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How to Overcome Your Inner Cyclocross Demons

December 29, 2010

A competitor experiences a range of emotional states prior to partaking in a bike race. I’ve raced bikes since middle school, and know most of them intimately. Excitement, when I toe the line for the first time in a season. Anxiety, at an event like nationals, for which I’ve trained all year. Relief, when Thursday night finally rolls around and I get to blow off some mid-week work stress at the Driveway criterium series.

Never though, have I known the type of pre-race fear I experienced prior to my first cyclocross race at the Dirty Derby sponsored by Bicycle Sport Shop. It wasn’t a lack of pavement that scared me. I’m a roadie by practice, I admit. But at heart I crave fat tires, singletrack trails, loose turns, and bumpy descents.

Heck, as a freelance writer, I regularly contribute to Mountain Bike magazine.

No, it was the actual act of racing a cyclocross bike that frightened me. Did you know cyclocross racers jump off their bikes, at dang near full speed? They run up and over obstacles, like insanely steep hills and foot and a half high barricades bolted to the earth with rebar. Then they have to get back on. (While running!)

It’s like nothing I’ve done on a bike before, and the prospect made me a bit faint. I imagined my feet tangling on a dismount. My face falling mouth forward into a pile of sod. My roadie friends who’d dabbled in the discipline offered me fair warning, as well.

My teammate (and supposed buddy), Phil Wikoff, sent me an email, subject line: “heard you were doing cx.” Message body: “ahahahahhahahahahahahhahahahhahahahha (inhale) ahahahhahahahhahahhahahahah. why?”

Another teammate, David Wenger, a coach for Durata Training whose expert advice I frequently rely upon, asked me, “Do you have any idea how hard cross is?”

“I think it will be fun,” I told him.

“You’re an idiot,” he responded.

Then, as the road racing season wound to an end, and my cyclocross season began in earnest, their caution morphed into a curious support. It made me even more leery.

“When’s your first race?” inquired Steven Wheeler, my pal since 7th grade. “Be sure to let me know so I can make signs. I can’t wait to see this.”

If they couldn’t talk me out of racing cyclocross, I surmised, they surely wanted to see me bite the dust. So I delayed. The nearly 10-year-old bike David let me borrow needed cranks, and I dragged the process of badgering people for free parts on for weeks.

Finally, my fiancé, Lindy, asked, “Are you doing the Dirt Derby tomorrow?”

“Oh, next week, I think,” I said.

“What?” She said. “I changed my schedule to go watch you race! You told everyone you’re racing cyclocross in September, and it’s nearly Thanksgiving.”

My woman, essentially, called me a wimp. So, the next day, I made plans to race.

“I’m scared,” I texted Dave the morning of my first Dirt Derby.

“You should be,” he replied. “You might die.”

Other than Dave and Lindy, I made sure as few people as possible knew I was partaking in my first cross race. Better to flail in private than fail in public, I surmised. But at the Dirty Derby, I found more friends. There was bearded Tim, the Bicycle Sport Shop mechanic who suggested Rock’n Roll lube. Rick, who’d helped me secure the right size square taper bottom bracket for my 1989 Dura Ace crank arms. And Jordan, from the sales floor, who said, “Dude, with clinchers, run about 40 psi out here.”

I rolled up to the line feeling just a tad more confident. These people had no clue how poorly I might perform. And more importantly, they didn’t really care.

(Plus, there was free beer for spectators and racers alike!)

The gun sounded (er, someone said, “go”) and we took off around the brightly lit moto-cross track. Rather than trying to ride with the leaders, tank it, and cause a massive pile up, I opted to start at the back. The pack quickly dropped me.

But I was okay with that. I picked my own lines and took the dismount zones at my own pace. I sprinted out of every corner as hard as I could, and caught air off some of the larger burms. About 10 minutes into the race, I realized that not only was I not going to die, I was having a blast. Then, I started catching people.

As the official rang the bell for one lap to go, a pair of racers were within a few seconds. I caught one of them shortly after, and we went toe to toe around the second half of the course, banging elbows on the run up. As we rounded the final turn heading for the last set of barriers, right before the finish line, we were side by side.

Lindy hesitantly cheered from the sideline, knowing there was a good chance I’d take the barriers too fast trying to win, and it might end badly.

But my cautious side out dueled my competitive angst, and I slowed, dismounting at a comfortable pace. The other rider sailed through, and beat me to the line.

“Well, did you have fun?” Everyone asked after my cool down lap.

“Yeah,” I said, utterly out of breath. “I’ll be back.”

Even my roadie teammates showed genuine interest in my results.

“Tear it up at the Derby,” Steven texted the next week.

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