August 29, 2016: Racing with Juniors – A New Cyclocross Season Begins

 

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The 2016 New England cyclocross season began for me (and a lot of my other racing buddies) yesterday in Springfield, Massachusetts. If you like flat courses with about 3 feet of elevation change per lap (and that 3 foot hill was not rideable by most people when we were out there on the next-to-last race of the day), if you like breathing in several pounds of dust, if you like roots, roots and even more roots that would guarantee a flat if your tire pressure was at a normal level, if you like about a hundred deep, sandy 180 degree turns that threaten to devour your front wheel at any given moment and send you flying off the course, if you like starting the race mixed in with about 20 kamikaze-crazed kids that seem to have no fear of crashing or respect for their elders, if you are at least 55 years old and if you like sunny, hot 90+ degree temps, then this was the race for you!

I’ve always enjoyed this early season contest that the Cyclonauts Racers put on each August at Blunt Park. It’s a good test of equipment, body, heart and soul. It’s also a good reality check to remind you what aspect of racing might need some attention before the bigger races coming up just around the corner. Equally important, it also gives you an idea of where your competition is at in their quest to beat you senseless over the next 5 months. But most of all, it’s a great opportunity to hang out with my cyclocross friends. I haven’t seen most of them for more than half a year.

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This community is unique in a lot of ways. Yes, of course we all try to beat each other every race and will do almost anything to accomplish that. However, we’ll hang out before and after the event, catching up on each other’s lives, injuries, work, retirement, equipment changes, training, vacations, whatever, but once the whistle blows, none of that matters. It’s a huge motivation to beat someone who races at my level or above and devastating when someone beats me that is ranked below. So many things can happen during the race to change that dynamic – crashes, flats, dropped chains, getting stung, stopping for a beer handup or a selfie – that there is usually nothing entirely predictable about how the final results will shake out when all is said and done.

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The other fantastic thing about the cyclocross scene is that it includes men, women, girls and boys of all ages and abilities, usually separated into their own field (except for this race). I know entire families that do various races over the course of one long day. In how many other sports do you see this other than perhaps bowling? Yesterday, one of those kamikaze juniors was in my race. Jaden Wise is a 13 or 14-year-old boy who probably weighs about 75 pounds covered in dirt and sweat. I’ve had the pleasure to watch him in many of his 45 races over the last 4 years. Cheering him on were his mother (raced in the last race), father (raced in the first race), sister (watched), grandmother (watched) and a few other family members. This kid beat me to the hole shot, refused to give an inch and managed to stay ahead of me for the first half of the race. Meanwhile, I’m getting heckled by some of my “friends” for letting a junior beat me. Hats, or shall I say, helmets off to you Jaden. I think I see my future and I’m not sure that I particularly like it.

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August 15, 2016: Preseason

 

New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (13) makes a one-handed catch for a touchdown against Dallas Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr (39) in the second quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)  ORG XMIT: ERU108

Like the National Football League, cyclocross spans three seasons. For both, training has to start in the brutal heat of mid-summer. Some of the early races take place in these somewhat oppressive conditions but as the season gets into full swing, we are usually racing in the sometimes-perfect weather of autumn just like the big boys who wear a lot of padding and get the crap knocked out of them. However, the most serious part of the cyclocross season is the National Championships, which take place in the depth and chill of the January winter, fairly close in time to when the Super Bowl is played except now they usually play the game in some balmy southern location.

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When I was a fifth grader in 1965, one of my best friend’s fathers was an assistant coach for the New York Jets. John and I would oftentimes be allowed to accompany him up to the Jet’s training camp at the Peekskill Military Academy and hang out both on the field and in the locker room. As fate would have it, this was also the year of Broadway Joe Namath’s rookie season. He arrived each day in a fancy sports car, surrounded by the press but also accompanied by his Irish Setter, Pharaoh. On our first day there, Joe came walking by on his way to the locker room, trailed by photographers as John and I stood by watching. Joe handed us the leash and asked us if we’d take care of Pharaoh while he was busy with practice. Are you kidding me?

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The days of their training camp were similar to the hot and humid days we’ve been having in Massachusetts the last few weeks. When the players broke for lunch, they would all walk into the locker room where they immediately encountered two drinking fountains. One was a normally functioning one while the other was turned off and the basin filled to overflowing with yellow salt tabs. The players were supposed to grab a handful and wash them down with a lot of water. I loved salt then as I do now and would frequently pop a few, imagining myself as an NFL star. Around this same time in the garage of my friend Jeff who lived across the street (and now a bank president and a member of the Federal Reserve Board), we would hang out and suck on rock salt crystals from a bag his dad kept for ice control. Apparently this didn’t mess too much with Jeff’s career path, as I’ve never read anything about his edema or hypertension.

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The other vivid memory from these hot days in Peekskill was also in the locker room. At the time, the Jets had an offensive lineman named Sherman Plunkett. I assume this was before the days of steroids, EPO and HGH. Most football players were big but certainly not by today’s artificially induced standards. Sherman Plunkett was the biggest football player of his time, weighing in at around 350 pounds. I was a pipsqueak, literally having to stuff my pockets with weights in order to be allowed to play football in my hometown where there was a minimum weight requirement of 60 pounds. Walking into the locker room and seeing a naked Sherman Plunkett (or roughly 6 of me) was an image that will not ever leave my memory, in spite of my best efforts.

As I try to get into peak cyclocross racing shape again this year, in this heat, I think back to the New York Jets, in full gear on a completely unshaded, exposed football field, dropping salt tabs by the fistful. Riding a bike, largely on singletrack back in the woods with two or three bottles filled with scientifically balanced energy and electrolyte drink, I have to remind myself that I’m not roughing it like they were. I know that cooler days will be upon us soon and winter lurks not too far behind.