Revenge of The Water Bottle: another review of Monster Cross

Revenge of The Water Bottle: another review of Monster Cross
Photo credit: Jesse Peters

Photo credit: Jesse Peters

(And now, for a different take on Monster CX from the front of the pro pack. For the mini-monster cross experience, be sure to read Rachel's great post here! I'll let Marko take it away now. -KS)

There are people that always find an excuse for their performance at any type of competitive event, unless they win. Either they took too much drugs the night before, or the guy in front of them took their line and caused them to crash, or the tire choice was wrong, or someone may have accidentally shot them.

Well, that may be true. And I do have excuses as to why I finished so poorly at Monster Cross, but I also have to say I’m super stoked I did great. Kind of an oxymoron way to put it, I know. But life is like that, sometimes the gut feeling just depends on what sunglasses you’re wearing at the moment.

At Monster Cross I chose not to wear any. I still haven’t figured out my eyewear bike racing setup. Although I had a pretty bad eye injury due to a collision with a giant bug while road biking a while ago, I still can’t force myself to wear glasses in any event that threatens to splatter mud at me, cause what I really hate more than mud in my eyes; mud on my glasses. Maybe disposable lens covers are the way to go, I still haven’t tried those.

Where was I? Oh, yes, Monster Cross, the race that for a lot of people signifies the end of their winter slumber, the return to bike racing after the winter break. A huge, strong field of racers on a relatively undemanding, somewhat boring course, the worst race director ever, the best city, Richmond, very much nearby.

For me the best thing about Monster Cross is going to Richmond. Chop Suey bookshop, Oregon Hill, Belle Isle, all the funky artist painted buildings around town, a healthy middle class actually walking around the streets of downtown, tons of people around, the combo of punk crustiness with hipster bike snobbism/veganism and an interesting moderate melting pot of cultures, and the fact that nowhere in the US have I seen so many middle class interracial couples, makes this city very appealing to me, but that’s not about bikes.

And Richmond seems to be a city which bikes a lot, the mountain bike trailhead smack in the heart of town, next to the river James is just one of the reasons I can see a lot of cyclophiles growing up there.

So, spending a day Richmond ahead of bike race is definitely not like being in Las Vegas ahead of Cross Vegas. Bicycles actually feel at home in Richmond, be it road, cross or mountain.

Having learned the hard way last year how terrible the organizers of Monster Cross are at pretty much everything but taking your money, I decided to pick up our start packages on Saturday instead of day-of. Last year, showing up 45 minutes before the race meant half an hour in line for registration, and after the obligatory dump stop I had to line up behind the Mini Monster starters, and then elbow my way up the ranks throughout the race.

This year not only did I somewhat cockily sign up for the Pro Race, but having picked my number up on Saturday, all my preparation, including the Major Dump, was wrapped up 20 minutes prior to the start…Purrrfect.

My start was somewhat messy, I blame it on some overzealous pro ladies that blocked me up but were later nowhere to be found, so after my usual slow start I had to navigate through them as they were quickly losing contact with the front group. Finally I cleared the girl pack and found myself in no-man-or-woman’s land for a few minutes. Then I caught up to a largish group going at a decent pace, and settled into the pack.

This group was kind of ridiculous, with guys working hard, but then dropping off and taking weird lines. And just as we were about to make contact with the front group we hit a climb and the group splintered. And in front of us I also saw the winning move in the distance, a lone MTB riding out into the wild.  So once the climb was over, regroup again, take a turn at leading the chase, and then I think I have to start feeding, and I gulp the gel, now wash it down.

And, wait, what, the water bottles are gone?

Whether I was to fault the Zipp bottle cages, or the Camelbak bottles, this was sabotage. And I was fucked. No water, no racing, just surviving.

After my initial panic attack, I started actually analyzing my situation and thinking of solutions. The obvious one: aid station? Nope, not at Monster Cross. This race doesn’t have proper aid stations, they just dump some water bottles on the grass in a couple of places and that’s it. Still, my plan was to see if I spot any water-laden aid stations and if not, wait for the big grass meadow close to the start finish line and search for water there, and then, if I’m still dry grab my water bottles wherever I find them on the second loop.

This was all happening just as our group had caught up with the lead group, but having the water bottle issue I am cautious about pushing and stay at the tail end of the group, and very soon there’s a new split, and I’m at the wrong end…

So I settle down into racing mode, but can’t help feeling antsy and keep thinking about how thirsty I am instead of just racing. One of the guys I know from cross races, Ezra, is riding in my group, and after he starts chit chatting and having seen that he has 2 water bottles and is seemingly trying to be friendly I ask him for a swig. He laughs, shrugs and pretends not to understand me. Whatevah dude.  Very soon he loses contact with our group, which I will call peloton2. Later I heard he got a flat. Oh well, karma.

