If you are racing cyclocross nationals in Tacoma, Washington this December you’re in for a treat. A couple weeks back, I raced at Fort Steilacoom on the preliminary nationals course during the MFG Natz Practice. The course is very hard but extremely fun. While I won’t be racing nationals myself a lot of people, especially JM Coaching Athletes, who are racing would benefit from a quick break down of what I believe will be the keys to the race.
Fort Steilacoom Park is characterized by an upper and lower half separated by a steep ridge providing a mix of high speed open areas, challenging climbs and janky descents. The course starts with a long open pavement section, which if there’s a strong wind coming off Puget Sound, will become watt sapping. Turning left off the pavement you head into a rough grass field towards runup #1. Between getting tossed around in the field and it being a gradual incline, the first runup is really tough. If it’s a PNW mudder come race week, this whole section could be unrideable. At the top, this is where the course splits. All the amateur categories will go straight on a gravel path before looping around a tree and dropping back down the ridge on a very steep (for a cx bike) descent-to-left hand turn back into the lower half and pit #1. U23 and Pro riders will instead do a tight hairpin at the top of runup #1 and head back down a steep descent for about 10 meters before turning right off a small drop. The terrain is really rough here and is a gradual uphill off camber which will again likely force a dismount and run. You’ll then meet back up with the gravel path and do the same descent as the amateurs.
The first 3-5 minutes of the course lap has taken riders over a fast and rough grassy field, then up, and down a steep ridge once or twice, in rapid succession. In doing this a couple themes emerge. First, riders will quickly feel how hard this course is. The amount of vertical ascent alone is tough but it’s combined with the technically challenging features that means riders will have little rest and no opportunity to lose focus. Second, there are multiple times when riders face a slow speed section followed by a long high speed section. This to me is going to be the biggest factor in how the race plays out. Riders who can take advantage of the high speed sections will be able to make the passes or open and grow gaps. The key to doing this will be finding a way to arrive at the end of the slow speed challenging sections with gas in the tank for a hard acceleration.
The course continues after pit #1 by heading back up the ridge. A sharp left hander is the entrance to runup #2. This section is extremely steep meaning even an all out effort still means a walking pace. Any moisture will make the runup especially greasy and definitely worthy of toe spikes. At the top the course opens up for one of the longest fast sections of the whole course. Aside from some easy corners the course takes riders quickly to a challenging descent back down the ridge for the final time. This final descent is going to be a little slippery with some exposed roots and rocks, but overall it’s fast. This drops you out into the main field area and heads to pit #2. Similar to the first big chunk of the course, we find a slow challenging section, a run up, followed by a long section of fast flowing corners. This will reward riders who are able to negotiate the challenging slow sections with enough left to accelerate back up to speed on the fast open sections.
The final section of the course after pit #2 takes riders through some tight twisty corners in the field. If there is any moisture on the ground these will be very slippery. The ground is hard packed so tires have a tough time digging in to find traction. This section is highlighted by a challenging sand pit. The pit is man made and features a very coarse sand that is slow and difficult to form ruts in even when wet. The pit ends with a hairpin out into another open fast sections that concludes the lap. For one final time, rewarding riders who can accelerate up to top speed after pedaling or running the slow sand pit, giving them an edge coming into the finish. Looks for any last lap battles to be settled in the sand pit.
The overall takeaways are that riders who can negotiate the challenging technical sections and able to put in hard accelerations into the fast open sections will have an overall advantage. Some riders might be able to get a few seconds in each technical section but if they don’t put hard efforts in the fast sections, riders with more horsepower will catch up. Riders who are able to put the power down but can't handle the technical sections will find themselves chasing the whole race. Ultimately, the course is best suited to the rider who is savvy at all aspects of cross racing, with an extra advantage to riders who can master the most important CX skill, accelerating.