Gran Prix of Gloucester: A taste of the secret sauce

I already loved cyclocross before last weekend. Since my first race in 2009, my enthusiasm for the discipline has only matured. But aside from a couple years competing in National Championship races in Toronto, I’d never been to a ‘big’ cyclocross race. Sure, I’d read all about the GP of Gloucester and Providence for years, but every year I’d arrive at September and not really feel I had the energy or wherewithal to hit either. But this year I put the wheels in motion when I took out my Senior Elite racing license for the road and CX, knowing that this would allow me to easily get into Gloucester, in contrast to the oversubscribed Masters races.

Why Gloucester? Well, it’s a little closer to Ottawa than Providence, a little closer to road season (meaning I’d carry a little more fitness), it’s purported to be a great venue for the family, and Mike Lowe was going to be there, offering guidance on the ins and outs of the race. I signed up in August, convinced my family to come, booked a camp site, and raced in Rigaud a week out to remind myself what cx racing is all about.

This isn’t a ‘How the race was won’ story. I never thought I’d write one for this race, and as long as I race the Elite race at Gloucester, I never will. Instead, this is a story about experiencing full blown cyclocross racing for the first time. Somewhat paradoxical, I’ve raced plenty of cyclocross, but I felt like a neophyte at Gloucester. And it was good. Ultimately, I’m going to try to sell those who are into cyclocross living in the East of North America to at least race Gloucester once before packing it in.

Day 0

It’s a long drive to Gloucester, Mass, from Ottawa. Stopping once for food and gas in Burlington Vermont (we love the burrito place there!), we arrive at Cape Anne Campgrounds, across from a beautiful saltwater marsh at 18:00 after about 9 hours of travel. The owners of the campsite are exceptionally friendly and helpful as we choose our site and debate the merits of various bags of firewood. By 20:00 I’m on my bike, on the trainer, in front of our fire. Experienced indicates I feel terrible racing after a day off the bike, so here I am. It feels good to move after driving all day.

Action Shots: Jean-Francois Blais, Bill Goodman, and Michael Johnson

Day 1

Saturday morning, we’re away at 09:00 to check out the ‘most beautiful beach anywhere,’ just a mile down the road. It’s true. This place is exceedingly beautiful. When the tide is out, one can walk a mile out, all the way to the lighthouse in the distance. The water is clear and cold, but not cold enough to keep the kids out. It’s sunny, warming  up steadily; a day of adventure awaits us.

The race site is but 15 minutes away and it is stunning. Stakes and course tape weave a tortuous path across Stage Fort Park’s contours, channeling energetic riders through lap after lap of competitive self expression. We’ve scored a sweet parking spot along the start/finish straight, offering a perfect vantage point to watch riders stream by and keep an ear on the announcer’s call.

I’ve got file treads on my bike because it’s 100% dry out here. Also, if I puncture during course inspection, I want to have my other two pairs of full tread tires available. Thank Zeus we ended up with a minivan instead of a full size rental, so I didn’t have to leave a pair of wheels at home! Jeremy Powers rolls by as I’m at the van, and I spot his selection: full knobs. Ok, that settles it: I’m switching.

I’m slowly figuring out the rhythm of the day. During the interval between each race we can ride the course. At 2:20 the Elite women and  men will have 40 minutes for course inspection, then the women will race at 3, followed by the men at 4. After a light lunch down the beach with the fam, I’m getting ready to ride at 2:20. As I attempt to air up my spare Clement MXP rear tire, I find that I can’t. F. Sealant has blocked the valve extender. This thing has been sitting since last season, and I didn’t think to mess with it before leaving home. I start to work on it with it with the aim of solving the problem, then realize the priority has to be on pre-riding, then further warm-up. I’ll have to use my file tread rear tire as my spare. And make a prayer.

I’ve been really enjoying the commentating for all the races. Each field is afforded the same prestige as any other, and the energy is bright. I feel like I’m at something BIG, something important. Fans line the track, a slew of vendors populate the central area, multiple teams are set up along the course. This isn’t some side-show; it’s a full blown, legitimate sporting event. This is awesome.

40 Minutes of course inspection, plus multiple spans of 15 minutes on the track makes all the difference. Back when I raced downhill, it was all about practice. We’d spend the Saturday riding the race tracks as much as we thought we could handle without compromising our race runs on the Sunday. On courses like Mont Saint Anne, we could do perhaps 6 runs in a day. More than that was too physically punishing. During those runs, we’d try to learn as much of the course as possible; where the worst rocks were, where the braking points were, the sprint sections, different line options, etc. A day was never enough. The PRO riders would tend to be on the track at least two days before the race, sometimes as many as 5. The more one could work on the course without getting injured or tired, the better for race day.

