Free Jazz: To Improvise, the Band's Gotta be Tight (Our Louisville Nationals Story)
Team S&M CX arrived in Louisville with a mission: to deliver a holistic, professional team demonstration, worthy and reflective of our collective hard work. Our 2018 season yielded sure signs of maturation within the program and from all riders; we were at Nationals to convert clear goals together. Our systems were fluidly airtight (that means room to adapt when the rules go by the wayside), and we felt confident yet relaxed thanks to the trust and relationship we’ve carefully constructed—the definition of “team” in its truest sense. Nats is the biggest US show of them all. We wanted our “acts” to be good, dialed, true renderings of all that we had practiced all season, and last season! Please enjoy these reflections from a weekend of well-executed, epic rides in epic weather—arguably the best cyclocross conditions Nationals has ever seen.
Results: Clara Honsinger, 2018 U23 National Champion; Sophie Russenberger, 2018 U23 bronze medalist, and 4th place in Collegiate Varsity; Beth Ann Orton, 13th place, Elite Women.
Last Sunday’s race was a special type of ‘cross racing. Ankle deep mud and ever-changing lines lead to the classic technique of improvisation. Normally for a ‘cross race, you take the time to memorizes the course, to know how to move through every dip and turn, and be able to play it back by heart. Sunday’s race, however, was the jazz of cyclocross. The course and conditions gave the key, but it was up to the riders to string together the notes. With a bang, I started hot then slowly settled to tempo. Down the descent, I let it flow from end to end, trying to find the right pitch. Up the runs, I hit quick feet, spotting the tracks that felt right. Through the pits, we were a band in perfect rhythm, changing bikes without losing a beat. And across the line the final time, it felt like they had put together a masterpiece. Nationals was all about improvisation. We had practiced all the hours and hours to know how to ride that fine edge of control and chaos. Then when Sunday came, we played it just right.
As my first season with Team S&M CX comes to an end, I am finding it difficult to articulate my gratitude to this team. But the sentiment that keeps returning to me is the sense of community I felt over the course of the week. By my varsity collegiate race on Thursday afternoon, I had already run into friends I’d made from the local racing scene in Oregon, caught up with competitors from racing on the East Coast last season, cheered for masters who had raced with my dad back in the day, and made new friends. During my collegiate race, I was struck by how many people were cheering for me, and was able to finish fourth place after getting a fourth-row call-up. The overwhelming demonstration of support I received during and after the collegiate race only increased throughout the week and through the U23 race.
After spending the week with the Fort Lewis College Cycling Team, I met up with my S&M crew on Sunday morning to prepare for our U23 race. I already knew the course really well after having raced on it for the collegiate events, and didn’t feel the need to ride another lap before our race, so I just walked around the venue and looked at noteworthy sections of the course while Clara rode.
We re-grouped back at the team tent to warm up on trainers, and because I’d made the mistake of walking around the venue in the shoes I had planned to race in, I warmed up in my mud boots while Brenna and Matt cleaned my shoes for me. This was particularly comical because as the race favorite, Clara was getting attention from the race photographers while I was set up next to her riding the trainer with my rain boots on. I wonder if any of them noticed.
After trainer warmup, we migrated to the start for call-ups, where I made a point of lining up behind Clara. I know she’s a steady wheel and knows what she has to do to win, so lining up behind her seemed like a good bet. As it turns out, I was right, Clara went straight to the front from the gun, and I was able to move my way from a second row call up into third place. I was probably 6th or 7th wheel into the first corner, but I was able to work my way into 3rd place before any notable gaps opened up. I was definitely a bit surprised to find myself so close to the front of the race, and as I passed the pit the first time I could distinctly hear Erik’s excited voice saying “Today’s your day!” I knew how quickly gaps between riders were growing on this course, but I also knew that because it was so muddy, there was good potential for a slip or a mechanical, so riding a clean, steady race was vital. So I kept pedaling, and when I slid out or got caught in a weird rut, I just kept going because I knew that the girls in front of me and behind me were experiencing the same terrible conditions.
And it probably sounds cheesy, but what made it easier to keep pushing was the support I could feel coming from the spectators. From my dad, friends, teammates, sponsors, and Brenna and Erik. I was glad I could represent the team well, and I also know that I would not have been able to procure a result without their support. Ultimately, I held on to third place, collapsing into a puddle of mud after I crossed the finish line. It’s a good thing I love hugs because I got so many after I finished that race.
My husband aside, Erik Tonkin has done more to support my bike racing than anyone. It’s indisputable. From day one, he was there to teach me, and all of us, that cyclocross is more than the sum of its parts – it’s a sport that traverses the highs and lows of life, and brings us together when we least expect it. Tonkin always does his best to emphasize the importance of process and perseverance, casting aside outcome-based expectations with a shrug of the shoulders and excited suggestions for improvement. “Maybe dismount here, you know? Practice having fast feet, run like a cyclocrosser, cut this corner tape to tape. It’s okay if you don’t do well, but leave yourself open to opportunities for success. Today is a good day, Beth Ann.” These things take time to learn. Results matter, but they really matter when you can share them with the people who surround you: Everything else in the middle? That’s process. That’s life. That’s the good stuff.
