We were a little late getting out to Horning’s Hideout for the race. By the time we got there I only had 40 minutes to register, ride the course, warm up and report to the start line for staging.
I’d opted to ride the Men’s Beginner’s race at 9:00am for a variety of reasons but mostly because it offered the least amount of lead-in time to get nervous. I wanted to keep my nerves under control and the longer that I stood around watching races, the worse they would get.
I knew there would be a few other women in the field and I wasn’t worried about it. The only drawback is that the men’s beginner’s field is always massive. In this case there were 110 riders to start despite the fact that the race organizers claim all fields are limited to 100.
Sam and I pulled into Horning’s, which is nestled at the bottom of a long, curvy, gravel road. Race staff flagged us into a makeshift parking spot and I jumped out, found my way to the registration table, located the start line and the finish line and then hopped on the course to take a loop and see what I was in for.
I could tell right off the bat that it would be challenging – long, steady climbs promised pain. It was when we turned up and into the woods that I got really worried. Single-track. And lots of it. Single-track straight up and single-track straight down and single-track drop-offs with 90 degree turns at the bottom. I powered my way up the first bump and then came up behind some others who were previewing the course. The trail became too steep to ride so we dismounted, shouldered our bikes and started half-running, half-hiking up the grade.
It would have been hard even without the bikes. Murmurs passed down and back from rider to rider: “Holy shit…” “Oh my god…” “Dude, are they for real?”
Yes, they were for real. But it wasn’t the Death-Run-Up that scared me, it was what came next. After a short flat section of single-track I rolled up to the top of a muddy trail that dropped straight out from underneath me. I could see that at the bottom it hooked sharp to the left. We were surrounded on all sides by trees – nowhere soft to land.
“No fucking way.” I whispered quietly. I dismounted and stared down the drop. I couldn’t ride it and it wasn’t just about balls. I just couldn’t do it. I’m not skilled enough. I have no mountain biking experiencing. I’ve barely ridden my cross bike off road more than a handful of times. I was surrounded by other riders who were going through the same thought process: “This is crazy. How am I going to handle this? What the hell?”
A big kid on a mountain bike hopped on and fish-tailed his way down, just barely making the turn at the bottom. I threw my bike up onto my shoulder and started a fall-away sprint down the trail.
I remounted and continued on, finding a few more technical sections along the course that I couldn’t really handle. A 90 degree off-camber turn off of grass, onto mud, and then straight into gravel, among other things.
A pit formed in my stomach.
This course was hard. Harder than any other course I’d seen. I listened to everyone around me and these words were on the lips of every rider.
I became afraid.
After my first full lap I found Sam at the repair tent having his bike adjusted. I rolled up next to him with a furrowed brow and spoke slowly.
“I can’t ride this course.”
“Yes, you can. You’re riding.”
“No. I mean. There are literally 3 or 4 sections that I can’t ride. I can’t stay on the course on that off-camber turn in the back and I can’t even ride down that drop up in the woods.”
I was staying calm on the outside, keeping my tone firm and focused. I wasn’t trying to pansy-out because I didn’t want to suffer – I was legitimately concerned. I was scared.
Sam spoke evenly: “You can run down the drop in the back – it will probably be faster anyway. Everything else just go slow and ride at your pace. You’ll be ok.”
“I really think I’m going to get hurt if I race today, Sam. This course is WAY beyond my technical ability and you know it. Think how many times I’ve actually ridden off road.”
“It’s a hard course, you’re right. But the only way you’re going to learn is to do it. Do it as a training ride.”
A racer who’d been listening to us chimed in, “Just go slow. It’s ok. Everyone is here to have fun.”
I was unconvinced. “I’m going to go do the course one more time.” I said.
The second lap was the same. I was no more comfortable with the drop, the off-camber turns or my ability to clip back into my pedals fast enough to save my life going over some of the really bumpy stuff across the meadow.
When I got back to the start line Sam was there looking for me. My field had begun to line up. All I had to do was take off my jacket and get in the back of the line and I was racing. All I had to do was leave my jacket on, turn around and ride back to the car with Sam and I was going home.
“I can’t do it. I’m too scared. I’m going to get hurt – this course is too technical.”
“Are you sure?” Sam looked disappointed but I could tell he was making an attempt at being supportive.
“Yes. I really need you to respect this decision. I should do this when I’m ready. I think I’m getting in over my head.”
“Ok. It’s ok.”
There was a silence in which I looked back at the field over my shoulder. There were two other women lined up behind all the men. They were smiling at me. I smiled back.
