What mayhem will ensue when a core ultrarunner and bike neophyte decides to hop in the saddle and race cyclocross?

Photos by Winsor White

Fifty yards away from the starting line, I pinched my tires one more time and kissed my wife. Actually, my brain was so amped with adrenaline, I might have pinched my wife and kissed my tires. Either way, I was beyond shocked when I turned around and saw a mass of bike riders pumping their pedals away from the starting line.

Note to self: next time, sync your watch to the official race start time.

I hopped on my bike and shifted into hot pursuit of the main pack, already 30 seconds ahead and spinning around the first sharp muddy corner. This was no way to start my very first cyclocross race.  Or perhaps it was the best way to enter the sport.

It seems to happen to every runner or outdoor athlete – especially aging ones like me. At some point, I had to get into cycling. It had always been waiting for me. Would I call it a rite of passage? Let’s just say I knew it to be as inevitable as acne in my teens, getting bounced from bars in my twenties and changing diapers in my late thirties.

Problem was, every time I wandered into a cycling shop, determined to absorb the landscape like a college freshman in Week One, I’d end up as drunk as one. Not on Natty Light, either—I was intoxicated with all of the technology that’s rampant in, well, any sport nowadays. The combination of composite frames, forks, derailleurs (front and rear), rims, hubs, tires, rings, shifters and some things I couldn’t pronounce drove me outside to the sidewalk for a breath of fresh car exhaust.

The first decision: road or mountain bike? Seemed like a simple enough question.

I live closer to the Great Plains than the Continental Divide, so I disappointedly leaned away from the romance of grooving singletrack trail and dodging elk herds on an alpine adventure. Not necessarily a bad thing, since I’d recently become a closet admirer of long paved rides. Call me a willing victim of the Lance Effect.

Slop Jockeys: To race ‘cross you need to be a masochist who likes to eat mud in bad weather.

But committing wholeheartedly to sharing roads with motorized vehicles also violated my primal yearning to be closer to Mother Earth. That and I couldn’t shake from my head the idea that sooner or later I’d get clipped by the side view mirror of a lackadaisical pickup truck sporting a bumper sticker of Calvin peeing on a crumpled Specialized Bike.

Would I be a mountain biker or spandex roadie? I was more confused than Dubya at a Greenpeace Conference.

“Why not get a ‘cross bike?” asked a friend.

“What’s that?” I asked.

And my quandary was quickly solved.

Cyclocross occupies the gravelly space between mountain biking and road cycling. It is believed to have been born in Europe in the early 20th century. European road racers – those gritty athletes of yore that we see in grainy black and white images in today’s boutique restaurant bathrooms – would race each other from town to town in winter months, after the traditional road season had ended. Racers were allowed to take any shortcuts they could imagine, and this often led them across farmer’s muddy fields, over fences, or many other places where no obvious route existed. It soon became a popular way for cyclists to keep in shape after the season’s big races.

Today, an official cyclocross race usually consists of many laps of a short (up to two miles long) course that might feature pavement, wooded trails, grass and steep hills. For giggles, masochistic course designers often throw in man-made obstacles (usually foot-high wooden hurdles) that require the rider to quickly dismount, carry the bike to clear the hazards, and quickly remount (somehow without “balling” himself).

Whereas ‘cross was once the realm of the fanatical fringe of cycling, I was shocked to find a crowded little cyclocross subculture flourishing in many metro areas around the country—Portland. The Bay Area. Seattle. And Denver was a player, too. On any given fall weekend, there’s a smorgasbord of cyclocross races to choose from (see sidebar).

So I sat in my pajama bottoms one morning, laptop open, coffee mug in hand, considering whether I should try a race. I hedged and hesitated. My preferred method of staying in shape through the winter involves couch time interrupted by occasional short jogs. If the good Lord meant for us to exercise year-round, he wouldn’t have invented football season.

Still, something about cyclocross cast a spell on me. Perhaps it was the image on one website of the post-race cyclocross rider covered in enough mud to make a pig jealous. Or the fact that even the most brutal races last only one hour. Heck, I could do anything for 60 minutes, maybe even watch a Kate Gosselin interview. One hour on a Sunday morning would still allow me time to get home, shower, and watch the Bears lose to the Packers yet again.

But I suspect mostly that it was the option of having my cycling both ways—kicking up dirt with knobby tires while also hiting speed with my back hunched aerodynamically over drop-down handlebars and a sleek set of wheels.

Excitedly reluctant, I registered for my first cyclocross race.

With the heater cranked up in my Subaru, I turned up a muddy, rutted road lined with skeletons of November trees. I parked in the makeshift lot, an open field, and tried to invent some sort of pre-race ritual. When you’re a first-timer at anything, the ritual becomes whatever everybody else is doing. So I looked around.

