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.
I'll be recording here, on the 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.
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.
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.
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.
Freak Cross. Having recovered from the short race and long after-party, I decided to continue my transition from roadie caterpillar to off-road butterfly by choosing unimproved roads for my commute to the shop. The AX is terrifically fun to ride and I'm getting out of the habit of dodging potholes like meteors and aiming for them instead.
The CX expert in my life called to ask if the new bike was up and rolling yet. When he learned I'd already been out on it, he practically gasped into the phone and told me to meet him for practice at the park that evening. As the day wore on and dusk fell, my apprehension grew. I relished the paved ride to the park. When I arrived, I could see, there, under the one small lamp post, the silhouette of my nemesis.
We rode onto the grass and he took a running dismount off his bike right in front of me. So, I decided to just go for it. And something amazing happened. I did it. I unclipped my right foot, swung my leg over the bike, unclipped the left foot and took a running jump (or is it a jumping run?) off the bike. And I didn't fall. I learned that this style of dismount is called "the cowboy". Bringing your right leg all the way past your left leg, while the left foot is still clipped in, is called "the scissor". Much like running with scissors, it is to be avoided (by me!) like the plague.
That's when my nemesis exposed himself to be more of an encouraging friendly coach than the meanie I had feared. "Good! Good job! Now do it again". I'd do it over a dozen times before leaving that evening. The remount proved more difficult. Apparently, I'm afraid to commit. He said something about a watershed moment created by sprinting next to the bike, hands on top of the bars and taking a literal leap of faith. "You want the inside of your right thigh to slide over the top and down the side of the saddle". Sounds great on paper, but I haven't managed to actually do it it yet.
Our next lesson put me in stitches. The good kind, not the emergency room kind. He instructed me to ride next to him and pace him while we rode long figure eights. He told me to hold my line and then he swerved into me. Deliberately! He elbowed me. He kneed me. He shouldered me. Finally, he grabbed my handlebars and shook 'em. It all seemed so funny to me that I forgot to fall over and was able to stay upright.
A few days later, I took the AX out on a relatively easy gravel ride I've done before on my road bike. Turns out it was really easy with the AX under me. I was pleasantly surprised that, even with my knobbly cyclocross tires, I was able to keep a respectable pace on the pavement. The very next morning, I wasted most of a twenty mile road ride dreading my next CX lesson. I ditched my trusty SOMA Smoothie ES at home, picked up the AX, and rushed over to Powell Butte to meet up with my coach and his girlfriend.
We stopped for a short break because my adrenaline-shaking hands were compromising my already compromised handling skills. This was the moment where I learned the most. "You have to kick fear off your bike", he told me. It was then that I realized, no matter how much I respected my coach's expertise and gift of teaching, that I had built a relationship with Fear over the years and it wasn't about to change now.
I decided long ago to befriend Fear and use it as an ally. Occasionally I kowtow to it, recognizing it wants to keep me safe. Other times, I sing to it, lulling it into allowing me to delve into tricky situations. Then there are the times I wrestle with it. This is one of those times. I go to sleep thinking about the race this Sunday. I wake up thinking about it. Fear is right there with me and I'm going to choose to befriend it. I won't battle it. I'll show up Sunday and Fear and I will conquer this race together.
Butterflies infested my stomach from the moment I woke up Sunday. Getting on the MAX train, they multiplied. Five more stops until the Fairgrounds and I was nauseous. Finally I debarked the safety and comfort of public transit and stepped into the cold world of the Washington County Fairgrounds. I was glad for the cold as it provided a sensible reason for my shaking shoulders and hands. But I'll admit here: I was downright scared!
There were many friendly faces at the fairgrounds and many words of encouragement. The common advice on the day of the race was to have fun. That hadn't really occurred to me. I was concentrating on trying not to look too foolish and mostly hoping not to break my new bike or my old body, as I have plenty of future plans for both.
It took a while to get past the Beermonger tent and the Team Beer tent. Then there was the CX Pistols tent (cutest kit ever!). And of course my friends at the Women's West Coast Cycling Team tent, who were all hugs and smiles. And then finally, the CrossBikeReview tent - my tent (for the day, anyway). What a privilege to have access to this most cadillac of tents. It had walls. And a table! Doesn't sound like a big deal, but it was nice to have a non-muddy spot to stash stuff. Best of all, there was a heater. The tent belongs to my friends, who I've previously referred to as "nemesis and girlfriend" - in reality they are friends and fiances. They looked up from their heart rate zone charts to greet me and give me last nuggets of advice. And I tried hard not to get in the way of their studious preparations.
I quickly learned that I needed to go to the OBRA (Oregon Bicycle Racing Association) tent. Even though I had pre-registered, I needed to check in. Even though I had spent a half hour that morning pinning on my numbers from the summer, turns out I'm a big dork (big surprise) and there are different numbers for cyclocross and road racing. Luckily, a nice lady from the WCWCT pinned on my new numbers. She expertly crumpled my tyvek 621 pennants, then smoothed them out and went to work.
Before I knew it, it was time to queue up. My heart rate was in the hot pink zone from nerves. Then I looked up and noticed the crowd of racers around me. As a woman working in the bike industry, I often hear feedback from women (and sometimes men) that we need to encourage more women to race. There are groups set up just for this purpose. I've sometimes mistaken this extra attention to one gender as patronizing or even coddling but the crowded start line at this Cross Crusade race was a giant wake up call for me. There were 143 ladies lined up with me at the start line. One hundred and forty three! I applaud all of the efforts that motivated each and every one of these athletes to race, including me.
This was it, this was the big moment, after all of the preparation, the practice, and even the blogging. The whistle blew and we were off! And it was not at all what I expected. Sure, it was muddy and cold. Sure, the course was practically oozing with beer. But I had expected, really dreaded, the heckling these races are renowned for. I have enough problems staying upright on an off-road course without people giving me a flashback to my bully-filled junior high days.
Instead, people cheered. They actually screamed in delight when they saw me coming. And I know why. It's the basket. Yes, I affix a ridiculous and silly little plastic basket to every single one of my steeds. You see, I've always, but always, ridden with a basket zip-tied to my handlebars. It's not just for looks, it's super useful. The basket carries my crap (tools, tube, pump, snacks, wallet, phone) so I don't have to.
I struggled with the decision to "basketize" the AX. I respect cyclocross racers and didn't want to appear to be poking fun at the discipline. In the end, I decided put it on because any other choice would be against my own personal tradition. And I'm so glad I did. Spectators went crazy when they saw it. "Go basket girl!" was a common cheer. People tried to gift me cans of beer and flasks. And it kept me from getting mud flung from my front tire into my teeth.
The bottom line: I didn't crash. I didn't make anyone else crash. I had fun. I learned lots. I grew my confidence in bike handling skills, especially in mud puddles. I made new friends. And I came in 32nd out of 35!
The really important takeaway here is the amazing cornucopia cycling offers us. After all these years, I'm not even close to exhausting the new things one can do on two wheels. I encourage you too, dear reader, to expand your cycling horizons in any way you can. The reward is guaranteed.