Musings on a long cyclocross season.
by Elisabeth Reinkordt
Two World Cups in the Midwest. I had to go to one of them. It was just too tempting to pass up, a homecoming and friend reunion of sorts, a great way to use some frequent flyer miles, a gracious offer of host housing, and the chance to both race against and then cheer for the top riders in the world. Sure, it would be brutally hot, my Achilles heel, but I couldn’t resist.
There is a perfect moment seared in my overcooked brain, a second that froze in time, as I looked across the course to see Sanne Cant’s rainbow stripes. “You are in a race with the World Champion right now. This is not a charity event. This is not a joke. This is really it. You’re doing this.”
Two weeks earlier, I’d lined up long before I planned to. I hadn’t wanted to start my season until October. But here I was, mid-September, squeezing in my first ‘cross race of the season at Whirlybird before rushing to Little Bellas. The course was wide open and windy. The field was small. But as I charged off the start line, that familiar burn re-entering my lungs, I felt good. At 59 minutes, this would be the longest race of the season — and a good 20 minutes longer than many of the World Cups.
Instead of trying to rush from Nittany to Little Bellas, I opted for just one day at the Trexlertown course. With a front row call-up thanks to Whirlybird, I told myself over and over to have a good start. And it worked. I shot off the line and found myself nestled nicely toward the front of the field. I’d spend the race in a set of attacks with the likes of Lauren Festa, Rebecca Lewandowski, and Taryn Mudge. The scorching heat took its toll on me, and after several hard efforts, I was in the back of that group. But, finding some extra umph in the last lap, I very nearly closed down the gap that had opened up. And I felt like I was racing at a whole new level than I’d been a year ago.
Then there was Trek CX Cup. After a quick Wednesday night practice session, we dropped off my bike with Rob Sutherland, who was driving out Thursday while Willem and I hopped on a post-work flight to Chicago. We landed just about the same time he pulled into the northern suburbs, so we all split a hotel by the airport late Thursday night before driving to Waterloo Friday morning. It hadn’t really sunk in I’d be racing that afternoon in the most stacked field I’d ever encountered.
We got to the venue, and I queued up in the longest registration line ever, albeit in the great company of Lincoln and Omaha friends. I stood in line in the heat for over an hour, only to get to the front and have them tell me there was a separate UCI line (that prior questions had indicated didn’t exist). This was not great pre-race prep. It was scorchingly hot.
I got in a few practice laps on the course, which was dry, dusty, and not very shady. I wondered what the hell I was doing as I tried desperately to cool off in the back of Michaela’s demo van. I had pulled the dead last call-up number. I didn’t even care. This was going to be all about getting to say I’d lined up with a bunch of Euro pros. This was not going to be my race. I had ice stuffed everywhere. I had a decent start, going full on shoulder-to-shoulder with two other riders through the first turn, enjoying the feeling of that rather than being scared of it. My first lap was actually pretty good, as I held a decent position in the mid-back of the field. But it all started closing in on me. My legs felt strong, and I’d see a rider in front of me slowing down. “I can close this,” I’d think. But the moment I’d try to jump, my body would send off alarm signals, making me dizzy and forcing me to sit down and return to what felt like a crawling pace. I passed a few riders struggling just as awfully, and kept a consistent spot right behind Alex Campbell-Forte from Vanderkitten. When we were pulled, we were relieved that the suffering was over. And as a bonus treat, I rode my cool-down with none other than Ellen Noble, where we got to gush about Emma Freymann, the awesomeness of fierce junior girls like her, and our shared love for activism in women’s cycling.
I spent Friday night attempting to rehydrate, but it was just not possible. Double doses of Skratch hyper-hydration. Endless amounts of water. But I woke up multiple times just completely parched. Saturday’s race was a non-UCI Cat 1/2, and with the top riders sitting out for Sunday’s World Cup, I was looking forward to a deep field of competitors without the top pros. I warmed up and prepped with my good buddy Rachel Rubino, (who would go on to win the race), feeling all pro in her set-up. Thanks to the fact that my local races include so many of the USA’s top talents, my start position was pretty good. And I blew it. I missed my pedal at the start, and had to chase back from the beginning. I lost the mental game, feeling so depleted from Friday. I finished the race and collapsed next to the finish line, wanting to sulk off, wondering why I’d even come out on this trip. I was not happy. But, it was time to make the most of the trip anyway, cheering on other friends, catching up with old buddies, and enjoying the atmosphere of it all.
