It’s been over two years since I’ve gotten to do any real domestic UCI racing (my last opportunity was back in 2019, as our 2020 spring season was cancelled at the 11th hour before we entered the COVID universe), so needless to say, I was very excited and happy to have the opportunity to race in Arkansas. Domestic/continental-level racing at “home” is SO important for both long-term athlete development and as a foundation for a successful season and I’ve really been missing it. You need some lower stakes racing on familiar soil (or at least, in an environment that feels somewhat familiar), but with high calibre athletes. No pressure, the opportunity to learn and get your engine and race skills back online, and a chance to ENJOY racing without the stress of World Cup extra-ness.
Anyways, we arrived in Arkansas last weekend prepared for three days of racing in five days: we were meant to race an XCO on Wednesday, short track on Friday, and another XCO on Sunday. The majority of the US athletes were able to race at this venue last year (travel restrictions still made it too difficult/uncertain for many Canadians to come down), and from watching their race coverage last year, we knew we could expect some big drops, a lot of airtime on course, and many rocks. What I didn’t know is that the dirt is clay, and at the first hint of moisture, it becomes as slippery as playing pond hockey with your boots on. However, it does dry extremely quickly, becoming thick and tacky, though the more of this slippery mud that gets tracked onto the rocks, the more slippery those become.
By the end of Tuesday’s session - our only real course recon day - I still hadn’t hit the one big drop. You may have seen it - it’s the big “feature” that looks cool, intimidating, and parallels the long rock garden B line (which is LOL that that’s the B line… the rocks are so much harder/sketchier). I was having a weird mental block with it, which sometimes happens, and I was just freezing. So frustrating!!! I couldn’t let it go and just flow. Ughh. I still feel embarrassed to admit my trouble with it, but sticky patches and mental blocks are part of being a pro. It definitely triggered some major feelings of imposter syndrome, and I actually said to Lespy, “This is well within my skill level, and I know I can do it, but I think I’m not cut out for mountain bike racing anymore”. If you’ve ever felt like you don’t belong in your profession… you’re not alone, we all get those feelings!
So. Tuesday’s session was over, and they were forecasting some gnarly weather, but we went to bed prepared to get up early for a 9:30am race start on Wednesday morning. At this point, I’m going to switch the writing style up to a 9th-grade history class “timeline of events” recap, as surely a race week like this will go down in history as the most chaotic, change-riddled week of racing on North American soil to date, and it needs to be documented.
6:00am - Haley (and likely most other elite women) wake up for their pre-race meal. Haley feels absolutely TERRIBLE, major gut issues and no sleep last night.
7:00am - Elite women begin to arrive at the venue to sign in for race plate pick-up. Normally this is done 1-2 days prior to race day, but due to the condensed nature of the event and (I’m assuming) staffing, it had to be done the morning of. *Important note: Haley has just drank a coffee, which happens ONLY on race mornings when she feels she needs it. Coffee turns Haley into a jittery disaster if it isn’t immediately followed by intense physical exertion.
7:02am - Driving into the venue, it is apparent that the venue has been destroyed by a micro-burst (tiny tornado). Tents and expo set-ups are completely wrecked. Just carnage. We jump out of the van, and are informed that there will be NO racing today. They were forecasting more rough weather for the day (including severe winds), and some people were quick to make fun on social media that we were cancelled due to rain, but part of it was that the organizers needed time to regroup and deal with the mess before any racing could take place. We’re told that racing will take place tomorrow on the same time schedule. This makes the race days Thursday, Friday, and Sunday.
8:00am - Athletes leave the venue.
1:00pm - Athletes return to the venue for course pre-ride and plate pick-up. ’tis MUDDY. Haley uses her extra day to study, looks at the drop and FINALLY just “feels” it. Sends it no issues. Laughs at herself for worrying about it for 3 days.
6:00am - Race morning take 2. Haley doesn’t feel like death this morning, but still doesn’t feel great. No coffee. She learned her lesson.
9:30am - XCO Race #1! Real mudfest. Haley races super poorly - dead legs, asleep body, but tries her best and get loose AF in the mud. Has fun - is done with the attitude of self-flagellation and pressure, and makes the best out of bad legs.
11:30am - Men’s Race #1! Also muddy, but different mud. Less slippery in some spots (you’re welcome for cleaning the course for you, gents), and more in others. Both races were long… nearly 1:40 for the winners.
12:45pm - Elite women’s short track! Dry, sunny, heavy winds (tailwind through start/finish straight, headwind through the relatively sheltered portions). Haley finds herself off the front with a small gap at end of lap 1, but hesitates (HUGE regret!) And doesn’t send it. Is in the mix and strong, but poor positioning on the final climb of the final lap, and misses the move. But, lightyears better than yesterday’s XCO. Legs have awoken!
1:30pm - Elite men race. Another fast one. High speeds in the these races, very good XCC course in my opinion! Wide open, lots of group tactics and moving dynamics. World Cups, please take note.
3:00pm - Athletes leave venue expecting an easy day tomorrow.
9:00am - Athletes get ready for their training rides.
~9:30am - Athletes get a feeler call from the organizer… “would we be willing to race XCO #2 this afternoon, instead of tomorrow?” With severe thunderstorms and flooding forecasted for Sunday, they want to move the race up to avoid potential lightning-induced cancellations. 5 seconds to deliberate. Answer - yes, we can be ready.
10:30am - It’s ON; we’re confirmed for 4pm women’s start and 6pm men’s start.
11:00am - Athletes take to social media to spread the word. Brad Copeland invents a new word, “preponed”, that makes me laugh out loud.
1:30pm - Told we MUST be at the venue to sign in by 2pm. If 100% of people do not sign in/confirm they are aware of and okay with the change, we will not be able to race.
2:00pm - All women have signed in. We’re a go!! Not all men have signed in. They will not be able to race.
2:12pm - Haley has a coffee (her “lessons learned” are very short-lived) to override the 3pm circadian low she always hits.
2:24pm - Commissaire has decided NO one will be racing, to preserve fairness. (Crap, I shouldn’t have had that coffee).
2:30pm - Okay, MAYBE the women can race.
2:34pm - Alright, women you can most likely race, but if we get to the start line and not everyone shows up, the race will be off.
3:00pm - Begin warm ups
3:30pm - We are informed it will be 4:15 staging (and thus 4:30 race start)
3:45pm - Alright, men can actually race, too! Everybody’s going today.
4:05pm - Staging ACTUALLY begins at 4:05. Athletes have done the weirdest/longest/most disjointed warm up ever.
4:20ishpm - It’s happened! We’re doing it! Women start. Fast and furious race with HEAVY winds. Big drop is closed because of cross-winds in the take-off/landing. *Haley’s race goes much better - great legs, but bad luck in start loop means she works through traffic in laps 1 and 2. SO close to connecting with the lead group of 6, but the effort to reel them in cost her. Finishes 8th, with so much improvement over Thursday. Nothing fancy to show for it, but a lot of personal pride - and now motivation to work for more.
5:45 - Men’s staging. Very long process to confirm all of them are here.
6:07 - Men’s start. *Blevins goes off the front, Lespy chases solo in second place for the first half before being caught in the closing laps. He sent it!!! Finishes 4th.
8:00 - Podiums, anti-doping, nightfall (lol). Athletes feel very grateful that we got to race!
Thanks to the US Cup organizers and the commissaires for working together to pull this off. Yes, we may would have been fine to race today, and there may not have been lightning/thunderstorm issues… but we really appreciate the effort put forth to give us these racing opportunities.
Lessons learned? Be adaptable. Go with the flow. Rigidity and a serious attitude do not serve you!