I felt a gentle swell in Rochester, pushed myself up, steadied myself on a metaphorical surf board at KMC. In Baltimore I started to lose my sense of balance. So then the uninitiated surfer arrives at Stage Fort Park on the North Shore of Massachusetts. I’m uncomfortable riding at speed (but I’ve practiced!). I’m afraid of off-cambers (again, I’ve practiced!). I start freaking out when the pace picks up (but I’ve been training!).
My mind is not in the game for the whole race, both days. I don’t see the good lines so I can’t take them.
It’s good to have terrible races so that you can wake up on a sunny Wednesday and change the approach. I’ll exorcise the demons. I’ll take the time to sleep, heal, and get ready for the next time I line up. Today I go back to the forest for practice with my friends. I’ll refine my process, I’ll play, and I’ll learn.
We split our drive to Baltimore in two parts, staying the night near Allentown, PA. I dozed off multiple times to the sound of Stephen Hyde’s favorite history podcast. The problem was, I was responsible for navigating to our destination, so periodically I’d wake up, alarmed that we’d suddenly gone off course because I’d fallen asleep on the job.
We arrive in Baltimore the next day and got on our bikes. We search for the bay but we never find it, blocked out by large industrial zones. I suppose we could have tried to find the water.
Zipping through Baltimore was quite the experience. New York City’s landscape of taxi cabs and wild pedestrians really started to grate on me towards the end of my time there. I’d periodically get into yelling matches with box trucks and cabbies. Overall it was a huge stressor. Being back in such an urban cycling environment, this time with a bit more experience handling a bike, side-by-side with teammates, really made me smile.
Charm City Cyclocross snakes through a beautiful, old public space called Druid Hill Park. Organizers make good use of elevation and geographic features, pushing us to dismount several times, and giving racers little opportunity to recover each lap. There’s sand, there’s climbing, there’s a little bit of turning, there’s a horse jump. There’s sprinting up two stories of scaffolding (happy feet! happy feet!). The weather was not in our favor! 80 degrees and high humidity. I keep saying that each race is harder than my last, and this time was no different.
My biggest takeaway from my weekend racing in Baltimore is that I’m still racing like a ballerina, face and upper body composed, relaxed, completely detached from my lower body, whereas my competitors (the ones who keep beating me) are all over the bike, pulling and pushing every last bit of power out of their bodies. I’m trying to find a way to unleash my inner wild woman on race day. Next up is Gran Prix of Gloucester, where we may see glimpses of her.
This week has a different schedule and throws off my typical routine. Wednesday is a super late night. I make the trip in the van with my teammates to the Midnight Ride of Cyclocross- this time as a spectator. I got to throw my lions mane into a ponytail on top of my head and walk around in cutoffs and a tank top, smiling, without the stress of preparing for a race. The energy is palpable! It’s really fun to watch teammates and friends race under the lights. I need a lot of help “heckling.”
Friday’s ride happens on Thursday, and on Friday we race at dusk. I work a full day at the office and pick my bike (freshly tuned!) at Al’s. I make plans to ride Fomer with Trevor and Scott. It’s a favorite road of mine. We ride easy, and once we split off I do a small effort to open up my legs for the next day’s race.
Even with the jumbled scheduled of the week, on Tuesday I’m already setting my intentions for the weekend. I tell myself that I’ll easily fall within the top 15 in this race, which at this race means that I’d earn UCI points. I convince myself that I have everything I need to execute. I start pumping myself up with pop tunes, thinking anything is possible.
On Friday morning the light is bright and I get to have a nice, long breakfast with Tim. He chuckles that I’m very visibly nervous while having previously proclaimed “I have this under control! I’m not nervous!” I have big goals for the night and they get the best of me.
I have a mediocre start and have to make up many, many places on Friday night. I miss the front and off they go. It’s a course suited to group racing so I try to stick the furthest group forward that my fitness will allow. Slowly I fall back, out of the group for 12th-14th. Another group catches me and we are going to have to fight for 15th place.
Teammates yell to “get that next girl” “win this group.” I don’t think I have it in me to do it. It seems impossible. I focus and stay calm, trying to gather myself until the last lap, when I give it everything I have to be first to the dusty off-camber feature. There it was: a bit of separation. I have to completely empty myself to keep that tiny gap and finish 15th.
Rod, the one who facilitated my first cyclocross race, was on the finish line. I devolve into a puddle of tears and thank him for, “well, everything.” Mike, a trusted friend from Easthampton is there, too. Tim films it all.
I did it – I earned one UCI point. The rankings updated today, Tuesday, and I’m there: #473 – Natalie Tapias – 29 years old (Well, actually I’m 28 but to the UCI I’m 29.)
Saturday is a confusing day- because typically we race Saturday-Sunday. I go on a recovery ride with Julie and I take us on an Easthampton loop that ends at the sculpture orchard. We drink warm apple cider. I spend the rest of the day in bed, waiting for Sunday.