On Sunday, we’d line up an hour earlier. At 10 AM, it was *only* 85 degrees. And I was determined to have a better day. I didn’t know if my psyche could handle a disappointing race, quite frankly. And as if on cue, it all came together. I had a great start, fighting for position in the top 10 right from the whistle. By midway through the race, I found myself in a tight pack of four, battling for position. There was a tricky off-camber climb not too far before the finish, and if I got there without someone in front of me, I could ride it, where it seemed like my competition couldn’t. If I could get to the front before that part, there was a good chance I could get the best of my group, because even if I had to dismount, the people behind me would, too, and if I could get there first and ride it, I might get a little gap. I made an attack in the stretch leading up to the descent into the off-camber, got to the front, and then absolutely buried myself in the final technical section. My heart was racing and I thought I might throw up. This is how it was supposed to go. I drilled it to the finish line, coming in 10th overall, a far better showing than my placing in the 30s the days before. And I was ecstatic.
We had a blast the rest of the day, scoping out the best spot to hang our hammocks in the trees, watching the pros session some super difficult sections, pouring ice water on local pro Arley Kemmerer as she raced to a commanding finish, and capping it all off with some pizza and nightswimming in a lake in central Madison with our extraordinarily gracious host, Jed Gunn, as well as DC buddy Taylor Jones. It was a beautiful end to a fantastic trip.
At HippoCX, the next weekend, there was a chill in the air. I watched my 15-year-old teammate Emma shoot off the start line and take the holeshot. I chased her down, and we raced together so well, taking turns leading each other out and motivating each other to keep chasing. And while the course was bumpy and pretty wide open, the drop in temperature compared to the last weekend, coupled with the fact that I’d gotten some good training in my legs from that, had me finding myself racing better than expected, finishing off in 4th place on the day.
Then it was back to UCI racing, with fields just about as stacked as Trek had been. Big money on the line in the US Cup Series. And when you’re a U.S. woman who manages to make it into the UCI field, you’re racing against several women who make it to the podium on the world stage. The past weekend’s cool temps had vanished, and it was warm and oppressively humid. One of the treats of the weekend was lining up in the back with none other than Olympian and long-time idol of mine Georgia Gould, who was jumping back into some racing after having a baby earlier in the year. While I raced pretty well both Saturday and Sunday, I ended the weekend feeling frustrated with poor enforcement of the rules on getting pulled, where many of us were taken out of the race just before the last lap, despite having plenty of time before the leaders were finishing to make it across the start/finish line. Last year, I’d buried myself on Day 2 to make the lead lap, and knowing I’d been so much closer to the leaders than I’d been the year before and still getting pulled left me with a sour taste, as I couldn’t help but think it was happening just to keep the men’s race on schedule. As we packed up to head home, Lauren Festa and I had a good laugh about going back to the office the next day, where we’d be crushing ourselves in a totally different way. Indeed, as was the case through the whole season, staying on top of a demanding job while racing every weekend was taxing, and it was always comforting to be lining up with her, knowing we were up against the same stresses week in, week out.
A local race just a few miles from home was a good change of pace after that, and a rough week of work with no time to train. Not like the field wouldn’t still be stacked at Cooper River, a fun course just across the bridge in New Jersey. With this being the closest race of the season, I invited some of my co-workers, who came out to cheer with their kids in tow. Just today, the one who brought her 3-year-old told me he’s still talking about it. The course was wet, and a power slog through and through. And again, I found myself pushing harder and really chasing despite being a course that wasn’t necessarily suited to what I’d always called my strengths. I felt a little stale, but at least I wasn’t burning out.
