Sunday, September 21, 2014

My First Cyclocross Race


The first rule of racing is that things usually don't go as planned. I learned this during my maiden season of cross country mountain biking up in New England. Back then I was new to racing (of any kind) and so I was never fully prepared for the challenges to come. I took those lessons with me into the sport of BMX and became a better athlete. However doing laps only 50 seconds long always left me feeling unsatisfied. I needed to get back on a big bike and that is when I was introduced to Cyclocross.

I'm always up for trying something new so I bought a Nashbar CXSS and started training.


Fast forward six months and here I was about to enter my first CX race. The build up hadn't been ideal (See rule #1). My training had consisted of eight weeks of riding, 3 to 5 rides per week at about 30 to 80 miles or 3 to 7 hours in the saddle. I coupled this with 1 to 3 hours of strength training. The result? I felt fit and strong. The downside? I had a nagging foot injury that wasn't healing correctly so my dismount/remounting practice was close to nil. I fully expected my injured foot to be a hindrance on race day but there was no point complaining about it. I love racing, I need to compete.

Even the last week building up to the event had been unusual. My wife and I were pet sitting out of town and I let it throw off my schedule. So my final days before the race consisted of bad sleep, a lack of riding and on the day before the race - rain. My spirits were down. For the first time I was having trouble being optimistic. Regardless, on the eve I packed my gear - bike, clothes, tools, pump, lube, spare tube, drinks and snacks. I got in a small workout just to get the blood flowing and decided that I did all that could be done. Now it was up to fate.


I had heard someone say that the most important motivator for doing well in an event is to define your "Why?" This is your reason for racing, your reason for giving the ultimate effort. I've always been ambitious and never thought that I needed a why but recent mountain bikes races proved me wrong. If you don't have a why then when the sh*# hits the fan, you might give up. That was my worst fear. If you give up then the whole thing has been a waste of time. If nothing else I did not want to waste my time.

I had two reasons for competing. Number one, I was representing the Sarasota County Off Road Riders (SCORR), a trail building group who promote mountain biking in southwest Florida. I would be wearing the official SCORR jersey to help us get noticed, not only for our trail building efforts but also for our annual gravel race Piggy's Revenge. Piggy's had been mentioned in the recent issue of Cyclocross Magazine and I wanted to continue our bout of positive publicity. Reason number two, I'm a sports writer and there is no better way to understand a sport than to compete in it. When I remind myself of these two reasons it actually takes the pressure off and I can enjoy the experience.


A two and  half hour drive brought us to Stanley Park in Dade City, Florida for the first race of the year. The Wicked Awesome Race Series is put on by Cyclocross power couple Josh and Kaleigh Thornton. With a bare minimum of volunteers they managed to put on a well run event. The atmosphere was very welcoming and more laid back than any race I've ever been to in any sport. I think that says a lot for Florida Cyclocross. They really appreciate and encourage every rider who shows up and competitive bullying is no where to be seen.

We managed to get there early so we could see what the races were like and so I could test the course. Having never been to one of these races, I had little idea what to expect. Luckily it was my kind of terrain. They managed to use every single slope and off camber piece of grass they could find. This course was as hilly as some of the races I took on in New England. There was a swerving downhill that had riders white knuckling their brakes and a 15 foot high run up so steep you dare not miss a foothold. It almost goes without saying that even the practice laps could leave a rider gasping for breath.


My wife Terri and I photographed the early races and then went out for lunch. We returned in time to catch the exciting end of the Pro class which had race promoter Josh Thornton going toe to toe with the blazing fast Ryan Woodall. It was most exciting battle of the day with Josh holding a lead all the way until the final quarter mile where Woodall darted past him to take the victory.

Next came the Master's and Pro podiums where winners walked away with some impressive prizes. Even after all of that, I still had a lot of time before my start. On this day the singlespeed/mountain bike class was going last, at about 5:30pm. I took the extra time to make sure I was familiar with the full course and I wanted to get my heart rate up before the start. In some of my cross country races I didn't warm up properly and blew myself apart in the first half mile. I learned my lesson, I was going to make sure that did not happen again.


At 5:30pm the sky grew a little darker, a light sprinkle of rain cooled off the start line as nine of us rolled up at the ready. It was six singlespeed racers and three mountain bikers, I think. We all chatted at the start and assessed our competition. Some of these guys had done earlier races so they were either tired or warm-up depending on their fitness level. To my surprise one of the riders was none other than Pro race winner Ryan Woodall.

At the mark we took off in a blast. I fell back to the latter part of the group remembering my goal of maintaining only a moderate intensity. After the holeshot came the long, swerving downhill which saw one rider hit the deck. The group was still mostly together when we reached the sharp climb. The guy in front of me pulled wide to dismount so I cut tight to the hill, lifted my bike and passed him on the run up. Up top my lungs started to sing but it was still within my goal zone so I kept a solid pace latching onto the back wheel of a mountain biker.


As you can imagine Woodall took a commanding lead, we were never catching him. My focus was simply to stay on the bike, maintain speed and hug the rear wheel of this mountain biker. I was pretty sure I was ahead of two other SS riders so if I could hold this position then a solid placing was a possibility.

My first lap was painful but the pace was encouraging. Terri did a fantastic job handing up water in the pit just after I remounted from the sandtrap. On every hill the MTBer would move away from me but on every obstacle I would catch back up. That was the way it stayed for two and a half laps. I struggled mightily on the climbs (My 42/18 was too big a gear) and then I caught up running the obstacles. The CXer behind me was losing ground while I managed to pass the MTBer out of the sandtrap. I pushed on to cross the line and took a deeply satisfying 4th place.


My first experience at racing CX was exhilarating. The people were so nice, the weather worked out well and the course was praise worthy. Am I hooked? How could I not be? It has all the excitement of Mountain Biking with the short sprints you find in BMX and my background in running helped on the obstacles. I'm already planning my next race.

Check out our pics from the Wicked Awesome Racing series:

In addition the following video captures my preparation and has footage of the actual race. I made this story and video to encourage people who might also be interested in trying this sport. Enjoy!






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