There has been a moment in every cyclocross race I’ve done where I go to a dark place. It usually happens around halfway through, when I do the simple math of how many laps I’ve done and how many more are left.
I find myself there because cyclocross is really, profoundly hard. First it brings your heart rate all the way up to your threshold, then it makes you use your fine motor skills to go around slippery corners, take off-camber turns, dismount and clear barriers and cook a Jacques Pépin-approved French omelette — all while being aware of the race situation.
In cyclocross, you have to focus on every inch of ground in front of you. You have to constantly be carefully picking what gear to be in. You have to make so many decisions on the fly while the rest of your body is trying to focus on a simple task: pedaling as hard as possible.
Cross and off-road riding in general has been a refreshing change of pace from road riding, which is where my roots are. There are few things in life more exhilarating than ripping through corners in a crit race. It makes me feel like I’m strapped to an ACME rocket headed to space,
But when I’m out there riding up grass hills and down dirt trails, I feel like I did when I was a little kid, getting lost in the woods on my BMX bike. I’ve loved it so much that I’ve found myself pinning on numbers this fall and hitting the Virginia Cyclocross series in earnest.
The 2019 Virginia State Cyclocross Championships just so happened to be held at Chimborazo Park here in Richmond. Earlier this year I woke up at an unspeakable hour to drive two hours to Harrisonburg for a 9:30 a.m. race, so being able to roll out of bed and ride to the race was a welcome change.
The course at Chimborazo is highlighted by a ~13 percent-grade pavement hill just before the finish. I’d guess that a lot of race-winning moves have been made on that hill over the years, and I decided I was going to try to use it as a launch pad.
That strategy worked, somewhat. I was able to use the hill to bridge up to a few guys in front of me, and if that wasn’t an option, I’d look over my shoulder and try to put a few seconds into whoever was nearest behind me.
Cyclocross isn’t as tactics-laden as road racing, I’ve learned, but one thing I do know is that you have to pick your spots on the course to try to gain time and position.
The race whittled down and I found myself in the dark place. I felt a few jolts of tightness in my quads on the second-to-last lap as I charged up the hill and my thinking went from “Maybe I’ll be able to catch the guy in second,” to “If I keep pushing like this I will cramp up and almost certainly lose my podium spot so let’s just ride tempo.”
Which is what happened!
National cyclocross champion and general destroyer of worlds Greg Wittwer told me a few weeks ago that racing cyclocross is like putting your body through a washing machine, which is accurate. Your wrists hurt from gripping the bars and brakes, your core hurts from trying to stabilize your body around corners, and your legs are, of course, smashed at the end.
But cyclocross is fun, which I’ve realized is the dang point of it all. Bike racing in the US ain’t in great shape. Road races are dissolving at record pace, and the ones that are around don’t draw the crowds they used to. Yet cyclocross is thriving, and I now understand why.