11-19-2010 4-01-17 PM

In Minnesota, cyclocross is cold and the cheese-curd hand-up elusive

Not long ago I moved from New York City to Minneapolis, and this is what I knew about Minneapolis: It was a good place for bikes. One friend said it was an “awesome” city. Everybody said it got real cold.

With the start of my sweetheart’s grad program bearing down on us, we loaded our bikes, kitchen supplies, clothes and some furniture into a rental truck and drove it through 1,400 miles of cornfields and toll booths to Minneapolis, where I settled in and awaited delivery of my new ’cross bike.

My old CX rig, shown below being shouldered by some very handsome devil on his way to a dashing 4th place at StatenCX 2009, fell victim to New York’s streets and the capricious habits of its drivers a few weeks before our move, taking copious chunks of knee and hand skin with it. The frame builder, Michael Catano of Humble Frameworks, promised to have a new one by the time ’cross season got into full swing.

When my new frame came in the mail, I hung parts on it in a hurry and began toeing the line at Minneapolis-area cyclocross races, eager to see what the scene was like. What could this city and its inhabitants deliver, and how would it all compare with New York City?

Most important, would there be cheese-curd hand-ups?

I started by hitting up the local training series, held on weeknights in a park just a couple of miles from where I lived. The organizers taped up a new full course each week, taking advantage of some exposed roots and a hillside to build varying courses, some fast and furious, some brutally twisty, and all with some tough slopes and off-camber work. And plenty of run-ups.

After a couple of weeks, I had finally remembered how to remount my bike and figure out tire pressure, and I managed a top 10 in the 1/2/3 race. The fields for these weekly adventures were small, maybe 40 riders, but they were tough. My first week some leggy 15-year-old on a carbon Ridley lapped me at a terrifying speed while I slipped and slid around an off-camber descent. Despite this clear blow my sense of ability, I was determined to improve. I began taking weekly trips to the singletrack in a park three miles from my house, where I figured out how to be smooth through corners, how to trust my tires, and how to pedal through technical stuff.

Weekend races hadn’t been so kind to me.

I did an unsanctioned race where I flatted while in the lead, climbing a heap of sand and gravel in some Department of Public Works yard. At a big local CX race, I got one and a half laps for my $30 registration, one pre-riding the course, eagerly anticipating the tricky terrain, the mud, and fearing the long log staircase, and one-half a lap in the race, having a terrible start but working my way up to the top 10 before flatting. I made sure to get my money’s worth of free coffee.

Eventually, my work on the singletrack paid off, and my tires decided to hold on to their air. I finally had a good ride on a weekend race, this time just over the Wisconsin border on a long course twisting around the grounds of a YMCA. I got a bad start but settled into a top-20 chase, and picked off people in front of me one by one. I got sliced and diced by a too-strong guy on a singlespeed late in the race but held on for 10th.

Souvenir of New York City cycling.

Souvenir of New York City cycling.

Now, I’m used to racing bikes in Brooklyn where people shave their legs with scrap metal, bikes are repaired with duct tape, people still use 9-speed and 26.0 handlebars, though I understand that Manhattan is different (if you buy a USAC license with a Manhattan address it costs two grand and they send you a set of Zipp 404 clinchers). I’m used to a polyglot peloton, steel CX forks, needle-and-thread tubular repair. Minneapolis is different. For its reputation as a hard-nosed, Surly-riding, bike-commuting city, it’s got some fancy-pants bike racers. Tall, lean guys from Scandinavian stock racing in masters’ fields, legs of sinew and stringy muscle, turning EDGE-Dugast combos at weekday training races. But people here sure are nice, quick to chat before and after a race, and seemed to take me seriously when I wondered out loud where the cheese-curd hand-ups were.

They were nice enough to happily rehash a race with me while I coughed and cried from the exertion. I spent a series of races getting gapped by a trio who rode off the front early. I would try to bridge up, fail, and spend the remainder of the race clinging on to the chase group and then losing small battles, one by one, to finish last among them. Unlike racing in and around New York, nobody roared in anger, even when I crashed while fourth wheel on an off-camber section (while trying out a new front tire, to my chagrin) and slowed down every hopeful behind while I writhed in pain, the wind knocked out of me. Another week and my second seventh-place finish in a row, as the podium rode away and I settled in to 45 minutes of pain and attacks in the chase group. I got passed by two guys in the final turn before the sprint, finishing last in our group again.

The results were decent, but I hated finishing last in my small group. I was determined to make amends at the Minnesota state championships.

*****

It’s only mid-November, but the Minnesota state championships mark the end of cyclocross season up here. Organizers say that for the next two years they’ll extend the season through December to keep the local field competing right up until nationals in Madison. Good luck with that.

The Minnesota state championships were my last chance to improve my results. A handful of good rides felt good, but my best results were earned with better ones so much within my grasp, it seemed. It hurts to finish last in your group. And so I planned to change that streak at the champs.

People plan, God laughs
So the saying goes. A winter-weather storm rolled through, starting in the middle of the night on Friday before Saturday’s race. I woke up looking at four or five inches of thick, wet snow covering everything, and not a plow in sight. Determined to make it to the race, I began packing: one thermos of tea and one of oatmeal; two changes of clothes; embrocation, which up until now had seen very little use because of the mild autumn; and two pairs of extra socks.

The author, at SICX 2009. Photo: Harry Zernike

The author at SICX in 2009. Photo: Harry Zernike of 9Wmag.com

I set out on the eight-mile ride to the race. It took me 20 minutes to get out of the neighborhood as I slipped, slid, and skidded through the streets. The overpass going over the highway was unplowed and I carved a track through the pristine cover. The snow built up on my wheels until it looked as though I were riding white 80mm-deep rims.

I got to the road going through the park where the singletrack was. A cop blocking passage with his car told me some trees were down, but since I was on a bike and not in a car I should be able to get through OK. When I came upon the trees, there was no way around—they blocked the road from side to side. So I hoisted my bike over the trunk at one end, clambered over, remounted.

Snow was blowing in my face and clogging my classes something fierce. I put them in my helmet and squinted against the cold. While this was happening friends were wearing short sleeves at StatenCX.

A mile later it was clear I wouldn’t be able to complete the ride. I came to a big street that would take me toward the race, and it too was unplowed. A few cars had skidded and stuck into the snow by the side and canted awkwardly against the curb. Tire tracks, rather than clearing a path, just compressed the snow into a slick, unridable, icy hardpack.

I turned around. Two more trees were down in the park, and the trees above were groaning under the weight of the wet snow. I had to hoist and scramble to portage over and around the newly fallen, and I remounted in a hurry, eager to get out from under the trees. I rode hard with terror in my throat, appeasing the gods of cyclocross, despite my inability to attend the race.

By the time I got home my shifting was gone, my cassette a block of ice, my brakes ineffective. According to the results, many people were able to get there, but I’d guess that few if any of them rode to the race.

I never got my final shot at a good result. My cyclocross season went out with a whimper, albeit one entirely congruent with the climate up here.

I promise to keep riding through the winter so that I’m lean and hungry come spring. And maybe, somewhere along the snowy roads, as I plod along and dream of a warm spring, somebody somewhere will give me the cheese-curd hand-up I never got.

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