DCCX, where once again, it was problems with the officials – this time with tire pressure – that made for a really frustrating race. I’m going to digress for a minute…As someone who is basically a self-supported privateer, I’m not getting sponsor wheelsets and multiple stacks of tires at the start of the season. Since I train in the city of Philadelphia, a place full of glass, nails, potholes, and detritus of various sorts, training on tubulars is not wise. So, rather than have a set of clinchers for training and a set of tubulars for racing, when I built up my Von Hof last year, I went all in on one super nice tubeless wheelset. The Stan’s wheels were not cheap, but they allow me to train in the city and race with confidence. They do, however, come with some challenges for the UCI field, namely a wide rim and an inconsistency in how a seated tire will measure up in the official’s caliper in the chute to the start grid. At Charm City, I’d checked with the officials on whether Willem’s tubeless setup would measure up, and they passed just fine. I also chatted with Stan’s sponsored racer Rebecca Fahringer, who gave me some great advice on passing inspection. So when I managed to pull a great call-up on the dry & hard-packed DCCX course, I ran Willem’s filetreads. And the new official doing the tire measuring, rather than pushing the caliper on as others had before, just touched it to my tire and told me to take out air before I could grid. Panicked, I let out air – wayyyy too much air – before having her check again and let me in. With nothing to do in the short moments between gridding and the whistle, Willem agreed to meet me in the pit with wheels if I needed them. (Though that would mean coming to a full stop, unbolting and switching wheels, and surely losing whatever group I was with – in other words, an emergency fix.) So we took off, and all the lines I’d dialed in were now sketchy as all heck, as I could feel my tire folding and sliding out. I came past the pit, and when Willem asked if I was ok, I grunted out “sketchy” and kept going. As long as I didn’t lean into the turns too much, and took it gently on the curbs, I was holding my own and relying on my handling skills to keep it together. I towed a group around for most of the race, and in the finishing sprint, I messed up, letting go of the gas a second too soon and getting pipped at the line. Went back to the pit and checked my tire pressure, and I was running all of 10psi. So, I chalked it up to “good thing I didn’t crash.”
A trip to DC meant another chance to visit old friends, and we took travel companion and MTB star Vicki Barclay along for dinner with longtime Nebraska friends Sarah and Brent, my former film directing/producing co-conspirator. On Sunday, an afternoon start time and a hotel close to the venue meant some time to relax in the morning, and time for Willem to decide he felt ready to shake out the cobwebs and race for the first time since breaking his leg this summer. After Saturday’s tire snafu, I went back to running my own wheels, and found myself in a much better race on Sunday. It was still hot, it was still dusty, but the crowd was super great and I enjoyed making friends and having a post-race beer with the crew cheering the loudest. Plus, I’d finished a weekend of easily making the lead lap on both days, confirmation if nothing else that the fields in Waterloo and Charm City had been really, really stacked.
I took the next Saturday off of racing, opting instead for a 60ish mile ride consisting mostly of goofing around on singletrack on the cyclocross bike. It was a perfect warm fall day to be in the woods instead of suffering on a hilly cyclocross course. Plus it was supposed to rain – a LOT – on Sunday. Would I be super tired from the day before? The conditions might actually slow things down, I hoped. Either way, a day in the woods was what I wanted, so if it hurt me the next day, so be it.
Off to HPCX we drove Sunday morning, arriving in time to see Emma had just taken the win in the 3/4 field. And with mud getting deeper and turns getting slicker, I was beyond excited to race the course, regardless of how I finished. We got started, and I just kept moving forward. Picking off racers one by one, riding lines no one else was taking, charging through the sand, and finessing my way through. My god, I couldn’t believe the company I was riding in. When Laura van Gilder came by me on a climb, I was stunned to realize I’d been in front of her. I made a mistake in the last couple turns, losing a couple spots, but had my best UCI finish ever, just 7 seconds off a top-20. And when you’re an amateur who happens to live in the Northeast, that’s a big deal.
The next weekend, the Mid-Atlantic suffered from a phenomenally dumb problem: 3 CX races within 75 miles of Philadelphia. After trying to coordinate with the other elite women in the region, Emma and I ended up at Fair Hill, rumored to be a great course and the closest one to us. I had a terrible start at this one, nearly going off course and into the tape just 10 feet off the line. And again, though the field was not large, it was very strong. As the front 4 took off, Emma and I found ourselves together again. At one point, when we had been taking turns at the front and trying without success to shake another rider, Emma noticed we’d managed just the tiniest gap as she dabbed behind us. “Go,” she says, “We’ve got a gap.” I opened it up, taking some risky lines and charging up the next climb past the pits. Emma stuck with me, but eventually the effort wore on her, but her work and her cue to attack sealed the gap for me, another successful bit of team tactics in play. The bonus on this day was getting to warm up and cool down in the singletrack across the street, parts of the MTB race course we’d been on in the summer. Oh, did I mention it was still warm enough for short-sleeved skinsuits and carrying a water bottle here, in the first weekend of November?
