The Best Lil Thunderdome in Texas: Resolution Cross Cup
By Annicka Campbell-Dollaghan
Have you ever had a moment during a race when you’re suddenly granted the gift of perspective? When the lens is pulled back and you’re able to see what you’re doing from the view of an impartial third party?
This past December 12th, I stood frozen at the top of a steep drop-off and watched as pro racers shot over the edge during the pre-ride. They were chatting casually with one another. The whole situation and my participation in it suddenly seemed bizarre and unnecessary. This race report is about how I got to that point, and how I talked myself off the ledge, figuratively and literally.
The Resolution Cross Cup is a two-day race in Garland, Texas in mid-December. It’s a youngish race, only four years old, but the warm weather and ProCX / UCI C2 designation draw a strong professional field. They use it as a tune up before Nationals, and a chance to collect all-important UCI points and improve their ProCX rankings.
Racing on a UCI-sanctioned course was a big goal for me this year. Lots of people sing the praises of these races - harder courses and stronger and bigger fields across all categories. But as a second year racer and first year cat 3, it seemed like a stretch.
As my results and confidence improved in September, it started to feel more realistic, but the window to make it happen was closing. I’d passed up the closest options (Trek CX Cup and Jingle Cross) to race the full Chicago Cross Cup series. The Resolution Cross Cup was in Dallas, where my parents live, making it a relatively cheap and simple option. I registered for the women’s amateur open race.
IN THE ABSENCE OF CONSEQUENCES, HAVE FUN!
I've heard cautionary tales about cyclocross racers who become unstoppable in October. I felt unstoppable in October and expected it to continue. Every week was an improvement on the last. I remember writing in my race reports: “if you just believe that you have the capacity to go harder, you will!” Hahahaha.
My legs felt like shriveled old tree trunks come November. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. After a disappointing final race at Montrose, I knew that I wasn’t going to be at my best for Texas. My teammates suggested that I treat the race as an opportunity to hang out with my parents, race without consequences, and escape the incoming winter.
It was good advice. When I arrived in Dallas on Friday afternoon, I re-assembled my bike in my parent’s garage with a late-stage derailleur assist from Transit Bikes (awesome local shop, great people). This was the first time I’d flown with my bike and it actually went pretty well – thanks to Southwest’s relatively tolerant bike policy and my amazing Pika Packworks bag.
DON’T EXPECT YOUR BEST IF YOU HAVEN’T PREPARED (BUT YOU SHOULD STILL DO AN OPENER, YA DINGUS)
During my first year of racing cross, my teammate Christine gave me some feedback that stuck. I was worried about how I was going to place in a given race. She asked if I’d done everything in my power to prepare, from nutrition to training. When I said no, she said (and she said this much more kindly, but to the effect of) – well, then you’re going to do okay. Her point was that unless you’ve done everything possible to set yourself up for success, there’s no use in worrying about your result. You’ll do okay and have fun, maybe place well. But you didn’t make it a priority, so why waste energy on worrying now, right before the race?
As such, most of this season was about being preparing and making it a priority. Dallas was a departure from this approach. I should have done a leg opener, especially after a flight, but I only had one set of wheels with me, and they were my prized tubulars, and what if I got a puncture and couldn't race? Okay, I recognize that this is a terrible excuse, but tacos and margaritas with my mom and dad were calling my name. They’ve lived in a cool, downtown neighborhood in Dallas for ten years, and I’ve come to love their liberal, food-cetric version of Texas. As we ordered another round, my adamant race season abstinence (from both alcohol and enjoying myself) floated hazily in the back of my mind, as did Christine’s advice.
WELCOME TO THE THUNDERDOME
I was excited to check out the Texas ‘cross community. I had imagined a big tent city like we have at Montrose, but when I showed up on Saturday, there were only a few tents, mostly belonging to the pros. The music was loud, energy super high, lots of people on the course. There just weren’t many people spectating, perhaps because of the inclement weather. There were only three porta-potties, which were emblazoned with the Texas state flag and the words “BEST LITTLE OUTHOUSE IN TEXAS,” and I never once saw a line for them.
The course itself was far, far beyond anything I had experienced in terms of scope and course features. I mentioned a drop-off earlier – it was Namur-level.
Okay, maybe not Namur level. But it felt like it.
The course stretched across a large hilly park and traveled through a number of single track sections. The main event was a section of wooded single track that was shaped like a gigantic bowl. You were basically dropping into and climbing out of the bowl. The announcer called it the Thunderdome. After that, you traveled along a swampy river bottom, which had already flooded, creating deep pools of mud full of submerged tree trunks. It was legit.
SPEAKING OF LEGIT
The other amazing thing about this race was seeing the crème de la crème of American cyclocross doing their thing in real life. There was Amanda Nauman, who’d won the Dirty Kanza and was having an extremely strong season (she won day 2 and would end up 7th at Nationals). There was the incredibly talented Courtenay McFadden, who won day 1. Rebecca Fahringer, who was the Amy D. Foundation racer for 2015. There was Christina Gokey-Smith, who is a force in the Texas racing scene. Squid and Speedvagen bikes peppered the bike stands. I even saw Gabby Durrin walking around in street clothes, which confused me at the time (she would announce her retirement from racing a few days later). Getting to watch them race and race on the same course was maybe the coolest thing about the entire experience.