My DH days certainly come in handy today. This track is so dry and sandy, it’s degrading every lap. The off camber, most exposed turns are shredded down to loose sand and unearthed rocks. This is badass! When it comes to this stuff, tire tread isn’t really doing much for you. You’re sinking in, trying not to hit any nasty rocks too hard, and aiming for the apex. I’m riding the hardest turns somewhat fast, and going easy wherever no real technique is required. This is my course-learning-energy-saving strategy. I’m looking for nasty embedded rocks that could puncture my tires, trying to work out how to avoid them when I can’t see in front of me, what I can use as points of reference. It’ll be a bit of a crap shoot in some places…. I learn as much as I can, LOVE the course. Onto the trainer to do my warm-up for about 40 minutes, I’m heading to the pits with my wheels and onto the grid.

Did I say I drew 87th spot on the grid? No? Yeah. Riders with UCI points were staged accordingly, and the rest of us drew numbers for our spots. 87 of 90. Nice.

At least some really fast guys are in pretty much the same boat. Raphael Gagne is in front of me, Jesse Anthony to my right. We’re on the left side, with the aim of moving up along the barriers. Jokes abound about ’30 seconds to start’; more like 40 for us!

We’re off; it’s somewhat scary along these barriers! I’m trusting the guys on my right to hold it together. Full gas, just move up, up, up, don’t stop passing.

This is going awesome! I’m passing guys left and right. The dust is CRAZY! This somehow makes me think of a WWII battle scene. There’s no possibility of seeing where I’m actually going through the dusty stuff. All I can do is follow bodies and aim for empty spaces. This is so exciting! I’ve got a little daylight here on the left, put out the elbow to make sure the gap stays open. Through, good. “That actually helped me up the hill!” I don’t respond, too focused. This is amazing, there are no dick moves being thrown, unless you count mine.

“Matt, you’re 49th!” Danielle and the kids are on the sidelines yelling their brains out. 49th is a good start, Danielle makes is sound AWESOME. I can definitely build on it, but I want to do much better. Tick, tick, tick. WTF? Tick, tick, tick. Ok, that’d gotta be a broken spoke on the front. Frigg it, doesn’t matter, it won’t do anything. Ignore it.

Thud. F. That’s a flat for sure. I’m rolling toward the run-up, my rear tire is going flat. We’re something like 3 minutes into the race. Whatever, stay on the gas, get to the pit.

I’ve never bothered to ride a tubular flat before. This is working of pretty well! I’m getting pretty sideways in all the turns, but traction on the climbs is awesome! Try not to smash the rocks…. “Rear flat.” Yep. “Rear flat.” Yep. I know, and I’m sort of amazed other guys imagine I don’t. Whatever, they are probably just being helpful. That’s cool.

Made it to the pit, no crash. A couple folks are trying to help me, but there’s not much they can do. Good thing I mounted this Challenge Grifo during the week onto my tire-less front wheel! Both wheels swapped, I’m on, chain is skipping. Man, is this cassette worn? Chain derails. Ooooooh….didn’t release the clutch derailleur. Fixed, let’s roll!

I feel great, sprinting out of the turns as well as I ever can, cornering well, bombing the gnar. This is FUN! When I left the pit I was definitely in last place, but I’m catching and passing guys, and this is motivating. Lanky guy with the black horn yells: “Your making up ground FAST, keep it up!” This is incredibly motivating. He seems to believe I can do something worthwhile in this race, even though I am off the back. These folks are here to see riders tear it up. I’m in!

I’ve just caught two guys and decided to attack. “That way.” A commissaire is pointing us off course. We’re done, pulled at 42 minutes, well in time to ensure we don’t get in the way of Powers and company. I wanted to make it further, but I feel good. My start was great, I had bad luck. I felt great riding at my limit, and it was super fun. I want more of this. I’m reminded why cyclocross is so popular. Regardless of whether you finish, there are so many small victories to celebrate in each race. If you’ve prepared as well as you can, lived the life of an athlete, and achieved a peak performance, that’s a win. There are so many things that can go wrong and challenge you to stay on the gas, keep pushing, keep competing. If you stay positive and motivated through a whole race and give it 100%, you’ve done it. That’s all you can ask of yourself. If your training didn’t get you quite where you’d hoped to be, adjust where you can. I am amped to fix my wheels and take another crack on Sunday.

My son has croup, and the poor guy suffers for two hours in the middle of the night, beside himself over his inability to sleep. We’ve been here before, he’ll be ok, but this sucks for everyone. We all get some sleep eventually.

Day 2

I awake to a bit of a sore throat and feeling a little less gung-ho than I’d like. As the family slowly rises I work away at sealing my tire and patching the hole. Miraculously, there seems to be no additional damage to the tire despite my having ridden it flat for about 1.5kms. Thankfully, it seals easily with the Caffe Latex I insert, and my patch might just stay on. Now I’ll have to sort out the blocked valve stem and broken spoke at the race site.