Sam spoke again, “Why don’t you just go do one lap? Just stay in the back. It will be like training.”
“No. It’s too much, too soon!”
But he noticed that I kept looking back at the women lined up at the start and he worked it. I was nearly in tears 5 minutes later when he finally convinced me to at least start.
“Ok. I’ll do it.”
I took off my jacket and rolled over to the women. We introduced ourselves and talked about how hard the course was.
“I’m going to run that drop.” I said.
A guy standing a few feet away overheard me and chimed in, “Dude, I was totally thinking about running that, too.”
I supressed fear and tears, swallowed back every drop of self-doubt and waited.
I was terrified but I reigned it in.
The race started and I followed my plan. I ran the drop, unclipped for the off-camber turns and plodded along steadily, riding with the women I’d started with a small group of men.
People cheered. People SCREAMED. Cowbells rang in my ears as I cruised through the sunny meadow, flanked by rabid fans who were dedicated enough to come watch the first race of the day. I was wearing a vintage Pinarello wool cycling jersey – my favorite shirt to ride in. As I flew by people screamed after me, “Go Italy!”
I thanked spectators as I sat back and grinded out the climbs.
I clutched my hoods and battled with my pedals-clips, which I found harder to get in and out of as the mud accumulated. The sky was bright and clear – the leaves backlit to brilliance.
When I came up the hill at the end of my first lap Sam was there screaming at me. He looked so fucking proud I almost stopped to hug him. I knew that he should be warming up for his own race. He’d waited to see me come around even though I was near the back of the pack.
I kept going.
I was still scared heading up into the single-track but I made it work, running the drop a second time, remounting and coming across the field for the nasty off-camber turn onto the gravel. I came into the turn on a bad line thinking, “Hmmm… that’s not a very good line.”
And the next thing I knew I was under my bike with my legs twisted behind me. Riders were barrelling down behind me and I could barely roll out of the way in time. I worked my way out of the tangle, stood up and looked at the spectators who were all staring at me.
“That was awesome!”
They laughed and I hopped back on, hoping my bike was ok.
As I went to put my right hand on the hood I realized that It was smashed all the way in. Of course, it was the right lever, which is the more expensive one. I tested the brakes, which proved to be sketchy. I tested the shifting which was also dubious.
I needed those gears. I needed that brake.
I stopped on the side of the course, out of the way of other riders, and pulled hard on the lever. I’d seen other people pull them back into place and I figured I might be able to salvage the race. No luck. I’d crashed really HARD. It was then that I realized my ankle was bleeding through a tear in my sock, my lower back was starting to throb and my entire upper right arm was scraped and caked with mud.
I wanted to finish the lap.
I knew I didn’t dare go back up onto the single-track with a half-functional bike but I wanted at least two full laps. So I jumped back on and nursed the bike back across the finish line so that my second lap would be counted.
Then I pulled out for good. It took me 10 minutes to find Sam. He was lined up near the front of his group at the start.
“Are you ok?!” he said when he saw me.
“I’m fine. But I’m not so sure about my bike.”
He made an “eeek” face and I said, “Race hard! It’s brutal! Get out early because the bottleneck on the run-up out in the back is a real pain in the ass.”
Sam suffered as well but managed to keep his bike upright and finish 13th in a field of 80+ riders, which was a great result considering the course favored those with more mountain biking experience.
As I was cheering for him I saw a guy running the course carrying a bike that had a front wheel that was almost totally bent in half. He called out to me, “This blows!”
Laughing I replied, “Hey where’d you do that!?”
“Nasty, off-camber turn back there coming off the meadow onto the gravel!”
Yup. That’s my corner.
We learned later that more than just a few riders went down hard there. We also later learned that someone in the men’s B group was air-lifted out after crashing at the bottom of the steep drop that I refused to ride. The injuries were so serious that the officials changed the course and cut out the sketchy single-track section for the last two races of the day.
As we were driving home Sam admitted that he’d been scared too. “I was really intimidated on that first practice loop that we took, I just didn’t want you to know because I wanted you to try it.”
“I’m glad I started. Thanks for convincing me.”
So my first official cross result is a DNF (Did Not Finish) but that’s ok because it was very nearly a DNS (Did Not Start).
I haven’t been so terrified in a long, long time and it felt out of this world. Cyclo-cross racing is going to make my “Do one thing every day that scares you” motto very easy to stand by.
Here’s to hoping that the air-lifted rider is ok. Send good thoughts.