I need to pay more attention. The weekend before last I randomly decided to take a load of old cardboard to the University City recycling center at Heman park. As I passed the park (something I do maybe once a month) I saw a sign advertising an "international professional bike race" to be held at the park in a few days time. It didn't add up. International? Professional? At a city park a mile and a half from my house? On a Wednesday? The instant I got home I looked it up on the internet, and sure enough, it was true. The Gateway Cross Cup was a new cyclocross race that attracted many of the top American professionals, and a few Europeans as well. It was a little weird to have a midweek race, but if that's when the pros can make it I guess that's when you have it. It was an all-day event with additional amateur races and a "5K" cross country run. I guess I had better take the afternoon off.
For the uninitiated, cyclocross is a type of bicycle racing that takes place on grass/dirt/mud/sand/snow on a closed loop course. The course is narrow. There are many sharp turns. There are barriers and steps placed in the course that force the riders to dismount their bikes, run over the obstacles, then remount and continue. This race had a flyover, basically a wooden bridge where the course crosses over itself to make a figure eight. Riders run up steps on one side, then down a very steep ramp on the other side. Then later the course goes beneath the bridge. I was aware this sort of obstacle existed, but I had never seen one in person (much less raced on one).
Cat 4 Race
I showed up about an hour before the first race (cat 4), enough time to take a few warmup laps. It was very helpful to familiarize myself with the course. Not doing so sufficiently was one of my two major problems in every previous cyclocross race I've done. The other was getting off to a poor start (due to the frequent sharp turns it's sometimes difficult to pass people), which I also rectified here. Since I was one of the few people to preregister online I ended up with a starting position in the front row. After the long paved straightaway at the start I hit the first turn into the grass around 8th place. And I moved up from there. I was in 5th after the first lap, then 4th. With one lap to go I was in 3rd, with two guys nipping at my heals. They both passed me mid-lap, and I passed one back by the end to finish in 4th out of 34 (just barely off the podium). It was by far my best cyclocross race ever.
"5K" Cross Country Race
I took it easy for a couple hours before the "5K" cross country run. I keep putting "5K" in quotes because the actual race distance was quite a bit farther. I found while warming up the loop was 2.05 miles, so two loops would be 4.1 miles (a full mile farther than advertised). Oh well. I didn't see very many other runners there (I was literally the only one who preregistered for the race, which is how I ended up with number 1). Right before the start I saw three guys wearing college jerseys. Shit.
It turns out they weren't the ones I should have been worrying about. From the start some guy shot out to the lead and before too long I could no longer see him. I ran in the chase pack with the college jersey guys (who I later found out had all graduated a few years ago and were no longer in their prime) until they slowly faded one by one. I finished 2nd, but it hurt. It was a (long) hard race on a (long) hard course that came after an earlier hard race.
UCI Pro Race
I caught bits and pieces of the other amateur bike races between eating dinner and going home to fetch my camera. The pro race was pretty awesome to watch. I've been reading these guys' names in results on CyclingNews.com for years so watching them race past me was somewhat surreal. One other really cool bit was watching a friend of mine (and multi-time state cyclocross champion) from Champaign, Jason Rassi, who saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and registered to race against the top pros.
It was a heck of an event to watch. The top pros are so strong and so skillful at this difficult discipline, I was in total awe.