And Now for Something Completely Different

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Now that the snow is flying and people are thinking about spending more time indoors, you should all have time to read this blog post about my latest adventure in racing. As you may have read, I decided to try my hand at cyclocross racing! For those uninitiated, cyclocross is essentially a cross between biking, trail running, and a bit of obstacle navigation. For the most part, cyclocross racing takes place in spring and fall, and most races take part in parks. For this particular race, I was heading to Gemmill Park in Almonte. It was about an hour’s drive, and another reason I chose this race was because Crooked Mile Brewing just opened their doors a few weeks ago, so I’d get a chance to try their brews. But the main event was definitely the race, so let’s get to that!

First off, let me be abundantly clear. I’m NOT a competitive cyclist. In fact, I’m embarrassed to say that for the first time in years, I didn’t do a SINGLE loop in Gatineau park on my road bike! I was too focused on trail running. That’s not to say I didn’t bike at all, in fact, I biked every single weekday. 14k each way to and from work. But that’s hardly training, as it was just a commute. However, I know my legs and lungs can push to decent limits, and I have general fitness and years of bike handling skills from mountain bike and adventure racing, so I figured I’d hold my own. So it is clear that I wasn’t going to be competitive in any real sense.

Arriving at Race Site

A second factor is my equipment. As we pulled into the Almonte Arena for registration, I was presented with a view of literally hundreds of amazing fine-tuned purpose built cyclocross bikes. They look like road bikes, but with a slightly different geometry, biggish knobby tires, and beefy forks. Made for speed in the corners and in the dirt and grass, as well as being feather-light for carrying on shoulders. I, on the other hand, showed up with my full suspension mountain bike and chunky leather Brooks saddle. Carrying the beast was possible, but would tire me out over time. Why does carrying a bike matter? Well, in cyclocross, there are spots where you have to dismount and jump over low barriers, and also spots where the pitch of a hill is so steep that it makes sense to dismount, shoulder the bike, and run up the hill.

During my  pre-ride of the course, which is very important to get a feel for the corners and tricky spots, I had a flashback of the first triathlon I ever entered. In that race, I also showed up with a mountain bike, as well as baggy shorts, and no real idea what I was doing. Of course, after that race, I ended up buying a proper road bike, then eventually a tri bike, so I imagine that in a year from now, I’ll likely be writing about my latest cyclocross race on a proper bike! My preparation for this consisted of going into the partk and riding a bit off road with road tires, and doing a few practice dismounts and hops. This was Thursday night! Then, on Saturday, the day before the race, I went out for a ride with a couple experienced cyclocross guys, who gave me a few more tips, but mainly just forced me to ride uphill till my lungs hurt. Nothing like wearing myself out the day before the race. Luckily, the weather was great on Saturday.

Unfortunately, as most of you are aware, the weather on Sunday? Not so great! As it would turn out, Sunday marked the official arrival of winter in our area. The forecast called for rain overnight turning to snow in the morning. True to the forecast, when we got up at 5:30am(!), it was raining. On the road at 6:45, it was still raining, but by about the halfway point, things switched over to wet, hard blowing snow, and would remain that way throughout my race. To some, these make for ideal cyclocross conditions. Muddy, slick and wet! For that reason, I thought that at least my bike should handle okay in these conditions.

Checking out Sandpit

As mentioned, before the actual race got underway, I did a couple practice laps of the course. I’m not sure of the overall distance of the course, but I guess somewhere around 2.5 km or so. On that lap, we faced lots of twisty turns, some on grass, some in mud. We also had a short sand pit, a couple nice descents, and two (well, 3 really) sets of obstacles.  A single barrier, later on a double barrier, and finally a downed tree which was effectively a third barrier. There was also lots of off-camber riding (at an angle, rather than straight upright).  To me, that was the most worrisome part of the course. With the really wet, snowy conditions, short of having spiked tires, sliding out was a very real possibility. Luckily, in spite of the hills, there was really only one spot where I had to dismount, and that was because of giant stone stairs effectively eliminating the option to ride uphill.

At 9am sharp, my race got underway. I was lumped basically with all the top racers, as this men’s race encompassed all categories apart from the under 13 lads, and the elite men’s field. This meant a LOT of bodies on the race course, which had me a little nervous, since I’m not used to pack riding. I hoped they would take it easy on me. In this series, things are meant to be accessible and beginner friendly, so I was assured as long as I held my line, I’d be okay. Technically, people shouldn’t cut me off, and I technically didn’t have to move over when yelled at. In practice however, if a top racer came up and announced themselves, I’d definitely scooch over.

Race Gets Underway

We started the race with a ¾ lap of a gravel track to try and spread out the race field. However, that wasn’t enough time to really spread us out. I was surprised they didn’t go with a couple laps on the gravel first. From there, we dove right into the course, with all of its glorious twists and turns in the mud and grass. The way a cyclocross race works is based solely on time. The race is meant to last about an hour. The winner is the person who does the most laps in the shortest time. The number of laps is determined by whomever is leading the race. Based on their average lap times, the final lap is determined to be the one what will make them finish in under an hour. From there, everyone that passes the start/finish is told they are now starting their final lap. That means you may have less laps competed than the leaders.

In my case, my only real goal here was to make sure I wasn’t double lapped. Looking at other race results, there are normally a few people who fall into that trap. I fully expected to be passed by the leaders. In the thick of the race during the first lap, things are still pretty bunched up. The first tricky turns and narrow spots ended up being bottlenecks that required either jumping off or slowing significantly. That was okay by me, as it gave me a chance to get a bit more experience and see how others tackled the course. In no time flat, I was covered in mud, and grass was lodging itself in every nook and cranny on my bike. This was gonna be a slog!

