If cycling is suffering, cyclocross is the sublimest form of that suffering. Still, there are days when “suffering” doesn’t begin to describe the experience. Yesterday at Big Elm CX in Great Barrington, MA, was that day for me.
The racing is never easy, by it’s very nature. We all raced together, 46 Cat 4/5 Men, 12 Women, and 6 juniors, in the same time slot, spaced about a minute apart. It started off typically. I got out-hustled of a good place on the front line, but despite this, my start wasn’t awful.
This was another open category and there were Elite women racing with the group. I didn’t hang on long with them, and for the first 1/4 of the lap, felt like things were going ok. It was an extremely hot and humid day, and my pre ride was brief, just a lap and 1/2. The short pre ride left me pouring sweat and gulping Gatorade, and realizing I hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about hydration.
Here at the start, I was feeling pretty normal. I tried to stick with a Cat 3 racer early on, but she kept gaining momentum away from me and I didn’t see her again. Later, I was passed by a woman from the local cycling club, and tried to stay on her wheel. I was already sweating hard and laboring at the course, which was a wonderful, twisty, off-camber lovers delight of a cyclocross course. We came to an area of loose stones that for me, wasn’t rideable, followed by a short set of stairs. I noticed a man from the Cat 4/5s off his bike at the top of a stairs, leaning over his handlebars and breathing heavy. I clawed past the local rider at this point–this was about 1/2 way through the first lap. I heard her breathing heavy and working as a moved past her. A few hundred yards later, she overtook me, and although I was hot and feeling tired already, I thought “she is suffering too” and wasn’t concerned. I’d get her in a bit. We were now moving into the second lap. My fatigue deepened and I started to slow. The local woman started to fade away into the distance as the heat, the course, and my lack of preparation started to devour me.
The second lap was painful. I disintegrated. Nausea overtook me, only to ease and be replaced with dizziness. I went into the race with some pretty high hopes and thought I’d do pretty well. 4 same day registrations with some of the elite women adjusted that expectation, but I was fading fast, and I couldn’t remember if there was anyone else behind me. I didn’t think there was. My speed had slowed to “ok, just try to move forward” but I was falling apart hard. I could not believe I was doing this poorly, I had had a great ride the night before, breaking my own QOM record by 2 mph* ( * hmmm, that’s a good clue). My body was barely responding to move efforts to move forward and now I started to unravel emotionally. And here’s the part, dear reader, I get vulnerable with you. I’m going to admit to you, I started to cry. I wanted to quit. But my crying was without tears, as my body was using every once of moisture contained in it to cool my completely overheated body. Waves of heat radiated from my face, I fought dizziness and my own emotional irrationality of being so upset at myself for sucking so badly. I really thought, I should stop, this is already over for me. There was a spot, right near the parking lot where my car was feet away from the course, I could bail there, and just leave. I thought yes, that’s a good option, as I rounded the corner to decent down a hill the would dump me within 30 feet of my car.
At the bottom of the hill, was my girlfriend, aiming her camera at me to capture me coming down the hill. I saw her and decided to just keep going.
Deciding to continue did not end my suffering, although I stopped crying. I snapped out of the quitting mode and shifted into the only other option for me at that point: surviving. I began my third lap.
This was perhaps where my sucking became high art. My speed could have been easily matched by a gang of preschoolers on push bikes. I walked the run ups-I had to. My climbs were crawls. I tried to use descents as face-saving gifts. I had absolutely nothing to give, I was a shadow of a cyclist, a ghost of my normal self. I was nearly invisible.
I finished the race.
This was the very closest I go to quitting any sporting event in my life. I felt a lot of emotions about this.
- Wounded Pride
I know everyone was hurting out there. I was far from alone. One guy was overheard saying “I was hoping I would flat so it would end.” Aside from this, I should have performed better. And I’m not about to let myself off the hook for it.
I don’t know if I will ever stop marveling at how badly things went out there for me today. Of course, it could be a lot worse. I didn’t crash, I executed pretty well with the technical stuff. But my speed? I know I’m not so fast but wow did I redefine that today.
Today I took a nice ride on a beautiful day and thought things over. Yesterday was a really big failure for me. I didn’t meet a range of expectations I set for myself-expectations that were reasonable and within my ability. And that bothers me. It’s popular to talk about “Failing Faster” and I think about this concept beyond the typical references to start-ups and business. I apply it to many aspects of my life…but essentially failures are teachers, and motivators, and not ever having them do not foster growth. This was disappointing, but ultimately essential. Everyone has a bad day. I had a really terrible one yesterday. Seriously guys, I didn’t even feel good after it was done–a rare joyless cycling experience. But I have renewed focus on my next race, which is looking like a little trip to Troy, NY for Uncle Sam Cyclocross Gran Prix. Not 100% decided but it’s looking like a redemption race that I would like under my belt before it gets real in Gloucester in late September.
We retrieved the bike and squirreled it away to our garage. This weekend, I finally had a little time to work on it.
It needed new tires and tubes, that much was clear. The rest of it showed rusty cables, and some corrosion on quick releases and other metal parts. But other than the tires practically disintegrating in my hands, everything worked.
The rims were different, kind of shallow. My son played assistant for the project and if became a team effort. He was equally excited to see it roll again. The chain was pretty rusty but some lubricant went a long way.
This bike is way too tall for me, but rides just fine and has a vintage vibe. It’s supposed to be from about 1985 (approximately). It’s a bit banged up but anyone who loves a bike with a little history and some classic lines and is about 6 ft tall should dig this. My son is trying to convince me to save it for when he’s talk enough to ride it, but I think this is craigslist bound.
First a little lead up.
It was raining Friday night, but I planned to ride anyway, as is typically recommended before race day. Just enough to sharpen the legs. I planned to circle Whiting Reservoir in Holyoke a few times to prime the pump. A good place to ride–nice wide gravel roads nestled around the reservoir at the base of a woodsy Mt. Tom. It was pouring when I arrived, but pushed on. It was downpouring and I had the place to myself. The rain was warm and I enjoyed getting muddy.
While out there, I discovered my cleat would not clip into my right pedal. I adjusted, several times, to no avail. Ah, I’d figure it out in the morning. My race wasn’t until 2:15PM and was super close, just 15 minutes away in Springfield. No big deal. I went home, hosed off my muddy, soaked shoes and clothing, and took a hot shower.
The next morning I realized my shoes were not going to dry on their own for several days. They weighed 5 times heavier than normal and riding in wet shoes when it’s not raining screamed amateur (because lets face it, it is). So I have wet shoes, and a cleat that won’t fully connect with my SPD pedal.
I addressed the shoes by throwing them in the oven a few minutes at a time. Don’t come over for dinner. It’s really not a problem, I barely use it as it is….at least this way my oven was seeing some action. I’d pull them out, let the steam roll off, then throw them back in, It worked pretty well. Between baking my shoes, I worked on the pedal. Nothing seemed to work. I tried to remove the SPD from my mountain bike to switch out the pedal for the day as a quick fix, but I could not muscle the bad pedal from my Kona. I wrestled with this for a couple of hours at least. I had absolutely no clipping in happening on my right foot, which in a race, wasn’t just a performance killer but felt like it could be actually dangerous. Finally, it occurred to me that the cleat could be worn (duh Karen). I knew I had a spare set of cleats, but of course I had no idea where. The copious amount of time I had was all but gone, and I was literally racing around trying to fix this pedal and getting the rest of my stuff together (food, kit, money for the park entry, racing license). I finally located the spare cleats and after some struggling to remove the old cleat, i installed the new one and tested it–Success! I was back in business.
I tried replacing the other one but ran out of time and just hustled down to Forest Park. By this time, I was very harried and stressed out, I had my regular nerves from racing, plus it being my first one of the year, plus me not riding too much lately, and in my frantic attempts to repair my pedal, it seemed as if all the calories I had carefully consumed were burnt up with anxiety and effort with my pedal wrench. I was pouring sweat the whole car ride to the park from the morning. Plus I was alone, with no buddy or girlfriend to settle me down. Not exactly the best way to start.
The Actual Race
Registration was a breeze and now it was the typical hurry up and wait game. I got most of a lap of course inspection done, and the course was more technical than I expected, which was a good thing. More hills than most courses but they weren’t too bad, and there was one really good run up toward the end of the lap.
This was an open category, which meant I was racing against elite women. Of course as a cat 4, pretty much everyone is better, and I didn’t fight it. I took my rightful place in the back at the start line. There were only 9 of us, so I was just in the second row, but I was sure to place myself behind one of the faster women that I recognized from previous races. I knew this way I could get a good start without screwing up any of the better ranked women.
My start was decent. I fell in 3rd from last and then passed a women on the first lap. I was passed shortly after by a different racer behind me. Basically, there were no other changes for the reminder of the race, with the exception of one of the lead women flatting which resulted in a 6th place finish for me instead of a 7th place finish. It’s true, anything can happen in a CX race.