After asking a few mechanics I strike gold at the Stan’s NoTubes tent when the mechanic pulls out the exact spoke length I need. Yes! The neutral Specialized tech support mechanic has already let me use his tools to fix my clogged valve stem. These guys have the greatest set-up! On top of all their tools, they have spare wheels and spare bikes on the ready for riders in need! When I ask about the bikes, the response is: “Our objective is to make sure everybody can keep on racing. So if you break something on your bike we can’t fix, we’ll put you on one of ours.” Incredible! This sort of support really takes some of the pressure off riders who can’t afford a spare bike or even wheels. Yes, you won’t be able to win by using neural support, but you’ll be able to race. Thanks for being there, Specialized!

My wheels are fixed, and I’m getting onto the course at every opportunity, trying to figure out where the rocks are in this direction (reversed), and where I can pass early on. I don’t like this version of the course against Saturday. There are more dismounts, less flow (for me), and more accelerations from lower speeds. The pavement stretch is longer, which will push the average speed up, but that’ll be misleading. I’ve drawn 82 on the grid, so it’ll be another tough start….

This time I move up as much as I can, but the bottle-necks come fast, and passing becomes impossible for me. I’m behind Derrick St. John, which seems good, then we join up with Jesse Anthony and an Essex Cycles rider to form a foursome. Surely I should stay here and roll with these guys. Inexplicably, DSJ and Anthony have dropped us, so we’re two. We seem evenly matched, though I seem to have the edge on the turns. I pull for most of a lap, he sees opportunity, attacks. Detached, my lower back is killing me – tire pressure is jacked… – so I give myself permission to accept having lost one spot. Just keep it rolling like this, that’ll be ok.

Photo: Mike Rowell

Two guys are on me. Ok, this is fine, I can hang and get them later. We’re heading into the loose sweeper that kicks into steps, I’m on the inside of guy-2. He bobbles, flails out his right foot to catch himself and kicks my front wheel. Try saving that! Nope. On the dirt, at least I catch myself with my hands and keep my kit clean! They’re gone, however.

Two more come up, a pair of Cuppow gents. Ok, I’ll roll with them for a bit. My back is getting close to being ok again. “This way.” We’re pulled. 44 minutes. Ugh!

Oddly, I’m less enthused about day-2 than day-1. I can’t be certain, but I have a nagging suspicion that the bug my son has is messing with me, and I just didn’t have as much to work with today. Day-1’s course was a great fit for me, I felt as strong as I could hope, but I had bad luck. Nevertheless, I was able to fight at 100% until pulled. In contrast, I let myself stop fighting through the pain on Sunday and eased up into a somewhat comfortable pace. Sure, I was 43rd versus 52nd, but who cares? I didn’t race to the best of my ability, and that’s disappointing. However, given I woke up fully sick on Monday morning for the drive home, and spent the next two days fighting this nasty cold alongside my son, I have to think a little of my lack of motivation might be attributed to illness. I have to look forward to being back to 100% and racing at my limit.

Here’s how Day 1’s course stacks up on www.cyclocrossresults.com. I scored it about the same.


Day 2 came out a little differently:


I had the beer factor more widely rated between the two, since Day 2’s course didn’t seem to flow very well in contrast, and the barriers were more awkward. Note that more skilled and fit riders might say otherwise. It was not so much drier as more busted up on Sunday. I had Sunday are more than slightly more accelleraty than Saturday, on account of the slower obstacles. Technically, Sunday was more challenging, since the ground was more chewed up, exposing more rocks, and the obstacles were harder to carry speed through. Elevation leaning toward Saturday probably comes down to the run-up being omitted.

Reflecting on the race weekend, and having prodded my family, I can honestly say it was a success. Even though I had a bit of bad luck and my son was sick, we were all happy to have made the trip to Gloucester to experience the area and the race. The beach down the road was truly a gem, and we easily found godo food in town. The race itself was brilliantly organized, and delivered an exceptional experience. Everyone told me not to worry about results when going to Gloucester, but to instead enjoy the experience. I think I took that advice and ran with it, and in so doing, got a taste of what makes cyclocross the thriving scene it is in New England: passionate people, great venues, dust, mud, blood and cowbells. Planning for our return in 2016 has already begun!

Many thanks to everyone who cheered me and all the other racers on during the races, and to everyone who introduced themselves and spent time talking with me. It was truly a pleasure to meet a number of folks who I ‘know from the internet’, along with friends of friends and those simply connected by one simple thing: cyclocross.

Thank you to my fabulous sponsors for supporting my racing adventures: Woven Precision Handbuilts, Giro, Mad Alchemy, and Absolute Black.

If you’d like to see how things played out at the front of the races, both Elite men and women, check out these great videos from DirtWire: