I didn’t bother to don a costume for the Halloween Cyclocross on Saturday.
I figured my clumsy impersonation of a racer would be amusing enough for the spectators who turned out to cheer and heckle.
My venture in Washington Park was my debut in the sport, and more than three years removed from the one evening I practiced dismounting, running and remounting the bike.
Every year since, I’ve looked at the WCA Cyclocross Series calendar and vowed to take the rack and panniers off my Gunnar Crosshairs and take the leap.
I finally did, and it left me breathless.
This cyclocross rider is my super-hero. Photo by Tom Held
Check out more pix from Corey Hengen.
I had been warned about the intensity of a cyclocross race by those with experience, including one rider who said it would “make you bleed through your eyes.”
Another compared it to a high school cross-country meet, an extended exercise in gasping for air.
My race in the masters 45-plus Cat. 4 (middle-aged novices) group was 30 minutes. I spent almost all that time, enough for three laps, at my anaerobic threshold.
Unlike a longer foot race, a road bike race, or even a mountain bike race, a cyclocross chase affords little opportunity to recover and relax.
The hills are short, but steep, and close together. Running them, when necessary, compounds the oxygen debt.
All the twists and turns, especially the downhill, 90-degree corners, with the slope falling away from the wheels, kill any momentum gained through hard effort.
Add in well-positioned rocks and roots, and spills are unavoidable.
My impression is that cornering is king in this version of bike racing. The ability to carry momentum without sliding off into the barriers is essential; along with the quickness to go from 5 mph to 20 mph in a few pedal strokes. It’s all surge and attack, surge and attack.
Years of mountain biking served me well in cornering, and I gained ground going uphill, but gave that back on the sections of the course that rewarded pure power.
The layout in Washington Park featured three run-ups, or obstacles set up to force riders to dismount, run and remount.
Would Jack Sparrow be any better? Photo by Tom Held
Harry Wolfson wrote this terrific description of the element: “There's a balletic grace in the way an accomplished 'cross racer can approach a set of barricades at full speed, dismount and begin running while shouldering his or her bike, then jump the barricades, then setting down the bike, remount and pedal off. When I see a large field of racers do this in unison, it reminds me of watching a herd of antelope vaulting a fence or line of bushes.”
I suspect I was more hedgehog than antelope.
Too often, I mistimed the dismount and slowed to a near stop, before pushing over the logs and planks with short, choppy steps. Leaping. I have to work on leaping.
I reached the finish line ninth in my group, and took comfort in noting that the others around me were gasping as heavily. My lungs burned and my legs felt rubbery. I didn’t “bleed through my eyes,” but I did see spots.
I also saw pirates and mimes and super-heroes and fairies and rock stars.
This is a little more action. Photo by Tom Held
As a spectator, and now a participant, cyclocross struck me as intense on the course but more laid-back outside the barriers. That applied to races without spooks mixing with spokes.
Maybe it’s the mud, the glow of autumn, or the hoppy recovery drinks, but a cyclocross race has the feel of a tailgate party: tents, lawn chairs, brats, burgers, beers and other people doing something physically exhausting.
Groups gather in key spots on the course - a tricky descent or steep run-up - and clang cowbells and shout encouragement; or jeer. A favorite from Saturday: “C’mon man, you’re getting your butt beat by a mime.”
That wasn’t shouted at me. Maybe next time.
Coming up: In 2011, the WCA Crank Daddy's Cyclocross series expanded to 15 races. Next up on the calendar is the race in Estabrook Park on Saturday. One of the more popular in the series, the event is sponsored by the Hampshire Cycling Club.
Check out this MadCross site for more information on the series and area races.
In December, the Badger Cross Midwest Regional Championships will be held at Badger Prairie Park, in Verona. That will be a preview of the USA Cycling National Championships scheduled for Jan. 4 to 8.
Those races, and the state championship in Hales Corners, on Nov. 20, will bring out this kind of seriousness.
Photo by Tom Held