My Last Muddy Weekend in 2014 and the Lessons Learned

Somehow at the last minute, the Pacific Northwest got their UCI-sanctioned cyclocross race. When the Deschutes Brewery Cup in Bend OR was cancelled mid-season, it looked like there wouldn’t be a UCI race anywhere north of California all year. Luckily the guys who run Seattle-based MFG Cyclocross secured a sponsor in the form of Waves For Water, a nonprofit organization that works to provide clean water to communities in need worldwide. With a little help from the guys at Cross Revolution, a rival CX race organizer, MFG managed to deliver 2 days of racing this past weekend that attracted racers from all over the NW as well as places like Colorado. Hats off to all involved!

Mark Vs Davidson D-Plus in singlespeed mode

For me, that will be my last weekend of cyclocross racing, though I mostly missed out on the first half of the season. Instead of getting ready for racing at the end of the summer, I was breaking down a 31 year old bike shop. Long, relentless hours of packing and moving made riding my bike, let alone going to the races, into a whimsical daydream. My long-awaited Davidson D-Plus cyclocross bike was the last bike to be painted at that location, but I was too busy to build it up until after we completed move-out on Halloween. I assembled the frame with a 2×10 drivetrain for photos and then immediately rebuilt it as a no-compromise singlespeed race bike, thereby fulfilling the D-Plus design concept (you can read more about the design and fabrication in Issue 19 of our downloadable magazine).

Before the season began I had ambitions to double up on race days, entering both Cat4 and singlespeed events. The plan was to use my still-awesome Redline Conquest Carbon as my geared bike and the D-Plus for singlespeed. As it actually played out, I raced Cat4 at Silverlake and Magnuson Park; SSCX at Woodland Park, Frontier Park, Gig Harbor, and the first day of Waves-For-Water at Marymount Park, Tacoma. At Steilacoom on the second day of the UCI weekend, I finally managed to do the double, so now it’s time to clean all the mud off my race wheels, return the D-Plus to a fully-geared mode, and reflect on what I have learned this season.

One thing I learned is that I don’t like being at the back end of my fields. I’ve had good CX seasons in the past when I was consistently in with the top quarter of the finishers, but this fall I’ve been tail-end Tommy most of the time. The biggest difference is my lack of fitness. I have been lax in my training, spending too much time fixing other people’s bikes and making poor use of my time. And I’m not getting any younger; from now on fitness won’t be a happy accident. I’m kinda glad that CX season is over, because now I can concentrate on developing and implementing a training plan.

Mark Vs Davidson D-Plus in singlespeed mode

It wasn’t pure humiliation though. I still have a decent finishing sprint in Cat4, and I am capable of racing twice in the same day. I expected to get trounced in the singlespeed races, especially in the races without separate “A” and “B” division. Lumping the fast racers and the race fodder into the same wave means that the field strings out right from the start, and the slower riders can at best hope to not get lapped by Craig Etheridge as he slays the singlespeed field yet again. Craig’s stranglehold on the competition would be a lot more irritating if he wasn’t the nicest guy you could ever hope to meet at a starting line or in the parking lot. No shit, the guy is so nice it’s inhuman. Craig aside, a drubbing in the singlespeed division doesn’t get me down, especially this season since I’m still getting a feel for gear selection. After 3 or 4 seasons, I am familiar with most of the courses, but I’ve never had to think about how I would set up the bike if I couldn’t shift during the race.

The day before Woodland Park CX, I put a 36×17 on the bike, partially because that’s what I could scrape together from my stash. With the bike shop closed, the pool of parts from which I could draw supplies had disappeared, but I found that ratio to work reasonably well for me at Woodland Park. At about 58 gear-inches, it’s not a very tall gear, but I have always been a spinner on the road. And on the Redline’s 1×10 setup, I use a 38T ring and spend most of the time in the lower gears. But even with that low gear I start to suffer on the longer climbs by the end of the race (another motivation for training). Still, even if I return to a competitive level of fitness, there is a practical limit of how much I can spin a low gear when the terrain is rutted and bumpy because you can’t keep a smooth cadence while bouncing all over the place. In retrospect I wish I had tried out the BodyFloat suspension seatpost in a couple of the races. I had success using that post in gravel grinders last summer, but I have been hesitant to use it in a CX race since I don’t feel confident about trying to remount the suspended saddle. For one thing, the saddle would be higher than normal without my weight on it, so I would need to leap a little higher as I remount, and then I’m worried that I might not stick the landing as the post sags under my downward inertia. By next fall I would like to have the fitness to move up to a 38×17 (~61 gear-inches), but later this month I plan to experiment with the BodyFloat at Marymoore, since that is one of the really bumpy courses that is readily accessible.

