2018.2 U.S. Cyclocross National Championships – Cowbell Style

By Jim Murphy and Elizabeth Clark

Our adventure to the 2018 CX Nats began weeks before, when we start to juggle the question of how to ship our bikes and equipment to/from Louisville safely and economically.   We opted to go with a special-purpose shipping box called AirCaddy, and travel with them as checked baggage on Southwest Airlines due to their reasonable flight costs and the fact the bikes would only cost $75.

The AirCaddy box packages the bikes very nicely, but what you end up with is something that resembles a 6-foot tall wedge of cheese to wheel around the airport.  This garners innumerous sideways glances and questions.

One of the reasons to fly Southwest is the ability to handle a lot of the check-in process ahead of time, or at the kiosk in the airport.   This is important when juggling oversized cheese things at 4:30 in the morning.   Of course, all this goes to crap when Southwest has a system-wide computer failure that closes all the kiosks, check-in counters, and phone apps.    The only good news was that since no one could go anywhere (the TSA couldn’t even confirm your boarding pass to let you enter security), we were pretty sure we weren’t going to miss out flight.

After about 30 minutes of stress, things cleared.   It also helped that we were standing next to a kiosk when they came back online.   Before long, we were on the plane and flying south.   Happily, that was the only hiccup in an otherwise flawless trip.

Landing in Louisville, we picked up our rental van and scurried to the AirBnB near the venue.   We unpacked our bikes, reassembled them in the driveway, and then stood them in the back of the minivan for the trip over to Joe Creason Park aided by a large cheese-thing in between to help them remain upright.

After checking in and cheering on some friends in other races, we got our first chance to pre-ride the course.

“When we first got there, the venue didn’t see terribly different from what I expected.” Elizabeth recalls. “Maybe a little hillier than videos I had seen, but much like the courses we have in New England.”

“I was excited to get out on the course and see what was awaiting,” Jim said.  “I was supposed to take it easy and not overdo the effort, but the amount of climbing on that course made any thought of an easy lap a laughable hoax.”

Getting a taste of the course, we headed back towards our apartment.   On the way, we stopped at the market to get some groceries.    We noticed a young lady climbing a tree in the parking lot.   Turns out that there was live Mistletoe growing on one of the trees and she, a visiting CX racer herself, had decided to harvest some.   While neither of us decided to join her up in the tree, we did head back that night with fresh Mistletoe for our upcoming yule season.

First up was Elizabeth’s 50-54 race.

“I was happy that NECX venues prepared me well,” she remarks.  “What I thought would be overwhelming was not, even for someone very new to the sport.  It was still about understanding lines and riding within yourself.

US Cycling Official check Liz’s tires before her start

“The opportunity to be racing on what was basically an identical course to these Elite racers, these racers who are so much more accomplished, was quite an honor … and a little daunting.”

The grassy, hilly course was noted for its mud when the rains show up, and the weather forecast for Thursday’s events was questionable.   However, she felt ready to handle whatever slog might show up.

“Those conditions were very similar to those in New England.  Knowing that, it might even be for me, an advantage.   That was a good feeling.”

You will always remember your first time rolling to the starting grid for a National Championship, and Elizabeth was no exception.

“At first, I was pretty intimidated, but then I realized it’s not terribly different from any other race.  I had to have confidence in the bike, in the skills I’d honed, and in myself.   When they called me up by name on the PA and said From Cowbell Racing, I just took any angst and put it aside.  It was time to just go out and play with my bike.

“I had a sense of pride.   Even though I was a Cat 4, I still showed up.   I was here and it was time to just take a deep breath and play hard.

“It was hard for sure, especially the Hill of Suck.    But just hearing Bike People cheering me on – no one in particular just people in general – It was great.  It gave you extra power when your body was hurting.”

One corner, known as the Orange pit of Death because of all the rocks spray-painted orange – was particularly tough. 

“I had a couple lines I had worked in pre-ride, but of course when I got there in the race, they were gone.   I had to figure it out on the fly during the race, and that was especially satisfying.

“The off cambers were tough, but fun because they were things that used to scare the crap out of me.  I could see a path and attack it.  It was a gratifying feeling

“On the last lap, Stacey Barbossa rode up on me coming up one of the muddier hills.   She just came chunking past me on my left.   I asked, ‘are you the race leader?’ and she said ‘Yeah.’  ‘Go crush it’, I said.  I was just in awe.”

“Just being in that race, and not being seen as anything less just because I’m not an Elite or a Cat 1, was nice.”

Crossing the line has a sense of finality for all competitors.

“Thank God!  I can breathe now.  Or Puke.  And my legs didn’t fall off,” she said. “I’m very proud that I was encouraged by my teammates and by Jim to endeavor to do this.”

Jim had his turn on Friday, with even more weather looming in the forecast.

