The weekend kicked off with a visit to Santa at Kilmeaden Railway with the girls! We'd pre-planned this festive trip, staying at my parents' place for a family-filled weekend. The grand plan involved catching up, meeting the jolly man in red on Saturday, and then racing the Munster champs on Sunday.
Now, when family, kids, and the whole shebang enter the equation, race prep gracefully steps down the priority ladder. Instead of course practice on Sunday late morning, a stress-free coffee and a tasty sandwich from Cas & Co. with Aisling was on the cards. My sister Clodagh took charge of the two little ones. Thanks, Clodagh! Basking in the sun, we gathered our thoughts after a whirlwind 24 hours of parenting. In retrospect, I would not have swapped it for cyclocross practice. This neatly aligned with my recent shift towards non-attachment to race results. The mantra became about savouring the sport, the race, giving it my all, and embracing whatever outcomes ensued. I even preached this gospel to my coach clients in their health-kick Monday message the week prior!
Around 1 pm, I arrived at the track, got changed almost as fast at batman, and engaged in some banter with the cross community. Lo and behold, the effervescent Mr. Luis Mota appeared. After a quick catch-up, we embarked on a warm-up around the track. When Luis is your warm up companion, its more talk than pedal!
I noticed a subtle tilt upwards of the nose of my saddle. Off to the car I went, armed with Alan keys. Loosened the bolt, levelled the saddle, and tightened as if I was at the studio doing a bike fit.
As customary in races, there's plenty of pre-race conversations , but one person I always seek out for course wisdom is Trevor Woods. Then, a lap around the track to scope out the tricky sections.
Come 2:15 pm, it was start-line time, and to add to the excitement, my sister Clodagh and my Dad, showed up.
Now, Munster champs are raced in your age category, so that’s me in the M40s with 8 other contenders. No repeat of last week's nail-biter with Patrick Clifford. He was MIA! However, Sebastian Helke, the triathlon wizard turned cross master, was present—the same guy who edged me out on the beaches of Youghal. And there was Marcus Flavin, the course designer, the clear odds-on favourite. What a season he's had!
Lining up, I squeezed in a Maurten gel leftover from the Youghal IM in 2022. The whistle blew, and off we went.
My strong suit, the standing start, had me chasing Marcus Flavin to the first corner—a muddy left-hander leading from the motor race track to the cyclocross one. In no time, Sebastian Helke breezed past me, showcasing his dominance. My mission at that exact moment was to build a gap between me and Alan Lyons in 4th, a sound lad and fellow Dungarvanite. We'd bonded over the past few weeks, the friendship sprouting from a good chat at the Dublin UCI World Cup race. But my mind was on Alan's pre-race strategy. He told me he intended on keeping his "powder dry," not going full gas in the initial laps to better survive the demanding track—especially the bumpy first half, a mix of mud and grass, the type that clings to everything.
Knowing this, my plan was to create an even larger gap to defend against his late surge.
We reached the boards (see the photo of the tongue out! A childhood habit that I have yet to shake!), and disaster struck.
On remounting the bike, the saddle completely flipped once I landed on it. I couldn't believe it; the nose of the saddle was now pointing towards the Deise sky! I proceeded to use my hand as a hammer and whack the front of the saddle with some unmerciful slaps to eventually get it back to something rideable. By this stage, Alan had zipped by me and got at least 30 secs out ahead. My brain suddenly reminded me, in the moment, how this happened. When I was levelling the saddle before the race, I tightened the bolts to a level sufficient for road cycling but not for this type of crazy craic!
To add insult to saddle injury, Alan was pushing hard, not living up to his pre-race tactics anymore. I was not closing the gap at all. The race settled down, and this was the way it would stay for a few laps.
I will admit to something. My inner voice was starting to say things like "you're not gonna catch him, and don’t bother changing bike (I noticed some mud clinging to the drivetrain) because it’ll mean that you’ll have to clean two bikes instead of one after the race!. But another voice would pipe up and say “keep pushing, anything can happen”. Then an actual voice, one belonging to Jason Travers shouted “the race is wide open, Marcus Flavin is out”. That type of message certainly helped to quieten my negative chatter and on we pushed.
Then the next issue arises, on hitting the lever to gear down into the bigger gears, the derailleur was point blank refusing to move! I was stuck in an easy gear and had no choice but to spin the legs faster and get to the pits. Alan was increasing his lead, I think. I cycled into the pits and pulled my other bike off the rails (no pit crew for me this race) and got out of there as fast as I could. I heard a whistle going off a few times from the commissar in the pits and was sure it was something I did!! The fresh bike felt good and right then it was worth every cent I paid to Luis Mota for it! Actually, it was Luis's partner Marcia who took the photo below! Love it!!
On passing my Dad and sister, I was messing but shouted to them, “Wash my bike”. I found out after the race that my sister Clodagh asked Jason Travers if she could wash my bike in the pits and Jason rightly replied that she would need to be registered to act as pit crew for me. My Dad however clearly didn’t listen to that conversation and marched over to the pits to see if he could help. He’s brand new to cyclocross and has no idea of the pit etiquette! I can only imagine what he was like! I remember passing the pit lane and seeing my dad in there, but also catching a sparkling clean Specialized Crux against the far fence. That must be my bike, although Kieran from Dungarvan, who was in the same race, has the same one and the same colour. I was banking that this one was my one!
I’m guessing we were at about 2 laps to go at this point when I flew into the pits with the luxury of the Sliabh Luacra crew holding the Crux ready for mounting. I still wasn’t sure if it was my bike though, shouting “Is that mine” on the way into the pits! Thanks so so much lads. It felt zippy and fast. It felt good. I noticed the gap between me and Alan was without doubt getting smaller. I also noticed Marcus Flavin rippin’ around on his bike, the same Marcus Flavin who was supposed to be out of the race! Fake news!
I started to push hard in places and then questioned whether I should have pushed that hard in other places.
But the gap was continuing to shrink. Belief levels were rising steadily and eventually I caught up with Alan before the boards on the last lap. On remounting, I was praying my saddle would stay where it was, it did. I rode the sweet 2nd half of the track well with no mistakes and sprinted home to take third place in the eventful Munster champs M40 race. I normally never celebrate over the line, but this time I let the ego out and took both hands off the bars followed by an overly zealous teenage-style skid in front of the entertainer himself, Richie Cleverly!
After a few chats with my Dad and sister, I headed over to Alan to find out that he too was unable to gear down into the faster gears for the last two laps, explaining how I bridged the gap when earlier I couldn’t. It clearly wasn’t a fitness issue! Alan didn’t have a second bike in the pits and also mentioned how the issue was more of a derailleur one rather than it being down to the tangling grass and the sticky mud. How annoying. Or maybe he is not attached to the result of his efforts and completely accepted the outcome at the time, I’ll have to ask him when I see him next.
That’s it now until the Nationals in January, which fall on my wife’s birthday! Last year, there was too much guilt. It was a non-runner. This year, Aisling knows how much I love Cyclocross. We got a green light.
Big thanks has to go to the ever present and eagle eyed Sean Rowe, responsible for some excellent photos throughout the season. Another thanks to Jason Travers and his popular Munster Cross chat podcast for flying the cyclocross flag for Munster.
Thanks also for reading and maybe, just maybe considering entering a CX race in 2024.