Mark Vs Davidson D-Plus in singlespeed mode I learned to look at the bottom of my shoes. It’s probably a good idea to start the CX season with fresh cleats for your shoes. I didn’t check the condition of my cleats before Silverlake. I had problems staying clipped in, I flubbed the sprint when I inadvertently unclipped, and in the end gave away a placing that I had worked hard to gain.

Another learning adventure has been tubeless cyclocross tyres. My goal has been to find a trouble-free CX tyre that would perform well in stereotypical NW courses: muddy grass corners, deep mud, and loam. Last summer I discovered some great gravel tyres in the Kenda Happy Medium. A tubeless-ready version is available in 32mm and even the regular 35mm version works well in a tubeless conversion. Having the wider option in a dry conditions/gravel tyre is great on rutted descents from mountain passes, but the tubeless-ready tyres are frequently only available in the 33mm size to meet UCI regulations. Worse, manufacturers want to make sure that their tyres will not exceed 33mm width even on today’s trendy wide rims. That means that the tyres actually measure significantly less than 33mm unless they are mounted on those wide rims. When it comes to cyclocross racing, pretty much the only time narrower tyres offer any benefit is if you want that skinny to give more space for mud to fall through on a frame with tight clearances. Since I’m racing in Cat4 or singlespeed, no one cares if my tyres are wider than regulation, but it’s not so easy to take advantage of that without wider mud tyre options. I’ll talk about my tubeless tyre revelation on another day, but in the end I did find a good tubeless CX tyre for Washington state.

For my Redline, I am using the Tufo Flexus Cubus 34 tubulars that I have had for the past few seasons. Tufo tyres may not be the lightest or most supple CX rubber around, but they are tough and long lasting. You do want to spend the money on the “Flexus” version of Tufo tyres, as the base version is like a garden hose. Tufo has recently updated the tread designs of both the mud-loving Cubus and the medium condition Primus. I suspect that the Primus had more room for improvement since it really suffered badly in wet conditions, whereas the Cubus’ only real weakness might be a little excessive rolling resistance on hardpack or pavement. Regardless, I’m going to keep the older Tufos since they pre-date the UCI 33mm rule. Maybe they stretched a little over time, but those brick red lovelies measure 35mm as they are now. Monster truck grip, Cadallac ride. If the Cubus didn’t shed mud so well, their bulk would be a problem on the Redline, which is not overly generous on clearance. I do have one Flexus Primus mounted on my backup rear wheel; the only time I used it was actually for the singlespeed at the chilly Gig Harbor race. I was actually surprised how competent it felt on frozen grass. The experience rekindled my appreciation for the original Primus, though I still feel that it is not as versatile as some other options out there.

Mark V Davidson D-Plus in singlespeed mode

Since I cannot get the Flexus Cubus in 34mm anymore, I have reason to maintain those tyres for future seasons. Somehow I had slit the tread on the rear, maybe at Silverlake. The slice was just short of going into the casing, and I figured out that I could repair the wound in the rubber with a little bit of Aquaseal, which I have been using to seal the sidewall on CX tyres with cotton-poly casings like Challenge and FMB (Tufo’s vulcanized construction eliminates the need to seal the sidewall). The fix worked perfectly.

One key lesson that I learned was this: don’t take whiskey hand-ups during a race. I don’t know why I did it at Marymount; maybe the self-awareness that I was nowhere near the front of the singlespeed field. And I often have more than a shot of brandy or applejack immediately after the race, so what could it hurt to have a snort of the hard stuff in the final lap? All seemed well as I finished, but then I was overwhelmed with nausea. I was by the team tents when I started wretching, then soon I stumbled over to the treeline out of courtesy. Nothing was actually coming out of my mouth, but I wasn’t fit for moving for a good quarter hour.