The Howard County Double Cross weekend took place November 21 and 22. Schooley Mill Cross, a new race, featured long power sections and some muddy climbs. Rockburn Cross featured the same exciting single-track sections, punchy climbs and technical turns as it has the past three years.
For these interviews, I tracked down podium finishers that have yet to grace the cyber-pages of In The Crosshairs for their racing prowess. This way we get a couple more voices in the mix, with different takes on some of the same old questions. I also included sixth place finishers at Rockburn because those folks won pie. And if you win pie, you deserve to be recognized.
I think the highlight of these interviews is the great discussion on race starts and the hole shot. Pay attention to what these folks are saying and see if their successful strategy matches up with what you are doing.
Thanks for reading.
What is your pre-race routine?
Rusty Williford (Fulcrum Coaching/WWVC Racing, Rockburn Cat 3/4, 4th place): Same thing every week: Get to the course by 8:30, recon the course until 9, kit-up and hit the trainer by 10, off-the trainer by 10:35 and head to the course for either 1 hot lap or a few starts.
Andreas Gutzeit (HPC List, Schooley Mill Masters 3/4, 4th place): I do about two laps of the course, mainly looking for good lines. Then I do 30 minute warm-up. Jeff Anderson describes cross racing as a reverse crit. Very helpful for a novice roadie. So now I have taken to practice the start on the course a couple of times and it really served me well at Schooley Mill. I was fourth into the dirt and ended up fourth 40 minutes later.
Chris Nystrom (C3-Athletes Serving Athletes, Elite Masters, Schooley Mill 8th, Rockburn 6th): Arrive early enough to preview the course before the start of the race two slots before my race. Really getting to know and understand the track is key. Pin up the number and get dressed during the race (two prior) and ride the course with a bit more speed before the next race. Ride the trainer and b.s. with teammates during the race just before mine. Red Bull 45 minutes before my start. Get to the line, relax and visualize the start. Remember to have fun.
John Cutler (CycleLife DC, 1st place Schooley Mill Men’s 3/4, 19th place Rockburn Elite Masters): Coffee and a Starbucks egg sandwich (kind of disgusting, yes, but fast). Drive. Listen to NPR or that weird show about parenting. A moment of sheer terror trying to find a gas station with a restroom. Arrive in the middle of one of the races. 20 minutes to get number and get ready to pre-ride. Ride a couple laps. Pretend that I’m actually remembering the corners and lines. Hop on the trainer for 40 minutes. I used to never bring a trainer, but I’ve come around. You can listen to music and zone out. Then Race.
When a race throws a kink in my plans—like a really long walk to registration, one port-potty, a line at registration, a line for the hose, etc.—it really throws me for a loop. I said this last year, but I’ll say it again. NEXT YEAR I’m going all out with the tent, the easy chairs, that little mat for taking of your shoes, the cooler, etc. For two days of racing your post race routine is really important as well. Instead of jumping back into the car while slamming recovery shakes, it can pay to relax, socialize, put your feet up, and commune with fellow racers.
Jeff Trinh (Georgetown University, 1st place at Schooley Mill Men’s Cat 4, 6th place at Rockburn Men’s Cat 4): Coffee and oatmeal for breakfast. When I get to the race site I get dressed and pre-ride the course, making sure to drink plenty of water in between laps. One of the advantages of doing the 9am race is that you have plenty of time to pre-ride, so I like take my time and make mental notes about which lines I’ll pick.
Elizabeth Harlow (C3-Athletes Serving Athletes, Women’s 1,2,3 Schooley Mill 4th and Rockburn 6th): Ride the course a couple of times before the Master Men’s Elite race. Paying attention to anything that may give me trouble. Ride around easy while the men race and then ride the course again close to race pace after the men finish.
Jon Hicks (Winchester Wheelemen, Rockburn Cat 4 5th place): The first lap to get a feel for the flow and the second much slower, looking for objects to avoid. A gel and FRS 30 minutes before the start.
Andrew Welch (Squadra Coppi, Mens 3/4, 3rd at Schooley Mill, 1st at Rockburn): I don’t like to have a lot of down time before my race, so I usually show up just in time to get a couple laps in before the previous race goes out … nothing too fast, just some course recon and easy warm-up. Then I get my number, change kit, and finish warming up … on the road. I have a trainer in my car, but it hasn’t come out all season.
How important do you think the start is to your race? Do you try to get the hole-shot or do you play it more conservatively?