Sunday was a C2 race. I have a good start and it’s a ripping first lap. Julie gets the hole shot! My heart rate is high and I don’t feel great. I gradually fade back and find renewed energy and determination once Regina catches me (here we go!). Instead, I fall and spend some time wrestling a stake out of my rear wheel.
Once the racing is all over, we pack up our things and gather around the van. We coordinate with Scott who’s ridden off into the sunset for a few more training miles and plan on grabbing him at some point along our drive home. Of course a phone dies and it takes a bit of triangulation/guesswork to estimate where on the dark highway he might be. We do find him, everyone breathes a sigh of relief, and we tell him to “get in the van.” We wrap up the weekend at an Easthampton noodle restaurant. Everyone’s eager for the next bit of racing.
This year is a bit different for me in that I’m one year older (yes) and I have one full year living and training out of Easthampton, MA, center of the cyclocross universe. I now know I’ll be really tired most every Monday. I now know that in November every part of my body may hurt.
The most noticeable difference is that I’m not terrified of racing Rochester this year. No Wednesday nausea, no pre-race trembling, none of that. I know what to expect and I plan on enjoying the energy at the start line, I plan on fully embracing and living out this unique experience.
We pack up on a Friday afternoon and meticulously load all of our beautiful Focus disc bikes in the van, plus bike stand, tools, what feels like a million wheels and wheel bags, luggage, snacks, and compression tights. We barely fit and it takes us over an hour to get everything ready to go.
Keys in the ignition and…. click click click. We have a five hour drive ahead of us, all of our gear, and the van is not starting. Click click click. Luckily my teammates are brilliant and figure out that it’s just a dead battery and we quickly replace it and get on the road.
On these long trips, it’s dark in the van, the headlights illuminate the lanes ahead of us and the sun goes down. My teammates are hilarious. They make me laugh until I devolve into an incomprehensible mess. “Natalie is broken” is the refrain. We stop for enormous burritos and I can’t finish mine. I put on my eye mask and sleep for the last hour of the trip, waking up in the dark in Pittsfield, NY.
I guess I kind of lied about being nervous- it’s just a different kind of nervous this year. It’s now manifesting itself in WAKE UP AT THE CRACK OF DAWN-so I tiptoe out of the house, careful not to disturb the humans sleeping in the living room and go for a casual 6 am stroll in suburban America.
On both days, I get to the venue and on the course with teammates Jack & Scott and coach Al. All of these people, and more expansively, all of Easthampton, know infinitely more than I do about how to move around a race course. I think both Ellen (Noble, of bunny hopping fame, among other accomplishments) and Scott have both told me, on separate occasions, that following their lines in pre-ride is like getting the answers before you take the test.
So, that’s what I’m doing now. Monkey see – monkey do. I have a few goals for the race:
1. Body Position – use legs and arms as suspension. take advantage of the “attack” position as appropriate & lean on axis with my bike in corners (instead of riding like a stick figure on a bike and feeling every vibration of the course in every bone of my body). This is, I realize, an actual manifestation of a personality trait of mine- wanting to always be totally in control and muscling through all of life’s trials… turns out that if you’re more flexible and go with the flow, bumps in the road don’t change your course of movement too much, huh.
2. Sight Lines – look ahead at what’s coming and through the wheel I’m following. My cue I’ve been using has been “sight” or “up” to remind myself to look up and ahead on the course. Again- cyclocross riding is a metaphor for my life and general approach to things. I sometimes forget about the big picture and obsess over whatever is immediately in front of me- we’re out of food and life is a disaster. I could, instead, keep my head up and look ahead to realize that if I just took myself to the grocery store I’d have food to eat.
3. Know your course, Know your lines – take a thorough inspection of the course with Scott and Jack. memorized the course in sections. know how hard to go in each section.
4. Capitalize on my Sprint – start really hard (with my head up & use my eyes). I was born with these enormous legs. Put them to use.
5. Mental Game – This is a really huge goal of mine for the season: Enjoy the energy and the moment at the start line. Keep a clear mind with eyes up and looking ahead. work on positive affirmations / self talk throughout the race (i.e. think “yes” or “smooth” rather than “f___”).
SO – here is how it went down:
I moved forward and rode away from a group to finish 18th
I woke up on Sunday (day 2) buzzed from the previous day’s effort. Rhys, Al, and Kale wanted to go to the coffee shop just a short walk from the team’s house in Pittsford, NY. It was chilly and coach Al came up with a brilliant plan for my race day 2: “Today you’re going to go hard.” We all laughed.
Here’s the race report for Rochester day 2:
I went freaking really hard
That is, until I settled in to a group, and took a deep breath
On the sidelines I could hear Jack, Scott, Rhys, Chris Mayhew, screaming “venga, venga,” “this is your group, Natalie!” Not quite, in the end I was second out of my group- finishing with my best result yet in 14th.
Jack (Fully Torqued Media) created a web series to follow our season. If you’re dying to hear more about the racing at Rochester, here’s where to find it: