I was initially going to title this piece “Thoughts On The End Of The 2019 Cyclocross Season”, but as I started to recap the season in my head for this wrapup, I realized what I love about cyclocross transcends that specific discipline of the sport and is really just a manifestation of what I love about riding bikes in general.
First a recap of my cyclocross season in MABRA. I got off to a slow start as I had some sailing commitments in September and October and concentrating on both sports simultaneously requires more bandwidth than I currently have. Yeah, yeah, I know #FirstWorldProblems Also, as I started to “train” when #CrossIsComing – if you call what I do “training” – my calf started to hurt after a few runs and while it was not bad, I was a little circumspect about doing anymore that might make it worse. But in general, my fitness was good and my weight down after a steady road season, and as I have learned, my forte in cyclocross is bike handling and not speed (more on this later) so I felt reasonably prepared that I would not embarrass myself.
I have now two seasons of “serious” cyclocross under my belt. Prior to last year, I did a few races (mostly our ABRT/Parvilla AACX in Edgewater) on a mountain bike – all the while suffering the indignity of being heckled as “flat bar guy” – just to bang around and support the team. Once I got past the thought that it would be a disaster for my long standing back issue and realized I wasn’t going to hurt myself I got a more appropriate bike and was hooked.
The most striking difference from last year is that most of the races this year were in fairly dry conditions as opposed to the sloppy messes from all the rain last year. While racing in the rain and mud is certainly epic and really hard, ripping turns in dry conditions is really fun.
I did 9 races last year, mostly in 50/55+ fields, and bested that this year with 10 races, mostly in the 40/45+ 3/4/5 fields. The field change this year was driven mostly by carpooling to races with teammate Charles Valade who is younger than me. Since I am not a “contender” in either set of fields, it didn’t really matter to me. However, after a few races, I really started to see the benefits of these younger masters fields. First, the 40/45+ 3/4/5 fields are typically at 9am and while I am not a morning person, the timing works really well to show up at 7:30 and get in 45 minutes of course preview and warm up. This is great because it takes me a long time to get my body going. Then there is 45 minutes to adjust clothing, check in, pin race number and get our for one last warmup lap before lining up. It’s compact but not hurried. Second, the course is typically not torn to shreds yet. Although it can be a lot colder as the season wears on, cross is such a max effort, one never really notices the cold after the start, it’s more of a mental thing. And third, the racing in these fields is much more fun. In retrospect, it’s obvious: the fields are larger so more people, more traffic, and tighter racing. What I didn’t realize last year was the effect of having category 1 and 2 riders in the field; it spreads out quickly and coupled the generally smaller field it ends up being, for me anyway, just a dirt time trial and a lot less interesting. I just assumed it would be better racing against people more similar in age, but in reality age doesn’t really matter, it’s similar skill that makes the racing better. For example Gunnar Shogren is 55+ but he’s he is so fast he typically he wipes his butt with me as he laps me. So while I am typically the oldest guy in the 40+ field, I’m racing around my people skill/fitness wise. There is certainly room to improve in the 40+ 3/4/5 field, and as hopefully I do, the racing will get even tighter.
My season opener was the ABRT/Parvilla AACX in October and I decided to do two races given that I was driving SAG for the Lifeline 100 the next day and was not going to get in a ride. I did both the 45+ and 55+ races, which might have been a little over ambitious because I got sloppy on the last lap of the 55+ race and slid out, but no permanent damage. But I decided not to double up in any other races.
Up next were Charm City and DCCX. Honestly, I have always been a little intimidated by these races because of their UCI C2 status. Silly I know, not like I am racing with the pros or anything, but… Charm City was my first time and it’s a cool course with notable features of the Manor House off camber and three flights of stairs on a huge flyover. DCCX was familiar from last year and the huge fields made it a lot of fun. Also Charm City was my first result below the 500 point mark (some administrivia on points).
The Ed Sander Memorial CX, Rockburn Cross and Bel Air Cyclocross Fesitival were also new to me this year. The Rockburn race was especially fun as the fast and flowy course definitely worked for me and was my best points race of the year. Bel Air was a new race this year and was also interesting with some nice features. I’ll definitely do that again.
