But did you die?

If you thought my life (and this blog) were already full of odd sportz combinations (swim-bike, swim-run, swim-bike-run, run-swim-run-swim-etc.), here’s a new one: cyclocross. It’s considered a cycling event and therefore not technically multisport, but it’s safe to say that each race requires some dismounting of the bike and running up hills, as well as carrying the bike over barriers. Oh yeah, it’s also a winter sport, so picture doing this in cold weather, possibly snow, probably mud, wearing every article of bike gear in your closet.

Why would someone want to do this? Well, unlike triathlons or road races (running or biking), cyclocross races are usually multiple loops of a short (1.5-2 mile) course, making it immensely spectator-friendly. And unlike, say, golf or tennis, where spectators are supposed to be high brow, cyclocross races are like a never-ending Mardi Gras. Races are often sponsored by/held at breweries, bands (or people with boom boxes) camp out on hills, and costumed crowds gather at the barriers to heckle cheer. There are also random prizes, such as a pint of beer for the 15th person to cross some barriers. Basically, you can show up, slosh around a muddy hillside with your competitors, then get sloshed on free beers with your former competitors/now friends. What’s not to like?

Well, as a triathlete who is very timid on the bike, plenty. And this is why it took me so long to give it a go. Basically, this sport pushes all my buttons, for better or worse. Better: Beer! Friends! Cheap entry fee! Nature! No chance of being hit by a car! Worse: Off-camber riding! Tight turns! Flying mounts and dismounts! Biking fast! Biking in a crowd! Bad weather! High probability of falling! Not having a clear idea of how long a race will take! (The time is estimated at the beginning, usually 30-45 minutes, but the actual time will be determined by the number of laps you do, and they won’t tell you that until at least the first lap.) Shall we say, way out of my comfort zone?

But peer pressure is a powerful influence. One of my triathlon friends, Holli, started racing cyclocross (also called “cross” or “CX” for the insiders lazy) this fall. She seemed to be having fun. Several of my Coeur teammates have also started racing cross, and lived to tell the tale–in fact, they were quite enthusiastic. Then in November, the DC area women’s cyclocross Facebook group I had been stalking for over a year announced that they had received a grant and could offer FREE ENTRIES to novice women at the Capital Cross event on December 3 in Reston, VA. Sure enough, I was free that day. I asked my coach if she approved (secretly, I must admit, hoping she would say no). But alas, she was super supportive and said it would be a great opportunity to practice bike handling. Oh boy! Nervously, I signed up.

As luck would have it, I wasn’t the only one suckered in by the free entry. Shannon and Becky were game as well. Holli and Erin (another triathlete-turned-cyclocrosser) provided us an introductory lesson in Erin’s backyard in late November. You want us to do what now? Hop off the bike–while it’s still moving? Are you insane??? And start pedaling with the opposite foot from usual? And ride along the side of this steep hill? After the lesson, I was a glass case of emotion: excited to have had so much fun “playing bikes” with friends, immensely thankful to Holli and Erin for the lesson (and to Shannon for validating my disbelief), and absolutely terrified for the upcoming race.

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Playing bikes in Arlington (Photo: Heather)

Since Capital Cross was targeting novice women, the women’s CX Facebook group had arranged early access for us to pre-ride the course the day before. I needed all the help I could get. I had watched online videos from the previous year’s race, but that was nothing compared to actually riding the course. It was awful. At first. So many tight turns (“gratuitous” was the word that came to mind), steep sections, descents involving blind turns, you name it. One loop in, I was ready to call it a day and sleep in the next morning. The group leaders started us on another loop. Oh dear. But it was better. Still scary, but at least I knew what was coming and knew when to dismount and run up the hill, rather than struggle climbing on the bike and risk not being able to unclip and ungracefully topple over and down the hill. After the second loop, I was ready to go home and dread the race. “One more!” Holli chirped. Fiiiiine. And sure enough, it was. I wasn’t magically adept at the technical sections, but I did have confidence that my bike would not slide out from under me on the grassy hills, and that the downhill sections were more fun than hazardous. (Slightly.) Now I was ready to go home and actually look forward to the race.

Race morning came, as did a rainstorm. A totally unexpected rainstorm. Oh great. Hello, mud city! But even though it poured my whole drive to the race, the rain stopped as soon as I parked and the course appeared no worse for wear. I met up with Holli, Shannon, and Becky for a pre-ride and everything looked in order. OK, guess we’re actually doing this thing.

start line
With Holli (in DC Tri gear) at the start. I’m wearing a mountain bike helmet and my only long-sleeved jersey. At least the socks are on point. (Photo: Heather)

The race itself was kind of a blur. There was a crowded start that made me nervous (maybe this is how other people feel in open water swim starts?), I cleared the barriers cleanly, made it up the hill, gained confidence, and suddenly–whoosh. I slipped on some loose gravel and fell hard. At first, I was pissed–how could I fall so early in a race? Ugh, this is the worst–but then I realized that it didn’t hurt very much (8 mph will do that), my bike was fine, and now I didn’t have to worry about falling since it was no longer unknown. So I soldiered on, getting faster each loop thanks to triathlon endurance and improved comfort with the course. Coming around the final corner, I wound up in a sprint finish with another woman and was able to catch her–a nice end to the race and probably the proudest I’ve been of a 16th place finish.

So I decided to race again.

The good thing about cross (and most bike races) is that there are a lot of options and they are all pretty cheap. As luck would have it, there were races the following Saturday. (Sunday, too, but I was leading a swim clinic for DC Tri Club.) This blog post is getting pretty long, so here’s the highlights reel: I lucked into a bureaucratic loophole and was able to register as a category 4 racer (rather than novice/category 5), so could register for both the 4/5 and 3/4 races. The first race was awesome–I caught several people on the final loop and wound up in second place. The second race was three hours later, and during that time, it start to snow. Hard. Despite having ridden the course six times by that point, it was totally new. Corners were slick, rocks were hidden, and there was one section completely covered in mud. Plus, my bike, shoes, and pedals were so muddy, I could barely clip in. As a result, I fell. A lot. I fell on the barriers. Onto a course marking pole (plastic, thankfully). Down a hill. Despite the bruises I’m discovering afterward, it really didn’t hurt that much. Also, despite initial frustrations, I turned it into an opportunity to experiment with different ways to weight the bike and see if that offered greater stability (result: hit or miss). Once again, I passed someone at the very end, though it wasn’t enough to return to the podium–I wound up in 6th, but was still very pleased to have finished undeterred. Plus, there was free beer by this point.

Dramatic re-enactment of my race

Unfortunately, the local cyclocross season is now over, so I’ll have to wait until the fall to try again. However, I hope the bike handling skills and increased confidence will transfer over to my triathlon riding. Thanks again to Holli and Erin for the mentorship, and to Shannon, Becky, and Heather for joining in the shenanigans.

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Festive and freezing podium. Photo: Elliott

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