Starting in September, people begin riding up to me and asking, “Are you doing ‘cross this year?”
“Yes,” I say. Then they kind of snicker and pedal off.
This year I delayed entering my first race until yesterday, reasoning that it would give me a bit of a breather and a chance to rest my legs and stomach after a road season in which I raced twice and drank hundreds of gallons of fermented electrolyte recovery drink. Also, prior to my season opener at the SPYclocross Series, I had hired a couple of coaches so that I could improve on my string of last place finishes from 2013.
My first coach, Rahsaan Bahati, gave me some excellent tactical advice: “Don’t be last.”
My second coach, Dan Cobley, gave me winning advice about the course: “Be sure to ride a race in between the beers.”
But the best advice came from my performance coach, Daniel Holloway. “Dude,” he said, “day before the race be sure to open up your legs.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Do enough brief intensity to stress the muscles, but don’t kill yourself.”
“I was thinking about pedaling down the bike path with Boozy on Saturday to stay fresh.”
“Bad idea,” said coach. “Rides with Boozy always end at the bottom of a ravine or on a bar stool, often both. Do the Donut instead.”
“The Donut? I always wreck myself on that stupid ride.”
“Exactly. This time, for the first time ever, sit in the pack and chill.”
“What if there’s a break?”
“Who cares? Let it roll up the road. Give it one hard effort, maybe two, on the Switchbacks then call it a day. You’re just trying to open up your legs so that they’re primed for Sunday.”
“What if Brad House is ahead of me?”
“He’s the bulbous guy with flappy elbows and orange cat-fur earmuffs.”
“Okay. You can pass him. But that shouldn’t take much effort, right?
“Got it. Then what?”
“Then make sure that you get in a one-hour warm-up before your race starts. You’ll fly.”
The following day the race started as all 45+ ‘cross races do. It was a mad gallop of insane old people trying to kill themselves and each other in a cloud of dust, dirt, gravel, and grass clippings. The course had been laid out to take maximum advantage of the giant gopher holes, tree roots, and other obstacles.
Incredibly, I did not get dropped by the main field until the first five hundred yards, proving that Coach Holloway’s leg-opening exercise really did work. More incredibly, there were at least three riders behind me, something that has never happened in any race before; two of them were on bicycles.
The course included a couple of baseball diamonds, and I couldn’t pass up the chance to try and pick up a couple of points with my baseball bike as I rounded third and slid into home plate ahead of the tag, a chubby fellow covered with hair who was falling off his bicycle onto mine. Somehow I beat the tag, jumped up, and continued on.
When people ask me “What’s ‘cross like?” I ask them “Have you ever been in a car accident where the next day every joint and muscle and bone aches and your back is bent double and you can’t get out of bed? That’s how ‘cross feels after the first five minutes, only it gets lots worse.”
Soon I had fallen into a rhythm, as my leg muscles had opened up from the day before and my leg skin had opened up by the slide into home plate. As blood fell out of the wound I came to the first set of barricades just in time for my teammates, who were manning the SPY Optic booth, to provide me with copious quantities of fermented electrolyte replacement drink, without which I would certainly have come to my senses and quit.
Of course the key to riding well in cyclocross is to “not use your brakes.” This is one of those insane pieces of advice that only a fool would follow, akin to the MTB mantra of “speed is your friend.” No matter how hard I tried to not use my brakes, they were often the only thing standing between my face and various tree trunks, or my abdomen and the sharp steel poles on which the course markings were taped. And speed might have been my friend had I had any.
This race followed the typical ‘cross life cycle: Huge rush of adrenaline followed by massive effort followed by incredulity at not getting immediately dropped followed by getting dropped followed by falling off my bike followed by narrowly missing several trees followed by getting passed by Mr. Chubs followed by hearing the depressing sound of “four laps to go” when one lap hurts more than having a wooden stick bored into your ear followed by hopelessness followed by anger followed by despair followed by a small prayer that the previous race will lap you and terminate the race early.
However, just as things were looking pretty bleak and it seemed like all but three riders were going to finish ahead of me, I blazed across the finish line and dove straight under the team tent. As the other “finishers” chatted about the race I sprinted ahead of them in the second, most technical and challenging part of the race: The beer competition. One by one they dropped to the side, with various Bakersfield pretenders falling out of their beanbag chairs and others wandering off onto a horse path to get trampled.
I poured it on into the beer turns, sprinting up the short and dusty beer climbs, dismounting and leaping over the beer barricades, and finally lapping the beer field. Thank goodness I’d taken Coach Holloway’s advice and in addition to opening up my legs, had opened up my gut as well.
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