Rusty Williford: Extremely important, my goal is to not get caught behind any first-lap carnage. I have a bad habit of getting the hole-shot, then dragging the field around until I blow-up, so I have been trying to be a bit more conservative, slotting in 2nd or 3rd wheel.
Andreas Gutzeit: It’s all important. The reverse crit analogy is so true at least when it comes to the first selection. If you can get into the first group from the start then you typically can hang with the guys. I find bridging up extremely hard because once you don’t see folks anymore you can’t really gauge how hard you are going. And in bike racing can you really trust your legs or your lungs. So much of this is mental.
Chris Nystrom: The start is important but it’s only a small portion of the race. The further back in the grid I am the more aggressive I need to be in the first minute of the race. If you are focused on moving up you can usually find space to move up in the beginning. It might mean getting out in the wind and putting out more effort but it’s usually possible. Hole-shots are overrated unless the course is super technical or muddy. I try to get into the top 10 and on to a wheel of someone that I think will not let gaps open to the leaders. From there it’s just about seeing whether I am going to try to move up or just try to hang on.
John Cutler: I’ve learned the hard way that you have to keep first place within striking distance. All it takes is one scrum around a rideable corner and you’re 20 seconds back. At Schooley Mill I got the hole-shot, but it wasn’t something I planned on prior to the race. I managed to click in on the first try and was able to really dig on that uphill start. I went into the first turn alone and really tried to gun it. With each race I’ve become more motivated to stay near the front. You’ll not regret it later and everyone is suffering, not just you. At Rockburn I started in the back. Last place. But I could have still gone harder at the start.
Jeff Trinh: The hole-shot is pretty important but it isn’t everything. As long as I’m top ten through the first corner I’m happy. Anything worse than that means I’ve got some work to do.
Elizabeth Harlow: The start is VERY important. Tthe seconds that you lose in the start can cost you the race, it is best not to lose contact early on. Somewhat conservative. I don’t like going into the first corner too hot and out of control.
Jon Hicks: I think the start is very important. Getting caught behind the first bottleneck can leave you with a lot of time to make up. The important thing to me is getting a good hole-shot and position going into the first lap. It’s still tough for me to gauge how hard to go in order to get position without blowing myself up on the first lap. I’m getting better but have been guilty of going out WAY too hard and regretting it 10 minutes into the race.
Andrew Welch: The start is a decisive moment in every race. Whoever gets through the first few turns near the front will avoid the major bottlenecks and have the best shot for a podium finish. My goal is to be in the top five or so when we hit the grass, but I don’t really worry about the hole-shot.
The conditions were a little wet and greasy. What gearing do you have on your bike? What kind of wheels and tires did you use and what was your tire pressure?
Andreas Gutzeit: Rode clincher 404s. Old road gear. The deep dish rims may have helped a little in the mud at Schooley Mill. Michelin Mud 2’s. Not sure about those. I do find myself slipping quite a bit and am wondering if there is something better out there. Gearing? Not sure, whatever I can turn around.
Chris Nystrom: 42T single ring and a 12/27 cassette. For Schooley Mill it was Bontrager XXX Lite Tubulars with 32mm FMB SSC Sprint tires. There wasn’t much in the way of technical turns or off-cambers so I was comfortable with the file treads and wanted the lighter wheels for the climbing. At Rockburn there were more slick turns and off-camber sections so I ran Bontrager Race X Lite tubulars with Michelin Mud2 treads on 32mm FMB casings. They hooked up really well on the greasy grass. Both days I ran somewhere in the low to mid 20’s for pressure. I start with about 30psi when I arrive at the venue and then let air out as I’m warming up until the pressure feels right.
John Cutler: I only have one set of tubulars (Grifos), so I use them in every race. On Saturday I decided to go really low: 18psi for the front, 22psi in the rear. The course had no bumps, roots, or ledges and the tires performed flawlessly. Amazing. I felt like I was train on a railroad track. On the second day I went up a couple PSI higher and had trouble on the greasy turns. I’ve yet to really figure out tire pressure and tire selection. I haven’t had time to do mid-week practices, so each week is a crapshoot. It is hard to replicate those greasy conditions in your typical park.
Jeff Trinh: I use a 46/36t crankset with an 11-26t cassette. I don’t really ever shift down to the 36t so I do end up cross-chaining a bit up the climbs. For wheels, I’m using Bontrager Race Lites setup with Hutchinson Bulldogs and Stan’s NoTubes Tubeless Cyclocross kit. I rode them at 32 psi.
