It was very tempting to pen this article as a simple race report. After all, the highlight of the day was the Men's and Women's Elite class competition, which is comprised of both professional and highly select amateurs. It is the most skilled level of racing under the cyclocross umbrella, crowning a champion is what the Cross Nats are all about. But upon reflection it became apparent that this was merely the easy way out. Race results and reportage are an important aspect of the reporting yes. But, (and this is key) there are about 2,450 Competitors laying it all on the line in this competition and that is really the story.
The first day of the competition was predominantly the Junior competition. Take note that this is a school day in which 335 families chose to bear the expense, take a few days off from work and school, and trek out to Kansas. Riders from 45 states all rallied to participate in a sport that they do for the honor of a medal, or a jersey, but more importantly for the pure love of it. As we returned to the hotel after the final race, we ran across a young competitor from Idaho packing up his gear. He had finished 35th in the men's elite. He had hoped to do better of course, but he told us, "This was the greatest day of my life, I had the opportunity to race on the same track, in the same race with the very best Cross Champions and that's enough." He had the chance to do so enjoying himself every pedal crank, and every step of the way. Now he was packing up his gear and bringing a smile home with him.
The last day of the Cross Nats was for many a day of relaxation, enjoying a sport that they all love. Gathered around the track it was possible to recognize many of the same faces that raced earlier in the weekend. Now they were back with all the pressure off. The only pressure remaining was that of making as much noise as humanly possible with cow bells, bike pump powered home made air horns, old bike frames beaten on with pipes, or any other fashion of noisemaker. Pressure was on to cheer like hell for their favorite, or possibly a rider they just picked from the crowd, or maybe a rider who was suffering and needed their cheers. The sounds of cowbells and encouragement filled the air. By the time the Elite races went off, the spectators were 3 to 5 deep, surrounding key observation points along the course.
Excitement permeated an already rowdy crowd. Clusters of spectators hovered in the dips near the run ups, a spot that had claimed many a dry kit, the slip was wild and the ruts were just getting deeper and deeper. This is where this weekend's riders chose to congregate. Why? Because they had already been there. As riders made it through, or not, the appropriate Ooohs or Ahh's rose and without seeing, you knew the from the sound how the rider had passed the obstacle - or not.
The rubber squeaky chickens came out, a chicken man was making the rounds, Space Ghost made an appearance and Santa even rode the course. What precisely the cartoon characters and farm animals have to do with Cross may escape us, but the energy and the all out visceral enjoyment of laying it all on the line does not.
The track itself had remained as much a chameleon as it had been throughout the event. From the time of the warm ups to the race itself, sections previously frozen were now slushy. Formerly safe traction points, now pitched riders left and right as their bikes shot out from beneath them.
There were five big players in the men's elite but it really boiled down to a duel between Tim Johnson, coming off of a phenomenal year of wins, and Johnathan Paige, another highly seeded contender. Ryan Trebon, the defending champion entered the race handicapped by a bout of illness. He was ultimately taken out by a head on collision with a slower competitor.
Paige began the race with a clear 15 second lead on the rest of the field, but it was soon obvious that Tim Johnson applied lessons learned this year racing on the U.S. Pro Tour. In a classic road strategy, he slowly reeled Paige in. Then he hung back and sitting on Johnathan's wheel, conserving his energy for an all out challenge on the pavement with two to go. He attacked, took the lead and held it. Passing through the pit area Paige hit one of the course stakes and got tangled up in the tape costing him another few precious seconds, sealing his fate.
The Elite women's race was a horse of an entirely different color. Held before the men's elite, the course was still a bit more frozen with icy patches that proved dangerous, unseating many of the women. Sudden exits into nearby ice coated trees or hard trips to the ground were common. For the winner and National Champion, Katie Compton, it was written in stone as she shot ahead of the pack and proceeded to ride the course on rails. It was never in question, it was clear that her long season of European racing had honed her razor sharp skills.
There you have it, the race report this article had to include. Sure it's about the race, but in the end it is really about the racers, the fans, and the spirit of competition.