Multi-sport?: Hmmm… there’s an awful lot of walking in cyclocross.

Two cars over, a guy decorated with more logos than a NASCAR, warmed up on a stationary trainer. A guy with less body fat than many Tour de France riders sauntered by, adjusting his heart rate monitor under his jersey. One row across from me, I eavesdropped on two guys debating the appropriate bike tire pressure given a whole list of factors, including the amount of sand on the course, characteristics of the mud, rumors about goatheads (crown-shaped thorns that naturally gravitate toward my bike tires).

These guys meant business and I was just trying to borrow an allen wrench to adjust my seat height.

Thirty minutes later, after warming up the best one can when wearing spandex shorts in 40-degree weather, I found myself chasing down the 50 or so bikes ahead of me. As I neared the rear tire of the last-place racer, I learned my first crucial lesson: in cyclocross, one must keep his mouth closed at all times. Mud flew in every direction, including upwards at the perfect angle so that it hit my front teeth and even the roof of my mouth.

After a dismount and series of four leaps over foot-high planks, I re-mounted and leaned into a sweeping curve. My wheels barely held their purchase, threatening to slip out from under me. Straightening the bike, my front tire dove downward into a creek bed.  I managed not to fall and even passed a few riders wearing UnderArmour layers and riding mountain bikes at least five pounds heavier than my loaner ‘cross bike.

I glanced at my watch. Five minutes had passed and I was already fried. My legs were taking on the weight of sand. Somebody once called cyclocross 45 minutes of pure hell. I chuckled when I first heard that description. But I wasn’t laughing now.

My heartrate was higher than at any point during my long summer season of running, a season that included some heavy training for the Leadville Trail 100. As I hit another steep incline, my wheels dug into several more inches of mud, forcing me to dismount lest I fall sideways into a mattress of scrub brush. My mountain bike shoes slid again and again as I pushed my bike upward. I reached the top of a narrow berm, and jumped back on the saddle.

That’s when I learned my second major lesson—regular SPD pedals (those flat clip-in pedals that most of us novice cyclists use) are rendered almost useless in cyclocross. The clips on the bottoms of my shoes slipped off the pedals again and again. I tried my best to kick off the mud to clear the cleat, but this was mule mud—that is, flat-out stubborn. If, after dismounting, I was able to clip into one pedal, I claimed victory.

The course looped around and wrapped back on itself like an epileptic snake. Sometimes, it coiled so tightly on itself that I could practically high five other riders who were elsewhere on the course. Ahead of me or behind me, I had no idea.

I passed through the end of my first lap in an exhausted daze. I heard my wife cheer me on. She sounded far away. A few other people shook cowbells.

Appropriate, since my bike weighed as much as cow. With each lap, it added pounds faster than a college freshman. My crankshaft looked like a bowl of brownie batter. The resistance of each pedal stroke built until I could only manage a few of my highest gears. My big ring sat neglected. After that first lap, I couldn’t muster the leg strength to use it.

The cowbells continued and I fell into a rhythm of dismounting, remounting and trying to clip in. My fatigue built to a point where I had to focus all my effort on only the next 20 feet of the course.

Disorientation followed fatigue and I had no idea where I was on each lap. I lost count of how many laps I had completed. Each time around, some parts of the course seemed vaguely familiar while others seemed completely new, as if the organizers had played a cruel joke and added in some extra sections while I was elsewhere on the course.

Finally, with legs slogging against pedals to achieve the pace of a glacier, I crossed the finish and promptly flopped into the hardened, cold mud. My lungs, pumping spasmodically, stung like I had just escaped a burning building.

But through it all, I managed a smile. If this was, indeed, hell, I decided that I would like to rent a spot here every fall. •

Garett Graubins is Senior Contributing Editor of TrailRunner magazine. This is his first writing foray into the realm of cycling, and he promises there will be many more.

More cowbell!

Try one of these cyclocross races this fall:

Boulder Cyclocross Series

September 25 – November 28

Now in it’s 11th year, this classic series serves up some of the best ’cross courses on the Front Range. A fifth race added to the schedule for 2010 means more cowbell.

boulderracing.com

 

Frisco Cyclocross

October 2 & 3

With two days of racing at the Frisco Nordic Center, this course blends singletrack, pavement, grass, and a bit of sand.

townoffrisco.com

 

Boulder Cup

October 31

Held each year at South Boulder’s Harlow Platts Park, the most spectator-friendly, beer-flowing race in the state offers sweeping views of nearly the entire course.

dbcevents.com

Fort Colins Cup

November 13 & 14

In the biggest news in Colorado ’cross history, the U.S. Grad Prix of Cyclocross series race previously held in New Jersey has been moved to Fort Collins.

usgpcyclocross.com