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NC Cyclocross - it's not all about the results

Natalie Arkfeld | Published on 11/29/2022

Natalie, Darcy and Chris (left to right) before the start line showing off Darcy's Halloween costume as Thing 1
The race was the NCCX #4 in Winston-Salem on Oct. 29th, and I placed tenth out of eleven competitors in the Elite Women’s 1/2/3 Category. This is not a recap about a triumph over other competitors, but rather, an honest account of how racing in the back of the pack tends to play out and how it’s all still worth it no matter the result.

On a cloudy, 65℉ Saturday, the race began at 1:15pm with a whispered, “go,” leaving the 1/2/3 Elite Women’s Field standing motionless. No one knew the USAC official was even standing at the start line yet, let alone that she had said anything about the race starting ‘in the next 30 seconds,’ as they are supposed to announce. I could hear the women next to me exclaim with surprise, but I knew there wouldn’t be any do-overs. I jumped on my pedals just as I had practiced with Darcy Grimes and Chris Walkerwicz, my Sorella teammates, throughout September and started picking my way through the sea of bikes ahead of me.

There were two rows of women on the start line, and I was in the second row, right in the middle. Somehow, I wormed my way through the holes in the field until I finally got pinned behind a meek, but fast, woman. As I am not the fastest rider in cyclocross, I usually finish last or near the back of the field overall, and I knew today would be no exception. I had to take every advantage I had, and my starts are one of my biggest assets, typically. I pushed up next to the meek woman, getting right on the tape and creating space for myself by going for the race line. I managed to get to the first corner in third place out of eleven women. This position was key for the next section, which consisted of alternating corners of left-right-left-right-left, followed directly by a straight shot up a short hill that ended in a kicker of pure power over rough ivy material. These successive corners meant that moving up in the field was nearly impossible after the first corner until the straightaway, and I was glad to not get stuck behind any women who were less capable on technical parts.

Natalie and Chris, in the distance, chasing Darcy before the flowy descent
Of course, as soon as the straightaway section came, everyone except one woman passed me, so I was now in tenth place. I could feel eleventh place directly behind me, but I knew I needed to focus on clearing the next sector cleanly. I readied myself for a fast, fllowy descent that included a grade reversal in the middle that had sent a man to the hospital with a broken collarbone in an earlier race. This was directly followed by weaving through fast corners and over a set of barriers set on flat ground in the middle of a grassy field. After winding and jumping my way through, I heard a woman named Zoe closing in on me fast from the 3 / 4 category, which had started 30-60 seconds after the 1/2/3 Women. I flew down the steepest descent of the whole course, which was simply mowed kudzu, and barely saw Zoe passing as she zoomed by me. Darcy and Chris were also in the 3 / 4 race, so I knew I needed to start paying attention.

The ascent out of the lowest field proved to be my downfall through each lap of the competition. It was a near vertical run-up, about twenty feet long, that racers came to after riding in thick grass on false flat ground, thus, there was no way to get a running start at it. After it leveled out enough to allow riders just enough time to jump back on their bikes, the course continued uphill at a less steep, but no less painful, gradient. It wandered along a hillside utilizing off-camber sections, abrupt five foot punches, and mulch so deep it effectively became a thirty foot long sand pit. This segment ended in a downhill that led to the final precipitous hill climb, which was rideable thanks to the speed accumulated beforehand. Finally, the race meandered steadily, but comfortably, uphill until it reached the pavement leading to the finish line.

At that moment in the course, Darcy caught and passed me. Because we were on pavement and she was cooking it, I jumped on her wheel and let her pull me to the first turn. I was able to stay right with her until the lowest field, where she did the run up as though she was part mountain goat. I did not. Darcy quickly left me in her dust, followed immediately by Chris doing the same as soon as I jumped back on my bike at the top of the run-up. I was already gassed, so I just focused on turning the pedals and didn’t worry about damage control.

Natalie being chased directly the mulch sand-pit
By the time I got to the corners after the start line, I couldn’t see Darcy or Chris, and I pushed to take back some time in the first half of the course, which was clearly my strongest section. Coming up to the fourth turn, I saw Darcy walking in the thick grass outside of the tape, with her bike in tow. She had double flatted on a brick hidden in the grass on the race line going through the turn! I couldn’t believe she was done for the day, given how she’d been crushing it just seconds ago, but I had another woman coming up closely behind me so I refocused as quickly as I could.

The woman behind me was a Masters 40+ named Tanya I had met at an earlier race in September called GO Cross, and, luckily, we were still in the front half of the course. I figured I’d do my best to race with her despite being in different categories. We switched positions several times, as she was much faster on the straightaways, and I could carry more speed through any technical bits, including the barriers and turny sections. When we made it to that terrible run-up, though, she destroyed me just as Darcy had done, and I went back to focusing on moving my pedals as she pulled easily away from me. During my final lap, I mostly rode by myself, except for when I was lapped by the top four women.

Overall, I felt as though I had a fantastic race, especially considering where my fitness was in 2021. I have done several other cyclocross races in 2022, but this was my first North Carolina Cyclocross Series race of the year. As this series is my primary target for the 2022 season, this event held special significance for me as a benchmark for how the rest of the year might go. I learned something in each of my previous competitions, whether by a mechanical failure or by not going out hard enough from the start line. With this race in Winston-Salem, all the pieces finally came together. I was able to hold a fierce pace for almost three entire laps before slowing down, and my bike performed perfectly. Normally, I struggle mentally, much more than physically, so I was proud of myself for pushing past those mental barriers to give it my all for as long as I could. I still have three more weeks of North Carolina Cyclocross Series races, and I know I’m well on my way to fully training my brain to trust that my body is capable of redlining for all the laps to come.