Chris was the mechanic at CX Nationals for current and former Cap City racers Jen Malik and Josh Direen. We are going to talk to him about the gritty details of the course, equipment and pit action before we hear from Jen and Josh on their race performances.
Can you give us a little bit of insight into the course?
There was a lot of speculation early on as to what the course would be like and if it would live up to the previous nationals courses of Hartford, Asheville or Austin. I would have to say this course did exactly that. It is hard to choose the best out of the most recent courses because they are all so different, but that means USAC is doing a really good job in choosing venues that represent the true variety of CX that exists in the country. A lot of people speculated that there might be snow because it is so close to Lake Tahoe, at about 4,000 ft in elevation and in 2017 when Nationals was in Hartford there was snow cover on the ground at the same time. But, as luck would have it the weather was more or less dry with a little bit of freeze-thaw to deal with early in the day.
The first half of the course was deceptively power hungry. Just like the other Nevada course, CrossVegas, the first half of this course was your typical grass field that looked pretty similar to Smith Farms. Although the grass was sod, rather than natural grass, like you see around here. Sod usually feels like you are riding over velcro and most riders will opt for file tread tires on that type of grass. Coupled with the amount of power it took to conquer the first half of the course there was generally a headwind on most of the straightaways on this half of the course throughout the entire week. Although the appearance of this half of the course was Smith Farms-esque it had 5 chances for dismounts unless you had been practicing your CX skills in earnest all year long.
1. Concrete steps (which only some of the U23 men and Cody Kaiser were brave enough to bunny hop)
2. A ditch that many amateurs struggled with but a majority of the men and a few of the women (including Jen Malik) were able to jump. (You can see the struggles through the ditch from the Men's Single Speed race below). As the week progressed some were able to just ride through the ditch, albeit it was still slower than jumping it.
3. A Sandpit that you dropped into from a higher level (which according to USAC/UCI rules, should be illegal) immediately into a left-hand turn and the sand grew progressively deeper as you made your way to the exit.
4. A set up "Belgian steps" which were a series of steps in a row that you may have seen people like Ellen Noble riding, but it was a wash as to if running or riding was faster.
5. Finally, after you made it through all of these features you arrived at the barriers, which were very tall and saw even forced Stephen Hyde off his bike.
After that, you would pass pit entrance #2 and head off to the more mountain bike style half of the course which featured a pro only run-up and then several treacherous MTB and off-camber descents. The off-camber descents had quite a few exposed rocks by the end of the week and would lead to a majority of the flats you would see in both the men's and the women's elite races.
Following the decent, you would head off around the lake, through the dinosaur playground before heading to the finish straight.
We are going to ask the most asked question in CX, what was their tire pressure and what tread patterns were people running?
At the start of the week, you would have seen a lot of people running a mud tire that had not as much rolling resistance - something similar to a Challenge Baby Limus, Vittorria Wet or Donnelly PDX. The course was drying so much that by the time the Elite level races were held most racers were choosing were a mid-level tread like the Challenge Griffo, Vitorria Mix or Donnelly MXP. But, probably my favorite thing to geek out about is the tires the podium finishers and top 10 riders had picked. They went even a step further than most other racers and ran a tire combination that our favorite CX clinic coach, likes to call the "mullet." Where you see a fast rolling mud tire up front and a file tread in the rear. This was specifically the case for racers like Stephen Hyde, Katie Keough, Katie Compton and Ellen Noble. You saw the clear advantage these racers had over the rest of the field by having the lower rolling resistance through the first half of course which had the spongy sod, yet they were still able to push it hard in the corners and on the back half of the course on the off-camber descents because they were running tires with bigger side knobs.
As far as tire pressure goes, that is very specific based on rider preference and their riding style, tire manufacturer, etc... but our riders were running higher pressure because of the drier conditions, exposed rocks on the second half of the course and sidewalk lips that you had to bunny hop.
You were in the pits during some of the most exciting races. Tell us a little bit about the action there?
As a dry course goes generally you don't have much action in the pits, but this was opposite of a normal race so there was a ton of action. There wasn't a lot of bike cleaning going on that you typically see in a wet race, but there were more mechanical issues than I have seen all year. The pressure was definitely on for the mechanics at this year's Nationals. Jen suffered a rear flat midway through her collegiate race, which was an easily solvable issue.
In her Elite race, on the second to last lap she crashed on the off-camber and broke the outboard tab that holds the shift lever into the shifter body. Luckily, she was running mechanical shifters, so mechanically the shifter still worked, but there was no way to hold it up in its normal position. Normally, you would carry a spare shifter with you and make the switch right on the spot, but we didn't have the luxury of spare parts for this race so we had to be ingenious. There is a saying that duck/duct tape fixes anything. Thanks to the ingenuity of Ashlee Weimar (the ER Surgeon/Mechanic for Kevin Bradford Parish) we fashioned a piece of tape that was just strong enough to hold the shifter in place, allow the brake to be used and give Jen a bike she could ride if need be to finish the last half lap of the race. Definitely, not a fix you would prefer, but when time is of the essence coming up with solutions like this to keep your rider in the race are essential.
Josh on, the other hand, was mechanical free during the race but snapped his steer tube in half just prior to the race which left us scrambling to find him a "B" bike. We ended up scrounging up a bike from a teammate who had raced earlier in the week in one of the master's categories. The only thing I had to do for Josh was take off an unneeded water bottle cage and lend some positive words of encouragement from pit row.
Others in the elite races weren't so lucky. Cassie Maximenko broke her shoe and was forced to one-leg pedal for nearly half the course. Heavy hitters such as Laura Winberry, Sunny Gilbert, Crystal Anthony and 5+ men suffered flats from the exposed rocks on the second half of the course.
All in all, it was a very exciting women's elite and men's elite race even as a mechanic.