A old newbie's first season
OK here's the recap of my first season of cyclocross racing, which for me started in mid-November. Unlike my season this recap is lengthy but I'd like to put it down somewhere. Hey, itís the interwebs, you donít have to read it. I got started late, in the season yes, but in life too, wish I'd gotten into this crazy sport earlier. Let's just say Iím close to aging out of Masters 35+... I actually got my cyclocross frame years ago thinking I might get into it; I had a cycling neighbor I rode with sometimes that did it, but somehow it never happened. Well the "somehow" was a having a couple offspring, buying a house, running a business, etc. Really it was the kids, god bless 'em, but now that they're a little older free time is opening up again.
So my í96 Bianchi Reparto Corse was my road bike, commuter, everything bike. I decided to get more serious about cycling and found myself a nice classic road bike on craigslist this September. I didn't have a master plan to get into cyclocross, but it was like hey, what I'm going to do with the old Bianchi now? Why, let's take a stab at that cyclocross thing! Well the bike was pretty beat and needed some work anyways, so I set about fixing it up and that turned into quite a project. Stripped it down, located new parts, broke out the Zinn manual and learned some new tricks. I had been running a moustache handlebar, but I was kinda tired of that and figured it wouldn't be good for 'cross, so I decided to try a flat bar. Well it's more of a swoopy bar, but it's basically a mountain bar, not a drop bar. Yeah I'm one of those weirdos. I like it so far. Spent some late nights scratching my head and sipping beer in the shed. I wanted it to be ready for the Woodland Park GP, the finale of the MFG series here in Seattle. And it was, just barely. Actually, my left shifter mount failed right after I took my warm up lap, but a friendly mechanic from Cycle U zip tied it in place and told me "don't worry you won't be getting out of the little ring anyways" (he was right).
Woodland Park was a great venue and great race. After this I was hooked. The park is right in the city and this being a pretty 'cross crazed part of the country, it attracts a big field and a big crowd. My wife came by later with my boys to watch, and a buddy showed up with his girlfriend to spectate as well. Lots of cheering, heckling spectators made it fun. On the run-up on the last lap, someone yelled at me, "c'mon, c'mon you're not dead yet!". It was just the encouragement I needed. Cow bells ringing like a European ski race. I entered the Beginner Menís category, because hey that's me, I'd never entered any kind of bicycle race at all prior to this. I later learned that there were 84 riders in my start. I'd done some reading online and I talked with friend who had also started this year, but at the beginning of the season, so he had a handful of races under his belt. So I knew about the importance of the hole shot. My friend got himself pretty far forward in the starting line-up. They called us up by the last digit of your number and mine was pretty deep, but I did my best to get forward. The starting sprint was an uphill grade through a parking lot for a couple hundred yards and then you got on the grass, eventually entering a long downhill run into a hairpin turn. I knew I did not want to be in or behind a huge mass of riders on that hairpin. So I tried to keep in the forward half of the pack through the sprint and then I passed a pile of riders on the descent. Though it's been over a decade, I did a fair amount of mountain biking back in the day, and I don't mind a fast descent, but then you could say that about a lot of guys. I fish-tailed through that corner and thought "all right!" I would later go down on my ass in a full-on baseball slide in the same spot, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Then it was off through some single track style riding through the trees into a beautifully banked right hand uphill sweeper. Swoosh! Don't brake, don't brake, feel the compression and accelerate out of it. This flattened out and brought you to the base of the dreaded run-up on your left. Off the bike and start running. I didn't learn how properly get my bike up on my shoulder until the CX workout I attended a couple weeks later, but whatever, I got it there and started running. I didn't really know what to do with my flat bars, you can't do the typical grab the drop across your chest. On one lap the damn bar hit me in the face! My adrenaline was pumping and I passed a couple guys on foot. Bike down, struggle onto it and then pedal to the nearby "short run-up". This was a moderate uphill to a single barrier and then a short but steep uphill afterwards. The first lap I got into my lowest gear and mashed up the first incline, passing a guy or two before dismounting for the barrier. I didn't have the juice for that on subsequent laps so dismounted for the whole thing. Get back on the bike and ride a wide gravel path for a while. Couldnít get my right foot clicked-in, screw it, just keep your foot on the pedal and keep spinning. Finally got the cleat in after the first gravel corner a couple hundred yards later. This would be the first and last race for the Speedplay Frogs. The gravel path section wasnít very technical and it was all about putting down power, I found myself just trying to hang onto my spot, especially later in the race. Then back we go onto some grass and dirt twisties by the start / finish and parking area. Lots of people crowded up against the tape, hey Iím brushing right up against you on the outside of the curve! Some