Sly Fox. There’s just nothing else like it. They said they were turning it up to 11 this year, and they weren’t kidding. Sessioning the new off-camber descent during course inspection, I remembered swinging in the hammocks in Waterloo, watching the pros fly down a similar slope over and over in practice. I remembered Arley saying her downhill skiing career had prepared her for the controlled fall down the hill. I didn’t think I had it in practice, and I’d never succeeded at the fast line down the middle. I knew the start here mattered immensely, and once again, after several races of terrible starts, I tried to self-talk positively. Since I hadn’t done any other PACX races, I was starting on the second row. I picked my wheel strategically, behind Katrina Dowidchuck and her rainbow bands, and it paid off as I found myself in 5th going into the first turn, then moving quickly up to 4th as I hopped the logs in the first woods section. There was nowhere to pass for a long stretch, and I watched as 1st and 2nd pulled away, with no way for me to get around 3rd. But as we approached the off-camber for the first time, and I rode up the steep set-up to make the pass, I suddenly found myself in the best line to careen down the slope. Full of adrenaline, I nailed it. It felt incredible. Lap after lap, I extended my lead on 4th, and when the course would criss-cross and I’d pass by Taylor Kuyk-White, who I was chasing, we’d whoop and cheer each other on. To hear friends tell me afterwards I’d been riding the descent better than anyone else in the race? Well, that felt great, too. And just like after the mud and rain at HPCX, I had this niggling feeling I’d love to be over in Europe, where the races were like this all the time…
Next up, the West Chester PA State Championships, or, Discover how it feels to race a very physically demanding course on a very windy day when all you had for dinner last night was cake and snacks. (On Saturday night, in honor of Emma’s 16th birthday, the team took Emma and a couple of her friends to Drag Bingo. Total Bingo amateurs, we’d brought a bunch of snacks and a cake, but didn’t have the crock-pot dinners of our neighboring tables.) It was crisp and very windy. The course was pretty wide open, and seemed to be all climbing. Again, not really my traditional strengths, but maybe you’re starting to see a trend here… Somehow, I took the holeshot and led the field down the first swooping descent. “Cool, wow, that’s what it feels like to not be chasing someone,” I thought for a moment. The field stretched out, and I’d find myself in third again, trying hard to close down the gap to 2nd in the final lap and running out of space to do so. After all, while Katrina had a commanding lead in 1st, she wasn’t a Pennsylvania resident, so medals were on the line for the rest of us. I was pretty happy to come in 3rd, taking home the PA silver medal in the elites, to boot.
After that, it was time for a Thanksgiving trip back to Nebraska, where we’d spend time on borrowed bikes ripping through the fast, flowy singletrack of Wilderness Park, renting big squishy bikes to play on the jumps at Lewis & Clark, and klunk around the farm with my mom. A nice break, and what felt like an eternity away from the race bikes. And, as is common with travel, to bring home a cold.
After deciding not to make the trip to Reno for Nationals, Emma and I decided we’d do a fun little travel weekend close to home at the end of the season.
We headed first to Rivertown, in south-central PA, another pretty great little course by a river. I managed to be positioned on Laura van Gilder’s wheel going into the first few turns, and stuck on her wheel through the first half-lap. I told myself to stay there, and to pay attention. I could sense that she was going to attack, and I followed, sticking with it for a lap. When she attacked again, I couldn’t hang, but I’d met one of my big process goals of the season, not being afraid to go deep on an early attack to make the selection. In the parking lot after the race, Laura remarked on how well I’d played out my season, making real progress, focusing on improving my weaknesses, and just improving week after week. It was humbling, to say the least, to hear this from her.
I knew I shouldn’t have raced at Capital Cross. After Saturday’s hard effort, the cold I’d been fighting all week moved into my lungs overnight. But the weather was warm, we’d traveled all this way, and the course had some extremely fun descents. Not to mention the local women had done a whole bunch of work making this a can’t-miss race, including putting annual licenses on the line for the top finishers in the Cat 4 and 5 women’s races. So cool. After a good start, I focused on those descents, as my lungs seared in pain at each climb. I was so far off the back by the latter half of the race, I took the time to pit, racing a full lap on my new Pedalino.