Elizabeth Harlow: 12×27. Ksyrium wheels and Challenge Grifo Tubulars. 25 psi.
Jon Hicks: Rockburn wasn’t too bad. 46×36 rings with a 12×27 cassette. Zipp 404 tubulars, Challenge Grifo tires at 34-37psi.
Andrew Welch: I have pretty standard gearing, and I’ll use my little ring for the sticky stuff. I’ve been using Michelin Muds with ~30 psi for all conditions.
Rusty Williford: I only have Michelin Muds, so it’s just a matter of hitting the tire pressure sweet spot. I start off at 35 psi front and back, and as I recon the course, I let out air until its feels just right. I estimate I was at about 30 psi in the rear, 27 psi in the front.
How did Schooley Mill compare to Rockburn? Did one course meet your strengths more than the other?
Rusty Williford: Schooley Mill felt like a pure power course with no spots to rest, whereas Rockburn was a nice mix of punchy hills and lots of turns. The more turns, the better, so I got slaughtered at Schooley Mill, but felt in the race from the gun at Rockburn.
Andreas Gutzeit: Schooley Mill was much more for me. Power sections. Not a tree in sight. Turns manageable. Not too slippery. I can go hard and long, but throw a slippery off-camber in there and I got my hands full. Rockburn was the reverse for me.
Chris Nystrom: Rockburn suited my strengths more with the turns, off-cambers, and punchy climbs. Plus, it’s like my home course as I ride there all the time. Schooley Mill was all about power. I enjoyed both courses and think it’s great that every track is different.
John Cutler: Schooley Mill was my kind of course. The long uphills and less greasy turns really suited my strengths and weaknesses. You could stay on the gas for more extended periods of time without having to slow down and re-accelerate. It reminded me of DCCX—another race where Paul Rades and I did well. I’m like a little diesel engine … my ideal cross course would be a 45 minute climb on a steep fire road. There was only one really sharp corner that you needed to poke around.
I really need to work on my cornering for next season if I hope to do better on the more technical courses. I read somewhere that cornering 25-percent slower does a lot more damage than putting down 25-percent less power on the straights. You don’t think you’re losing all that much time because you’re off the gas, but those slow corners can set you a couple seconds back with each turn. Riding with the Elite Masters field on Sunday was humbling. Those guys have skills. Rockburn was all about whipping around those corners and explosive power.
Jeff Trinh: The Schooley Mill course was significantly less technical than the Rockburn’s. I’d consider myself more of a roadie so I liked that. It made it easier to mete out the pain whereas Rockburn’s course had me a little less confident in the corners and hurting a whole lot more.
Elizabeth Harlow: Schooley Mill was like a road race and Rockburn had more mountain bike characteristics. Schooley Mill was a great course for me, it was a power course with climbing and not too technical.
Jon Hicks: Big difference in courses for me and the results showed it. Rockburn suited me much better primarily because of the conditions. The soft ground and mud on much of the course and especially on the back side climb at Schooley Mill destroyed me on every lap while the shorter climbs at Rockburn didn’t affect me as much. I tend to be stronger on the more technical courses.
Andrew Welch: Schooley Mill was more of a power course with some long straight sections. Rockburn was more technical and required a lot of accelerations. I think all the short climbs and accelerations played to my strengths.
What was the decisive moment in your races?
Rusty Williford: There were two of them…the first was Andrew Welch’s attack out of the woods with about two to go … he was gone, and it was a battle for the remaining spots after that. The second was my crash with about one to go on the S-turn by the tennis courts on the back of the course. I took a very aggressive line to make a run at Paul Rades in second and crashed, then tumbled down the hill. After that, it was a frenetic one lap TT to hang on to a podium spot.
Andreas Gutzeit: The start at Schooley Mill. The sand at Rockburn, which I managed to ride in warm-up and then unceremoniously fell over during the first race lap.
Chris Nystrom: At Schooley Mill I had a good start going but got held up at the stairs. I managed to get back up to the lead group and hung on just long enough for the gaps to open behind. After that I was just surviving until Bernie Shiao arrived. We rode well together and solidified our positions. Then he took it to me in the sprint. I thought I was going to pass out after that.