They say you are supposed to get faster on subsequent laps, but that didn’t quite hold true in my case. Results were posted with per lap times which is always good fun to analyze. The theory is that the first lap is a) more crowded and b) you are still learning the course. In my case, I rode my first lap in a time of 10:21. My second was 10:09, then 10:39, 11:59, and finally 10:46. So 5 laps total. The winner? 6 laps total. Their first lap was 7:13 and their slowest lap was 8:07! So goal 1 was achieved, as I was only 1 lap down. Interestingly, the top people all slowed down over each lap. Of course, there is a pretty good reason in the form of the weather and deteriorating conditions. I don’t care how good you ride, if the course gets more slippery and there is more mud, it will inevitably slow you down.

Rider Down

During my loops, my focus was on keeping decent lines and riding upright. I’m proud to say that I didn’t fall once during the race (only once in practice). The same can’t be said about many others. Of course, that probably also means I wasn’t super aggressive. Fair enough, but I was really there to have FUN! And fun I had! On every loop, Deanna was there to cheer me on, and I always had something funny to say or do. Apparently this was a sign I wasn’t putting my every effort into it. Well, while that may be the case, my GPS and HR data still show that I averaged 159 BPM and maxed at 175 BPM, which translates to 94% of the race spent in “very hard” and “maximal” efforts, so let’s just agree to disagree about my level of effort 😉

As mentioned, most of my lap times were fairly consistent, which was a good sign. I was getting a bit tired in later laps, but managed to keep my pace, and figure out good lines. The course was also changing as we went. At the start, people stuck to narrow lines, but later as it got wetter, we got wider on a lot of turns, so obviously we rode ‘further’ and slower, right? As to the obstacles, I’d say I fared okay on them, but need to get better about the mount and dismounts (I’ve already watched a handful of YouTube tutorial videos!). I had pretty decent leg strength and managed to pedal all the steep hills without too much trouble. Shouldering the mountain bike was really awkward, so my approach was more akin to pushing the bike up the big hill while I bounded from rock step to rock step. And my worry about the off-camber riding? Totally valid, as in later loops, my back tire was sliding such that I was essentially riding sideways along some sections.

Pushing Hard

At one point as I pedaled through along the top of a hill, I yelled out that my bike was very furry. Why? Well, I basically had a squirrel’s nest of grass and mud gumming up my drive train with LOTS of stuff hanging off the bike. This was most definitely causing me some shifting and pedaling issues. I had to come up with a novel solution for dealing with mud and grass. My solution? Stop trailside and grab a stick, which I gripped in my hand as I rode. When things got too messy I’d pull off and jam the stick into the plugged up areas on the bike to free the detritus. Effective, but a great waste of time too!

Soon enough, chain suck started to be an issue as well, along with lots of skipping gears and chain issues. Of course it wasn’t until hours later back home cleaning the bike that I realized I’d literally twisted my chain in two different spots, which amazingly didn’t cause a complete destruction of any bike components, but will definitely mean a new chain at a minimum is needed. It also explains why in the penultimate lap by bike completely locked up and refused to be pedaled further. The result? A long foot race carrying the bike to the finish.

Yup, that’s right, after one final pedal mash too many, the chain refused to budge and no more gear changes were possible. Rather than waste precious time cleaning the bike, I judged the distance to the finish was no greater than 400m or so, which meant running was the best bet. As long as you cross the line with your bike, it is a valid finish. Unfortunately, it cost me at least 6 spots in the final results. Worse than that, it gave my buddy David Shantz the opportunity to lap me. He crossed the line in 53:54 and I crossed it in 53:59…. 1 lap down ☹. How annoying!

At the Finish

So where did I actually place you wonder? Well, nothing special. I ended up 89th out of 125 racers (with only 113 actually finishing the race). In my category, things were more dire, with me finishing 35 out of 43 (but only 37 actually finished ☹. However, those results are pretty much in line with how I fared in my first triathlon, and from there, I only got better and better, eventually winning my age group with a sub 11 hour Ironman finish in my first Iron-distance triathlon, so there is obviously hope for me in this sport too if I apply myself,

I’d definitely say this was a hoot to do, and given that these were pretty much the worst possible conditions, I’m pretty sure I’d have fun at any other race I tried my hand at in the cyclocross series. To those ends, the races provide a great value. The race itself was only $25. On top of that, I had to pay for a 1-day licence, making my total $37. However, if you sign up for the entire series of 10 races, the price is only $98! That is a definite bargain and gives you lots of chances to improve and see familiar faces every weekend. There’s a good chance I’ll start scouring for a good used cross bike and put myself out there more next year. Objective next year? Maybe finish a race and NOT get lapped. Not an easy feat though. In my race, only 38 (out of the 113 riders) didn’t get lapped.

Hot Chocolate to Warm Up

Well that about wraps up this race report. I had a lot of fun, but am now wondering how I might fare in slightly better conditions. Post-race, I got to enjoy a great meal of crepes at a local Creperie in Almonte, and then stop by the new brewery to drown my sorrows. I also had the fun of driving through terrible conditions to and from the race, and spend a couple hours cleaning up after all was said and done! Will I do it again? Absolutely! Trying new things is always worth it, you never know what you’ll learn about yourself and what makes you truly happy. With those words, I encourage you all to get out there and try something new! Till next report, have fun!

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