I had raced in Chicago once before. It was 2013, it was twelve degrees, and my tires were knobby. Crossresults.com had me predicted coming in somewhere near the back of the field for the Basin Racin' Chicago Cyclocross Cup race, so imagine my surprise when I finished in 1st place with a three-minute gap to the girl in 2nd. That was an experience that is kind of hard to forget, and coming into the Intelligentsia Cup two years later and with a whole lot more fitness, I was trying to balance the pride I felt as a New Englander with previous success racing cross in the Midwest over the unknown: road racing in the Midwest. I was also uniquely intrigued by knowing that while I knew none of the competition I'd be lining up with, they also didn't know me. I was excited to explore this freedom, this escape from my own reputation as a middle-of-the-pack cat 3 racer among the usual New England suspects.
My training decisions leading up to the 10-day series were... questionable. I was coerced into riding the notorious #sixgaps ride (ok, ok, I wanted to), followed immediately by all of New England Crit Week (where I was thoroughly thrashed), and then right on into #200on100 (because why not) with just about a week left to prep for all the crits in Chicago. Cool. All things point to excellent race prep.
The first race of the Intelligentsia Cup was a P/1/2/3 race in Beverly and was a blazing fast, six corner smorgasbord of a crit. This race had it all: a good kicker after turn one, a handful of plain 90-degree turns, and then a tricky chicane and uber fast, downhill, sharp right-hander into a long finish straight. It was also 90 degrees and 10,000% humidity. Nonetheless, I was feeling confident on the start line. Then I noticed some of the kits around me and started to tremble in my chamois. The whistle blew and, oh joy, I'm already chasing. Weirdly, I was unable to sustain the 600-watt efforts up the hill lap after lap and my race (along with most of the field) was over in 30 minutes. I went to cool down and started to question if coming to Chicago for a 10-day "vacation" was a terrible idea, one that would result in one demoralizing crit after another. When I checked the results, nine of the top 10 (and indeed, almost everyone who finished the race) were category 1 racers, and I started to regain some hope, knowing that I would not have to race against any 1s for the rest of the series. Importantly, my ego was definitely in check.
Days two and three featured a crit affectionately dubbed the "hotdog crit" for its shape (or lack thereof), and the only circuit race of the series: a 4-mile loop with a soft climb and an uphill finish. Both days were significantly calmer than the beating I took on day one, and I was comfortable attacking and trying to get moves to go. Both days ended with a bunch sprint, in which my performance can be best described as "meh," but nonetheless, I was sitting in 2nd place overall in the category 3 omnium, which gave me a new goal to chase.
After a three-day gap in racing (and much time spent with Preston and family), I went into the second weekend amped up and ready to GO. I spat out multiple somewhat successful attacks in the women's 3/4 race at Waukegan on Thursday (I mean, a lot of people were dropped, but I didn't get away), and managed to pull off my first podium in who knows how long. Much to my dismay, the two women sitting in 1st and 3rd place in the overall series standings were registered to double up in the 2/3 race later in the afternoon. Unwilling to sacrifice my 2nd place standing, I forked over the cash and lined up with wobbly legs and a hungry belly. The 2/3 race was easy to sit in, and that's exactly what I did (@resultsboy would be so proud). I botched the sprint and wound up with my worst result of the series, coming in 12th out of 18, but still holding on to my 2nd place omnium standing.
Day Five of the series was in Elmhurst, the hometown to almost all of Preston's extended family. I had a larger-than-usual cheering section for a Bostonian racing 1,000 miles from home, and with it, that extra kick of motivation. The race course was SUPER fun with six corners and a quick, sharp chicane. I attacked the 3/4 race about half way through the race and had a sizeable gap. Half a lap later, I was joined by the omnium series leader and I was thrilled, thinking that this was a move that could work (as she also had teammates). Sadly, no amount of blocking was enough to keep the pack at bay, and we were swallowed up a bit later, the pace slowed, and everyone who had been dropped caught back on. I tried to play my cards right, moving up at the right time, and came in for 5th place. However, I ended the race tied for 2nd place in the omnium with Sarah Muench of the ISCorp Racing Team. THIS WILL NOT DO. Once again, I was forced to register for the 2/3 race on the same day in order to defend my omnium position. I was exhausted. Lining up for the fourth race in two days, I was pretty sure I was going to get smoked. The whistle went and the pace was manageable, until an early-race crash in front of me had me chasing, spending all the watts I didn't have just to get back in the race. After two or three laps of chasing, I made contact with the field, which felt good, since a lot of people did not (critically, Sarah, who I was tied in 2nd in the onmiun with, was dropped). The pack turned the speed up a notch again and I just tried to sit and stay out of the wind before the finish. I ended up coming in for 9th, one place outside of the money, but with a four-point lead over Sarah in the overall series standings. WHEW.
The last two days of racing were basically me leveraging every inch of space I could make up in corners and finding the person with the widest shoulders to sit behind. Turns out, my body had no idea what it meant to race nine times in ten days. My stomach was in knots. I was neither energized, nor hungry or thirsty. Coming into the last day, I had a paltry three-point lead on Sarah in the omnium and knew I was going into the final day of racing with my eyes fixed on one girl and one girl only. I didn't care much about the day's result, as long as I didn't lose my spot on the second step of the podium. The race was a basic four-corner crit with a small, but quick, chicane on the back side. With two laps to go, I got into position behind number 455, Sarah, my nemesis, and did not budge. This timing was critical, because two crashes in rapid succession behind me took out a decent chunk of the field. Coming into the last corner, I am glued to her wheel (and her leadout), and when she jumped left, I went right. Unfortunately, I didn't really have anywhere to move up, as two women were blocking my path, and I just tried to get as close as I could. I held on for 6th place. She took 4th. For those keeping up with the math, this means I kept my position on the 2nd step of the podium by ONE STINKING POINT. HECK YES. THAT WAS AWESOME.
In general, the Intelligentsia Cup was a well-promoted, well-supported race. Personally, the series was an incredible boost and a whole lot of fun to boot. Me and my attacks were well-received and I made some great acquaintances, many of whom I expect to see go on to way bigger bike racing careers than I will ever see (especially those juniors, man, what do those kids eat?). Preston actually overheard some women after one of the races saying "That's the Boston girl, she keeps attacking!" It felt great to break out of my New England shell, pick up a new, feisty racing style for the week, and find in it some of my biggest successes of the season. I'm excited to get back to New England with some newfound confidence and valuable new experiences in my jersey pocket. Mostly, though, I'm excited for a monumental nap.