As the crow flies Fort Steilacoom Park is just two miles from my home.
It is the venue of the first CX race I attended as a spectator. It is the first venue I attended as a competitor. For these reasons and more it is my favorite stop on the Seattle Cyclocross schedule.
My results this season have earned a points upgrade from Category 4 to Category 3. Although the upgrade was mandatory there is a USAC waiver that allows riders to finish a points series in the same class in certain circumstances. My situation met the requirements of that waiver.
After substantial deliberation I decided there was more value in testing the Cat 3 waters for the remaining 2013 events then there was in maintaining my existing Cat 4 points position. So Fort Steilacoom was my first Cat 3 race.
Being my first experience in Cat 3 I had one idea that I might start the race conservatively and then gauge myself by how far I could move up.But I chose a bolder strategy. A podium finish did not seem likely. Yet I wanted to get to the front and experience the lead group’s pace firsthand. That would require moving past a fair number of riders. Based on points, high finishing riders are invited or ‘called up’ to start in the first and second rows. With exactly zero points in this class that benefit would not fall my way.
My Fort Steilacoom strategy was to ‘study the early corners of the course to know where to make passes so I could get in touch with the lead group’. But when I started my first lap of recon I realized that plan was junk. The majority of the technical corners would come near the end of the lap. So my strategy was revised to be more like ‘work really hard in hopes of getting a sight of the lead group’.
The course sighting laps also showed that this Fort Steilacoom course layout was unlike previous courses. It was easily broken down into three sections. The first third was single and double track trail that included a fair bit of climbing. This first third was finished off with a wicked descent.
The left side was smoother than the right but the tires were only hitting the tops of the bumps anyway. Then it bent slightly to the left (which became a blind corner at race speed) flattened for fifteen feet, and then dropped away again. After the second drop the course flattened and quickly turned 115 degrees to the right. Yee Haw!
The middle third brought riders back towards the middle of the part and was altogether different. The dirt road that lead us due East was flat, smooth, straight, and long. On race day a Westerly was blowing in off Puget Sound which made this section even faster.
The final third was the typical zig-zag turns laid out with yellow tape on a flattish grass field. At Fort Steilacoom Park there happen to be a few barns and silos in that grass field and just like previous years we zigged and zagged around those as well. This year the course designers put in a few decreasing radius corners and a couple double apex corners.
This years grass section was far superior to last years grass section where many of the corners were nearly identical 180 degree turns.
Having done all this course research there wasn’t much left to do but race. I showed up to the staging area early and ended up meeting a racer with a familiar name. Dmitri Keating owns some of the Strava KOMs in my neck of the woods and a bike shop as well. I didn’t figure I’d see much of him after the start.
While waiting I also noticed David Cook lining up. David’s description of Cross racing a few years back is probably what lit the fire that has pushed me this far into the sport. We talked about our seasons so far.And his conviction of racing a Single Speed Cross bike which he would be racing against the rest of us on geared bikes.
When the whistle blew no racers took it easy off the start line. I passed a handful in the first lefty by taking the way wide line. Every other pass for the next 2/3 lap was done the hard way. When we reached the grassy section of the course I was able to get my breathing under control and still pick off a rider or two.
We were just part way through lap two when I shifted to plan ‘B’. I had seen the front. I had ridden up to the back of the lead group. And stayed with them for a short while. Although I didn’t keep a close eye on the riders in front of me I believe I worked my way up to seventh or maybe sixth. Then I faced the reality that I would not be able to sustain the lead group’s pace.
My plan ‘B’ was to ride my own race as a Cross time trial. I kept my energy output steady and at a level that would last the remaining thirty minutes. I liked this pace and it gave me confidence. On every lap I lost a rider or two up the climb. I usually lost another rider on the long straight. To my credit I passed a rider down the descent almost every lap. This often took place when they braked for the second drop and I didn’t thereby letting my bike literally fly past. I also regained a position or two in the grassy zig zags.
For the first time this year my family was able to attend one of my races. It was pretty special to hear my daughter screaming ‘Go Daddy’ as I went past. For the few seconds I could hear her encouragements my usual racing grimace was replaced with a smile.
Yet another first occurred sometime after the first lap. My bike kinda stopped shifting.
At the beginning of the season I went the ‘Shimergo’ route with a single38 tooth chainring and modified SRAM 12-28 8 speed cassette. A right side Campagnolo Mirage Ergo 9 speed brake/shifter controls the Shimano XT rear derailleur and is paired with a Tektro left brake lever. Despite the apparent disfunctionality of this setup the shifting problem was later traced to mud and grit getting into the lower rear shift cable housing. I was surprised that my luck lasted through five full races before the wisdom of sealed cable systems was demonstrated during the sixth.
It was some time during the second lap I found that sometimes shifting up had no effect but I could push the shifter with extra effort to shift down. This poor behavior got worse as the race progressed. But by the end of the race I had worked out a system that allowed me to have pretty good gear choices for the sections at hand. On the climb I used lowest gear and would shift up two or three clicks before the slope began to level. Nothing would happen until the next bumpy section when the bike would spontaneously shift up a gear or two. That randomly timed gear change got me to the descent where I’d dump all the clicks, bounce down the descent, and have to grind through the 115 degree righty in top gear. Then I’d shift down one or two gears which was about right for the straight. Going into the grassy zig zags I’d shift down to a lowish gear and then not shift again until the climb. I was surprised at how little my compromised gearing choices affected my speed.
Category 3 races last 45 minutes which allowed us to go five laps. I stuck with my time trial style plan, finished the race with no further drama, and was quickly congratulated by my wife and daughter. The winner of my class had a huge margin of one minute 28 seconds over Dmitri who finished second. David did well against the geared bikes in 8th. My position was 12th in a field of 29. Not too shabby.
My first taste of the competition at the Cat 3 level was pretty much what I expected. Everyone was fit. Most were fitter me. Everyone knew their bike handling. There were no marshmallows.
The final Seattle Cyclocross race on the calendar is in Enumclaw in December. I expect it will be bitterly cold and utterly miserable. I can’t wait.