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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Cyclocross for dummies

Before my first CX race last year the sum total of my "training" was to preride the course the morning of the race.  This year, I actually made it out to the practice course once before the first race and an additional two times before the second.  Three dedicated practices...that's pretty rare for me.  The nice thing about cyclocross is that, for the most part, it's much less intimidating than other forms of bike racing.  The wide lanes of the course make passing (or, in my case, being passed) pretty painless, and falling on grass beats falling on pavement.

On the other hand, most CX races feature natural or manmade barriers that force you off your bike, usually in very spectator-friendly locations.  And because you're riding laps around a course, you get to encounter these barriers multiple times.  The idea, of course, is to maintain as much momentum as possible.  Because you may be as unfamiliar with cyclocross as I was before last September, I'll let Georgia Gould (Olympic mountain biking bronze medalist who rides for the Luna womens pro team) show you what crossing barriers should look like.

Since I've made no secret of my sad lack of bike handling skills and coordination, I'm sure it'll come as no surprise that my encounters with barriers are nowhere near smooth.  In fact, mine look something like ride up, come to a full stop, put both feet on the ground, step off the bike, lift it, half-heartedly lug my bike over the barriers, set my bike down, step back over it, find pedal, push off, start riding again. Since I did two races at Rock Springs, that meant I had to endure this minor humiliation 7 times (and it would've been more if I was faster).

I was determined to change this before my next race, but I was convinced that if I tried swinging my leg off my bike while it was in motion I'd fall over.  So I practiced in the kitchen, where I could catch myself against the counter or refrigerator (or accidentally bang my foot into the desk chair and almost fall over, which also happened).  After 20-30 minutes of practice, I convinced my husband to videotape it.

Yeah, I know...sad.  But I was both entertained by the idea of practicing in the kitchen and encouraged enough by my preliminary success to decide to take my new skills outside and try them out on the course.  This necessitated some wheeling and dealing with my husband, because cross practice fell on his birthday.  Luckily I'm married to an understanding guy, and he was ok with me going to practice and meeting him later for dinner.

While riding laps wore me out enough that I started to doubt whether I could manage a dismount during the race, I did get up the nerve to practice them in a nice, flat field, and then Scott suggested I try riding up to a barrier and dismounting.  Good thing he did, because it made me realize how important timing is in your approach.  By the time I left for dinner, I felt pretty comfortable with the dismount process.

My friend Patrick had offered to help me practice, so the next night found us at the SIUE fields.  Once I'd practiced dismounts for a while, we tackled remounts.  Feeling very unsure, I put my left foot on the left pedal, swung my right leg over my bike...and promptly fell over onto the concrete.  Ow. Once he stopped laughing Patrick told me, "Remember how Jeff Sona told you your bike wants to stay up? Well you have to help it...you need some momentum."  Without my refrigerator to catch my fall, I had no choice but to take Patrick's advice, and lo and behold pushing off a little before swinging my leg over made things much easier.

So now I could dismount and remount, but I couldn't string the two together into a smooth series.  Trying to step onto the pedal of a bike in motion was pretty much beyond me, and I don't (yet) have the confidence to just hop onto the bike like Georgia does in the video.  I'm pretty convinced I'd catch my foot on something, fall over, and impale myself on one of the stakes helping mark the course.  Baby steps, right?

Unlike the Rock Springs race, where only 4 women lined up for the cat 4 race, our field at La Vista had 14. My friend Anne had made the 1.5 hour trek for her first CX experience, and two other first timers were there.  For all their giggles about last-minute decision and never having done this, I saw the Ironman logo on one of their bike shorts and read the writing on the wall: I was going to get my ass handed to me.

I lined up closer to the front and started more aggressively than usual, and at the beginning of the race I was in something like fifth place before, inevitably, girl after girl started to pass me.  Robin.  The new girls.  Susan. Damn.  The practices have definitely improved my handling and comfort in all of the turns that make up a cyclocross course, but until I actually put in longer and harder miles on my bike I'm destined for the back of the pack.
Photo credit: Russ Darbon

My three evenings of practice (kitchen, cx course, and SIUE) had been enough to make me advocate for barriers in the race on Sunday ("You have to have barriers!! I've been practicing them for a week!"), and I did manage a non-humiliating dismount each time I encountered the barriers.  One perk of doing a rolling dismount is that I took the barriers at something resembling a run; unfortunately my inability to remount brought my momentum to a standstill.

Just about to swing my right leg over.
 Having ridden the permanent course at La Vista several times, I was dreading the back half of the laps.  Bumpy field, tight turns followed by grunty uphills with no momentum....ugh.  Instead, I was delighted with the reroutes the course designer figured out, and the back section was much better.  Another great thing about the back half was that my friends Scott, Angela, and their daughters had shown up to check out the race, so I got to hear their cheers when I passed.

Photo credit: Mike Dawson
We rode 4 laps, and the on-course support was great.  The girl who cheered for my socks every time they passed her...the guy who squirted me with water and encouraged us with thoughts of ice cream and margaritas...the guy who reminded me, "Keep those pedals turning" as I coasted through a curve (I kept that in mind the rest of the race)...the guys heckling and "encouraging" at the barrier...Russ taking pictures...and friends who'd already raced cheering...it was very cool.  The first 5 or 6 girls lapped me, but another 4 didn't, and I ended up finishing ahead of three people, which is a new personal best for me.  

Yes, it would've been nice to place or, you know, not be lapped by half the field. But hey, I got to spend a beautiful day outside with a bunch of really cool people, try out a new skill, and race bikes with my friends. It's hard to beat a day like that.

Anne, Robin, me, and Kristen...still standing (more or less) afterwards


  1. Sunday was an awesome day to ride! Cool that Anne came over for it.

    BTW, practicing on concrete doesn't sound like a good idea :-)

  2. Even your bad days (practices that end up eating pavement) sound like loads of fun. So pleased for you and definitely a beautiful day to race!

  3. Great job, Kate!!! You always find new and exciting challenges.
    And - of course she was cheering for your socks! They are rad!! I noticed them before I even read the post. Looking for a pair myself now :)

  4. Okay now I get the whole practicing the dismount in the kitchen thing!
    Sounds like a great day and great spectators. Glad you had fun. Sounds like you improved a lot in a short time. Just think of next time with more practice!

  5. I'm gonna start cyclo cross as soon as the Chicago Marathon is over so I'll be hitting you up for some tips. I have a feeling we ride a lot the same!

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