Cross in Shaolin!

I didn’t know quite what to expect of the Staten Island Cyclocross. It turns out the least understood burough wasn’t exactly the rest of the city’s dumping zone, and Wu Tang Clan was nowhere to be seen in the place called Shaolin. In fact, the race venue was gorgeous—Wolfes Pond Park is right on the water, a smaller, more suburban version of Gloucester’s iconic cyclocross stronghold Stage Fort Park. And like Stage Fort, war history is celebrated at Wolfes Pond: the park is home to a memorial for men lost in The Battle of the Bulge. Without that American victory, there would probably be no modern Belgium. And without modern Belgium, there would be no ‘cross.

I was most excited to be racing in a new setting with a strong scene. The course was dry, the sun was warm, and we raced at 1pm instead of, say, 4pm, so I knew there’s be some post-race waffles and coffee leftover…for once. On the other hand, the red-eye flight from the day before followed by my personal one-day record for beer and meat consumption was not totally in harmony with the goal of victory. Of course, my habit is to be ready to race, no matter what, where, or when and without excuses—it’s what qualifies me as a professional, I guess.

And I needed to be a bit pro because there was competition. The Swiss kid Valentin Scherz might’ve been at the USGPs in Fort Collins, but he instead chose to defend his Wu Tang title. After an acceptable start I moved to 4th wheel in the course’s fast grass chicanes and, by the end of the beach run, stayed there to the course’s next feature, a truly tricky downhill dismount followed by a short run-up. At the top of the run-up, there was a choice to be made: remount and attempt to ride the technical, off-camber traverse followed by a very steep and lose on-the-bike climb, or run like an idiot. Scherz and another had gapped 3rd wheel, and then that rider made a mistake, trying to remount and ride at the top of the run-up. The choice was made for me: I ran like an idiot through the entire section and quickly got across to the leaders. Stupider like a fox, I guess. Now there were three.

On lap two I hit the sand as 3rd wheel, but I attacked hard, running inside all the way to the short staircase that took us up and off the beach. Only Scherz matched it, so it was down to two as we remounted and clipped in. He was quicker, and he countered with a surge that resulted in a 3-5 second gap on me for the next five laps. The loop was short and fast at about 5 minutes, so when I finally reeled him in there were still four to go. I followed for a lap—we seemed to take a break, and I was fine with that. Plus, it gave me a chance to finally come around him. I didn’t waste time: I led into the technical section, and instead of remounting and riding at the top of the short down-and-up, I put my head down and ran like I had early on.

I knew he was more fit, and he seemed fundamentally ‘cross strong. I figured my only chance was to put him on defense and then hope for a panic-induced mistake. Basically, I was trying to do to him what I always try to do to Kona’s new riders Sean Babcock and Spencer Paxson. They say I ride around at a “slug’s pace” and then pull them back with a sort of tractor beam that unwittingly slows them down. They claim I then manage to somehow mind-screw them and proceed to ride away very slowly, thus stealing the victory. (I take it as a compliment, even though it doesn’t sound like one.)

At this point I was pretty confident in what I could do to the end: I mean, I knew I could do my old man ride. The hard running sharply gapped him, but much to his credit he stayed calm. On a course like Wolfes Pond, a 10 second gap can be as good as a mile. However, he never let it open up, and he was good enough to not make a basic mistake.

Scherz told me afterward that he’d been a bit worried: the longer I stayed with him, the more chance there’d be of him blowing up. But he shouldn’t have doubted: he got back to me quickly, and right at two to go he attacked and held a 5 second gap into the sand. It was 10 when I finally remounted. So it was over, and I started looking for the dollar bill and beer hand-ups. I was happy to have made a race out of it with this Swiss kid. Valentin is actually quite good, and he should go well at Espoir worlds this winter.

There was then the podium ceremony and, with it, prizes and photos. I was able to use my sweet cash winnings to pay for waffles, coffee and chocolate-covered bacon for some fellow ‘cross racers and fans…and for myself. Best, I did walk away with the Pyrrhic victory of the day: one guy called me the least smug Portlander he’d ever met. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s one for the Caveman and Kona.