At Rockburn I got a good seat on the Bernie Shiao hole-shot express. He had it strung out as soon as we hit the grass and that made the start easier as there was less jockeying for position. Eventually I settled into a good group just behind the leaders with Bernie and Mike Birner, two really solid guys to ride with. A few other guys came and went but we stuck together and rolled it very smoothly around the course. I managed to attack those guys on the last lap and hold it to the line to take the pie placing.
John Cutler: Taking the hole-shot and attacking on the first lap showed I meant business. But in the end it was Paul getting tangled in the tape on the last lap. I was riding certain sections faster, but it would have probably come down to a sprint. At DCCX I failed to take advantage of Paul’s bobble, and he went Rambo on me and caught up and left me in the dust. I wasn’t going to let that happen again.
Jeff Trinh: The first lap in any race is usually a good indicator of how I’m going to do.
Elizabeth Harlow: At Schooley Mill Julie Kuliecza and I went back and forth for third place. As we came onto the pavement for the final sprint I couldn’t shift up into my big ring. I missed the opportunity to try to sprint for third. That’s cyclocross, you never know what will happen.
Jon Hicks: We’re talking Rockburn and my decisive moment was midway through the second lap when I realized my front derailleur was broken and I was stuck in my big ring. I was in fifth place at the time with Cory Smith and Mark Stahl coming hard. I knew it would take a lot of energy to push that gear up the muddy hills and especially the short, steep one near the parking area. I made the decision to stay in the gear instead of stopping to manually drop it down. If that wasn’t enough, coming past the finish on the bell lap, I see Jeff Trinh chasing hard and coming fast. I knew it was going to be even more difficult to hold him off. By the time we reached that last steep climb, Jeff had closed the gap and was on my wheel. I made it up and over and saw Jeff have to put a foot down right at the top. That was the gap I needed to finish it off.
Andrew Welch: I think the decisive moment for me at Rockburn was on the last lap. Paul was closing the gap on the back side, and I had to dig deep to hold my lead on the last climb and down the gravel road. I knew it would be hard for him to catch me through the last technical section.
How do you describe cyclocross to the friend, co-worker or family member that has no idea what the sport is about?
Rusty Williford: Steeplechase on a bike. To steal a line from an old-time video “it combines all the worst elements of cycling and running” and it’s awesome!
Andreas Gutzeit: Dirty insanity. It’s like skydiving: Why would anybody jump out of a perfectly safe airplane? Why would you get off a perfectly good road and then jump off your perfectly good bike into a knee deep mud pit?
Chris Nystrom: Describing cyclocross is beyond my ability. I just encourage them to come out and watch a race in person. That usually hooks them.
John Cutler: Lots of driving. Good food. Fun people. Going so hard that you feel like puking. A different puzzle each weekend where smarts and skills can outweigh strength. I have to enlist more friends so we can split the driving and logistics.
Jeff Trinh: I tell my friends that it’s like a steeplechase event with bicycles. I also tell them that it’s awesome and that they should get ‘cross bikes. They usually say something like “Who are you? Don’t talk to me.” or “Shut up,” but that’s because they don’t have bikes. Yet.
Elizabeth Harlow: Human steeple chase. Sometimes you have to carry your horse.
Jon Hicks: I try to explain it and they still don’t have a clue. Most of the time I just find a computer, go to YouTube and show them a video.
Andrew Welch: I try, but I mostly just get strange looks from everyone.
Give a shout out.
Rusty Williford: To my wife Maria, who sacrifices every weekend to take the kids while I go out and play in the mud. She’s my motivation.
Andreas Gutzeit: To the entire cx scene. Many nice, friendly competitors that make entry into the sport easy and a lot of fun. The courses are so much more spectator friendly. Now if we could do all this in the summer, my kids would actually come and watch some races.
Chris Nystrom: My team director and coach Kris Auer for his passion and knowledge of cyclocross. My teammates for being like family. Matt Brancheau for being the mastermind of HoCo2x Cx. Beer for being beer.
John Cutler: Sharon my girlfriend. She visited from New York and cheered me on.
Elizabeth Harlow: I heart C3.
Jon Hicks: To my wife, Tammy, for putting up with my cross obsession. (Yes, I’m obsessed. I admit it.) Kent Howard for being, most likely, the #1 cross fan in the entire Mid-Atlantic and responsible for introducing me to my obsession. Blue Ridge Bicycles in Winchester, VA who are responsible for fueling my obsession with great bikes, parts and service. All the guys that show up at every race to give me such great competition which keeps my obsession alive.
Andrew Welch: Thanks to the promoters for two great days of racing.