U23s suffer and benefit from the cruelty of cyclocross
For over 50 minutes his heart, the conductor of his ride, pumped so hard it nearly rapped on his rib cage. He balanced on a thin line between gutsy risk and a hospital bed, trusting the tenuous grip of rubber on icy ground. He relied on athletic instincts honed for more than a decade to drive the bicycle that had become a natural extension of his body. A thin layer of lycra and sweat was all that stood between his skin and Hartford’s sub-freezing cold in the U23 race at 2017 cyclocross national championships.
This is Maxx Chance of EVOL DevoElite Racing.
It looked like he’d become a national champion in just three short turns and soon wear a new jersey featuring American flag stars and stripes to replace the dark gray and pink he raced in now. That cherished payoff redeemed much more than 50 minutes of flat-out effort. It made up for innumerable instances of bad luck and disappointing days when body, mind or bike refused to cooperate. Countless hours of stamping feet and flexing fingers to return them to warm and pink. Lost time waiting in airports for delayed flights. And most recently, an elbow that pushed him off a flyover into a throng of beer-toting Belgian cyclocross fans.
Then in a surrealistic second those three short turns stretched into infinity after a slip on the slick track dislodged his chain, rendering Chance powerless and nullifying every ounce of effort and preparation.
Close behind a rival on course inched closer. Hours earlier he had told a teammate that he had never felt better on a cyclocross national championship day. He believed he could win. Spurred on by confidence and memories of how cyclocross cruelty denied him a shot at those stars and stripes two years before, he maintained contact with Chance through two flats and related bike changes.
This is Lance Haidet (Clement).
Haidet flashed by Chance as the latter dismounted to lift the chain to its rightful place. Three turns later, Haidet raised his arms in victory as cameras captured his win forever.
Back on his bike, Chance’s view of the victory scene ahead punctured his heart. A flood of disappointment and frustration mixed with an ocean of dammed up hope poured out and soaked him from head to toe as he rolled into the post finish line area, head bowed.
Then Chance turned around, shook off the leavings of ‘cross cruelty and faced a microphone.
“I rode really strong and I’m really happy with it but it’s just really hard to work all season and have it right there, like two corners away and have a mechanical,” Chance later said. “But that’s how it goes.”
Just like Gage Hecht (Alpha Bicycle Company – Vista Subaru) and Grant Ellwood (Boulder Cycle Sport / YogaGlow) predicted, the U23 riders at the 2017 cyclocross national championships delivered a dynamic and wild race, the most thrilling of a day of elite racing. The rider in front changed numerous times over the initial four of seven laps. Then Chance took charge and held the lead until that chain drop just seconds away from the finish line.
In lap one riders attacked Bonk Breaker Hill aggressively. Peter Goguen (Race CF), a pre-race favorite named by Curtis White (Cannondale p/b Cyclocrossworld.com) took the race lead there in the first lap then fell back after slipping at least twice.
The first descent down Bonk Breaker Hill passed smoothly for the front-runners. Hecht, White and Chance had already separated themselves a bit from those behind. Goguen, Jonathan Anderson (Fort Lewis College), Haidet, Brannan Fix (Alpha Bicycle Company – Vista Subaru) and Ellwood kept them in sight.
Cooper Willsey (Cannondale p/b Cyclocrossworld.com) blazed the trail in lap two on the hill. By now the main contenders had already established a decent gap to the rest of the field.
The track headed into the woods after the descent off Bonk Breaker Hill. The ruts and icy ground between trees made it one of the most treacherous parts of the course.
On the hill in lap three Chance pedaled ahead of his rivals. One lap later he and Hecht rode together with twelve seconds back to White and Fix. Willsey, Ellwood and Haidet followed another twelve seconds behind.
“I was riding all these corners super quick,” Chance later said. “Curtis and Gage were crashing a little bit and so I knew if I could ride it smoothly and not go down I was going to have a good result out there.”
By lap four White had crashed pretty hard and appeared less comfortable on the bike. The fall ripped through his leg warmer, exposing a bloody left knee.
Hecht also took a spill, in lap four going into the trees from the descent. It took him another lap to regain his composure, he said.
“I just lost the front wheel on an ice patch and knocked the shifter in a little bit. I think all that combined knocked me out of the rhythm a little bit,” Hecht said post-race. “You kind of lose your focus and when that happens you start holding on the bars too much and let the ruts steer you. It’s just a downward spiral. I realized that a lap later and kind of got back on top of it. I’m pretty happy with how I came out of that and how I finished.”
Hecht’s crash helped Chance fly off the front going into lap five. He had a small gap to Fix, who was chased by Hecht and Haidet. Ellwood hung in there in fifth position. The top five would come from this group. Willsey rode in sixth and Curtis had tailed off his teammate’s wheel.
In lap six Chance still set the pace as Fix tried to limit his lead and Hecht and Haidet worked to move up. Willsey and White now dangled off the back of the top five.
Meanwhile, Spencer Petrov (Cyclocross Alliance), a race favorite, had a bad start, was caught behind a crash and experienced mechanical problems. “So coming back from like forty-fifth to eighth was a good day,” Petrov said after finishing. “Stuff happens. I’m just really happy with keeping it all together and being able to keep my head on straight to go ride. It’s very unfortunate because I felt so good. But that’s bike racing.”
At the end it looked like Chance would have the win. Then it all changed two to three turns from the finish line. “I was able to keep it up but then dropped a chain in the last two corners and lost it all,” Chance said. “But I’m happy to finish on the podium. I’m going to look back in two hours and be like, holy shit, that was the best ride of my life, even though it could have been a national title and a jersey for next year. You have to look on the bright side.”