The elevation changes were ok-even fun for the first lap, but after the 3rd lap the hills were really working me over. I tried to just ride smooth. “Smooth is fast, smooth is fast.” was my mantra. I had moments when I felt like puking and numbness in my chest, so I was definitely giving effort, yet I felt my lack of fitness in this. On the last lap the lead racer lapped me very close to the finish line, and I was mercifully pulled from the race. Secure in a 6th place and totally OK with not doing a 5th lap, I collapsed and assessed. There were dicey spots I rode really well-very efficiently and fast. Other spots I made sloppy, stupid mistakes that cost me time.
After it was all over, I felt happy. My ordeal with the pedal and the shoes in the oven had my questioning if I’d even go to this race. I’m glad I didn’t throw in the towel and figured things out. The 6th place meant the lowest points I’ve ever scored on crossresults, which will benefit me in call ups for bigger races throughout the rest of the year. This was not my best work, but all along I approached this as a tune up race, and with that in mind, I feel it was a good first effort.
Time now to work out the rest of the bugs, with race prep, equipment, and fitness…..cyclocross season is officially underway!
PS: Out of all Cat 4 women in this race I placed second, so–not too bad.
Welp, here I am, 6 days from my first race. I haven’t registered yet. I only cycled 40 miles this week, 70 last week, 12 the week before. My rides are averaging about half in mileage terms compared to last summer. It’s a bit depressing. I’m starting the cyclocross season in tentative shape. This first race will be a primer for the season–a good way to jump start my training. It’s a smaller event, taking place in Forest Park in Springfield, MA and a replacement venue to the course in Monson, MA which received complaints for being to technical (I loved it). I emailed the race organizer to see if I could pre-ride it Friday evening, but no dice–they can’t set up until that morning. He explained there will be a lot of elevation changes and it was pretty hard packed. It’s difficulty will be in the elevation changes but nothing else too technical.
I’m viewing this as a way to HTFU and get ready for the rest of the season. Nothing wrong with peaking in late October or November rather than petering out after Providence. But this year already feels different to me. I think I’m more comfortable at these events now, and I have my goals, but I’m more relaxed about reaching them. Or not.
Right now my season is looking like this:
CompEdge CX @ Forest Park, Springfield, MA August 23
Big Elm CX @ Great Barrington, MA September 6
TBD September 20-21
Rapha Supercross @ Gloucester, MA September 27
Providence Cyclocross Festival @ Providence, RI October 4
Keene PumpkinCross @ Surry, NH October 19
CycleSmart International @ Northampton, MA November 1-2
TBD November 15-16
TBD November 29-30
I’d still like to do 10 races. I may only do 8. I’d like to do both days in Gloucester and Providence, but I
can’t won’t because I’m too busy with the rest of my life and don’t want to pay for a hotel. I really would like to break into the 50% range on a finish. I think I may have an actual shot at this since race organizers for the larger races (Like Gloucester, so far) are breaking the Cat 3s from the Cat 4s which means I will just be competing against my own category. For the smaller races like this weekend, it’s an Open category which means I’ll be racing against everyone who is better than me. In the end, I race against myself, which is how it should be for someone like me.
So here we go kids, CX season is back. If you haven’t tried it yet, here’s your chance. Check out races in your local area by going to BikeReg.com.
Speechless, which is what this post will be for the most part. I was utterly speechless walking through the Village of Whistler at the base of Whistler Mountain. DH, full suspension mountain bikes leaning everywhere, being walked, being coasted and hopped down the playful mounds of earth sculpted in the mountain bike park. I did a couple hours in the park and did a ton of other riding, and hiking. It was freaking awesome. Go to Whistler if you love mountain biking or hiking or being outdoors and seeing beautiful mountains and bikes pretty much every time you open your eyes. I’ll leave you with some of the sites I saw while on vacation. Whistler, I’ll be back!! -Karen
Misery loves company is the saying, which is probably part of the reason I keep hounding my friends to try cyclocross. Co-blogger Heather has caught the bug and today while I was sneaking texts to her while at work, she signed us both up at BikeReg.com for Gloucester.
Ahem, sorry. Now referred to as the Rapha Super Cross Gloucester, Presented by Great Brewers. Within an hour of opening registration, categories were selling out. I probably could have hung on until I got home from work to reg, but I get nervous, and excited, and Heather got nervous and excited, and she got home from work before I did, and did me the favor of registering me when she signed herself up. Our category is already 1/2 full just hours into registration.
