If you look up the word oxymoron in the dictionary you will find Southern California cyclocross listed as the definition. With a few notable exceptions, cyclocross racing in So Cal is conducted in conditions that can be only described as less than cross like to the rest of the country. These conditions can vary from a blazing 80 degrees to a freezing 50. Besides those extreme weather conditions that make us the envy of the nation, the So Cal cyclocross racer has to race in ankle deep sand and soft dirt which makes cornering challenging. Bike washes consist of hosing off the fine layer of dust that coats our cross bicycles after a race. Freezing Rain? Snow? Sub Zero Temperatures? We can only see those conditions raced on YouTube.
It was with a determination to show the rest of the country that So Cal racers are just as skilled at riding in true cyclocross conditions that two young Southern California juniors made the journey to the 2013 National Cyclocross Championships held in Madison, Wisconsin. Team Specialized Juniors, Jules Gilliam of Manhattan Beach, and Sean McElroy of Palmdale made the trip to race the boys 13-14 age group. Jules and Sean were the only California riders in their age group so they were representing the whole state.
Having raced the SoCalCross Prestige Series for the last two seasons, Jules and Sean are no strangers to cyclocross. Both have strong results in the Junior 10-14 category as well as in the Senior Men A & B’s. Racing with a maturity beyond their years, the two 13 year olds have had solid placings racing in the senior categories. It’s not too often on the starting line that children strike fear into the legs of grown men. This is the first year Jules has attended a National Cyclocross Championship, but Sean was 4th in the Boys 13-14 race in 2012.
Both Jules and Sean are teammates on Team Specialized Racing, which has for many years supported an outstanding Junior and Masters program. Primarily a CA based team with members throughout the state, Team Specialized Racing also has two Junior members based in Oregon and Colorado. The Colorado based rider, Gage Hecht, is the 2012 National Cyclocross Champion in the Boys 13-14 and will be racing the 15-16 age group at this years Nationals. Each junior member is coached by Larry Nolan who has been involved with the team since the mid 2000’s and in cycling for decades.
To say arriving in Wisconsin in January from Southern California is a shock would be an understatement. The beauty of Southern California is that if one likes winter, one can drive to winter. Wisconsinites are not that lucky. Freezing temperatures, snow, rain and mud are what greeted riders at the Nationals. Certainly the worst conditions the two riders from Southern California have ever competed in. It rained all day Thursday. If that wasn’t bad enough, the rain, along with temperatures in the 40’s during the day and above freezing at night, turned the snow into slush. The final insult was sloppy mud covered the entire course like frosting over a chocolate cake. It was going to be an epic race.
The Boys 13-14 race started at 12:45 Friday. This is a competitive age group in a 41 racer field heavily skewed towards riders who live in states where they may be riding regularly in conditions similar to Nationals. Given the temperature and conditions, it was important to stay warm and get a good warm up. Though the organizers provided a warm up tent with trainers, Jules and Sean were invited to the California Giant Strawberries trailer to use their warm up tent and trainers. It’s always nice when a Professional Team is thinking about Junior riders.
After getting the engines hot, Jules and Sean were off to the start. In a somewhat complex system, rider order at the start is based on how many points each rider has collected during the season. Better placings in races translate into a better start order at Nationals. However, different parts of the country use different cycling federations to certify their races so start order doesn’t necessarily reflect rider ability. Sean placed 4th at last years Nationals so he earned a right to start on the front row. Jules was 38th of 41 based on his points so he was on the back row. Rules are rules and should be respected but the scoring system leaves one’s head scratching. Though, just because one starts at the back doesn’t mean one will finish at the back and you race with what you got, not what you wish you had.
The whole 13-14 boys field is lined up at the start. Two laps of pure cyclocross. At the gun it was 41 of the nation’s best young junior cyclocross riders trying to be the first to the turn. Within moments after getting off the pavement and onto the mud and slush the spills started to happen. One after another riders went down. It was almost becoming a race of not who could come across the finish line first but who was able to stay up right the most. The first real test came on the first climb. Jules and Sean were able to ride up without dismounting. Rider after rider had to make a decision on this hill. Ride or run. Riding may have been faster, but one ran the risk of falling and if you fell your chances of getting back up were remote. If the first climb wasn’t bad enough then the series of downhills tested the riders skills. Jules said he crashed a total of seven times, which was a combination of his fault and other riders. Sean had the same problems but was compounded by a barely functional front derailleur which hampered his shifting. Besides the hills, one big, the other rollers, riders had to contend with a 20 stair run up and a barrier section that can only be described as cruel and unusual punishment.
Exhausted from their effort, mud covered, cold and wet, the two Southern California Juniors rolled past the finish line. Sean was first in 9th place with Jules 13th, 28 seconds behind. It was solid results for a group of juniors who came to race in conditions outside their comfort zones. Continuing the excellent results, their teammate Gage Hecht, in the boys 15-16 age group, won his race with a solid demonstration of power and bike handling skills.
It was some solid results for Team Specialized. Jules said he came away from the experience “learning a lot”, i.e. how to ride in the snow, mud and slush, what clothes to wear and positioning. Special thanks to Norm McElroy (Sean’s father) who filled in as mechanic and got up early Friday to help with the logistics, course preview and bike wash.
Another successful Nationals. They are all ready looking forward to Boulder 2014!
Report & Photos by Andy Gilliam
Photos Courtesy Team Specialized Racing