The Kentucky Derby is an annual horse race held in Louisville, Kentucky. Often called “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports”, the Kentucky Derby receives this nickname from the approximate length of time it takes the winner to run from the starting gate to the finish line. On Saturday, November 7th, a Panda took off from the starting gate and came to a stop right on the finish line of the Derby City Cup in less than two minutes.
The gun went off and in the seconds following, all I remember clearly thinking is “Damnit, Sunny missed her pedal.” Sunny Gilbert (Michelob Ultra/Big Shark) was lined up in front of me. Because of that hiccup, I was forced to veer slightly to the right and Beth Ann Orton (Kona) who was lined up next to Sunny had already taken off quickly. In five seconds following that series of events, I was sprinting down the straightaway and someone completely side-swiped me on my left side – hip area to be more precise. I was out of the saddle going as hard as I could. I’m assuming some part of our bikes must have tangled because I was launched forward as if someone threw a stick into my wheel. It was an abrupt halt. I did a somersault diagonally to my right side, landed on right hand and skidded on the right side of my face and helmet. My bike went flying and I watched it get run over. My memory is fuzzy but there was a racer lingering and looking back at me to make sure I was okay once I came to a stop. The next day I learned that was Ally Stacher (Stan’s Notubes) and I was very grateful that she thought to stop and make sure I was all right. It’s also chilling to think the ordeal was scary enough for her to stop and make sure I was going to get up.
I was in shock. I sat on the ground, head in my hands, completely stunned. All I heard was Dave Towle’s voice quickly turn from yelling who got the hole-shot off the line to a quiet, solemn, “Oh no” as his attention turned toward the girl crumpled up and sitting firmly on the start/finish line on the ground in front of the announcer’s stand. I’ve been in a couple dramatic crashes in my lifetime… For those that may not know me that well, I crashed at Sea Otter in 2014 during the Pro XC race. That ordeal sent me to the hospital with a missing tooth, concussion, and a lot of gravel road rash. In both instances, my immediate reactions were denial. I tried to get up and I thought I was probably okay to keep racing. It sounds absurd, but when you invest so much time, money, and training into a weekend of bike racing and someone takes you out twenty seconds into the race, you can’t grasp the reality of throwing all that sacrifice away in an instant.
When I looked up, I saw my bike completely smashed. I assumed the worst and started bawling. Not just crying, but blubbering like I had lost everything. I remember checking to make sure all my teeth were in place, then completely disregarding every other injury on my body and letting this grief over my bike consume me. A later scan of my bike proved the frame and fork to be crack-free. Thank you, Niner Bicycles, for building sturdy products. On the other hand however, my beautiful front Easton wheel took a majority of the impact as it was directly run over. Cyclocross is such an equipment-driven sport in a lot of ways and a front wheel isn’t just a front wheel. It also represents countless hours spent making sure that wheel was properly glued to a tire. And, not just any tire but a tire specific to the race one is in and holding an exact pressure within its casing. I saw all the time and energy that David Sheek put into that instrument to make it explicitly mine. Easton invested that piece of equipment in me. So to watch my front wheel get run over wasn’t just a few dollars out the window, it was time and a lot of sacrifice blown apart from an instant out of my control.
A very nice gentleman picked up my mangled bike from the side of the course and followed me to the medical tent. As the EMT personnel started tending to me, this guy was standing there like my bodyguard, shouldering my wrecked bike and watching the race from the vantage point of the tent. I’ll never forget the image. It will stand out as a defining moment in why I love this sport so much. I later learned he was there to cheer for a girl named Chloe and immediately ran to help when I went down. I thanked him profusely and told him he could leave my bike next to me and go enjoy the races.
Both of my hands were burning. The side of my face felt like someone rubbed coarse sandpaper across it. I was getting taken care of for quite some time and all the while I kept looking for Sheek to come around the corner. From his point of view in the pits, I never came through the first time and he started to worry. A second crash had happened in the mud pit just after the paved starting stretch and had turned into the main focus of everyone in the pit when riders came through covered in mud. After asking two officials Sheek was told that number 26 had DNF’d. That was the extent of the update. I was number 26, but Sheek had no idea where I was. He took off looking for me around the course. Molly Hurford (Word Tech. & Master CX Knowledge/Community – Bicycling Magazine) texted to let him know I was sitting at the medical tent (Thanks again, Molly!). Other than hoping that no one ever side-swipes me on the start again, my biggest hope is that there’s better protocol by the USAC and UCI officials next time a rider goes down like I did. If someone goes down hard enough to get ushered straight to Medical and they want to cart the rider off in an ambulance, shouldn’t an announcement get made to the pit crews? This doesn’t seem too crazy of an idea since officials in the pits do have radios.
