24
Sep
10

Getting The Runs (Or, How I Survived My First Cyclocross Race, Almost Maintained My Dignity, And Still Got Beat By A Twelve Year Old)

 Let’s get this straight from the get-go: I don’t like to run.

I guess that it all comes down to the basic question of whether, given the choice between strapping on running shoes and pounding out the miles or swiftly covering that same distance astride a bicycle, I find it difficult to believe that a rational person would actually choose to go running.  To me, running is the masochist’s choice, and rather than presume that most runners are given to wearing studded leather lingerie under their shorts and jogbras, I’m willing to take the more charitable view that they are simply poor souls who are reduced to traveling afoot because they simply aren’t coordinated enough to ride a bike.

I realize that this attitude probably consigns me to a Hell that is populated exclusively by weekend joggers, but there you have it.

So it surprised me as much as anyone when I signed up to do a cyclocross race.  ‘Cross races, as we all know, can involve a fair amount of running.   This development provoked one of those little discussions that you have with yourself when you hold up your hand to do something that one side of your brain thinks is a wee bit irrational:

“Dude, what are you doing?  A ‘cross race!?  You hate to run.  Don’t you know that ‘cross races involve running.”

“Yup.  Running, jumping over shit, falling down, and getting muddy. Oh, and it will be very cold out.  Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?”

“But Dude, there is a reason that you hate to run.  You’re big and slow, and you run like a girl.”

“Don’t forget old too.  I’m over 40.  There’s a good chance that I’ll be the oldest novice out there. ”

“Man, this will be ugly.  Maybe you can get a Senior Citizen discount on the entry fee.  How’s your fitness?  These ‘cross races are supposed to be frickin’ painful.”

“Ahhh…don’t worry about that. The race is only 45 minutes long.   I can do just about anything for 45 minutes.”

I would later pay dearly for that last bit of hubris.

Anyway, my irrational and overconfident side eventually prevailed and I was committed to do the race.  Actually, “committed” is a polite way of saying that, having shot my mouth off about the race to certain riding buddies and family members, there was no longer any way to gracefully bow out if I changed my mind.

So with the decision made and money sent off to the organizers, it was time to get down to the business of preparing for my first cyclocross outing.  I was immediately presented with several teeny-tiny impediments to what I was convinced would be yet another glorious episode in my admittedly limited racing career.

First, I had never actually seen a ‘cross race before, let alone raced in one, so it was left up to my imagination as to what to expect or how to prepare.  I knew that ‘cross racing involves getting off of the bike and jumping the odd barrier or two or traversing some sketchy terrain on skinny tires, but beyond that I was clueless.  The only answer that I could come up with on the training angle was to occasionally hop off of my bike on the fly and then try and hop back on.  With the help of a few inadvertent top tube/gonad collisions to focus the mind, I eventually got this down pretty smooth.

Second, I didn’t have a ‘cross bike.  What I did have, however, was my trusty commuter rig, an inexpensive Bianchi touring bike.  It would do in a pinch.  Stripped down and wearing a set of 35c knobby tires pulled off of an old hybrid, it looked pretty racy.  I was in business.

Oh, and then there was the running part.  I hate running, so I skipped that bit.  I figured that, hey, it was a BIKE race and there couldn’t be THAT much running involved could there?  And if there was, I could just gut it out because, as I had irrationally convinced myself, I can do just about anything for 45 minutes.  Even running through the mud with a 25-pound bike on my shoulder.

Race day arrived cold and threatening snow.  Bundled in my thickest windproof tights and multiple jerseys, I checked in with the race control, and got my one-day license and race number with little hassle.   I was way early, so I had plenty of time to check out the course and the competition.  What I saw of both quickly set off warning bells for what was about to go down.

The course was an eye-opener. The race was being held in a local regional park, and the organizers had managed to put together a loop that included virtually every type of surface that you could think of: road, gravel, grass, singletrack.  Oh, and they managed to find a place on the course for every hill in the park, including one steep grassy incline to the top of an earthen dam holding back a small lake.  Correct that: it was holding back a small, frozen lake because, as I mentioned, it was COLD.  The cold temperature also meant that the ground itself was frozen solid.

