Save Ferris

     Photo Courtesy of Luke Seeman

Sunday I ventured out to Northbrook, IL where I grew up (though I was born in West Virginia – I always say that because no one seems to ever know anyone who was born in West by God Virginia!) to check out and volunteer for a cyclocross race.

The race, called Save Ferris, was inaugural and took place in Wood Oaks Green Park. For those of you that don’t know, cyclocross is fall/winter racing on bikes similar in nature to the ones guys like Lance Armstrong ride, except they’re slightly more compact and have knobby tires. This is because cyclocross racing is done on grass, sand, mud, et al., and includes obstacles to overcome, usually by hopping off your bike, hoisting it on your shoulder and running or jumping over the obstacle.

Those who know me know that I used to race quite regularly, but over the past three years, I've whittled my racing career down to an invisible nub. There are several reasons for this and perhaps I’ll address this sometime in the future.  For now, I headed out to the race because my friend was promoting it and I had volunteered to work the race as he had done for my race earlier in the summer. I brought my gear along and left it in the car. It was dang cold out and there was a 40/60 chance I’d race. I had just been to a wine auction and dinner fundraiser the night before and I was really in no mood. But, we’d see how we go.

Volunteering by handling payouts (paying winner purses of previous races), I walked around the course and was totally intrigued. Cyclocross culture really has a life of its own relative to road or criterium racing. This was evident on the backside of the course where a few guys had brought a couch (one I’m pretty sure I would not let my wife sit on), set it out near the course and proceeded to inspire racers by playing the theme from Rocky on a banged up trumpet – over and over again. When riders tired of the horn (or perhaps the trumpeter did), they whipped out a bullhorn and started heckling riders instead. Visionary and quite unique.

Back at the start/finish line, I rung a friend and asked him if he wanted to come out and race too. Jay was just getting back in the swing of riding after a 20 year hiatus and he had ridden a cross bike exactly five times prior to Sunday.

“What race?” he asked.

“2:15 is 4a (beginners with more experience), 3:00 is 4b (beginners)” I told him if he didn’t show, I’d race the 4a, if he did, I’d race the 4b with him. Full disclosure, I am a cat 3 rider, but am in no shape to ride that kind of race, so I thought I’d race down. I figured Jay to say no and I’d have an excuse to not race at all. He rang me back later.

“Get ready to race at 3:00, I’m coming. I have no idea why, but I am.”

Now I had to race. I registered and the person, whom I know, that registered me, fell out of his chair. Another volunteer I knew pinned my number on my jersey. That was quite a feeling after a three year hiatus. Jay turned up, registered and we warmed up as best we could discussing the course and thinking about how hard this was going to be. Cyclocross is unique in that it is all out gut busting, heart in your throat racing at the start, then it gets harder. There is a whole line of cyclocross bikes called Redline, because the whole race you are redlined.

We lined up with 55 riders. The top 10 riders of the Chicago Cyclocross Cup series were called to the line and recognized. It is also a tremendous advantage to be at the front because the racecourse narrows at times and those choke points can make a huge difference. If you are 35th in line to get through a choke point, by the time you’re through, the first 15 or 20 riders are just gone. That’s it, just gone.

The promoter tried to do me a favor and had me called to the line 11th. I muttered something about home cooking and waved him off with a nod. It was extremely nice of him to do, but it wasn’t going to help me given my cycling shape.

The whistle blew and we were off. 20 seconds in (race was 30 minutes long in total) and my heart was in my mouth. Man, 29 minutes and 40 seconds more of THIS? I got to the first choke point well back as I had lined up well back. Worked my way through and around the course, listening to my heavy breathing and wondering what the heck I had gotten myself into.

OK first barrier, stairs on a sled hill. I hopped of my bike, hoisted my bike onto my shoulder and CRACK! I busted the bottle cages – both of them. Note to self, take off bottle cages for next race. I run regularly, so no problem. Halfway up the sled hill, on the bike and here comes a tricky corner, very, very slick. I manage to halfway negotiate it (see picture). I’m off and around the course, passing several people, and passed once.

Three laps to go. All is well until the tricky corner again. This time I lose it, I start to slide down the hill, turn my wheel up the hill, semi-recover and the start going down again, rather than across the hill. Oh bother. Coming my way is a rider ahead of me who negotiated the turn and was working his way down the switchbacks of the sled hill. I cannot stop, he does not see me. We collide, I pancake him. He goes flying, I stay erect. I entangle my handlebars in course tape. He, to his credit, gets up and keep riding. I hear it from the peanut gallery.

“Get off your bike dummy!”

“Next time I will!” I say. Negotiate the rest of the course. No worries, manage to catch one of the 5 or 6 riders who rode past me during my calamity. Such is cyclocross.

Two laps to go. I am dead tired. Two laps is always the worst as you know you still have one damn lap to go. Trick corner part III. I run my bike around the corner and absolutely no problem. I am lightly applauded like I would be after sinking a putt for bogey. Disdain for not riding the corner like a real man, but accorded a bit of respect for racing. I make it around again. Final lap. All is well. Back side of the course I come up to one final rider ahead of me. I make it my goal to beat him. As the course is very tight, I must bide my time. We finally get to an open space in the course and I gun it. Right past him like NASCAR. He swears out loud at his misfortune. He tries to catch me but to no avail. Race over. Thank God. I am very tired. I finish 33rd of 55. Had I taken the call up, I think I might have done better by ten places or so. The start is so critical. Regardless I had raced and it was exhilarating. Jay was dead too and finished a bit behind me. We both had a great time. 

To quote the immortal words of the Psychedelic Furs, “You can never win or lose if you don’t run the race.”

I am grateful to Save Ferris for the opportunity to race. When you get an opportunity to race, I suggest you do so.



Jay said...

Great write up! It brings it all back -- how I wasn't just redlined, but hitting the rev limiter the whole race; how cold and miserable I felt; and how I can't wait to do it again.

Illinoisfrank said...

Great write up, Jon. So we'll see you next week in Lansing?