Photo credit Jesse Peters

Photo credit Jesse Peters

The group is moving at a nice tempo and just as I notice familiar sights close to the start-finish area I also catch a glimpse of the leading peloton, minus the lone leader. As we get nearer to the long grassy straight and tight bridge crossing I see Jared Nieters slide out in a corner and drop back to the tail end of the leading group. And then there’s the little bridge, and then I make contact, only now I am very much in need of a drink. Finally as we hit grass meadow that was last year’s finish line I catch glimpse of a few bottles of purified water sitting on a table.

Is this an aid station attempt? I wonder. And then I stop. I shotgun one bottle and stuff the other bottle in my jersey pocket. As I do this, the front group leaves me behind and so do 2 more little groups of chasers that follow. By the end of the climb from the bridge I manage to catch up to the second group. And in the distance I can see the last glimpse of the leading peloton just as the faster chasers are making contact.

Now I find myself with 2 mountain bikers, or better said 2 guys on mountain bikes. One of them is obviously a mountain biker and is showing a tendency to use his skills to his advantage over my cross bike, but the other guy was having problems keeping up with my cross bike on the more technical sections, but then he would crush it on the asphalt/uphill sections. This guy was probably a strong road biker on a mountain bike. He slides out quite often, even falls over in a corner once not long after our alliance is established.

Very soon after ending the first loop we achieve an artistic balance when we get picked up by a dude who slid off the front group to fix some explosion on his bike. He joins me in the cross-biker team, and he is also riding my bike’s fancier cousin the Felt F1X (mine is a F3X). Having caught up to us, it’s mainly him dictating the tempo and bossing the group.

Finally I spot the water bottle graveyard but alas, it is on a steep downhill and I don’t want to cause a pile up by abruptly braking in front of the 2 mountain bikers behind me. Oh well, but what’s this mirage I see on the hill in front of me? A fairy godfather seems to have gone to the trouble of hiking up the hill with my second water bottle, and then propping it up against a friendly stone. I manage to gently swerve to the side, grab the water bottle and get on with it. This pit stop was so short I barely lost contact with my group, and in no time I’m back on board.

Sucking on my coconut hydration mix my spirits are up and slowly I start to take more turns pushing the pace on the front. Everyone is contributing and the pace is definitely high but not ridiculous. All is beautiful.

The following 15 miles or so are pretty uneventful, kind of a Zen blur, you ride, you feel well, the only distraction from my meditative state was when my bikes cousin orders me to peel off on the right side as there was a left turn coming up.

And then more pedal strokes. Finally we approach the long grassy stretch where last year’s finish line was. On the next uphill I decide to stretch my legs and see if I can drop my groupmates. The finish is in sight, and I’m figuring I could pull off half an hour of a solid effort on my own.

Although I drop everyone momentarily on the uphill, the group rejoins me as the terrain levels out, and as they do that we catch a glimpse of someone in a Seavs Haymarket kit front of us that seems not to be a back-marker (we were passing slower riders, unicycles, fat bikers and a bunch of others throughout the second lap). I put in another dig on the next little uphill and we make contact with the guy. And my bike-cousin gets dropped in the process. The Haymarket guy doesn’t even try to keep up and all of sudden it’s just three of us and everyone starts attacking.

First the skilled mountain biker puts in a huge dig and I just barely keep up with him, and the no-skills dude gets dropped, but as the guy sees that I’m still in tow he slackens the pace to let me pass, and I have very little energy left and knowing that the finish line is relatively close, I count on my cross bike weight advantage on the paved asphalt finishing uphill drag and so I soft pedal on the front and the dude doesn’t attempt to take any more turns.

A couple of minutes later the third member of our jolly bunch passes by like a wild whirlwind. This time I really have to give it all of my love to catch up to him. I can see very clearly he’s got more gas in the tank left than me. Still I just barely manage to keep up and my hopes for the finish are still relying on the uphill bike leanness upper hand on my side. So hop over the bridge, onto the finishing asphalt. And nope. I can’t do anything, the dude just flies away. Still I am really happy at the end. Today was a good day.

That’s especially the case when I find Ana and a few other Greateskapists at the finish line, and we share the remains of the day and the terrible race food. Although I must say the coffee/tea and pastries from Blackhand coffee deserve applause.

Photo credit jesse Peters

Photo credit jesse Peters

To top things off the promoter decided to cancel the awards ceremony because of rain. Is it not a rain or shine event? Are we not mountain/cross cyclists? WTF? I’ve taken part in a lot of races that were held in much shittier conditions and never had I witnessed this. Not only that, but you couldn’t even find out what your result was.

So I had to wait for another day to find out I placed 13th and only a minute away from the prize purse winning 8th place, hence the regret of the water bottle incident, and what might have been had I managed to spend some quality time with the front group when I caught up with them towards the end of the first lap. But hey what if I accidentally ran into a Zebra?

But even more so ridiculous was the fact that nobody told Ana that she in fact won the women’s short, 25K, “Mini Monster”. And to date she hasn’t received the jersey she was supposed to get, although the promoter said he would mail the awards.

And Ana’s race was an example of how simple racing can be. She raced on flat pedals, on a borrowed bike that she never rode (thanks Phill & Ellie Kona!) and just wanted to have a nice time. And that she sure did.

Braaap. Eskape Over.