And then there were the barriers.  Can’t have a ‘cross race without barriers.   Several sets of hurdles were fiendishly placed in the main viewing area, meaning that any humiliation suffered while traversing these sets of jumps would be extremely public.  There were, of course, other groupings of barriers placed over the course in rather inconvenient places. Most notable among these little inconveniences was a particularly nasty grouping located on a steep uphill section, about 30 yards long.  They say that visualization is a technique used by professional athletes to conquer difficult situations that require physical skill or finely honed technique, like high-speed ski runs or qualifying a racecar at Indianapolis.  So I tried to visualize myself rolling up to this section mid-race, smoothly dismounting and gracefully leaping over the barriers like a gazelle.

The best that I could muster was a vision of a slow, spastic, tired gazelle carrying a bicycle.

Taking it all in, it began to slowly dawn on me that the next 45 minutes or so of my life would not be a dignified interlude.   I tried to keep my spirits up by repeating over and over that little bit of over-confidence that got me here in the first place: “Oh hell, this isn’t too bad. I can do just about anything for 45 minutes.”

Well, we would definitely see about that.

My confidence levels were somewhat restored when I started to check out the competition.  There were, of course, big groups of honch racers decked out in full team regalia, warming up for the main event.  I ignored them.  I wouldn’t be racing against those guys.  No, I was entered in the “Citizens” race, i.e., the light comedy portion of the show that precedes the main attraction.   I spent my time sizing myself up against the other Average Joes with hairy legs who, like me, had apparently taken leave of their senses and showed up to race bicycles with skinny tires on frozen mud.

Based on what I saw, I figured that I was in with a shout.  Yes, I was definitely on the older end of the age spectrum of the group buying one-day licenses, but they generally looked a lot like the folks that I normally ride with.  I could handle this.

What I hadn’t figured on, however, were the riders in the other class of racers that were going to be waved off at the same time as the “Citizens” race.  It turns out that the true danger men in our particular little contest didn’t come from the ranks of the “Citizen” racers.  Nope.  In their wisdom, and I suspect perverse sense of humor, the race organizers lumped the “Citizens” racers in with the much younger “Junior” riders, meaning that I would be racing against kids young enough to be, well, my kids.

My immediate reaction upon finding out that we were going to race against the Junior field was to feel guilty about the Citizens-class smackdown that me and a bunch of thirty-somethings were about to unleash on these enthusiastic, fresh-faced 12- to 16-year olds.  I mean, c’mon, how fair was it for the organizers to throw these children up against grown men in an athletic contest where strength, skill, and riding savvy would separate the winners from the losers?  I rationalized that, yes, being shown how it’s really done by older, more experienced riders would eventually make these youngsters better racers.  But being the one to brutally drop young Bobby on a climb or elbow little Timmy into the weeds while traversing a section of barriers would feel a bit like shooting Bambi.

As it turned out, I shouldn’t have worried about the little assholes.

My true place in the ‘cross food chain was made abundantly clear to me while I was warming up.  I was riding the course in the company of one of the Junior racers – an angelic young lad of about 12 or so who was perched upon a rigid fat-tired mountain bike.  As we were cruising along I was quietly having fatherly pangs of guilt about the rather uneven physical contest that was about to occur and grim prospect of being forced to punt little Timmy here to the back of the pack for the sake of his personal development as a bike racer.  We eventually came to the dreaded steep uphill section of barriers.  I started my dismount and was in the middle of a series of sclerotic hops over the barriers when I looked over at little Timmy.

BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM!

The little bastard busted a major move and effortlessly cleaned the section with a set of textbook-perfect bunny hops over the barriers, something that I couldn’t have done in a million years even if you had bolted a huge pogo stick to my ass.  As he cleared the last barrier little Timmy took off up the hill like a bat out of hell, leaving me there like I was chained to the spot.

Oh, the humanity….

Turns out that little Timmy is a sponsored Junior racer who has apparently been racing bicycles since birth.  Not to spoil the ending here, but the Tim-meister completely buried the field in our race, old and young alike.  Timmy, wherever you are, this frosty cold one is for you, not that you are old enough to have a drink.  Or shave.  Thanks for making a bunch of old guys feel even older.  Come back in a few years when you get through puberty.

Anyway, having had ego and expectations crushed once again, the only thing left to do was to saddle up and get on with it.

