You Call This Mud?!? Nationals Recap

Photo: Tenspeed Hero

Photo: Tenspeed Hero

I love mud. And I love riding my bike in mud. It’s especially fun when a rut under the soupy, brown goop catches my wheel and throws me face first into the soft, sticky mess… all while cyclocross fans lining the racecourse shout a collective “oooohhhh” followed by laughs and gentle encouragements as I stagger to my feet. I mean, how can you take yourself seriously when this is the pinnacle of your entire season?

To call the US Cyclocross National Championship race “muddy” is beyond an understatement. It’s like calling 15-time national champion Katie Compton merely a “good” rider. Nope. Like Compton, this year’s course was epic, incredibly tough, and absolutely legendary.

The course was a mere two-plus mile loop twisting and turning throughout an undulating park in the heart of Louisville, Kentucky. It wound its way up and down steep hills and traversed the park with challenging off camber sections. And while the course was challenging enough on its own, as it transitioned from grass to mud it became downright diabolical. 

Lucky for me, I got to experience this circuit of doom twice. Once on Saturday for the single speed race (because what makes mud even more fun? Riding it with a single gear while dressed up as an 80’s women’s wrestling character… we can dive into that on another day…) and again for the Elite race on Sunday.

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But rather than talking about the ups and falling downs of each race I thought it would be more fun to examine the many layers of mud experienced throughout this dynamic course. Yes, there were different types of mud, very unique types in fact. The viscosity, ride-ability, soul-sucking-ness of the mud changed rapidly throughout the course making for these distinct segments featured below.

For those of you who raced this course in its muddy gloriousness, enjoy reliving the nightmares. For the rest of you folks…. Just close your eyes and image the cool sliminess dripping down your neck and squishing between your hands….

Start Mud – You know what’s a good idea? Staring a race with a short, 50-meter paved downhill section that shoots straight into a soupy mess of mud and grass and ruts. Nothing like 50 women lining up elbow to nervous elbow ready to hit that section at max speed and just praying that everyone in front of you keeps it upright. Starting on the fourth row on Sunday was like doing a trust fall in middle school, just close your eyes, take a deep breath and dive in.

Slip ‘n Slide Mud – Luckily, I made it through the start pretty much unscathed and we entered the slip ‘n slide section where we played bumper cars with each other. A few unlucky riders went down for the first of what was sure to be many dirt naps. This section was my favorite, it was the perfect kind of slippery mud that is all about balance and power.

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Slog Mud – Next up came the slog mud. This was mix of slippery and sticky mud just after the sandbox that was easy enough to navigate but that zapped your legs of power with every slow pedal stroke. This section provided a great appetizer of what was to come.

Holy Shit Downhill Mud – The most exciting and my favorite part of the course came just after pit #1 when we hit a long, super-fast downhill section. It was the perfect combination of “Woohooo! This is so much fun, I’m flying,” and “Holy Shit, I just hit a rut and now I’m sliding on my face through the mud.” Luckily it was all very soft so face-planting didn’t hurt much, only the ego is still bruised at this point.

Photo: Kennedy Adams

Photo: Kennedy Adams

I Hate My Life Uphill Mud – Basically the next 10 miles of the course was all uphill in the stickiest most soul-sucking mud you can imagine. These uphill switchbacks quickly turned into a death march rather than a run-up and I’ll admit it right here that I walked part of this. Yep, National Championship race and I was walking…slowly…while almost dying from a heart attack because it was so damn difficult. Luckily, there were tons of fans throughout this section so the internet is full of really unflattering photos of me flailing as I walked up this hill. Thanks friends….

Photo: Tenspeed Hero

Photo: Tenspeed Hero

 Zonhoven Downhill Mud – After going face to face with death itself on that switchbacky section we had to basically turn ourselves around and face death once again while descending a super steep, loose drop that felt exactly like surfing Zonhoven’s iconic sandy descent. It’s another section where closing your eyes might have actually been the better choice.

Where Did My Shoe Go Mud – As we reached the far side of the course, another difficult run-up with goopy, mucky mud appeared. On Saturday, this section was tough but not totally outrageous. On Sunday, however, the mud seemed to come alive, growing with every lap and grabbing hold of your feet with every step. The park’s groundskeeper is going to find 15 shoes on that hill next summer when the park finally dries out.

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Thank God They Opened A Grass Lane Non-Mud – For the single speed race on Saturday, we had to climb the Mount Everest of cyclocross muddy run-ups as we made our way back to pit #2. This hill literally broke my soul and had me contemplating not even racing on Sunday. Luckily, Dani, Nick, and friends peer-pressured me into racing the elite race and even more luckily, the course was rerouted through this section on Sunday, which provided a ridable grassy lane. Seriously, whoever made that call at USAC… THANK YOU. You may have just saved me from quitting bike racing all together with that glorious narrow patch of grass.  

Photo: Kennedy Adams

Photo: Kennedy Adams

Final Stretch, Are You F’ing Kidding Me Mud –  After ascending the giant mud/grass hill and passing through pit #2, you hit a little bit of pavement thinking that the worst is behind you. And in reality, it is. But then, just for one last face slap, kick in the stomach, we had a short, peanut buttery section of mud with barriers. Yep, because there wasn’t enough f’ing running in this race, we needed some barriers to hop over and try and remount while ankle deep in sloppy mud. Just make sure you don’t slide off your slippery, muddy saddle while remounting because you’ll be doing it in front of all the start/finish line cameras and announcers…. Whoops.

OK. OK. In all seriousness, this muddy course was fantastic. It was a blast to ride in the places we could actually ride and then super challenging everywhere else. It was hands down the toughest, most physically demanding cross course I’ve ever raced. While Saturday’s single speed race didn’t go well for me, Sunday was much better and I’m so thankful for the supportive team around me that let me dwell on my result from Saturday for a hot minute, helped me drink a couple beers while planning crazy antics for the next day’s race, and then backed me 100% as I gave it my all on Sunday.

22nd place wasn’t what I was shooting for but I’m actually really pleased with the effort and execution. Maybe if I spent less time sliding face first through the mud or stopping to gasp for air on those treacherous run-ups I could have nabbed a top 20. But in the end, I’m happy to have survived and to have taken on this silly, crazy, ridiculously muddy and grueling course.

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Kristen LeganComment