There’s this scene in the movie Bad Santa that I’ve always thought was brilliant.

Drunken degenerate Billy Bob Thornton is scamming a chubby outcast kid for a place to hide out while he plans his next mall robbery disguised as Santa. While out-of-his-mind intoxicated one night, he eats all of the candy out of the kid’s advent calendar. Upon seeing what he’s done the next morning, knowing how much the calendar meant to the kid and feeling something in semblance to guilt, he hastily patches up the calendar and puts it back.

Later on, the kid excitedly opens the current day of the advent calendar, only to be disappointed. “This one’s a candy corn…”

And Billy Bob imparts a deranged slice of wisdom, one that I have echoed to this day: “They can’t all be winners, kid.”

No, they can’t.

And this is exactly how I would describe Fontana US Cup 2017. Not a winner. LOL.

In truth, I was never really expecting it to be. For health purposes, my coach and I planned a slow start to the season. He was horrified when I told him that Fontana would be my first race of the year, that I would be doing it on a bike I’d never ridden, and that I considered it a practice race of sorts. He was baffled at my attitude, insisting that a US Cup is not a “practice race”. I, on the other hand, realized that it was the only attitude that could be had about it. After all, there weren’t any races for me to use as practice back home, I wasn’t able to get the bike shipped to NJ so there was no way for me to ride it beforehand, and given all of that, how could I consider it anything but a practice race? That didn’t mean I wasn’t going to go do it. Because the other two US Cups are on the east coast and I’d be in CA to race Sea Otter anyway, it made sense to add the first two US Cups of the series to my calendar.

So I’m learning to roll with things instead of fighting them. It is what it is.

I had done everything I could in the off-season to prepare myself for racing. All the other things were out of my control and could only be dealt with as best as possible. So at 2:30 on Thursday morning, in the blackness of the night, I loaded my bags into the car and set off for Newark Airport. A connection in NC, then another flight to LAX and I was in CA by noon (west coast time). The plan was to grab my rental car and head up to Thousand Oaks to finally meet the KTM crew and pick up the race whip. I had hoped to get to Fontana area relatively early, settle into my hotel, and get a quality night of sleep before pre-riding the course early Friday morning. The idea being to ride as early as possible and get the maximum recovery time between practice and race.

The best laid plans of so on and so forth…

None of that happened as planned. A long story not worth rehashing. Like I said, it is what it is. You roll with things. By the time I got to the hotel I had reserved at 10pm (1am on my time), I was dehydrated, starving, and beyond tired. And then there was the hotel… The internet had made this hotel look decent. Of course, I was suspicious of the low price, but the pictures looked fine and there were reviews that supported that theory. In reality, it was far from fine. The bullet proof glass window separating me and the non-english speaking staff member who didn’t have my reservation, tried to charge me more per night, and tried to put me in a smoking room was a dead giveaway. When they asked me for a cash deposit for the room key (the smoking room they promised wasn’t smoking after it was made clear that they only had smoking rooms available), I just turned around and left. Thank God for zero interest credit cards. I reserved a room for twice as much somewhere else, 25 minutes away. By the time I got there, it was close to 11pm and I was absolutely dead. By the time I got everything in the room and got to bed, it was midnight, 3am to my internal clock, still set to EST. I slept as if in a coma, but not enough. I had to wake up and find a bike shop to help me get my bike fit right ASAP.

Luckily, I found Incycle in Rancho Cucamonga. They were absolutely amazing and did their best to get things set up with the measurements from my bike back home. Unfortunately, the seat post had a rather severe setback and they couldn’t get the seat in the right place, pushed all the way forward it still ended up being a few inches back from the right place. I thought I’d try it that way, as I had already spent a lot of money on bike parts and hotel rooms and if I could avoid changing the seat post that would have saved me some much needed cash.

From Incycle, I went directly to the race venue. My plan to pre-ride early and get plenty of recovery time between the preview and the race was botched. I ended up riding at around 4pm, jetlagged and drained. Between the seat, rebound, and just being generally very different than my old bike, the new whip still felt off and I crashed twice in practice. My legs felt dead and tired. But….

It is what it is, you roll along.

Did two laps so as not to over exert and fatigue myself even more and called it a day. My theory of this being a practice race became an uncontested fact. It was not going to be an easy day… but whenever is race day easy? So this one would be a little harder than usual, I resolved to do my best regardless.

