It's painful. It's expensive. It's hard on equipment, on clothing, on bodies. It takes a ton of time.
And, it turns out, we love it.
Without any training beyond our daily rides, Dave and I decided to try our hand at cyclocross this season. With one race left locally, we'll be sad to see our weekends clearing up soon.
What to say about cyclocross? The race format, as many laps as you can do in a 45-minute limit, means that it's pretty much a sprint the whole time. Those 45 minutes of racing leave me with searing lungs, aching quads, and, inevitably, a bruised shoulder from carrying the bike.
My favorite thing? The mud. While my technical skills (i.e. ability not to fall down in the mud) could use some work, I absolutely adore the pure, child-like feeling of riding straight through mud puddles, of feeling sloppy wet trails throw mud into your face, your teeth, up your back. I love that when you fall down, it's not a scary high-speed crash onto pavement, but instead (usually) a tottering, oh-no-I'm-gonna-fall spill into-- you guessed it-- more mud. When else in our adult lives is it ok to ride, run, or splash in mud puddles?
So, it turns out I'm not great at cyclocross. Not terrible, but just mama biking isn't enough to get me into the sort of shape I'd need to be in to win races. And we wanted to get by with minimal equipment costs, leading to a series of unfortunate mechanical failures that scuttled some of my best race starts. The first day at Astoria I got to the front of the pack quickly and held onto the top 15 or so through some tricky bits... and then my chain dropped and got tangled around my bottom bracket. I couldn't wrestle it out, so shouldered the bike and jogged out my last half-lap. Sad. But I had a great start, that day.
Dave, on the other hand, had some great races. Sadly, the beginner men are the first to race with an 8:50 am start time, so there are many fewer photos of him than of me. But he had two top-10 finishes this season, and came out 18th overall in the beginner men field. Not shabby.
The rhythm of our race days is a bit rough: up early to get to the race-- Dave slips out before Jasper and I are even awake to pick up a zipcar. Then I get up and ready, putting pre-packed race bags in the car and clipping in the car seat-- then wake the baby, change his diaper, and tuck him into the car, often still in jammies. When we get to the race-- almost always later than we'd planned-- Dave dashes off to register & warm up, while I swap Jaz into daytime clothes, buckle on the baby carrier, organize the diaper bag, jackets, umbrella, and Jasper's beloved cowbell (for cheering the racers on), and we dash off to watch the race start.
Watching cyclocross is a great time. The racers are all working so hard, and because there are usually 4 or 5 laps, you get to see them figuring out how best to manage the tricky bits of the course as the race goes on, and kibbitz with your fellow spectators on how you'd take that hill/turn/barrier. The racers are also extremely suggestible, and so a good time can be had by offering advice. You stand there, bundled and warm, and yell: "Come on, blue jersey! Take this guy on the turn! He's lagging, you can take him!" And more than half the time, he perks up, bears down, and passes the guy. It's awesome.
Or, if you're under 1, you just ring your cowbell as much as you can. And holler at the top of your lungs. And smile at dogs. And that's pretty fun too.
After Dave's race, it's naptime, so Dave changes into un-muddy clothes and straps on the baby carrier, rocking and bobbing Jasper to sleep while he recovers from his race. We'll sometimes find some lunch, catch up with friends, or leave the race entirely at this point, but the most important thing is that everything gets calm for us, even as the action continues on the racecourse.
Two hours later, Jasper's up, and it's time for me to register and warm up. We might watch some Kiddie Cross, and usually the single speed race that immediately precedes mine.
Kiddie Cross is great. If he's mastered the skuut, Jasper can play next year, like this guy:
And then, bam, I'm racing. And nothing else is happening in my head; only the monologue of a oxygen-deprived brain. Which, most races, spends a lot of time trying to get me out of the situation. "You could stop now," says my brain, as I gear up to pass some racers on a straightaway. "No one would hold it against you," says my brain, and I'm off the bike, shouldering it, running up a muddy hill with little creeks coming down. "You could say you had a mechanical, and just stop here in these trees," whispers my brain, as I slalom through a forested singletrack, bouncing off slick rocks. "Or your could hit a tree, but not that hard, and then drop out. Everyone crashes sometimes." My thinking brain wants out, most races. It is the enemy.
The bliss of racing comes to the degree that I can transcend that insidious thinking brain. Because the kind of thinking that that part of my brain does isn't useful while I'm racing. Telling that part of my brain to go faster is useless-- it replies "why should I?" every time. Going faster, digging deeper, climbing harder, is a matter of not hearing that voice, of tapping into my body's potential and not holding back for later.
And then it's just pain. Heart racing. Muscles straining. Mud everywhere. Focus. Speed. Finding a fast line through the mud and the rocks and the potholes and the gravel. And sometimes, there is clarity. Everything slows, even as I'm moving my fastest. I can see the best line as if it were marked in lights. On the run-ups, suddenly I see the next footstep, and the next, and don't worry about stumbling, because I know, I simply know where to go.
And then it's over, and there are hugs, and sometimes there's so much mud on my face that it frightens Jasper and I need to splash it off in a mudpuddle before we can be friends again. And I zip down my jersey and, still gasping, still covered in mud, I find a log or bench or to sit right on the pavement and we nurse, a sort of balm for my being both mentally and physically away, for being in my own, baby-free space for so long. And then we watch the elite race start, yelling and cheering and ringing the cowbell. And then it's naptime again, and we head to the car to buckle in and drive home.
Sorting the muddy things. Washing the muddy things. Cleaning the zipcar. Returning the zipcar, once Jasper wakes up from his carseat nap. And then a slow evening of recovery, eating, finding bruises, stretching muscles, popping joints, and remembering bits and pieces of the race to tell each other. And sleep, as hard and long as Jasper allows (which is rarely as hard or long as our bodies really need).
It's a way of using bikes I've never experienced. It's not practical, or useful, or sensible, or dignified. It is silly and sweaty and frivolous. And I'm so glad we decided to try it out.
HUGE thanks to the photographers who come out every week and brave the muck to shoot great photos. Photos here from: vitus1997, richtheneighbor, monovich, shetha, and mommypants. THANK YOU!