2022 CX #2 – Charm City Cross – Feeling Just A Little Belgian

This weekend’s Charm City Cross, held in Druid Hill Park in Baltimore, made us all feel just a little bit Belgian thanks to the remnants of hurricane Ian. While it wasn’t particularly cold with temps in the upper 50s it was wet, windy and muddy, especially on Sunday. It was a bit of a “found weekend” for me cyclocross-wise because the Snipe Frigid Digit this weekend was canceled freeing up the weekend. Missing this weekend of cyclocross was causing a bit of FOMO, so I was just glad to be there because it is a really fun course as a rider and in general such a “happening” with beer and pro races to watch. Bill Shieken of Wide Angle Podium captures the vibe well with these overview videos:

Day 1 Overview.
Day 2 Overview.

Given the circumstances, I quickly pivoted to cross and showed up both mornings to register on site. Sadly, the onsite registration gets you placed in the last row for the start, but I didn’t really care since the weekend was all mentally ad hoc anyway. In addition, I didn’t get much of a warmup either day especially no course pre ride, having shown up only an hour before the 40+ 3/4/5 start. So in general my expectations were low. But like Lisa always says “the key to happiness in life is low expectations” 😉

For the uninitiated, there are some really cool features in this course: two flight of stairs to run up and zoom down, and a new bi-directional rideover bridge (first time over about a fifth of a lap in, and second time right before you come out to the finishing straight). The carpet covered ramp was easily rideable, but you had to really grind the last couple of pedal strokes to the top if you didn’t get a decent running start (especially problematic on Sunday because of the muddy turns right before) or if a weaker rider unclipped in front of you. Despite the early rain, the course was in pretty good shape on Saturday morning as the 40+ 3/4/5 was the third start; no deep mud just slippy grass and some slippy mud on top of the hard ground. After races all day Saturday and rain all night, it was considerably muddier on Sunday. But since it has been so dry recently, the underlying ground was quite packed and the mud never got particularly deep. The way the GCN (online cycling channel) commentators described it was several inches of mud on top of a smooth mirror. That’s a pretty accurate description.

The registered field size on Saturday was large at 88, but there were 22 no shows (whimps probably sat in the basement and zwifted) for a final field of 66. The race started out quite slow with only a few people lined up behind me, but i was able to work up in the first 1/3 of a lap with judicious track stands, weaving my way through the mass of unclipping and fumbling in the slippery turns. At one point, I was almost worked up to my teammate Mikey Thaxton’s wheel (he started in the 3rd row and is often a “contender’ in these races), but as soon as it started to string out and required some power, I couldn’t stay there. In general I felt pretty good on the course and it was nice to have a slow start to give me time to get up to full steam (as a “diesel engine”, fast starts are one of my weaknesses). As usual, on the technical sections, I’d pass people and on the power sections they would pass me, but by the last lap there was a large gap both ahead and behind so I cruised in on the lead lap for 45th. About what I expected and in looking at 2019 results, I was 44th, so par for the course. I didn’t stick around to watch any other racing (or more importantly drink some IPAs) as I had a commitment at home.

Day 1

Not too muddy after Saturday.

I arrived even later on Sunday, got registered, got my number pinned on and had a few miles on the road to get warmed up. It was actively raining prior to the start but did not rain at all during the race. There were even more no shows on Sunday (more serious whimpage) with only 44 of 71 registered on the line. Once again I was in the last row. It started out a little faster than Saturday with less unclipping early, probably because there were 20 fewer riders, not really sure. 

Per the organizers standard procedure, the middle part of the course was reversed from the day before (start/finish through the stairs and the last quarter laps are the same) which makes for a slightly different dynamic. The most significant feature of this change is the off camber section up by the manor house. On Saturday it’s a long slog up, then the off camber traverse, then followed by a chute-like descent. Basically all of it ridable by most. On Sunday, the very muddy chute became a very slippery run up that was not ridable by even the pros. Prior to my race, I did run up the grass next to that part of the course to get a sense of how hard it would be and I watched (and laughed at) some of the Cat 5s try and run up. It was kind of like the keystone cops with the back end of the field just falling all over themselves and sliding backwards. A wiseman once said one should not openly heckle in that case because “there but for the grace of God, go I”. Fortunately, I had no problems on my three times up it. I found just being careful and very deliberate about the foot holds I used was key. Not rushing kept you from losing it because once you start to slip it’s over. I was extra careful because I don’t have any toe spikes and my shoes are quite worn; it worked in my favor never losing any ground there and passing a few as I ran it and down the other side (only some of the pros could remount on the off camber). 

I was feeling pretty tired during the race (under recovered as usual – my heart rate was 10 beats per minute lower) and figured I was not doing very well, but kept grinding away enjoying the technical aspects of the course and not taking any risks so not sliding out or crashing. At one section with a chicane near the barriers that everyone ran, a woman heckled me about how “dainty” I was running and that I looked like a ballet dancer. In the spur of the moment, I swung my bike around in a 360 pirouette to the delight of the crowd!  You gotta roll with the punches… About 2/3 the way through the third lap I stopped hearing the 1 lap to go bell, knowing my race would be over a lap down. At that point my drivetrain was so muddy, it was making a lot of noise (but still shifting reasonably well thanks to a full run shift cable housing I put on this year) and I was worried I might break a chain or something. As a result, I was not unhappy about the end of the race since there were not any competitors within striking distance so it really didn’t matter results-wise. 

Sunday Muck.

Interestingly, when I looked at the results, only the first 4 riders made full laps (4) and almost the entire field was 1 lap down. I ended up 24th which really surprised me (Mickey a great result at 9th, Mike 31). Not really sure why, given how “bad” it seemed, but I guess not having any mechnicals (quite a number of riders had dropped chains) and just slow and steady in the trying conditions was a good strategy that fit my skillset. I ended up with a good point score (484) which should help in my future call ups.  And as usual, I was the oldest guy in both races.

Day 2

On Sunday they had some pressure washers available for the general population, but the line was long, so I just sat downstream on the curb and used the runoff water and my water bottle to clean the chunks off my bike enough to get it into my van without making a complete mess. It must have been an amusing site. I made a really non-PC joke to a few men walking past about that. I’ll leave that to your imagination. But it got the job done knowing I would thoroughly clean the bike when I got home.

I cleaned up and changed and met Mike at the Union Brewing tent for a few beers, Indian food and to watch the pros preride some sections in the steady rain. Definitely made me feel just a little bit Belgian. We didn’t stay for the pro races but I did watch them on GCN when I got home. 

All in all, an epic “Belgian Style” weekend of cross and I’m really glad I could do it. And, the IPA was on point!

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