All I kept thinking about was how badly I wanted to race on the course in Louisville and how the universe had other plans for me that day. I sat there watching the race unfold in front of me as I held a couple bags of ice and fought back the tears.
Here’s a capture of my twenty-second race on Saturday. Start. Pause. Reach max speed of 28.8 mph. Crash. My bike was at a standstill for about thirty seconds before my, previously mentioned, bodyguard picked it up to help.
From here the rest of the night was spent cleaning, icing, and resting. I watched my bike be disassembled and searched for cracks and then reassembled. I sat and kept positively telling myself I would be fine, and if the swelling went down I could race day two.
After the previous day’s nightmare, I was very nervous about racing. There’s something about somersaulting over my bike that made me hesitant to race the next day. I woke up sticking to my sheets in a few places and my body ached all over.
I wanted to race. But I knew there was still a possibility that I shouldn’t race based on injuries. I woke up and stuck to the schedule I made for the race weekend. I would ride, eat and drink as if I was planning to race and see how I felt along the way. When I got to the course in the morning I went for a spin and ended up riding for an hour along the river lost in thought. I decided that if I took a couple ibuprofen and wrapped up my hand in bandage with a glove over it, I could race. My legs felt fine and my mind wanted to salvage the weekend.
On Saturday and Sunday, the Derby City Cup course was open for UCI course inspection for about 45 minutes before the Junior 17-18 race took off. Besides finally racing on Sunday, the course inspection times were my favorite part of the weekend. You’re probably thinking, “Warm-up is never as exciting as racing.” But let me tell you that when you’re riding through the woods and can hear Jeremy Powers, Ryan Trebon, and Stephen Hyde chit-chatting behind you it’s a pretty neat moment when you let them by and follow them around for a few turns. Caroline Mani yelled, “Panda Power!” at me, Dave Towle stopped to ask how I was doing, a few fans kept telling me how much they loved my “John Deere” bike, and I was rolling around on a World Championship course grinning ear to ear.
I had the first call-up on the third row and elected to start on the farthest position on the right side. There was no way I was starting in the scrum of the middle of the grid again, especially on that starting straight. On the front row, Elle Anderson (SRAM / Strava) was two spots ahead of me and Laurel Rathbun (Raleigh-Clement) was directly in front of me. The whistle blew and we were off. I watched Anderson and Rathbun veer left towards the middle of the field and I cringed, staying as far right as I could out of anyone’s way. The paved starting drag strip is too long and I heard this from multiple riders but found out the hard way on day one. There is too much real estate for people to move around at high speeds, which then sweeps left into a grassy downhill straight, and this weekend – into the mud pit. I found Anderson’s wheel coming out of the tacky mud and held on. The sand was my biggest weakness and I lost time there on every lap. I didn’t have enough practice with the sharp right turn out of the sand and it took me until the last lap to figure out how to get through it the fastest. I had a decent start, I raced well, I only crashed once at the off-camber turn, and I crossed the line in ninth with a giant sigh of relief.
It took me a few days longer than normal to get this write-up together. I didn’t want to make it sound like a pity party. I want it to be a reminder of the lows that are possible in this sport we love. I’ve been having a great season with a lot of good results and in that instant on Saturday a lot worse things could have happened. It sounds crazy to say I was lucky to walk away with some missing skin, aches, and a busted front wheel. But that’s the hand I was dealt and it’s up to me to make the most of a shitty situation and move on. There are a lot of positives that came from my trip to the Ohio River Valley and I want to focus on what’s next.
Current Rankings as of November 10th:
UCI Overall: 126
UCI American: 29
USAC Pro CX: 22
I took a hit in my rankings by not finishing Saturday in the C1 race. It was a star on the calendar and my C1 results have to make up a big portion of my points because I’m unable to travel as often as I’d like. I’m focusing on CXLA in a couple weekends from now. This is a hometown race for me and although the venues have changed each year, I’m still racing at “home” and in front of my Socalcross family. The Supercross Cup takes place in Stony Point, NY that same weekend and Koksijde takes place on November 22nd as well. I’ll be taking advantage of the fact that America’s best will be spread out on both sides of the country and in Europe while juggling some early morning spectating of the World Cup with cyclocross fans around the world.
I’m going to say it again… I love this sport.
Thanks for being a part of the good days and the bad.
One thought on “Panda’s POV: Down at Derby City”
Saw you at Spookycross back in Irvine – so smooth and clean was your riding – making it look effortless. No doubt, hitting the deck this last round is never the plan, but you stayed strong and not only got back up, butchad the tenacity to get the results that you did the next day. Indeed, the panda is strong in this one. Impressive.