I literally dreampt about this. A lot! It's crazy how much emphasis and importance we crossers put on Natz. I never get nervous too much before big races, but at Natz it's a whole different thing. I guess since I took the whole week off from work, had my bikes driven across the country, flew 6500 miles round trip, rented a mini van, and booked a hotel, it should feel a little different. But I felt the same way in 2005 when the race was about an hour from my house. It's just that it's the best jersey you could ever win. I think it's because Cross is so spectator friendly, that wearing that jersey is better than the road jersey because more people show up to watch and cheer at cross races.
If you're still not doing any Cross, what are you thinking? Come out and give it a go, and you'll probably be hooked.
Anyway, let me start by saying that USAC gave me the flick. I finished 4th at Natz last year, and the top 8 from last year get the call ups. Unless you happen to move up an age group. Then you're just some other schmuck like the rest of the 150 riders in the race. (The 40-44 group had 190....more on that in a bit). The online registration was a classic West Coast fast one. They didn't announce the registration opening until the last minute and even then it was on the eve of a very big race in Providence.....and oh ya, they opened it up at midnight. Plus the site crashed. USAC did NOTHING to insure this process would be fair and practical. So even though I was on the podium at Natz last year, I was buried on the 3rd row this year. You may not think thats bad, but it's basicly a prison sentence and it makes winning an extreme long shot.
The temps had been below zero for the majority of the time we'd been there, but in the early afternoon the sun was out and it warmed into the high 30s. Some spots got pretty moist for a while, but with my race at 3:30 the sun was low and behind the mountains and trees. The temperature dropped fast and the course turned to slip and slide, boiler plate. Catastrophic crashes could happen on 100% of the course.
The gun sounded and we charged up the narrow pavement start chute. It was maybe 150 yards to turn one which was an icy plywood ramp over a curb into a 180. The front row guys got around OK and them some "online holeshot" specialist stacked it in the turn and the pileup ensued. I came to a stop, got off my bike and stood there waiting for people to get up and get going. The leaders were flying away on 3 long straight aways. I finally got through and figured there was no chance in hell of fulfilling my goal now.
Still I wasn't gonna go all this way and not try with everything I had. I later learned I was in 45th place or so at that point. I started passing when I could, but everyone was trying to do the same thing and I lost places in some spots. Everyone had beer muscles. I bumped with one guy and he was solid. I could tell he was a good rider based on how firm he was when we bumped. I looked over when I could, it was Dale Knapp. I made some more passes and took some sweet lines that I had dialed in during my 2 warm up rides. When I went by the pit someone yelled "38th place Jonny GET UP THERE". Another power section and I picked off a few more. Then we crossed the road and went onto the even more technical side of the course. I got hung up in traffic a lot and could see James Coates off the front and all alone with no one in his way. I got through a couple more and up to a hill that was a sheet of ice on the 90 degree corner leading into it. The hill wasn't too bad if you got through the icy approach, but I had to drop to the little ring to get up it since I was basicly starting from a stand still. I got 3/4 of the way up and ran into a guy that just came off his bike. CRAP!!!
I got going through the start finish, and most of the mayhem was behind me since guys were cracking now. Still I was in about 25th. I passed a big group in the next straight away and a couple more here and there. I was moving now, but still way back. I saw that Coates was still gone and Mark Noble was in 2nd also alone. These were the 2 guys I considered my strongest competition before the race. Both have won Cross Natz twice before and Noble is a former British Track Cycling Olympian. I felt awesome and was comfortable enough on the icy course to put down big power, that I just happen to have since my training has been spot on for the approach to Natz this year. Across the road someone yelled "12th Jonny GO GO GO" one more before the crazy downhill dropoff righthander, another just before the u-turn into the run up on the stairs, (I dove hard into the inside line, braked hard and moved him over), another on the stairs, and 1 more before the remount, (I just ran farther than him and passed him on foot then jumped on) Now there were only guys here and there in front of me, but one of them slid out on the icy off camber little rise up to the icy flat driveway, before the icy run/ride up. I couldn't gain any spots there because we just had to go so slowly and will our bikes around the corners.
I did get a clean run at the hill this time and rode it no problem. Onto the start finish pavement sections I had Fergy in my sights. He started on the front row. Boy that would have been nice! I got him just before the pit and Fergy being the good friend he is gave me some encouragement after I passed. Sammy was just ahead with another guy on his wheel. I went very hard to get around them as they were approaching an icy right hander under and around a tree. I let Sammy know it was me as we had talked about so he wouldn't try to block me out. I went into the corner way too hot and hit the patch of ice and drifted BIG TIME. I made it over the ice and onto some dirt with a wild foot out and kept it upright and then clipped in and charged again. A couple of icy u-turns later there was a straigt away and at the end of it another 180. I saw Noble going toward me and only a few more guys between us. I ate them up before the pit and was on Noble's wheel in 3rd place. I attacked by him and across the road. I figured it was gonna take a while to gain on Coats, but as I looked ahead, he was right in front of me getting off the ground. He had crashed in that crazy downhill right hander. It was a very tricky spot. He was able to get up and go, but I was on him going up the stairs. He didn't run fast enough for my liking up the steps and I ended up running into him. I passed him in the remount area and went into the lead....Holy Shit!