Frosty Cross stepped up their game with a completely new and interesting course. While I got a top 10 in the 50+, points wise it wasn’t great because of the race “quality”, but looking at lap times, I would have been on the podium in 60+ so maybe next year there is hope for one podium in my career in the 60+ 1/2/3/4/5 (my “racing age” being 60 next year), until all the people who beat me now get to 60+ that is. As an aside fun fact, I have only been on one podium in my cycling career, winning my first every race, the Greenbelt C race in 2008,
Bikeneticx in Haymarket is perhaps the most unique course in MABRA land because it has no major climbs, but lots and lots of undulations, basically like an adult pump track course. Last year was so ungodly muddy – 15 minute lap times and I ended up running half of each lap – I was thinking it would be really fun to do that race on a dry day. Charles and I went out to Haymarket on Saturday afternoon, staying overnight locally mostly to avoid an early morning, and were able to get in some practice laps on the DL in the very dry conditions. It was fun to ride with lap times in the low 7 minutes. Unfortunately, it rained most of Saturday night so was pretty sloppy on Sunday. Not nearly as bad as last year, and I was able to ride the steepest run up but still needed to run some of the bumps and lap times were more like 10 minutes. Still waiting to rip it on a dry day some year.
The last race of the year was Capital Cross which is a really fun course. There are two steep “chutes” aptly sponsored by SRAM and Shimano and several rooty climbs and a long run up. About the only thing this course lacks is a sand pit. It was quite cold in the morning and at the start of the 40+ race it was about 22 degrees. The ground was hard, but as the sun came over the trees it quickly warmed up and the top layer of dirt turned really slippery, especially on the tricky off camber S turn on the SRAM chute. Although I was not general cold once the race started, my fingers were numb and that made shifting (and braking!) a little tricky, and it wasn’t until the last two laps they were fine.
I made “forward progress” all season with steadily decreasing points, better start positions and always significantly beating the race predictors. I made the lead lap in most races and finished in the top half, where in the past, it was rare. My major take home from this year (other than field selection) is about smooth transitions. Sure it’s nice to be able to ride and hop everything, but the penalty for failure is high. It’s so important to keep your momentum at all obstacles and often if the dismount/remount is smooth and fast, it can be just as fast, or faster, than staying on. That said, there are some major, I mean MAJOR style points when you bunnyhop the barriers, especially when you are like 13 years old:
Where the gains come from riding are typically after the obstacle, especially if it’s uphill and a remount really will kill any forward progress. This was a key observation I made in watching the men’s pro race at Charm City on the “Belgian Steps”. In many races I made a lot money passing riders with a smooth dismount and some extra running after the obstacle with a little sprint to keep the remount smooth. Along with my better than average general bike handling skills (people give me crap about doing track stands on group rides but they have been really handy in a number of races!) the technical courses suit me best. With some better fitness next year and some better start positions, I hope to continue improving. I need to work harder in the first two minutes of the race where so much damage is done and perhaps having a warmup trainer would help being ready to go hard out of the box. And maybe best of all, after a 45 minute all out effort, people hang around, chat and drink good beer, typically from local craft breweries who love to sponsor these kind of events. What’s better than racing as hard as you can, hanging around with your friends talking about bikes and drinking a couple of excellent IPAs… at 10:30 in the morning!?
So this brings me to what I love about cyclocross and about bike riding in general. It’s a big puzzle and you have to figure out how your pieces go together based on your skill set and fitness level. It’s multi-dimensional and the equation is different for everyone. It’s not just about how strong or fast you are, but the art of riding a bike, and that includes not only the mechanics of operating the machine and training your body, but also the social and perhaps most important, cultural aspects of the sport. As most people know, I hate the mind numbing monotony of riding a trainer inside because it is so singularly focused (and boring), except for maybe riding rollers. And of course I really dislike Zwift because it’s all about strength with no art. The art of riding is about learning how to operate your machine in a social context, enjoying the outdoors, honoring the cultural norms (as silly as they might appear sometimes), building a social network and the physical mental/challenge. It really doesn’t matter the specific discipline, whether road racing, group riding, mountain biking, bikepacking, riding an upright bike around town in street clothes or even discovering the freedom of movement a bike gives you as a kid, it’s about learning and loving the art of riding a bike.