The venue for the Highlander ‘Cross Cup is located on the side of a hill next to McLennen College’s Community Services building. I learned that when USA Cycling was facing the course dilemmas at Zilker Park in Austin earlier this year, Waco was on the table as a secondary course option. It would have been a great location for a Nationals-caliber course. The elevation changes and technical sections rival the Pan-Am Championships course in Cincinnati and it is one wild ride.
The starting grid on this course puts riders on a slightly downhill grade that then sweeps back up and around a couple pavement turns. The starting loop wraps around the upper parking lot, comes back under the start/finish, and then you begin the first full lap.
Laurel Rathbun (Raleigh Clement) had an excellent start, eventually leading me, Emily Kachorek (Squid Bikes), and Christina Gokey-Smith (Dallas Bike Works) around for half of the first lap. There are two sets of stairs on this course: the first set is shorter and exits a mud pit, then you climb a few switchbacks and come upon the longer second set of stairs made of railroad ties. At the top of these stairs you descend through the trees and immediately turn all the way back up to the parking lot followed by the longest descent back down toward the pits. I passed Gokey-Smith on the climb and she bombed down the descent much faster than me. I got out of the saddle to pass her on the straight-away off-camber that spits you out into another mud bog right before the second pass by the pits.
I had practiced my line several times before the race and was confident in my route through the wet, clay mud, so I knew I had to lead going into it. I scared myself for a brief second as I carried a lot more speed than I anticipated into the large puddle of water, but stayed upright and sprinted by the pit. As the course weaves back around, I looked over to see who was behind me after the mud and no one was in sight. My only guess is that someone must have bobbled and held up the chasing riders, because I put a twenty second gap on anyone behind me through that section. I heard screaming from the pits to “GO!” and took that as my cue to put in a good effort all the way back up to the start/finish.
After going under the start/finish, the course makes a large U-turn back in the other direction and you can see your competitors coming for you. I noticed a chase group had formed with Kachorek, Rathbun, Gokey-Smith, and Kathryn Cumming (Cyclocross Magazine Racing Team). I knew this was a dangerous position for me to be in as a chasing group could certainly work together to reel me back in. I focused on being smooth in the next lap and maintaining my lead.
This course is very mountain bike–esque. You climb and you descend in a repetitious motion around the course and it’s very easy to lose time if mistakes are made. In the succeeding laps, Cumming moved herself into the second position and put the pressure on me. The course weaves back on itself in enough areas that I was able to keep an eye on where she was in relation to me and allowed me to do damage control whenever the gap started to close. I ended up maintaining my lead for the remaining five laps of the race and crossed the line immensely satisfied with another win. Samantha Runnels (ATC Racing) was Mrs. Consistency as she put in a solid effort to move up to the third step on the podium.
There was just enough time to make breakfast and watch the Namur World Cup Elite men’s race before heading to the course on Sunday morning. I got my routine going, executed my inspection laps, and mentally prepared for the course to take its toll on my legs for the second day.
I got immediately clipped in at the start and came off the line for my first ever holeshot. Kachorek and I were the two most vocal about yelling “careful!” to the other riders as the pavement descent, asphalt turns, and looming speed bump could quickly create a dangerous situation if anyone made a careless mistake. I stayed in the lead around the start loop and came upon the infamous high-speed bunny hop curb. I’m not joking when I say it’s one of the scariest obstacles I’ve ever faced on a ‘cross course. You have two options: maintain a high speed and bunny hop the curb in one fell swoop, or slow down and gingerly get your tires over the curb without smashing your rim. Option one holds more risk because if you don’t hop high enough, you could seriously hurt yourself at the speeds we were going. Option two is less risky, but will force you to slow down significantly. I successfully cleared the curb on every lap, but I’m not denying that I was terrified each time.
Here’s a short clip of the high-speed bunny hop.
The larger of the two mud pits was shortened for Sunday’s course and rerouted through the less sloppy section. I wasn’t able to create as significant of a gap through the mud this time around and Cumming was hot on my heels after the first lap.
The climb on the backside of the course goes from the very lowest elevation point to the very highest in about a minute’s time. With lap times just over eight minutes, it means that climb took up just over 10% of the entire course. And boy it hurt a little extra on day two. I made sure to put in as big of efforts as possible up the climbs and keep a clear head for the descents. I caught myself being more cautious on the off-camber sections on the second day knowing that the extra fatigue could catch up with me and cause unwanted bobbles. I was only putting 2-7 seconds on Cumming in each of the six laps and was barely hanging on for the lead. Runnels was able to slot herself into third place and held on for the final spot on the podium.
Observation on course length: UCI officials are being stricter about the required length of time for the women’s races. When we asked about it at the start line on Sunday, however, the attitude was more spiteful than I expected. We were joking that the race felt like it went a lap over (I was shown one-to-go at 42 minutes), but we were told that since people had been complaining about the races being “too short,” they were going to make them as long as possible. Ouch.
In similar fashion to the previous Sunday, I was given a USADA chaperone and a form to sign. I joined Bridget Tooley, the talented, young Women’s Cat 2/3/4 winner, in the USADA RV and we did our business. Two weekends in a row being a part of the efforts to keep our sport clean.
Finally, I’m sending a huge thank-you to Ryan Jones and the Soundpony boys (Team SPCX p/b R&K Black) for their support. Ryan was my pit boss on Sunday and celebrated his first mechanic UCI victory! Glad I was able to bring that home for him and very grateful for his help while David Sheek was busy preparing for the following Elite race. We’ve got a second home within the Southern ‘Cross Series and I can’t wait for next year.
Current Rankings as of December 22nd:
UCI Overall: 48
UCI American: 12
USAC Pro CX: 11
To shed light on the significance of this mini series for me by the numbers, on the November 17th UCI rankings update, I was 149th overall and 34th American woman. That’s going from a fifth row start at Nationals to solidifying second row. A leap in points I’m very grateful for. So much of this sport is a numbers game when you try climbing to the top and I enjoy that aspect of it all.
Tulsa threw giant sand pits at me. Dallas plunged me into sloppy mud. Waco sent me up and down the side of a hill. The Southern ‘Cross Series has challenged me in every way and put all my skills to the test.
This block of December races should be a no-brainer addition to your cyclocross schedules next year. If I’ve inspired at least one person to make the trip down next year for the full series of races I’ll consider it a success. As the saying goes, “If you build it, they will come.” Oklahoma and Texas have built the foundation for something extraordinary and I have a feeling this series of UCI races is only going to continue to grow. I met a lot of young, talented riders who are going to emerge from this community and that’s so awesome. American cyclocross is thriving and I’m happy to see the regional UCI races continue to inspire the development of more riders.
2 thoughts on “Panda’s POV: The Southern ‘Cross Series Finale”
I couldn’t agree more about that high speed bunny hop. Every time through all that was going through my head was make sure to hop high enough because I was scared of crashing hard.
Great write-up! See you down in Texas next year!
About that high speed bunny hop though…I came unclipped after coming down from the bunny hop. Too fast of speed, I couldn’t regain balance and took a nasty tumble Sunday on the first lap.
Congrats on your stellar season! Good luck at Nationals!!