Race was at 8am the next day, which meant a 5:30am wakeup. I desperately needed more rest time but there was no way around it. At least I had adrenaline to wake me up. I was excited and nervous… and eager to just get it over with, if I’m honest. Haha :-/

We lined up and were off. I skipped my pedal about 5x off the line, nightmare scenario. Then everyone’s gone and I’m in the back having to hammer to get passed people who went while I was searching for a pedal.  I pick them off as fast as I can before we get to singletrack and then I get by a few on the long, paved climb… but I also lost a couple of spots on that climb. The seat being far back inhibited my ability to get forward to power the pedals. I just wasn’t able to put the power down where I should have. And this was pretty much the story of the race: feeling awkward, incapable, and not able to ride the way I know I’m able to. It seemed to last forever, 5 very long laps.

Afterward, I saw that I ended up 20th for the day. A top 20 finish at a US Cup doesn’t sound bad on paper, but it didn’t feel good in my heart. I didn’t feel that it was the best I could have done, and that hurt. I came here to give it my all and I felt that I had failed in that.

I was relieved that it was over, and more importantly, more aware of how important bike fit and seat positioning is to my ability to ride and race to full potential. So the first thing I did post-race was replace the stock seat post with a zero setback and measure it back to the same place as last year’s race bike. After doing that, things felt quite a bit better. The second priority was to get the rear tire changed to something with a little more bite. The fast-roller that it came with wasn’t doing the job on the loose gravelly dirt that characterizes Fontana. So back to Incycle I went where they went above and beyond for me once again, changing my tire out, adjusting the stem height, and getting my tire pressure perfect. Being proactive and getting the right things done, I headed to Short Track in a much better mental place. The 12 hours of sleep I was able to get Saturday night didn’t hurt either.

Lined up at Short Track absolutely buzzing on Honey Stinger gels and Red Bull. 20 minutes of hellacious suffering, I reconciled myself to that. This time, I wasn’t going to skip a pedal and watch everyone get away. I practiced starts about 30 times before they did call ups. I was the first person called up to the 2nd row and strategically put myself right behind Kate Courtney. Duh. What better place to be?

But short track is sort of a **** show and none of that really mattered once we took off. The first turn, only seconds off the start, became a bottle neck and start line position ceased to matter as everyone funneled through at a crawling pace. As soon as things opened up, I pinned it. I like short track. Little by little, I made my way to the top 10 and finally was sitting in 9th place with a sizeable gap on the field behind me. With half a lap to go, I was planning to attack for 8th on the last climb before the finish. I had felt strong and capable and made a few of my passes there on previous laps and knew if I had a chance for 8th, it was there. But then another unanticipated nightmare scenario: on the fire road before the climb, I was hugging the left-hand side of the road, preparing to go wide into the right hand turn and up the climb so I could carry my speed and stay off the brakes. Out of nowhere, another racer came hammering up on my right hand side. I pushed harder to get to the climb first, not wanting to lose my position and eager to carry out my attack as planned. She continued to try and pass but wasn’t quite able to out-power me to get in front. Riding along side me, she suddenly cut her wheel into my line and violently banged my bars, sending me rag dolling into the side of the road at what I’m guessing would have been 18+mph. I got up, shaken and completely dazed; I wouldn’t have expected in a million years that kind of maneuver on a wide open fire road. She had plenty of room to pass if she was going to do it. There was just no reason to hit me at all. As I ran to my bike, I desperately watched as 3 more girls flew by. My top ten finish was gone. I got back on the bike as fast as I could only to find that my stem and seat got mangled in the crash and were crooked to the left. Thankfully there was only half a lap to go and I navigated my way to the finish without giving up anymore places, ending the day at 13th. After the fact, I wish the crash could have happened earlier so I would have had a chance to fight back a few more places, but there was only less than a minute left and just no way to recover spots at that point.

In the end, in spite of everything, I’m extremely proud of that 13th place finish. That race gave me the opportunity for a realistic comparison of my strength to the other women racing at the national level. 11s off some of the strongest girls in the country each lap, the potential for a solid top ten placing. I know what I can and should be able to do now. The uncertainty that I felt in myself after Saturday gave way to newfound belief on Sunday. I know that I am capable of getting there. Any given Sunday.

What’s more, I’ve forced myself to remember that I’m finishing races at the highest level, an achievement in and of itself. These races are viciously fast and I know now that even under the worst of circumstances, I’m able to go to a national level pro race and finish without getting lapped and pulled. When I first started riding bikes a few years ago, I wouldn’t have ever imagined that I’d make it this far. And I have to keep that perspective always — I have to remember where I came from and be proud of the effort I’ve made to get here. The number result should be less important than the effort itself.

This weekend is the second US Cup at Bonelli and I’m beyond excited to get back and try again. The bike is finally dialed and fit right, I’m resting, and I plan to throw down as hard as I can.

2017 racing is gonna be LIT.

Laura Slavin's 3rd Degree Berms | Thursday, April 6th, 2017