And so, when we came together in Louisville last weekend, we did so with focus, but with an eye toward our journey and hearts full of gratitude. By Sunday afternoon, Clara had won the U23 cyclocross national title, and Sophie had ridden herself to a 4th place varsity collegiate finish, followed by a 3rd place finish in the U23 race, just behind Clara. I finished 13th in the elite race, which felt like a genuinely happy (if not exceptionally muddy) denouement to a sometimes frustrating feeling season. I’m not flashy, but if you need someone to head up the dependability department at your company, I can apply, and I’m proud of that. Steady Eddy. Maybe next year I’ll crack the code to sneak past what seems to be lucky number 13, considering I’ve finished in that position three nationals in a row. Okay, 14th in Reno, but close!
Our team has seen lots of changes in recent years. At our roots, we’re a large local cycling team based in Portland, Oregon. Team S&M CX is simply an extension of that group, but with slightly different jerseys and a van very, very (very) full of equipment sourced from almost entirely Pacific Northwest sponsors—a fact we are eagerly proud of. Over time, I’ve learned that my racing is motived by relationships: sponsors, mentors, coaches, etc.—so when I pull on my Team S&M jersey, I am proud. Along with pride comes a subtle but important fear of failure. This year, I did my best, and I think largely succeeded, in casting that fear aside. Like…”What’s the worst thing that can happen? I take last place on national television and people see me cry? Who cares! Commercials make me cry!” I’m telling you, worst case scenarios can really help with a case of the blues, but I digress.
When I rolled to my third row start in Louisville I wasn’t nervous. I wasn’t anxious. I wasn’t afraid of failing, and I wasn’t caught up thinking about prior performances. I was, in perhaps a cliché manner, just really happy to be racing my bike, and present for the task at hand. This is not to be mistaken with complacency, and though I may not always be able to capture the same feeling moving forward, I sure will try. It’s a feeling that comes, in very large part, from being a part of Team S&M CX.
It was a great race. I had two goals: feel good, and give my best. That’s it. Some days, you can have higher expectations, but sometimes goals like this are more helpful. I had a good start. I had some setbacks shortly thereafter, and so did everyone else. The conditions forced errors, and we all navigated them the best we could. To be honest, my expectations for Nationals had already been completely fulfilled. I’d run miles around the course yelling at Sophie during her collegiate race on Thursday (naysayers, it was a warm up), and I’d just watched my teammates catapult themselves to the U23 podium. Suddenly our roads were converging and cyclocross meant more than just me, which gave me freedom to check my ego at the line, and race my bike. And I did, in the worst conditions I’ve ever experienced. It was slow, it was 80% running, it was deep, deep, and deep…what’s another word for deep? It was cavernous mud. That’s what it was. Effing cavernous.
And you know what went through my mind while I was racing? Nothing—it was glorious. One of the biggest reasons I race bikes is because they allow me to stop thinking: they’re like Ritalin, but more expensive, and I don’t lose the urge to snack. But during the last few years, I’ve found myself thinking too much on the bike, creating a stressful paradox—one with so much negative internal dialogue, it’s resulted in races and training that can feel burdensome. I often say that once you’ve begun thinking during a cyclocross race, you’re probably going backward, unless you command great authority over your inner dialogue. My inner dialogue usually kicks the negative laws of physics into high gear, and ends with confusing feelings: “I can only get better from here. I’m amazing. I’m almost fourtey, shit. How do you spell forty? Who cares. I’ll never be good. I’ve always been good. I am probably the most consistent rider of all time. I’m so unpredictable. I should maybe consider aqua bike. I am pretty good at this cyclocross shit.” As such, it was brilliant to have a race without thought, and I was quite happy for it to be Nationals. I did briefly entertain the story of mountain runner Kilian Jornett during lap three (look the dude up, he’s insane!), but that only lasted a moment, and everything else was, I don’t know, just pretty quiet. And I liked it.
Then it was over, and we celebrated. We hugged it out. We broke down tents. We talked about Clara and Sophie’s impending trips to Europe (I’d be so delighted to see both of them on that Worlds roster). We piled our muddy and torn clothes into garbage bags. We ate a meat platter. We hugged more people. We took too long to say goodbye at the end of the night, and then we parted ways. Some of us cried in private, not for ourselves, but for the extension of ourselves. Results matter when you can share them with the people who surround you.
And then, after a 1 AM pilgrimage to see our buds at Squid Bikes, Matt and I drove the van back to Oregon. We were re-routed on gravel roads through Wyoming. We were stuck in a snowdrift and dug ourselves out with an extremely tiny frying pan. We listened to podcasts about existential risk. We drank enough La Croix to fund a year of liberal arts school with our bottle return, and we spent a lot of time reflecting upon our weekend – upon our people, our team, and our bike racing family – an extension of our true family, and a team we are proud to call home.
Thank you, so much, to all of the sponsors and supporters who make Team S&M CX a reality. We are proud to share this journey with you.