You know that feeling when you see the road stretched out in front of you? That beautiful beckoning silver ribbon with its tightly stitched yellow middle? It seems to scream "Come and get me! And do it quick!!" I call that phenomenon pavement passion. Spending all day riding the smooth and silky sexy road surface is more than just my hobby. It's been my passion for more years than I'll admit. But this story's not about that.
Gravel grinders are getting trendy and for good reason. They take roadies like me out of their comfort zone to try their hand at riding unpaved, pebbly fire roads. My efforts on these rides have been rewarded with front row views to a nature you can't see from paved country roads. I've logged a few hundred gravel miles, but all I have to show for it is a better understanding of which tires work best. Neither my off-road bike handling skills, nor my confidence on this surface, have improved. The gravel slows me down, sucks my confidence away and seems to serve only to deepen my love affair with the tarmac. But this story's not about that either.
I've dipped my toe in road racing and enjoyed it, but my home base race is the urban adventure known as an Alley Cat. Go ahead, google-ate it. These unsanctioned street races pay you back for your knowledge of the city and how to cut corners safely. You tear through the streets all alone, with the feeling that your opponents are breathing down your neck. This past Spring, my team of five competed in one of these races. Instead of the traditional manifest stamp at each checkpoint, we were required to eat cake. At five checkpoints. Yes, five. Five beautifully made, fully frosted and sprinkled, double-layered cakes. One of my teammates, a cyclocross race fiend, is extremely disciplined about his training and was quite naturally unhappy about the alley cat race. As we collected our third place trophy, he informed me that I owed him and he'd be collecting his payment in the form of one cyclocross race. That's where this story really begins.
That was six months ago. I'll confess that I only agreed because I felt punchy from a lot of cake and a few fast miles. Cyclocross season seemed so far away and I felt I had no choice but to agree to my friend's demand. But now it's fall, and my debt has come due. So I've chosen the flattest race I could find. It happens in Washington County and apparently we get to ride through a barn.
The OBRA calendar shows my D-Day (or CX-Day!) as Sunday, November 3rd, giving me just over three weeks to get ready. My first step was to buy a cyclocross bike. My old mountain bike is too heavy and my shoulders too weak to carry it. My road bike has caliper brakes that will get gummed up by the mud. So what if I only race the new bike once? Lots of people use 'cross bikes for commuting, since they have powerful brakes and room for fenders. Lots of riders gravel grind on 'cross bikes.
These are the sorts of rationalizations made by your typical "n+1" believer--meaning, the correct number of bikes to own is always "n+1". Give me a great excuse to buy a new bike and I'll take it. A brand new, albeit last year's model, Focus Mares AX 3.0 is on its way to me now from California. The first, most important, question you'll need answered is "what color is it?" Well, it's matte gray with a lot of blood-red logo lettering on the lower portion of the bike. I haven't seen it in person yet, but I picture a post-apocalyptic war machine with an undercarriage covered in trompled zombie blood. Perfect. I'll be recording here, and on our shiny new Western Bikeworks blog, my journey from seasoned roadie to shaking-in-my-shoes, fresh-faced cyclocross racing newbie. Wish me luck. Give me advice. Just don't tell me to break a leg.
I'm excited to report that my new Focus AX 3 cyclocross bicycle has arrived. It is currently awaiting assembly in the Western Bikeworks Service Department with a pink post-it note I wrote: "I need to blog this build". While I anticipate its birth into the outside world, I prepare for my own launch into a new realm by gathering advice on how to handle my first ever, and possibly last ever, cyclocross race. Some are words to live by offered with genuineness by experienced racers. Some are more along the lines of "If you can dodge a wrench, you can race cyclocross" (from one of our talented mechanics right before he winged a wrench at me).
Guidance and suggestions came pouring in on every front. Via text from a trusted source: "Practice running up hills in your shoes, with and without a bicycle on your shoulder. That is certainly a skill no road miles ready your legs for."
