Like merging black holes I experienced two massive forces come together to produce the gravitational wave that is me, at 39 years old, rolling up to the line in my first CX race. It was actually three things, but I couldn’t find a great metaphor for that, so… we are off to a great start. Force #1, I started working with Jared on Managing the Ghosts, see here and here for more on that. Force #2 I acquired a new coworker, Courtney Van Dimple (CX rider for Foundry and formerly of Vanderkitten), who upon hearing that I ride and advocate bicycle commuting in our workplace said “you should try racing cyclocross, you’ll love it!”. Force #3 was being picked up on the Twin Six Metal Team and feeling like I’m not honoring myself or the brand if I don’t race at least one. Never one to turn my back when the universe sends me such strong messages I commited to trying out a race this fall.
As my usual road, rando, ride around Lake Tahoe with my dad to end the summer, season wrapped up I started training with Courtney and two of her ripping CX friends, Kathleen Bortolussi (Voler/HRS/Rock Lobster) and Elise Ehrheart (Family Cycling Center). I’m really grateful to have a group willing to take me out and beat me half to death with intervals (if you are ever in the area and want a special treat, get in touch with me and Kathleen can lead “fast and faster” intervals until we cry) and answer all my goofy “I have no idea how this ‘cross thing works so please explain everything two or three times” sets of questions. Elise also took me out to a local CX practice course and worked me through some skills sessions, mounts/dismounts/tight corners/etc… I’m a bit of a nervous descender these days after a crash last summer and we worked this really crappy drop-into-a-chute-into-a-loose-switchback over and over again until I was able to do it somewhat competently. Again, super grateful for the mentoring. I quite literally wouldn’t have been out there racing without them.
I picked a local race, got my USAC racing license, and woke up early one Sunday to try out this whole “bike racing” thing.
Over and over again my CX mentors said to get there early, pre-ride the course 2-3 times, once easy, then a little faster, practice tricky sections a few times to get them down, then do a couple hard efforts to really get your legs and lungs ready to work hard. I followed their advice pretty well, practiced a really tricky and technical off-camber rutted downhill section several times until I realized it was just going to feel sketchy and awkward, and then lined up at the “4 minutes to go” call feeling at least competent if not confident, and knowing I at least looked really fast in my team kit.
Age groups were assembled, instructions were shouted, no laps to go for the first two laps then count down boards would come out, and the start will be anytime in the next 15 seconds… I took a deep slow breath, rotated my pedal up where I like it and waited. With a whistle blast we were off. I found out really quick that I hadn’t practiced clipping in enough under this much pressure, speed, and power and spent most of the uphill start stretch not clipped in on the right. After dropping 20 yards off the others in my age group and settling into the middle of the juniors pack I was able to engage the pedal and start playing the catch up game. The paved start lead into a really sandy mild uphill for the first 1/4 mile and then made a tight soft rutted right back down the same sandy straight stretch. Starting to get comfortable with the jostling and drifting at speed I got got my pedals turning and latched onto the wheel of another person whose bib # indicated they were in my class.
There was technical downhill section, a series of tight 180 degree switchbacks on a baseball infield, and then my first run-up of my racing career. My dismount went perfectly, I shouldered the bike, saw that people were bunched up on the shorter left line, and I went to the far right which was a bit longer, a bit steeper, and totally clear. My background in Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has made me quite confident in my legs and I bounded up the slope, gaining 5-6 places on other riders, and was just starting to red line when I got to the top. There were several groups of racers from the higher classes watching and I heard one of them shout my number and say “that’s the move right there, that’s the line to take” which is probably the most proud I have been on a bike in a long time. Each time through the run up I would gain 1-2 spots (I gave them all back on other parts of the course as my descending and cornering are areas where I lose lots of time. Things to work on!) and felt really good remounting at the top and hitting the gas right away. Incidentally while talking with others after the race they assured me, as a first time racer, that the run up today was much longer and more difficult than normal “so don’t worry, its usually not that bad”. I was pretty bummed, the run up was the thing I did the best at and your telling me I’m not going to get a gold star moment at most races?!? Damn.
The downhill rutted off-camber section ended up being a little easier at race pace than it had been a practice speeds, much smoother and my wheels didn’t drift downhill as long as I stayed high on the slope (there were a couple of spectacular endo’s throughout the day when people were forced into the low line), and the only other really tricky part was a short steep slope that half the people in my race rode up and half dismounted and ran. I was happy to find I had the power to ride it. Then it was a quick loose right hand turn and back onto the paved uphill start/finish stretch. Heading up into lap 3 I noticed I was consistently around 2 other riders from my category. Rider A was faster than me on the straights but a little slower through the tight corners, and Rider B just the opposite. I had better power, but he had better technical skills. For the next 2+ laps I kept playing opposite yo-yos behind the two of them, gaining on one while losing ground to the other, then vice-versa depending on terrain. Going up the start/finish stretch heading into two laps to go I passed Rider B and then put in a hard effort up the sand section to gain, what I hoped was, enough distance between us that he wouldn’t pass me in the chicanes. Going into the final lap I was in a weird no-mans-land where I couldn’t see anyone on the course ahead of me and when I looked back down the course going into turns, nobody behind me either. In my oxygen deprived state I started having doubts about whether the bell ringing on that last time through the finish meant “1 to go” or “all done”. One last time through the run up, this time all alone, and it was a couple turns and then sprint up the hill to the end.
40 minutes on a bike never felt so hard. It took me a few minutes to get my breathing back under control so I could talk again. My usual type of hard effort is many hours solo over long distances. This was about as opposite of that as you could get. I definitely had things that I could have done better, both from skills and strategy perspectives. Experience is a great teacher, or so the saying goes. And I had things that went well that I was pretty stoked on. My overall power is pretty good, and the run up was a welcome surprise to have some succeess at. I came in 5th in my age group so I feel like I have lots of room for improvement, but I didn’t totally fall apart and have an awful race either. Plus, everybody out there was great. It’s a really positive and encouraging group (even if sometimes the encouragement is… tongue in check? I heard one rider tell a heckler “you think you’re helping but you aren’t” on a particularly tricky section. The shouted heckled advice was quite good, I took it and it made the line much easier so who knows?). All in all, a great way to spend a morning on a bike, and for sure something I’ll be doing again very soon. Probably on repeated Sundays for a few weeks.
I now have two gigantic problems. 1) CX is a blast and I do indeed love it, which creates a new activity to find room for. And 2) I need a new bike, because although I love my Salsa and its a brilliant bike it is a bit heavy and not quite as nimble as I’d like in a race. My wife asked me how the bike did, and I said “pretty good, although I could see maybe getting something a little lighter and racier if its something I’m going to keep doing. I’m just not sure how to justify putting money towards another bike when I have a great bike”. She gave me a hugely loving smile with a twinkle in her eye and said “you should probably just do it. N+1 right!” I have a lot to be grateful for. Now what bike should I get next?