Chipped, bibbed, and cow-belled. Time for some ‘cross racing!
When one has acquired a new bicycle, the only logical next step is to go race it. Right?
So imagine my giddy surprise when I found out that the Ohio Valley Cyclocross (OVCX) series was coming to my back yard this weekend! That the race fell the morning after the MoMBA XC Classic was no deterrent. Have new bike, must race!
I’ve tried CX before, but never on a proper bike, so I hoped to do well. I held no illusion of being truly competitive, but I thought maybe I’d at least hold on to the tail end of the pack. And anyway, my goal was just to go out and learn, since I have all of 5 miles on this bike.
Race morning was cold, but a brilliant sunrise replaced the clouds and rain from yesterday. I showed up 90 minutes before my wave was to start, got registered, and eyed the course while the previous waves went off. It didn’t look all that bad from the sidelines, at least.
The atmosphere was buzzing. Hundreds of riders swirled around the parking areas, in various stages of bike prep, warming up, or spectating until their races started. Music blasted from loudspeakers, interspersed with two very experienced announcers calling the races like professional sportscasters, and recognizing racers by name. This was no mom-n-pop bike race, this was the real deal! I felt at once like I was in over my head, and jazzed about being a part of something so hugely impressive.
There were two races before mine, and between waves, they were allowing a short gap for riders to preview the course. I got kitted up and pedaled around while the second race wrapped up, leaving my hoodie on as long as possible. I figured at race pace, that I’d be warm enough, and I can take the cold for a mere 30 minutes, anyway. But that didn’t mean I wanted to freeze before the thing even started.
Having a laugh after call-ups.
As the leaders from the race before mine started to come across the finish, they opened the rest of the course for sighting laps. I rolled onto the grass and started circulating, trying very hard not to look like it was my first time. I’m not sure I succeeded.
The course itself seemed fast overall, not terribly bumpy and not chock full of obstacles. The hardest feature for me was the sheer number of muddy, off-camber corners, which would require me to test the limits of my comfort zone, and the limits of traction on my new bike. Line choice wasn’t hard to figure out, as the previous two waves had worn a pretty obvious path through each turn, but as the day went on, those lines would become sloppier. There were two log-overs that I likely would have hopped over with more experience on the bike, and two plank-overs that required a dismount from everyone, regardless of skill.
My favorite obstacle was the sand traps. I got a little experience riding in the sand when I was in North Carolina last year, so I knew to just plow through them with as much speed as possible, and let the bike go where it wanted to go. In the races before mine, a whole lot of riders found themselves underneath their bikes in the sand, but it wasn’t as much a worry, for me. I gather from talking to other riders that that makes me weird.
I finished my sighting lap and coasted down to the start area to wait for call-ups. Despite the appearance of being a simple mash-up of road cycling and mountain biking, CX is its own sport, with its own set of lingo to learn. Start order is set by call-ups, wherein the race organizer racks and stacks the riders based on some criteria, or by his personal preference. They are so named because you wait in a gaggle until the director calls you up to the line.
Then there are hand-ups, wherein people standing just outside the tape will try to hand things (beer, money, swag) to the riders as they come by. Most hand-ups happen at the least opportune times, such as in the middle of a sand pit, to add to the challenge (or create opportunities to crash, depending on one’s perspective). And don’t forget run-ups, barriers and pits… I’m still learning.
The size of the field for my race was impressive, and unlike any bike event I’ve started this year. There were 58 total starters in my wave, and I was gridded almost at the back, thanks to registering at the last moment, and not having any previous results to move me up. That was fine with me, as I figured on being a rolling chicane for the first lap anyway, and I didn’t want to get run over.
A voice ahead called 10 seconds to the start, and 58 shoes clicked into pedals in acknowledgement. Then we were off! The whole collection of us surged forward, and I stood on the pedals to charge, only to be sat right back down. The short start chute gave way to a collection of tight corners, and we were gridlocked. This underlines the importance of your starting position in a CX race, something I’ll have to remember when I get more competitive.
The start was exciting! And then it was gridlock.
Tiptoeing through the corners, like a newb.
I held my line as best I could through the opening sections, trying in vain to gain a few positions while we were packed so close together. Then the course opened up, and the riders around me poured on the speed, and I was surprised at how easily they slipped away from me! I was staying with them in the straights and gaining on the brakes, but my mid corner speed was awful, and my corner exits were so tentative that I couldn’t pull them back.
The course wound around the trees, took us over a couple logs, and then zigzagged into the woods for a short section of singletrack. I was hanging on to a few riders yet, but working hard to do it. When we got out of the woods, there was a short dash across the gravel to another curvy section, this time with more mud, and I got left. The corners in this section were faster and more sweeping, but with even less traction than the other parts of the course, leading me to throw out the anchor and wobble through.
I found dismounting for obstacles less challenging than anticipated.
… where’d everybody go?
I came across the finish line on my first lap sucking wind and all alone, the field stretching off ahead of me. That was fine, as I was just out here to learn, but I had hoped to hang on a little longer. Still, there was one rider behind me, and I made it my goal to stay ahead of him, no matter what. If it was to be a race for next-to-last, then that was the race I was going to win, and I used that little motivation to keep the throttle pushed forward.
Having lost track of the riders ahead of me, it was down to simple experimentation, trying to learn how to ride this cyclocross thing. I played around with different lines in different types of corners, tried different braking techniques, and started pushing the bike into a slide when I felt comfortable, all while hammering on the pedals as hard as I could in the straights. I realized that I was a little tired from yesterday, but not so much that I couldn’t hit it pretty hard.
One lasting impression from this race will be the crowd. Short track racing is an excellent spectator event already, but I was impressed with how lively and fun this bunch was, and how positive. Even though I was clearly out there struggling, working hard to go slow, it didn’t deter anybody from cheering and clapping as I came by, offering hand-ups and encouragement. One guy in particular made it a point to get right next to the ribbon as I came by, clapping and yelling “you’re doing it!” That meant a lot to me, getting my butt kicked as soundly as I was, and it kept my attitude in check. I was doing it, even if I wasn’t doing it every well, and that means something. I remembered some advice I got a few years back at a motorcycle track day: “You’re upright, pointed the right direction and on two wheels, so you’ve already got most of it right.”
Deep sand, always a favorite for a cyclist…
I came around a corner and onto the pavement by the finish line for the third time, and looked up to see a guy with a radio, waving his arms for me to stop. The organizers decided to pull me off, and he said they’d place me. I was a little bummed. I know it was unlikely my position would have changed, but I at least wanted the dignity of having run the same distance as the leaders. And anyway, I was learning the whole time, getting faster every lap, and I wanted another go to see how much faster I could get. But it wasn’t to be. I would be credited with 57th of 58 in my wave, and 45th of 46 in my category.
My baseline goals any time I try a new race are 1. to finish, 2. to not crash too hard, and 3. to not finish last. I accomplished those things, so I can’t be too disappointed. The racer in me is horrified at being left for dead, but given the mitigating circumstances, I have to be satisfied at having gone out, and raced, and learned. And even though I sucked, I can’t wait to do it again!
Less shiny, more muddy. That’s more like it.