An eight-year-old I know answered my request without skipping a beat. "Practice, practice, practice! Ride fast through the mud!". We were walking on an unimproved road in my neighborhood at the time so she demonstrated on foot.
My OBRA team (go Slow!) captain e-mailed me these wise words: "Your bike knows what it's doing. When you're descending a hill or going over bumpy stuff, relax a little bit. Trust that your bike is smart and that it will, generally, lead you in good directions. Dismount early for barriers and run an extra step or two before remounting. Dismount early for hills. Remember you don't get extra points for staying on your bike -- the really gnarly slow sections that people are riding at zero mph? Run them. Remember that everybody else has to deal with traffic, mud, fatigue, and hills. Don't give up. Push past that girl in front of you and as soon as you're out of sight she might forget you're there or decide she can't chase you. And, of course, have fun, be communicative, talk to other racers to boost morale. Try really hard. Most of cross is just riding your bike. There are different surfaces and barriers but -- really -- it's just riding your bike. You can do that."
Then there was the dude outside the hotel in Maupin, Oregon the morning after the Double Trouble 200K and Halloween costume bash. He was dressed as the Duff Man the night before. He just finished loading his bike into his car and was headed to the Cross Crusade that morning when I asked him for helpful wisdom. "Congratulations on deciding to race! Let me get my bike out and show you some things. First: practice picking the bike up. Some people shoulder it but it can be easier to lift it right palm-down on the seat tube, left hand on the bars. And, very important: set the bike down very gently. People get all excited and toss their bike back down on the ground after a barrier, but once your chain's off, it's kinda over."
My favorite, and potentially the easiest to follow advice, came from the same dude who made me promise to race in the first place. Hours after I posted on facebook that I'd made the plunge into cyclocross-bike-ownership, there was a knock on my door. And there he was, his bike was behind him, covered with grass and dirt, leaning against the porch railing like a tuckered puppy. This guy trains people for a living and has taught many a cyclocross racer, so I expected a really complicated training plan. Instead, he said "Wax on, wax off. Take that bike down to the corner park and ride in the grass. Forget about proper cyclocross mounting and dismounting. Get on the bike, get off the bike, repeat. Get on the bike, get off the bike, repeat. Over and over every day. Wax on, wax off." And off he rode into the night.
Some folks put the hammer down, I put the AX down. Every noble steed needs a name. Mine is AX. But first this baby needs to get built.
As soon as the bike was in the stand, I was faced with a long list of decisions: Cheater brakes (aka cross-top brake levers), yes or no? Tires? How about some IRD Crossfires. Color? White, natch. Bar tape? The weirdest color you've got. Bottle cage? Bright baby blue. It turns out no serious 'cross aficionado puts bottle cages on their race bikes, but a girl gets thirsty. Faux pas be damned. While I'm at it, I might as well put a bell on it. Try as I might to uglify it, this bike stubbornly insists on being beautiful. I can't quit you, AX.
After Saturday's Western Bikeworks shop ride, I ditched my road bike and grabbed the AX for its maiden voyage. Super comfy, it makes the pavement feel like carpet and potholes feel like "what potholes?" Getting up to the top of Gladstone, I ran into some nice folks and friends who were in the middle of their Cross Freak event.
The serendipity of running into an underground 'cross race the day I built up my new 'cross bike was not lost on me. It was like hearing the universe ring the cowbell of good-natured heckling. In keeping with the "Freak" portion of the Cross Freak, racers were challenged to a rather un-traditional LeMans start. Our bikes were far, far away, way down the hill. Racers had to perform some vertigo-inducing spins, run down the grass hill, grab our bikes, and mount up. Once there, we had to slog back up the hill. The race was perfectly matched to my nascent cyclocross racing skill set. The seal has been broken. I inadvertently raced my first 'cross race, without having to pin on a number. Now to master the tall-bike remount.