Gloucester is such a big deal in the realm of cyclocross, and such a big deal here in New England. For me personally, it’s very close to where I grew up and is like “going home.” Additionally, I came to fall in love with cyclocross in Gloucester, mostly because I went almost every year for the last 14 to watch and cheer on my little cousin Tim, who is a pretty good cx racer.* I’ve come to love the sport for my own reasons over the years and I feel so happy and fortunate to participate in first class events like Gloucester, even as a middle aged cat 4 novice. The sport is still intensely difficult, no matter how good (or bad) you are at it.
They’ve made some changes this year and gave Cat 3 women and Cat 4 women separate races. Hopefully that will translate into not finishing on the bottom 25% for me, and I’m just not Cat 3 fast-yet. (bad end of the gene pool for me in terms of cycling talent). I’m disappointed that my race is only 30 minutes instead of 40 or 45, but it’s difficult for race organizers to serve the sport and the racers and this is just part of the territory of not being super fast. Suck it Cat 4s, if you want to race for longer, get faster. That’s fair, and I’m not kidding. Incentive for getting better.
Aside from the competitive side of racing–the scene at Gloucester is just–unexplainably awesome. The salt air, the unpredictable weather, the fans, the venue–it’s intimate and enormous at once. The fans are hearty New Englandahs, heckling “hey kid pick up ya bike and run!” and sneaking beah and dollah bill handups to slower racers. My people! The crowds are wicked awesome. And the weather! I’ve been then in the pouring rain, the bitter cold, the dry and dusty heat. Anything can happen in terms of weather in New England, which is perfect for the sport of cyclocross.
I’m psyched Heather has chosen to do this race too–on the same course as top racers in the world. There’s nothing like it and I know she’ll have a great experience.
So it’s official, we’re signed up for Saturday September 27th at 9:30AM. My Mom and my son will be there, as well as other family, and I’ll be sticking around for the day to watch the other racers including the pro women and pro men.
-Karen* first time I’ve ever revealed my familial connection to the sport on this blog. Hey, it’s been 8 years of blogging. I figured it was time to come clean :)
Ug! I’m not riding nearly enough for so many reasons. I’d like to being doing 70-80+ miles a week. Instead, I’m sometimes breaking 40. Why? Same old same old.
- No sitter. Freaking babysitters, I cannot find a reliable one to save my life. I really need to fix this because I’m not riding my bike after work.
- Work. I was riding to and from work every once and a while. That’s pretty much stopped now. There’s several reasons for this I won’t get into, but mostly it’s extremely difficult to squeeze 20 mins of riding before and after work, put a full day in, and still make it back in time to pick up my son from day camp. I just don’t have to time without something giving.
- Needing rides to be more for fun. I’ve been super stressed lately and I use riding to work out tension, fill my brain with endorphins, and clear my head of the bullshit of life.
My life feels wobbly right now, and one of the most grounding elements for me in the last 10 years has been cycling. Friday evening I picked the hardest place I know to mountain bike. I needed to mash pedals, to hurt, to jar myself free of my stress. I fell off a bridge into the muddy edge of a pond. Win. Then, last Saturday I had the whole day to ride, and I thought about doing a 50 miler. Then I thought, well, maybe 40. Then I thought, no. Imposing a goal was just adding to my stress, and not taking it away. I needed to just go ride my bike and let the rest work itself out. It worked. 26 miles and I found a strong steady rhythm. I pedaled until I felt resolved, if only for a little while. Then I went home and got shit done (which also helps my stress). Sunday, rain was forecast so I tried to beat it. I didn’t. That wasn’t a bad thing. Mountain biking in the warm rain washed my week clean. Mountain biking always means a 1/3 of the miles I’d be doing on a road bike, but the visceral action of mountain biking is like deep tissue massage for my soul.
That leaves me here: not really ready for cyclocross. OK I’ve been riding some, but not training. Major Jake is still hanging in my basement, untuned, unlubed and needing new bar tape. I’m not doing intervals. I’m not practicing dismounts. I’m not practicing remounts. I’m not trying to cure my stutter step. I’m not practicing carries, suit-casing, or shouldering while sprinting up a muddy hill. And I haven’t built that single speed cx bike yet either.
And I have to be honest, I’m not sure I should be putting my energies here, since life is needing my time and energy and some work that doesn’t involve a bicycle.
I have a vacation coming up and will be riding my bike at the largest mountain bike park in the world. While it’s unwise to have expectations, mine are high. I won’t by riding the whole time but I will be immersed in one of the most active mountain biking cultures on the earth: Whistler, BC. Maybe after I return, I can refocus on cyclocross, and some of the non bicycle parts of my life. Because all of it can be better.