POINTS ARE NOT EVERYTHING
The energy from the fast-approaching storm was infectious. I had first call-up thanks to my CCC points. The other women in the amateur open race, mostly from Oklahoma and Texas, were extremely friendly, which worried me. IMHO, the friendlier the racer at call-up, the faster they are in the race (see: Maria Larkin, Lindsay Knight, Sarah Szefi…actually, pretty much all women in the CCC). The rain started as we were staged and it occurred to me: toe spikes. Too late now!
I got the hole shot on a paved uphill path, which turned left into a ravine with a few bunny hoppable logs peppering the climb. A few little twists and turns through a thicket, a series of tight 180 turns, and then the course opened up on a long, wide sweep of a field.
The sky opened up as we approached a massive set of Belgian stairs. My mom was positioned at the stairs, and she greeted me with a heckle: “maybe if you got a decent bike, Anni!” ICE COLD, MOM.
We remounted onto a steady, leg-burning climb through some trees and benign off camber, all of which betrayed the main event. Here's a video of the entry into the Thunderdome section:
As foreboding as it was, the Thunderdome was cool. It had a set of stairs that were created by cutting into the clay wall. I’d seen these types of stairs in photos from bigger races. Check out this video of a dude RIDING it the day before the race (when it was dry).
The stairs were disintegrating by the time we reached them on the first lap. I’d been passed by two women from Oklahoma who would end up 1st and 2nd, but I was proud when I sucked it up and conquered the biggest drop-off with a few others right on my tail. Sharp right turn at the bottom, then another run-up where a woman tried to elbow me into a tree to pass. “Sorry!” I said, as I pushed my bike in front of her on the way up. Bless her heart, as they say in Dallas.
We entered the swampy switchbacks along the river. I hadn’t had a chance to pre-ride this part of the course, and I took it slowly. A woman behind me implored me forward – “we’ll never catch the leaders if you don’t take the turns faster!”
I’m not sure why, but her comment mortified me. All of the bad feelings from the end of the season came rushing back. She was right! I told her to pass me. I approached the spectator area, where my parents were standing, and a gigantic cloud of embarrassment settled over me. I started thinking about what would happen to my Cross Results points if I did poorly in a race like this. It felt like confirmation that the unexpected improvement I saw in September and October was a fluke.
MUD: THE GREAT EQUALIZER
Time trials are sometimes called the race of truth. Mud is clearly the race of truth in cyclocross: there was nowhere to hide my crappy handling skills. The rain had become a warm, driving downpour. Every line squished with two inches of deep clay. The benefits of having a B bike in the pit had become clear. Even my zippy aluminum TCXW felt like a touring rig as I pushed through the slop.
Here’s a video of Amanda Nauman, who won the Day 2 elite race, handling the slick mud with no problems. You can read Amanda Nauman’s report from the race here and see some photos of the Thunderdome on CX Hairs.
By the third lap, the mud stairs had melted, and the girl in front of me slid backwards down the hill with her bike. A long slide. I tried the pro move of using the course tape as a rope. It actually worked really well and I made it 90% of the way. But then my brake hood got caught in the tape. I grasped at the nearest tree, but it wasn’t enough and I fell backwards down the wall. My bike followed suit, crashing down on top of me. It was a spectator’s dream, and I know photos were taken, but I can’t find any online (let’s just say that the Texas cross scene, while wonderful, has no Morleigh and Nathan of Snowy Mountain Photography, and therefore will always be inferior to Chicago). When I finally made it up, one of the spectators at the top actually patted me on the back apologetically. I usually get mad when I see spectators touch riders, but by that point I just really appreciated the gesture.
My mom and dad hooted and hollered as I came across the line. I’d ridden a clean race, which was less a sign of skill and more a sign that I took no risks. I apologized to my parents for doing not so well. They were both taken aback – did I think they cared? They’d been showing up to watch me and my sister Kelsey at swim meets, kayak and rowing races and softball games for our entire lives. My parents are still willing to show up in the pouring rain and support me in something that doesn't make much sense but I really love doing. That’s nuts. My mom and dad are the best.
Day 2 of racing went much like day 1, but much muddier. It rained all night and tornados passed through Garland, right over the course. I am now an expert user of pressure washers, and pressure washer etiquette. Help the person after you hang their bike on the fence. They will appreciate it. Also, don’t try to use the pressure washer on your bare legs at close range. Trust me.
I mentioned feeling worried about my points and my poor result. Racing in Texas reminded me that cross should not be about anxiety, per se – it should be about FEAR! I’d forgotten the sensation of being so scared of a feature that you’re not sure you can ride it in the race, and then riding the hell out of it because you have no other choice. In Chicago, the courses are tough, but this year the toughest races in the series were cancelled because of weather. Texas was on another level. I greeted my pre-race diarrhea like an old friend. Thankfully, as I mentioned, the race organizers over-delivered on the porta-pottie front.
At some point during the race on Saturday, I also began to feel relieved. I was racing in a field that was far beyond me in skill, experience and strength. I have a ton to learn before I can legitimately compete with them. I especially need to improve on technical course features, bike handling and managing anxiety during races. I guess I felt relieved because the way forward was now clear: keep putting myself in uncomfortable situations, keep learning from other people, and working on the stuff I’m not so good at. I mean…next year. After my last race on Sunday, we made pizza and we watched British Bake-Off. I haven’t looked at CrossResults since.
A huge thank you to my wonderful and inspiring teammates, to Jef and Kelsey for being so supportive, to Sprintin' Kitten Coaching for encouraging me to go harder, and to Annie, Vanessa and Steven for being the heart and soul of BFF and making all this stuff possible in the first place.