Last November I got a chance to see my first cyclocross race and thought it looked like hard, scary fun.   Sort of a cross between mountain biking and criterium riding, but not that much like either, cyclocross (or CX) involves riding laps on a twisty, hilly course for a predetermined amount of time.  Often courses include barriers, mud, sand pits, and steep hills/stairs where riders have to push/carry their bikes.  While most racers have dedicated cross bikes, which look similar to road bikes, you can race on a mountain bike.

After Facebook-watching my friend Susan do a bunch of cx races and then actually seeing one for myself in November, I put cross on my list of things to try this year and then basically ignored it until my friend Doug emailed our tri club about volunteers to help with the Wild Trak Superprestige series.  The race days fell on football Sundays, giving me guilt-free afternoons to help with registration, and I always took my bike...just in case.

Like a little kid inching closer and closer to the department store Santa, each week I thought a little more about racing.  Last week, my friend Kristen really had me thinking about it because this past Sunday's race would be her cross debut, a whopping 5 days after getting her cross bike. Susan even offered to come early to ride a practice lap with me.  There were good reasons and support for finally making the leap, but in the end I decided to wait until next year to try.  But I still brought my bike to the race.

Kristen had lined up a couple extra volunteers to run registration while we raced, and somehow my friend Jim talked me into riding a practice lap...just to see what it was like.  Kristen and I rode onto the course together.  Grass, hills, turns...if you want a good mental picture of what a cross course looks like, grab a handful of yarn, ball it up in your hand, and then throw it on the ground.  And it was tough! I was breathing hard and wanting to throw up before we'd even gone a mile. That practice lap convinced me there was no way I was racing: "This is why I'm a volunteer!"

I put my warm clothes back on and ran to the bathroom before going back to help with registration, passing Doug on the way and telling him they were all crazy, there was no way I was racing: "That's the hardest thing I've ever done!"  Doug's advice totally changed my mind, though.  He said that he had butterflies in his stomach over how bad it was going to hurt, but he kept reminding himself that if he could get through the first lap it would get easier.  Such a light bulb moment. Just like running, where that first mile is always hellish, and then (usually) everything starts to click.  By the time I got back to the registration table, I was filling out my own entry.  (And big thanks to my friend Wade for making sure my bike was ready to go while I worked!)

Way too soon it was time for us to get ready.  As we waited to line up, I worked to establish a basic understanding of the rules, and more importantly, to find out when to get lapped.  See, if the leader lapped me before passing the start (starting a new lap) I'd only have to ride 3 laps; if I was lapped after the start, I'd have to ride all four.  Since I was seriously considering hiding under a bush for half of the race, this was important information.  I definitely didn't want to ride an extra lap for nothing. (Funny note: each cx race I've volunteered at has been a mini-reunion with the USA Cycling official from "that race", who turns out to be a pretty cool guy.)

Nervous CX newbies
Unlike the Crit, where the women's cat 4 race was only shared with the juniors, there were a lot of racers lined up:  Singlespeed guys, Cat 4 men, Cat 4 women, and juniors.  Kristen and I parked ourselves at the back of the women's group and half-joked about just riding the course and chatting for 40 minutes instead of "racing".

Divisions were sent off with 30 seconds between them, so all too soon it was our time to go.  I'm not a good starter, so within about 3 pedal strokes I was nowhere near the rest of the women. 

Photo credit: Mike Dawson
That was a little discouraging but not surprising.  The first lap was not quite as terrible as the practice lap, and I was able to ride up the steep hill. 

Hills...they might make you strong, but only if they don't kill you.
As slow and awkward as I am getting on and off my bike, staying on my bike -- no matter how slowly! -- is always going to be faster for me than dismounting and "running" up the hill.

Because of the twisty nature of the course, it was hard to tell just how far behind other people I was.  I'd see someone ride past me and think I was close, then turn a corner and realize just how many turns separated us.  It was great to be able to see and cheer for my friends on the course, though.

Birds-eye view of the course

I never worry about losing, but I do stress about getting in someone else's way.  This course, anyway, was way less stressful in that area than any mountain bike race I've ever done.  The 2-mile laps had us really spread out, and the wide lanes gave plenty of room for passing, so the only time I really worried about someone passing was on the tight (well, tight for me) turns.

During the race I was just trying not to die, which is obvious from the beautiful picture of me getting back on my bike after carrying it over the barriers.  It's so bad that I almost untagged myself on facebook, then thought, eh...that pretty much tells the story.

Photo credit: Wade Stewart

In retrospect, I think it was one of the most fun kinds of races I've done...more fun and way less scary than a crit, and less technically intimidating than a mountain bike race.  And wow, I'd be in great shape if I raced cx regularly.  You know, if my heart didn't explode.


  1. I have literally never head of cyclocross until I saw this looks freaking awesome! K i wanna try I wanna try!

  2. well done kate ,glad they talked you into it, they talked me in a couple of weeks ago so I had the fun of riding three races,hope you inspire more people to try this more people should follow your example of being willing to give things a try, so well done ...Russ

  3. I think what I love the most is the total last minute decision to enter. I feel the same way about bringing up the rear of most races (though being dead last sometimes plays with my head), but always worry about ruining someone else's good time. Glad you had a great first CX experience and am sure you and Santa will have to talk soon about another bike. :)

  4. You will try anything! Are there a lot of cyclocross races near you? I wonder what you will end up loving best once you have tried several things.

  5. You will try ANYTHING! I think we need to hang out - you can get me comfortable with a bike and I can get you comfortable in a canoe. I think this should happen, for real. You make me WANT to bike.

    It really is bizarre. NO one makes me want to bike.

  6. So how long were you out there? I ask because unlike most races involving, um, equipment, this kind of looks fun to me in a sick way.....

  7. I have heard of cylocross but had no inkling what it entailed. It sounds super fun though and right up your alley!!

    Have you done just about every sporting event out there yet?? :)

  8. Well done Kate! I can see why you enjoy this. I don't know if it is in South Africa. I've only seen it on your blog :)

  9. I think this is a great picture of you with the barriers. And if you would have untagged yourself, I would have just re-tagged you.

    Keep in mind that if you could only own one bike (such a silly idea), it would have to be a cross bike!

    And while I didn't think I would barf, I did think I was going to hack up a lung.

  10. Kate It was awesome, and probably would have chickened out if you weren't out there with me. When I think about it my chest hurts again. Haha.. but I am a glutton for punishment because I will be doing the Bubba race on Sunday. Thanks again for braving it with me. Good Times

  11. Very cool Kate! Now you need another bike for sure :-)


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