Fish out of Water – A Triathlete's Introduction to Cyclocross

Fish out of Water – A Triathlete’s Introduction to Cyclocross

Since coach Colin has given us a recount of his first cyclocross race– I’ll give you a little history of my introduction to the sport.  It all began last fall when a good friend of mine suggested I come along and watch a cyclocross race in Lowell (at Shedd Park).  I decided to tag a long, provide my expert sherpa skills, and to see what this was all about.  In the back of my mind I had the very faintest of notions of what cyclocross was: Some kind of bastard mash up combining mountain biking and road biking, right?  Having tried mountain biking myself several times in the past, pretty unsuccessfully I might add,  I never gave it much thought beyond that.  Well, that was about to change.


Start of Shedd Park, around a baseball field.

For my fellow triathletes let me try to describe the atmosphere at Shedd Park, and really any given cyclocross race.  First of all, there aren’t many spectators (besides other bikers), and second of all, EVERYONE is on a bike.  Bikers are riding to pick up their numbers, go to the bathroom, warm-up with a couple laps, and for everything else imaginable.  You are a minority when on foot.  The bike is truly an extension of a cyclocross athletes body.  So when you arrive to a race, be careful not get run over (though most people are very careful) and prepare to clap loudly.  It is also an extremely laid-back atmosphere, in fact, a common “motivation” tactic is to let the racers know – loudly – when they are going slow, biking badly, or otherwise needing to step up their game.  The sentiment is all in good fun, but contrasts significantly with the sometimes over exuberant positivity of a triathlon race.  Lastly, and probably the biggest difference that I noticed, cyclocross is not really a beginner friendly sport.  Though everyone has a great attitude, due to the nature of the sport requiring off road handling skills and the ability to ride aggressively in a pack, the typical skill level at small, local, cyclocross race is much higher than at an equivalent triathlon.  This was something I wasn’t exactly prepared for when I began racing, but we’ll get to that shortly.


There's no bottles in cyclcross!
There’s no bottles in cyclocross!

So, 2013 was not a great year racing triathlon for me.  After a somewhat successful 2012 I found myself sidelined with a pretty nasty hip imbalance (overly long blog posting about this saga to follow).  As running was not going well, I decided to take up cyclocross.  Besides getting my mind off of my injury, I have always known I had very little technical skill when on the bike, and thought cyclocross was a great way to improve.  So, after a bit of research, I bought the bike parts, read some books, watched some YouTube videos, and with A LOT of help from Jack Chapman of The Velo Resource, Viola! there was my bike.  Oh, and one last thing, there are no water bottle cages in cyclocross!


After finally getting my bike together and a couple of weeks of training off-road, my first race was upon me, Quadcross in Maynard, MA! Unfortunately for me, I had yet to join my cyclocross bike team and so was on my own for the race.  Thanks to triathlon, I knew at least enough to get there about 1.5 hours beforehand so I could get in a couple of warm-up laps.  After I completed my warm-up, I knew I was in for it.  The course consisted of several short but steep climbs, loose gravel sections, a sand pit, and a couple of barriers.  For those not in the know, a cyclocross race typically lasts about 40 to 45 minutes and anywhere from 4 to 7 laps.   The courses, at least in New England, are on grassy fields of varying elevations.  The number of laps to complete really depend on the lead cyclists, if you don’t get lapped you’ll complete the same number as the leaders, if you do get lapped it will be one (or more) less.  This is all a little confusing during the actual race, so when I got to the starting line, my heart was racing.   In my race there was about 100 other cyclists.  I, thankfully, began in the back.  The start was mostly uneventful until I got to the first sand pit.  Here, about 5 fellow newbies went down while trying to ride through the sand, one biker proceeded to jackknife into me and I found myself with a face full of sand.  Upon getting back on my bike, my chain was dropped and was completely stuck between the chain ring and frame.  Luckily, the “pit”, the area with a repairman that will fix your bike, was right in front of me.  After about 5 minutes I was on my way – but to my distress the rest of the race hadn’t waited.    I got back into the race and ended up getting lapped, but I had a great experience.


Below is a great video of the Shedd Park race this year from a cyclists perspective.  It really doesn’t convey the steepness of the climbs properly, nor illustrate the speed he is going, but it is a great watch.


In the past few months I’ve had my ups and downs in cyclocross.  I’ve crashed, ripped my tire off of the wheel, had lots of road rash, and through it all had a great time.  I really need to develop some confidence when I begin to push as that is when I typically lose control – and well, problems abound.  If you want to learn some bike handling skills and how to get comfortable in a Peloton, cyclocross is a good first step, but make sure you get in a lot of practice before you head to the start line, you’ll thank me in the end.  Plus, riding outside in New England well into December – fantastic!

Even the camera sport mode can’t keep me in focus
The hill behind me is a very steep ski slope at Granite Gorge, tough course.