Reflections on a season of cyclocross

Last weekend was a season wrap for my first year racing cyclocross.

I limped across the finish line at Darden Towe Park in Charlottesville in 5th place, a finishing position congruent with how I feel about my season as a whole: pretty good, but with room for realistic improvement.

It’d rained the whole day before the Charlottesville race, making for pretty muddy conditions and soft corners.

I pinned on a number eight times this cyclocross season, an 800 percent increase from last year! The Virginia CX season continues for a few more weeks, but the only race I’ll be doing before 2019 draws to a close is The Rustbucket Races in Norfolk in a few weeks, but that’s not in the VACX series.

Here’s what’s on my mind in the aftermath of my rookie year:

  • Road fitness only carried me so far.

After a lovely summer full of weekend rides with teammates, Tuesday night crit racing at Bryan Park, and after-work training rides before sunset, I came into the early autumn feeling strong. I got my Category 3 road upgrade right at the end of the summer, which was both a proud achievement of mine and a piece of convenient timing since it allowed me to auto-upgrade to Cat 4 in CX from the get-go.

I decided to race the Cat 3/4 CX races this year for a few reasons. I believe all Cat 5 races should be as beginner-friendly as possible, since it wasn’t all that long ago that I was a frustrated Cat 5 wondering what the hell some clearly strong riders were doing in a field with beginners like myself.

But the salient reason I chose the Cat 3/4 races is they’re almost always held at 1:30 p.m., not 9 a.m. like the Cat 4/5s. This made for much easier morning-of travel arrangements, a.k.a., I got to sleep in.

Anyway, I had as successful of a cyclocross season as I could have reasonably asked for, considering I’d never really ridden off-road…ever. But it’s not a coincidence I got my best results on the courses that were less technical and more “power” courses.

The amount of dexterity needed in cyclocross was jarring to me. I knew I’d consistently lose time on off-camber corners and trail sections through woods, but I didn’t think it’d be where I’d literally lose races.

On a road bike I like to believe have a pretty smooth, metronomic cadence and pace, but during cyclocross races I haphazardly stomp on the pedals and surge like hell. Riding smooth is so goddamn challenging and something I need to practice. 

  • Being catlike going over barriers is the way to go. 

Speaking of fluidity, I looked no further than to my tuxedo cat for inspiration on how to get over barriers. Siggi just glides from the floor to the couch to the coffee table to the counters —  her movement is always lateral, never up-and-down.

I tried to emulate that in going over the barriers. Some might call pulling race tactics from a small mammal that sleeps all day dumb, but I call it “looking for value wherever it can be found.”

This is decidedly not-catlike.

– I don’t know a goddamn thing about cyclocross tactics. 

During pre-race recon rides I would try to scout out which sections to launch attacks and which ones I should just ride conservatively. But aside from that, I don’t know whether gains can actually be made from pure race strategy in cyclocross.

I’d often race with my teammates Neil Etheridge and Ben Rasich, but we never discussed how to best cooperate to get the best results possible. Instead we’d attack each other…because…it’s…fun to?

And I’m not even sure I know the best way to pace myself during races. Sure, a lot of the time you’re pretty firmly in the position you’ll finish in by mid-race, but take this for example:

In Charlottesville, someone was probably like 10 seconds behind me. Should I have tried to rope-a-dope them by slowing my pace, then put on the gas as soon as they were close? Am I a big dumb idiot for thinking counter-attacking yourself is a strategy worth trying? Is there anything more to cyclocross other than just handling your bike well and being really fast?!

  • Having the right gear, not the fanciest gear, mattered. 

I’m quick to besmirch the idea of buying all the common bike upgrades like power meters, carbon wheels and electronic groupsets, since I honestly believe such gear is never going to actually be the difference between winning and losing races.

But I do concede certain things matter in cross, namely the stuff that’ll keep you moving. I dropped my chain probably 10 times this season and had my old gravel tires slide out on me a handful more, costing me dozens of finishing positions. Putting a chain holder on my frame and getting proper off-road knobby tires made a drastic difference.

  • The weather is unreliable and absolutely will affect the race. 

I’ve got anecdotes about extreme weather from this season but they’re uninteresting. I’ll just continue packing every piece of clothing I could reasonably need going forward.

  • It turns out the back-end of a double-header is hard. 

I really goofed during the Hampton Roads Festival of Cross when I went way too hard on a course that I struggled with on Saturday, which led to me being spent for Sunday’s race, which, had I been fresh, would have been much better suited for me.

It feels antithetical to the entire idea of “bike racing” to show up to a race not planning to go full gas, but next year I’ll definitely pick my spots on those full race weekends.

  • I must not lose sight of the fact that I do this because it’s fun.

All of the excitement I feel the week before a race evaporates about 15 minutes before the whistle. At that point I’m usually trying to stay warm and trembling in fear of what the course is about to do to me.

“We pay all this money and drive hours round trip, to race for maybe an hour, during which we are in extreme pain,” I joked to Neil last weekend. “This is what we consider a fun way to spend a weekend.”

But ever since I decided to scale back my road racing, I’ve focused very much on having fun racing bikes. Sometimes the fun is riding a clean race and landing on the podium, other times it’s enjoying taking a mini-road trip with a friend to somewhere in the state I wouldn’t go otherwise, to do something that challenges us.

Above is Pocahontas State Park and the Ancarrow’s Landing Trail. Road riding can be repetitive and, if you’re training, downright discouraging. But getting out in the woods and ripping around dirt corners makes me remember how fun riding your bike really can be. I’ve tried to take that mentality with me to the start line of races.

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