep ski slope climb, the lead selection had been made. Sam, Kerry, Sepp and I had a small gap and we went into the singletrack with no hesitation for the conditions. The snow had persisted; twisted roots were completely frozen, and slippery rocks covered by snow. Kerry, being the North Carolina local, led the first lap without any mistakes. The three CU riders behind him just trailing, hoping to replicate the smoothness. By the time we got to lap two (of three), the sun was making things tricky – I was never sure if a corner would be sheer ice or sloppy mud.
Sepp put in a big dig on the second climb and distanced us all. Again team tactics being our strongest suit meant that Sam and I let Kerry bring the group back together again. I was disappointed to see Sepp make a mistake on one of the slippery one-plank bridges; he stood there dazed for a while before getting back on. At this point, amidst the ever changing conditions and increasingly slippery rocks, Kerry and I had pulled a small gap over Sam, and I was very comfortable to just see how the race played out.
Like it often happens, tactics were decided for me when Kerry’s front wheel came out from underneath him on one of the fastest sections of the course. He went down hard, and I got a gap going into a small climb. That gap ensured the last lap was a drag race till the finish. It was a matter of holding on for me, rather than trying to gain time. The last descent was now a mess of ice and mud. I rode into the course tape coming out of a turn with about thirty seconds of racing left. With no other choice but to power on through, I just kept pedalling until the tape snapped, taking my number plate with it, and giving me three seconds to celebrate as I came across the line. Kerry had only just run out of real estate after making up some serious time on the descent. What followed was a nervous couple minutes wait to see what had become of my team-mates. I was amazed to see that Sepp had held on for third, just a little bit in front of Sam in fourth. Again, the University of Colorado was completely dominant.