bands of pavement crossing the course, that stuff is slick Ė whoa, rear end slipping out, whew back in the dirt where it can grab. Canít get around this guy in front of me, heís coasting into every corner, Iím looking outside, looking in, OK hereís my chance. Stay wide, then brake, cut hard to the inside, stand up and mash -yay Iím past him! Back to the uphill pavement sprint. Ok two laps to go right? Well I thatís what I thought, based on some chatter before the start, but as it turned out they gave us four laps. I wonít lie, when I headed for the finish line at the end of the third lap I was highly disappointed to see the lighted sign informing me that I had one more lap to go. Ok dig down my friend, this is what cyclocross is all about right? Taking it to the limit and then pushing onwards. If you donít feel like puking at the end youíre not doing it right, yes? Ok, ok push. By this point everybody is fairly strung out so youíre kind of riding your own race. Iíve started lapping some of the slower women who must have started a few minutes after us. I catch up to two guys and manage to get by them in some grassy turns only to have them pass me back when I speed into that big downhill hairpin and wipeout on the far side. Itís gotten muddier over the course of the race. I get up, someoneís snapping pics, folks like to spectate at the downhill hairpins donít they? Pick up the bike, get on, keep going, keep going, on the run-up Iím barely moving above a walk, but folks are cheering, and címon itís a race, I have to at least try: step, step, step, looking down at my feet, willing them onward. Oh boy, the rolling gravel path section again. I put down as much power as I can but thereís not much left in the tank, and a couple guys pick me off on the longest of the uphills. Then itís into the twisties by the parking lot, at the first corner some jokers have set up a little snow machine putting flakes across the path and are cheering everybody on. Cyclocrossers are weird, arenít they? Through some corners, trying to remember to stay wide on the entry, now Iím doing a little more coasting through than I was before. Ok hereís the finish, please let me get there, this will be over soon. Yeah, thereís a guy a few yards ahead but heís going for it too, I wonít catch him, just let me across that line so I can stop pedaling! Whoa, Iím done, thereís my family, hi guys! Iím walking the bike off the course with the other racers who finished around me, weíre all looking around dazed, panting, with smiles on our faces. Iím leaning over the bike talking with my friends and family and hey hereís my friend who raced and started ahead of me. Right away we were trading stories about our races and analyzing our performance.
Aftermath: I had no idea after the race where I had finished. It was just me and the course and the guy in front. I had a lot of fun, and was already looking forward to doing it again regardless. I was pleasantly surprised when I checked the results online that night to discover that I was in the top quarter. Not bad, old guy.
My next race is another story, it was in the more ďseriousĒ SCX series and I entered the Masters 35+ race. Being new to it, and it being my first USAC sanctioned event, I was entered at Cat 5, but in reality they race the Cat 4s and 5s together. It was a smaller, tougher crowd on a faster course with no run-up and a big climb in the saddle up the front side and long straightaway on the back side. Despite the time of year, it was fairly dry. Looking around at the competition at the start I knew it would be a challenge, they called guys up by ranking and the rest of us filled in behind. Hmmm these guys are veterans, they look serious. The starting sprint was fast. I tried to stay with the lead pack but fell off the back on the big straightaway and then I was pretty much racing by myself for the duration. I had to work on my mental concentration to keep myself pushing. I finished about two-thirds of the way back. Still, I enjoyed the heck out of it, and I did my second SCX race and the finale of that series, on Sunday. This race truly had a mix of everything cyclocross - run-up, triple barriers, mud pit, sand pit, grassy banking twisties, etc. This course was more to my liking and I finished in the middle again, but in the upper half this time! I ended up in the middle after the starting sprint, and then passed four or five guys over the course of the race, and was passed by a couple myself. It was fun plotting out in my mind where I would try to overtake the rider ahead. First time in a mud pit, lesson learned: gear down and spin like a bastard. Didn't do that on the first lap and gave up a rider.
Iím getting the hang of it. Having fun. I guess my overall strategy after three races is to go hard on the first lap and then try to hang on. Biggest area for improvement: fitness. Iím sure at my level of competition Iím not alone in this. Iím happy with my steed. Could it be lighter or stiffer? Sure. Would that improve my performance? Marginally perhaps. Room for improvement on technical skills? No doubt, especially the remount. However if I could improve my cardio fitness by 10-20% that would pay off much more than anything else I could do. Imagine being able to pedal up that incline or down that straightaway on the last lap at say 80% of the power you put down on the first lap? You could pick up a lot of positions right there. Time to use that new road bike to ride some intervals, pound up some hills in my neighborhood. A training regime like that might help me lose those extra 5-8 lbs which would be nice and couldnít hurt me on the race course either ;-)