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Entering a World of Mud
Intro by Japanese rider, Etsuo Oda.

This year's Nobeyama is over, and it was a tough one. It was cold, and the mud was heavy. Here in what's already my fifth season of cyclocross I know I've completed an awesomely tough race. Looking back now that it's all over I have great memories, but this year in addition to mud there was snow to add to our misery.

At race time the snow was melting fast, which meant another level of mud on the course. The grass sections were wet, and the previous races had turned them into mud. The heavy mud was wrenching the bars from underneath me, and I'd crash and get up shouldering the bike, making a run for it.

When on the bike the mud on my legs and tires was almost too heavy and I regretted not making preparations for a pit bike, but you can't think about that during the race. If you don't go and get the guy in front of you you'll never stand on that podium.

The result was not what I had hoped for, but one thing is sure; I'll be back next year.
“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."

Words by Tyler Walker.

On Saturday night before the race I was afraid. Never before, whether in my previous life as a competitive runner or my present one as a cyclist, had I felt this way. Nerves? Always. But fear? That morning we'd come up from Tokyo, the view from the end of each long, dark highway tunnel more overexposed than the last as the mountains closed in around us, and the light of the bluebird day blasted the surface of more, and more, and more snow.

When we arrived everyone was talking about the morning's races. It didn't sound like bike racing to me—frigid temperatures and snowpack had made for terrain that usually inspires discussion of the finer points of snowshoes and ice axes, not gear ratios and tire pressures. Alex and I changed in the van from our mud gear to our backup kits and rolled away gingerly, shivering through the icy parking area and down to the road for some day-before leg openers. My tubular cx tires gave a dull whine from the hard surface and I felt, as I had for going on two weeks, not especially good.
You learn quickly that racing bikes is a lot like being in a band: a little thrashing around and having a great time, and a lot of moving your shit from A to B. My guitars never got muddy, but you take the comparison. So with plenty of gear to transport it had been an early morning on Saturday, and it would be again on Sunday. The alarm was set for 4:45am. Snow, sliding in huge amounts from the eaves throughout the slowly warming night, sounded like earthquakes. Each time you waited for the shaking, but it didn't come.

Race morning was just above freezing, and we knew that it wasn't going to be ice that would give us trouble. It was going to be mud, and a lot of it. Alex and I pre-rode the course together at a walking pace, picking out lines, committing to memory each green blade of grass that promised traction on this corner and that off-camber. By the time I changed my slathered backup kit for my skinsuit I wasn't really afraid anymore, and twenty minutes of steady riding on Etsuo's turbo trainer took care of the cold. It was time to head for the start.
I started 84th in a field of 139. My plan to sit tight and keep safe for the first lap exploded almost immediately. At the first turn, a sharp left-hander, someone ahead and to my right lost it, taking half the race with him. It's almost a cliché when talking about racing to invoke the old Mike Tyson quote about how “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." But here it wasn't me getting socked—it was the other guys.

Uncertain how I'd fare once the hard yards began in the rim-sucking mud of the pastures, I used my road experience to exploit the course's long, slightly uphill asphalt drag, covering moves and making them at road race speeds and 18psi. But the Nobeyama mud was kind to me. When we'd covered the first lap and I could hear the announcer say in Japanese that the 10th placed rider was crossing the line. It was the rider in front of me.
With half a lap to go I found myself in a group of three, leading the race in tight formation with a podium guaranteed. Neither of my companions was interested in playing games. They gave it everything on the asphalt, and I simply hung on until we hit the mud again. In a last roll of the dice I threw the heaviest attack I could, on a stretch I had dialled in just before the most savage sector of the course. Maybe, I reasoned at 192 beats per minute, they'd panic and get the line wrong going into the mud. Maybe they'd crack physically. The gap opened, but my rivals stayed calm, and it closed again. I came across the line in second place, having fallen behind and then overtaken third in the final stretch.
More confused than elated, it took the faces of my friends to bring me around to the reality of a result I'd worked hard to achieve: a podium in only my third cyclocross race, and at the venerable Nobeyama Supercross. I stood on the podium and thought about that upgrade, and all of the work to come.

While Tyler was fighting his way to second place I was in a hurry preparing for my C3 race, which started right after. Before a race I always try to stay focused and organized so that everything goes smoothly. I get changed into my race kit, check the bike, have a banana, and warm up on the trainer. The plan is simple, but in practice sometimes it just doesn't go as planned. This time I managed to lose my gloves. Three years ago in this race I crashed on the first lap and right into a deep, muddy hole. My body, including my hands, was covered in mud. I wasn't wearing gloves then, but I have ever since.

Meanwhile as I was trying to get ready I heard Tyler's name over the PA. It turns out that he was doing great. One more search through the car and I found my gloves, but then I checked the time. I was running behind schedule. I took a quick spin on the trainer, but there simply wasn't enough time. I lifted my head and I saw Tyler with a big grin across his muddy face. But with everyone around me so excited I couldn't get involved in the celebrations. I had to get to the starting line.
Once I'd lined up in the fourth row of the starting grid everything went quiet. Those ten seconds before the start always feel like a lifetime. My plan was to avoid doing anything stupid, just to hold a good place near the front. The group moved slowly to the first sharp corner and there was no chance to overtake. Still, I was thinking, my position was not too bad, when suddenly the rider in the front of me braked hard. We were close to the corner and he nearly crashed, but somehow I managed to find a way around him. A close one.

On the next section I went into full attack mode and gave it all I had. But still there were too many people, and too little space to overtake. The field was thinning out slowly, right up to the point where we hit the mud sections. It was a good mud, the kind that doesn't stick in every part of your bike, but still grippy enough to navigate safely. I didn't want to risk a crazy pass so I tried to find a good line, pushing through the deep mud. Meanwhile I realized that the front group was gone. My troubles in the start combined with the speed of the front group had given them the advantage. I was doing well, but just not well enough to ride with the leaders.
The beauty of cross is that falling behind does not mean giving up fighting. The battle for places is always on, and I found myself competing with two other riders. The one paved, slightly uphill section presented a choice: you could either rest your legs for the following mud sections or go hard. When I arrived on the pavement I went full out. One of the other guys was hanging on my wheel. I allowed him space on the right side to overtake, but he didn´t show any interest. I began to panic as a third rider overtook us, and by the time he reached the corner leading into the mud he was far ahead. I had nothing left in my legs to follow him, but it turns out that I didn't need to. There was still some ice left on the corner, and he slipped and crashed.

My group of three was now two, me in front and the other guy behind me. He didn´t show any interest in attacking neither did I have enough in my legs to drop him. It was the last lap, close to the finish, which followed five or six sharp corners. On the last corner I could sense another rider coming close. Once I realized what had happened it was already too late. When I left a small gap on the inside before the final corner the guy behind me had seen his chance. He passed roughly between me and the corner, an ice hockey check on a bike. I was thrown to the left and onto a poorer line for contesting the finish.

So the beauty of cross is that falling behind does not mean giving up. Staying focused until the end and continuing to fight for places is crucial. I learned my lesson.
Photo: Tong Liu