“I don’t think I’ve even been any more prepared for a race,” he said. “The bikes were prepped and in the car the night before.  I had pre-ridden all I needed to, and my race was late enough that I could sleep in and get a good breakfast.

Breakfast of champions

“We were so close that I even got into my kit at the house and drove to the venue an hour before the start.   All I had to do was warm up, and ride to the grid.

And that is when things got interesting.

Riding along the road, Jim pulled a U-turn under a tree and started back towards the parking lot. 

“I heard this tick-tick-tick sound, and I saw a twig stuck to my front tire.   I stopped and removed it, and that’s when I noticed the thorn in it.   I heard the hissing and saw the sealant bubbling out of my front tire.

“The good news in all this is that we have identical bikes, and the only difference is a small seat height change, so we jumped into action. 

“We quickly pumped more air into the front tire and Elizabeth took the bike over to neutral support in the pits.  I took Elizabeth’s bike and began my warmup, even though it only had intermediate tires and the course would call for the mud tires on my primary bike.

“By the time I finished, she was back with a new front tire from the pits, albeit a clincher Terrano Mix.  I took it for a brief half-lap check-ride, and decided it was as good as I could expect.  I let out far more air than one should dare in a clincher, and I rolled it to the grid, while Elizabeth took her bike to the pits.

“At the start, I had my typical good acceleration.  I found a seam on the edge and was rolling past folks at a good clip, but there was a bit of a jam-up at the end of the pavement and it almost all came apart in the first 30 seconds.   I ended up fully locked, both front and rear, and bounced my wheel off the bike in front of me, before bouncing left, releasing the brakes, and heading out.

“I also remember being well prepared for the first run through the Orange Pit of Death.   I was 99% sure it would be too crowded to ride, so I was mentally prepared to dismount.  Sure enough, when we rounded the corner, I could see the crowd forming.  I dismounted much sooner than others and was able to run past many who were still struggling to keep their bikes upright in stop-and-go traffic.

“The first descent down the hill was interesting, and that foretold the story of my race.   The mud, slickened by overnight rains, was treacherous.   I ended up going over the handlebars during one dismount, slipping out on half a dozen off cambers, and going down hard to where my helmet was doing its best impression of a French beret.

“In other words, I was having CX fun.”

Because half the course was hilly, and half was fairly flat, there was a definite strategy to tire choice for each half.

“I knew I wanted to get the bike cleaned at least once during the race, “Jim recalls, “so I told Elizabeth to be ready at the end of lap 2.  I took the bike with Intermediate tires for a half lap so I could get a clean bike with mud tires back for the final laps on the hilly part of the course. 

“Elizabeth was ready, and the exchanges were flawless – that new bike felt great, and on the flat part of the course, running without mud tires wasn’t a huge hinderance”

“It was very gratifying to know I could make a huge difference in his race experience,” Elizabeth adds.  “Making sure the pedals were in the right place, the bike was in the right gear, it was clean.

“Everyone in the pits worked well together.  Regardless of the team, the more experienced folks were helping the newer people make sure things went smoothly for the racers.  I asked a complete stranger if they would catch for a bike change, and they agreed right away.  It was a great sense of community.”

“Doing a clean bike exchange is a great feeling,” Jim adds. “When it goes right, you feel SO PRO.   To do it at Nationals, twice, was one of the highlights of the race for me.

While the front of the race eventually lapped Jim, his race came down to a battle in the final half lap with the competitor ahead of him.

“You don’t care if you’re 2nd or 62nd, but in those final moments, it’s all about the bike ahead,” Jim recapped. “This fellow had gotten past me at one point when I bobbled, and I was closing on him during the final climb past the pits.

“I decided there was nothing left to save, and I pushed hard as we got to the final section.  I made a point to close on him as best I could, but I still had the final barrier and 2 muddy corners ahead.  I wanted to be near him, but not so close as to get caught up in any mistake he might make.

“I think I had my best barrier of the season – I barely recall it – one moment I was dismounting, and my next memory is getting clipped in cleanly and dropping the hammer.  I closed on him in the final 100 meters and took the position by a wheel.

“That felt good.”

Jim Murphy sprinting to the line at the CX National Championships in Louisville KY

Following the race, we both felt that we deserved a good meal.   On the recommendation of a Yelp review, we ended up at a hole-in-the-wall Nigeria restaurant, Funmi’s Café.  Neither of us had much of an idea what to expect.   The food, especially a sweet potato porridge known as Asaro, was amazing.  The whole experience, including the conversation with the charming owner, was the perfect end for the week.  

Looking back, it was a great way to spend a couple days, and there was a huge presence of the NECX family there.  There were many familiar faces and voices.

“I learned a lot and had a friggin’ blast,” summed up Elizabeth, “You’d be surprised at how you stack up against other athletes, and how proud of yourself you can be in overcoming any fears. That translates into not just your cycling but into your life.  Don’t be scared, it’s a hell of a ride.

“Where are Nationals next year?”