The mixed “Citizens” and Junior field numbered about 30 riders.  The organizers flagged us off, and the field streamed through a short neutralized “prologue” section in an attempt to string out the field before folks the serious hammering began.  There was a strong pucker factor here as (1) folks started wailing right off of the bat, “neutralized” section be damned, and (2) the prologue was routed down a nasty gravel access road that had me completely focused on just staying upright.  Against all expectations everyone made it to the first corner, and the ball was opened.

As I mentioned before, little Timmy took off like a fart in a hurricane and wasn’t seen again until the race was over.  The rest of us, the old and unstable, were thundering along over hill and dale in a closely packed bunch.  The first couple of run-ups spread things out a little bit, as did a few falls.  As for my own race, renewed overconfidence was masquerading as skill as I picked off a couple of riders.  I was also doing okay in the run-up sections, but it was sheer hell on my legs.  After two laps, I was sitting the top third of the field and holding my own.  About mid-way through the race, around lap three, I decided that it was time to make my move up toward the front.

There are those who say that if I had actually completed that third lap up on two wheels, I would have set a course record.   Actually, I did set a course record of sorts, just not the one that I intended.

Starting that third lap I really put my head down and just started hammering along.  I picked off a few more riders and could smell the front of the pack.  What I should have smelled was the tree root that was lurking on the inside of a tricky downhill turn.  BAM!  I went down harder than a White House intern, skittering along across the frozen ground on my ass.   Riders streamed by on both sides as I picked myself up off of the floor and got back on the bike.  Damn.

Only slightly chastened, I got back on and turned the wick up even higher, madly chasing the rapidly disappearing lead group.  I was trying a little too hard when I comprehensively lost it riding down a steep, sketchy section.  This one was a thing of beauty: I went flying over the bars and rag-dolled down the hill in spectacular fashion with the bike cartwheeling behind me at a respectful distance.  Both bike and rider were deposited in a heap at the bottom of the hill, amid polite applause from the spectators.

A quick survey of the damage confirmed that my race was officially screwed.  Still, I picked the clumps of frozen turf out of my helmet and started running with the bike, making repairs on the fly.   I was able to twist the bars back relatively straight, but the brake levers were hosed, pointing off at odd angles.  That didn’t really matter much as my left hand was throbbing and beginning to swell, so brakes were pretty much a moot point anyway.

I could have quit right then and there, but I didn’t.  Hell, I guess that I really can do just about anything for 45 minutes.  So I concentrated on simply staying up and finishing, wobbling around the course one-handed those last few laps.

The good news was that I didn’t finish dead last.   I could see last place from where I finished, but we need not dwell upon that.  I did beat out a couple of guys who abandoned, so that counts for something.

Turning the events of the day over in my mind as I put away the bike and packed up the car, I had another of those little conversations with myself.

“So, that was painful and stupid.”

“Holy shit, you got that right.  I didn’t exactly set the ‘cross world alight with that performance, did I?  Oh well.  Get’em next time.”

“What do you mean, “next time!?”  You can’t seriously be thinking about doing that again, can you?  You spent more time airborne than on two wheels.  You probably earned some serious frequent flyer miles ”

“Be quiet.  I’m tired and sore and my hand has swelled up like it belongs to the Elephant Man.”

I haven’t had any more conversations with myself about cyclocross.  My conscience and I have called a truce on the subject, at least until the swelling in my sprained thumb goes down.  The doctor said that I should keep something cold on it for a few days.  An ice-cold can of Budweiser seems to work just fine….

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2 Responses to “Getting The Runs (Or, How I Survived My First Cyclocross Race, Almost Maintained My Dignity, And Still Got Beat By A Twelve Year Old)”


  1. 1 Jim L
    September 27, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    A brilliant article! Very well written! It really hit home as I am contemplating entering a cyclocross race myself. I too feel as if I can do anything for 45 minutes, I too hate to run, and I also believe there is a good chance I will kill myself! Curious…have you raced again since your first traumatic, yet rewarding experience?

    • September 27, 2013 at 11:21 pm

      Jim –

      Glad that you liked the article. I did a couple more cross races then stopped. It was a lot of fun, and the reasons why I stopped were (1) I sucked, (2) while it was fun, I didn’t want to splash out for a dedicated cross bike, (3) I sucked, (4) my hands, feet, and testicles invariably froze during he races, and (5) I sucked.

      Greg


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