Again, DC knew how to bring the fun to a race, and instead of sulking, I made the most of hamming it up in DFL. Enough so that the combined efforts of Anna Schwinn and Ellen Noble turned me into a meme.
After the rather disappointing race in DC, I was hoping to get enough rest to get over my cold and get back at it for one last weekend of racing. Add to that the fact there was snow in the forecast, and I went headlong into rest mode to get well.
We lined up for Solstice CX in full on snow, reminiscent of the glorious time that was SSCXWC13Philly. Going for the holeshot, I realized I didn’t know which way the course went from the prologue, and could sense that neither Stacey Barbossa nor Laura van Gilder did either! I ripped through the first turn, sliding but staying up. I fell in the first off-camber, but down and up so quickly I didn’t miss a beat, then charged after Stacey and put a gap into Laura. When we came through a running section, I got my pedals totally clogged with a chunk of icy mud. As I struggled to bang the ice and mud out of my shoe, Laura caught me and so calmly just told me to keep pedaling. I lost the chase, but again extended the gap from the rest of the field. I was frustrated not to hang with those two, because this time, I believed I could’ve stayed with them. I knew full well I belonged where I was in this elite race. And, racing in full snow, mud, and ice, the kind of conditions I dream of but rarely get, I again felt this wonderful sense of confirmation: I don’t just *say* I’m better when conditions degrade, I really do have better races.
What a way to end the season, filling up the old Subaru wagon with 4 people, 4 bikes, some extra wheels, and heading up to race on the bank of the East River in New York City. I’d had a panicked late night the night before, realizing my front brake was loose and managing to fix it myself (yay!) because my trusty mechanic was away on business. My travel companions and I left Philly early, each of us lining up to represent a different team in four different fields that day. But for the day, we were #SquadPhilly, and we drove through snowy New Jersey, through Midtown Manhattan, and to Rainey Park for the greatest little cross course there ever was. Keith Garrison made the most of a little park, and a couple inches of snow on the ground would make things all the more interesting. Snow gave way to mud in ever-changing racing lines, and finding traction was a fun lap-for-lap quest. I couldn’t have been happier with finishing out my season in 5th, behind a top-4 with a stack of UCI points between them. Really and truly, it’s incredible to race with such top talent week in and week out. Thank you, crossresults.com, for showing me that Stacey Barbossa and Laura van Gilder are burning my couch. It’s truly an honor.
And for the stats keepers:
Pennsylvania State Championships: Silver
Mid-Atlantic Cyclocross Series: 3rd overall in the Elite Women, sharing the virtual podium with the esteemed company of Stacey Barbossa and Laura van Gilder.
Pennsylvania Cyclocross Series: 7th overall, Elite Women (not bad for only doing 4 races in the series!)
Final USAC Ranking, all women: 83rd.
Of course, there are many thanks to give. I hope I’ve thanked most or all of you in person for making this season great. To the women of the Mid-Atlantic, from the the first-timers to the veterans, I love what we have and moreover what we’re building: A strong, supportive, vibrant, competitive, and fun scene that’s pushed me so much further in this sport than I ever thought I’d go. To Von Hof, Pedalino, Bicycle Therapy, Skratch Labs, and Verge for great gear. To my incredible teammate Emma, whom I’ve had not only the honor of racing with, but coaching as well (and to her parents for getting her to practices and races!). To the crews on the Dirty 30 and South Philly CX practice for pushing hard and keeping training fun, insisting that we get better together and keep each other motivated. To the photographers featured throughout this post, for your time and effort and talent to provide us with evidence of our triumphs and sufferings. And most of all to Willem, who went from coming with me with a cane in hand to get around, to slowly getting back on the bike, to building up the strength to preview courses with me, to getting back in start grid himself. It took incredible love and mental strength to come out and support me in my racing while dealing with an injury that completely changed his own goals and dreams for the season. I’m so fortunate.
And there was no better way to really close it out than one last little post-season hurrah, a bandit cx race in the wilds of urban Philadelphia…
Thanks for reading. See y’all in 2018!