OK this is my game now I thought. "See if you can stay with me Mr." I drilled it for the next 2 laps riding everything but the steps and barriers. Lapped riders were everywhere and very much affecting our ability to actually race. I'm so pissed that USAC would rather make more $ in entry fees rather than have championship racing at the championships. I was stretching him out of every corner and he was able to scrap back on over and over. This guy is an awesome bike rider! Finally the dreaded lapper crashed in front of me on that icy rise up to the driveway and I had nowhere to go. I T-boned his bike and my front wheel got tangled in his pedal. Coates went by me there, but I got his wheel. We rode the hill OK, but it was getting much worse at the bottom (at the beginning of the climb) and I almost slid out.
We got 2 to go and nobody else was close to us. He was riding way too slow for my liking, but the way to beat him was gonna be to pass him with half a lap to go and hurt him, get him so gassed that all he do is follow....if that. I sat tight on his wheel and plotted my spot to go for the win. He seemed glad that I wasn't attacking him any more, although I'm not sure I shouldn't have. But once I make a plan, I usually decide thats my best chance to win and I stuck with my decision. I thought to myself "This is what Marky Mac would do, so it should be a decent plan". I also felt very confident in my sprint, because I was way stronger than him in the power sections.
I decided my spot was gonna be just after the pit, on the power grade before we cross onto the more technical side, on the last lap. That lap (the 2nd to last) was pretty uneventful most of the way, but the crowd was absolutely MASSIVE. The sun was pretty much down now and with my sunglasses on I actually remember thinking "it's getting dark". The beer tent, which we went right by and did the barriers with the smell of beer pouring off the fans, was absolutely deafening. Over the icy rise up clean, across the skating rink driveway clean, around the corner I followed Coats into the run/ride up. I bobbled it at the bottom and had to get off. CRAP CRAP CRAP!!!!! He rode it and everyone went nuts for him, he saw the gap and absolutely went for broke. I was gapped off bad! Through the start finish I was about 10 seconds back as the bell rang. I was surprisingly calm and I drilled it the hardest I could in the power sections gaining all the way, and also telling myself that a mistake now would be the end of my chances. I had this side of the course dialed in though, and on the 180 we looked right at each other. I was very close again, but still one section behind. I closed with every pedal stroke and found myself on his wheel at the corner before the pits. I took a brief rest and went around the left hander onto "my section" I actually left a small gap so when I went I could get a better run on him. In an instant I bolted, knowing that I was back in control and had a 10 meter gap. He closed it on the corners after the road crossing, but I knew he would. I had him right where I wanted him.....under pressure. I screamed at the lappers and they moved in time. Up the stairs, over the barriers and over the icy rise up, cleanly, over the icy driveway clean, but slow and careful. He was right on me. I tried to shift into the little ring but my finger was frozen and I couldn't feel the shifter doing anything. I fumbled with it as I rolled toward the icy approach to the run/ride up. It shifted just in time, but I was distracted and didn't find my line. I bobbled again. I didn't allow myself to panic and I knew I was in the better spot on the front. I hopped off my bike as fast as I could, but it was unplanned, so it was a true scramble. I went to run when I felt him run into me, and I could hear the fans all go "Oh!" I ran up there for all I was worth and remounted. Now I was going downhill to the last two paved sections, BUT my bike was in the little ring and my hand was frozen and worthless. I shifted the back first just to get a bigger gear, then I fought with the front, trying to get 'er into the big ring with my useless hand. The second it took felt like an eternity and I stole a look back just as I saw the chain climb up into the business gear.
He was right there and I just turned forward and drilled it. I got another gear and had the lead going into the last 90 degree right hander but was going faster than I had gone through the corner yet. I committed and had to protect the inside line. I made it with room to spare and just poured it on all the way through the line. There was no way in hell I was gonna look back again or celebrate. I could feel I had it, but wasn't gonna risk it. I could put my arms up on the podium.
I did it! My dream was realized, even though I almost screwed it up. Here I am back at the hotel with my race kit still on, and an extra jersey to boot. I didn't mean to close my eyes, but it sort of sums up the contentment I felt at that moment.
To make it an even sweeter weekend, Kevin went out the next day and made it a double for the "Dynamic Corner Cycle Duo".
Kev made easy work of it compared to me and got the holeshot and won going away, after a close 1st lap, by well over 30 seconds or so. It may not be as exciting to watch, but I would have loved to have bored everyone in my race. It just wasn't meant to be. But hey, they pretty much HAVE to give me a call up next year so we'll see what happens.
Sammy also finished up a fine 6th, just off the podium, matching his son Nate's performance earlier.
Teammate David Rath (2 time Natz Champ) stood on the podium in the 60+ category with a fine 4th. A much better way to spend a weekend in December than in a halo with a broken neck. Nice job David!
Also a big congratulations to Paul Curley for winning his 875th National Title. Very inspiring Paul!!!
Thanks for all the previous comments, and for reading. JB