Racing at 2019 Cyclocross Nationals

Technologist, family man, and mud-lover Chris Rodde is our top-ranking racer for 2019. We’re inspired by his year-and-a-half long preparations for cyclocross nationals. Here is his heart-pounding account of how it felt to race with the best in the US.

Cyclocross Nationals was held in Steilacoom, WA this year, just 1 hour south of Seattle. The first time since 1996 that Natz was held in Washington offered Seattle area bike racers a chance to race at one of the best venues against the fastest racers in the country, to volunteer at a national level event, and to cheer on fellow Seattle area racers as they dug deep to strut their stuff on their home course.

Seattle showed up well in every way possible at this event, from the local MFG crew who put on an incredible event, to the fans who showed up in the thousands, to Seattle local racers, who dominated their categories. Seattle came away with 7 national champions and 37 podiums across the 37 championship races held. Seattle women especially kicked ass winning 5 championships. It was a huge thrill to cheer on friends Julie Robertson Zivin, Tricia Fleischer and Jack Spranger who all will wear the stars and stripes this year.

I raced in the Masters Men 50-54 category. For me, getting to Steilacoom was an 18 month journey starting last season hiring a coach for the first time to acquire some training tips and racing at the 2018 Nationals in Louisville, KY to gain some Natz experience.

My goal for Nationals was to try to crack the top 20. The race predictor at Cross Results had me at 17th so I knew 20th was within reach. Who knows… maybe I could land in the top 10!

In terms of the prep & training for Natz, there isn’t much difference as compared to the prep & training that you’d do for local races. The biggest difference is about USA Cycling points. USAC points determine the start order of the race and with 100+ racers in a category, a good start position can mean a ton if you are hoping for a good result.

I could write a short book about USAC points and how to gain decent points if you are coming from the west coast. In short, the only way to get decent USAC points is to travel to parts of the country where points are good. This season I went to Boulder, CO to race 4 races over a weekend, to give myself a boost at the Natz starting line. The Boulder trip paid off despite coming down with the flu the day before. I actually raced with a fever, feeling like absolute shit the whole weekend. In my sickly shape, my goal in Boulder was to just finish, and my results and the points I got actually worked out pretty well landing me in the 4th row at Steilacoom (28th seed) out of the 13 total rows in the 50-54 Men category.

In the 2 weeks before Natz, I went through a range of emotions and doubts about my plan to taper to peak for Natz. Some days I woke up feeling great, confident that my tapering plan was going to make me faster when that whistle blew. Other days, I woke up questioning whether I’d lose all of the speed that I’d worked so hard all season to build up. Should I do more intervals this week? The few intervals I’m doing… am I pushing them hard enough? Or too hard? As an amateur racer (with no coach this year) I had a few scarce things guiding me. One was my years of swimming in high school and college, where we tapered every season, so I knew tapering worked. Another was a post by Adam Myerson with some tips on what to do in the last couple of weeks before cyclocross Natz. Adam’s best piece of advice for peaking for nationals is that the work is done and you can’t really change anything so don’t sweat it. I kept reminding myself of this as the days to Natz counted down.

An hour before the race, the rain started to pour, making for perfect conditions for this mud obsessed racer, boosting my confidence. Dragging down my confidence was heart arrhythmia. I saw some odd readings on my heart rate monitor during the warm-up that morning, which had me worried as I tried to show calm and confidence to my family who had come to watch the race.

The arrhythmia first showed up in the sand at Lake Sammamish in 2015, in my first race as a Cat 1/2. About 4 minutes into the race, my heartrate jumped to 220 and stayed there for 5-6 minutes. I spent the month following the Sammamish race working with a cardiologist and wearing a halter monitor. The conclusion in 2015 from the doc was that this was not life-threatening and I could continue to race. The arrhythmia showed up a couple of other times in races over the next 5 seasons, including, ironically, my 2018 Nationals, and once earlier this season but always would drop after a few minutes back into range. As I stood at the start line I told myself that if my heart rate was normal by the end of the first lap I’d keep going. If not, I’d drop out.

The whistle blew and we were off, all 99 of us. As we all galloped down the start straight, I just tried to hold my position, hoping that easing into the pace would stave off arrhythmia. At the first run-up, I knew that the arrhythmia was happening as I saw a reading way too high for this 50-year-old. The good news was that there was so much traffic, the pace wasn’t exceeding what I could handle with a heart rate out of whack. At the bottom of the first descent, my legs felt good as I tried to spin up the pace and I looked down to see a heart rate of 145, well within my normal range. Yahoo! The race was on…

At the end of the first lap, I think I was in about 25th or 30th place. Lap 2 I put my head down and focused on riding hard on the parts of the course I knew were my strengths and riding smoothly everywhere else. The orchard after the second run-up and the bumpy straights (like the one after the sand) were where I knew I could gain time, based on my experience at the race at Steilacoom earlier in the season. I passed a few guys on each of the run-ups which I had trained specifically for.

The mud was amazing. I am definitely a “mudder” loving the courses that spit in your eye, when tires are slinging mud and two wheels are sliding. The descents were dicey and I just tried to be smooth and fast.

At the end of the second lap, someone yelled that I was in 15th place. Wow! I was totally energized.

One thing worth mentioning about racing at Nationals is the crowd, especially on home turf. Everyone in Seattle was cheering me on whether they knew me or not (as well as cheering for every other Seattle racer in my field). The crowd is there to cheer on Seattle at large and their energy was contagious.

My kids and wife were going nuts. Their cheers and energy were my biggest motivators.

The next two laps were a bit of a blur. I held to the same game plan…. push hard where I knew I’d be strong and ride smooth elsewhere.

In the sandpit, with about 250 yards to go, I saw that the guy behind me making a push. I had about a 3-second gap that I tried to hold, though with every corner I could see him inching closer. When I made the last left hand turn onto the finish straight, I didn’t know if he had closed the gap or not. I put my head down and gave it everything I had. The finish was probably about 70 yards away and thankfully I had enough gas to push the entire way. As I crossed the finish I saw him out of the corner of my eye. We crossed with the exact time! Fortunately, they gave it to me. 12th!

My family ran up beaming, greeting me with huge smiles. I was grinning ear to ear myself, super happy to have them experience Nationals with me. Definitely the highlight of my racing career.