OK, so I took a bit of a break. After all three weeks of updating twice-weekly can get a bit much for a guy. Anyway....
The local cyclocross season started two weeks ago. This was imeadiately followed by a week's break during which I discovered that in addition to having the best tunes, the seventh level of hell also has the best chicken. We're back at it this weekend (cyclocross that is, not music and chicken). Three weekends in a row of mud, sweat and tears and I can't wait. Java Jim Diakos sexed up some photos of last years cross provincials and the gravelly sound of Johnny Cash's voice complements not only the event but the sound of my headset and hubs afterwards.
I had to get Old Bess in shape first; the poor girl was still in touring mode and needed to be 'crossed up right quick! She's versatile, but not that versatile. Off came the pannier rack, lights, bottle-cages and any pretense of a placing. On went the 35Cs, SPDs and a generous coat of oil.
Before and after; ready for a relaxed meander in the lanes (above) and a not so relaxed meander off the lanes (below)
Race-day dawned windy and wet. The clouds blew over and the sun was out by the time we rolled to the start. It turned out to be sunny and warm in direct contradiction of http://www.weatheroffice.gc.ca/ and as this is an official government website, it would appear that the weather was flagrantly disobeying the party whips! After a night of rain the ground was a disgrace and this was before twenty-plus bikes had been all over it ten times each. Well, we say disgrace, I think we were all secretly glad it was muddy, probably because we all also secretly wish to be the star of our own "Sunday in Hell".
The course was very similar to last year; fast and not too technical. One carry and two sets of obstacles. The planks were close enough that for v-diff bumblies such as myself it was easier to run between the two sets rather than mount and dismount twice. This was complemented by juicy climb with a totally gratuitous 90-degree bend at the muddiest spot and, purely for recovery purposes, three descents; one on tarmac, one on mud and one on grass. As all three were liberally covered in leaves with a corner at the bottom they felt a tad manic and I think my HR was higher going down than it was going up!
Doesn't look bad from this angle, but it felt positively suicidal at the time! I don't think going off-line helps either!
I say twenty bikes, but there was a record turnout of some thirty-five. As a mass-start, the first lap was always going to be nervous, especially as we quickly funneled into singletrack and an obstacle within 100 m or so. I self-seeded myself into the final third of the pack, a conscious decision and always one that was going to be a risk. On one hand I didn't want to hold up the race. I'm not exactly the most technically adept off-roader and the last thing I wanted to be was a moving roadblock. I don't mind contributing to the outcome of a race but not when people complain the break got away because they were stuck behind fat-boy before the first climb! On the other, you're at the mercy of the bunch in front, concertinering back and forth, taking the line you're given and not the line you want and are generally more likely to get caught in a crash at the back. I'm not dissing any of the people around me, that's just the way it is.
And so it was. I rode into some guy's wheel on the first obstacle. He didn't crash all on his own, rather it was a concertina effect as he'd run into someone else, who'd ran into someone else and all the way up the chain to the guy who'd originally dropped it! Coincidently it was a guy I knew from back before at Dal and it was good to see him again, but its generally better to do the social stuff over coffee, not when your handlebars were tangled in his spokes!
I pulled myself out of the mess and started chasing. I may have lost places and was dangerously near DFL but at least I was on my own. I made a few places up straight away and then was pretty much in no-man's land for about 35 minutes when I started to lap the very occasional back-marker. I got lapped a lot though. It is always amazing to see the bike-handling at the front; the leaders (Andrew Esperance and Garrett McLeod) were drafting up-hill, down-hill and over the obstacles with nothing to separate them (Espy eventually won). It was also very polite, I guess it has to be with so many people of varying abilities packed into a short loop at the same time. A short "on your left" or "coming through" is all it takes. Oh, and not storming through a non-existant gap or cutting someone off. For your turn, all you have to do is hold your line when being overtaken (roadies are big on holding your line!).
Funny thing; that first-lap snafu totally cursed that obstacle. We'd gone down the park the day before for a bit of practice and I nailed it every time. Same on the warm-up lap. I'd round the corner, point her straight ahead and pedal. At the top there'd be what Tom Wolfe would call an "adrenal moment" when the bike was perfectly stationary where the gravitational pull back down the muddy slope would be exactly balanced by the forward force through the pedals. You'd hang for a second wondering "will I won't I?" and resisting the temptation to dab a foot before the rear dug in a bit more and you were off. That was then. Now, nada. The lap-counters say I did nine laps and I swear I didn't clean that obstacle once. Didn't matter if I went left, right or centre, either the wheels slipped out from under me, I dabbed a foot or on one lap I'd forgotten to change gear (too much fixed!) and couldn't even get the damn pedals 'round.
One thing they say about 'cross is that you should expect to crash. Last year I picked up a nice three-suture job at the first race, so happy first birthday scar! In no way confirming the myth of "triathletes as tricky bike-handlers" the only two triathletes in the race last Sunday (I haven't done a tri since Yarmouth '06 so one wasn't me) both walked away with road-rash and/or stitches. To be fair however, it was also the first 'cross race for both of them and they were both truely entering into the spirit of 'cross. And by "spirit of 'cross" I don't mean insanely strengthed Belgian beer. Well not this week!
You should also bank on writing off your socks. This is no place for a nice pair of gleaming white DeFeets. The Mud Caveat is in effect here and it is acceptable to wear dark coloured socks at the 'cross (or MTBing or even a wet road-ride).
I went for a pair of gray-and-red Kona socks. I actually got these as a draw-prize at the 'cross a few years ago and even though I've worn a hole through the toe, I still wear them. I've certainly never thought of them as my "lucky 'cross socks" and given the amount of time I seemed to spend off the bike they certainly didn't bring luck on Sunday! Despite being red and (shudder) gray they do have a couple of things going for them.
Frankly, they match. This really is important but you'd be surprised how many people don't try to match their socks with everything else. Sure, when the socks are white they'll match everything, but with colours you have to exercise some judgement! In this case the red goes well with either the Cyclesmith jersey or my Crest CC jersey (nothing goes with the Heartland Tour jersey). They even match the shoes! The length isn't too bad either; sure they may seem long but shorty short short ankle socks look silly when there's frost on the ground! Secondly, even after ten or eleven laps in the mud (or a long loop around Victoria Park) they don't look that bad either. Admittedly this may be a minor point but whilst muddy white socks at this point would look a disgrace, muddy grey-and-red socks don't and are definately the better of two evils. Speaking of acceptable socks, check out the sweet Roubaix following the race!
I remember reading somewhere that cyclocross was "an excellent way of maintaining post-season form". This may be true, but why spoil what would ordinarily be a good time by thinking of training? Firstly, its fun. Another 40 minute ITT to the turnaround and back singing along to your mental jukebox it isn't. Every minute there's a distraction, something to do and something to do right! Unless you have a flat-lined learning curve, 'cross will improve your confidence and your bike-handling skills. Despite the naysayers who will maintain that the ability to stay upright in the mud does not translate to better bike-handling whilst in "the position" in an ITT, I think that there is some truth to this. You can also enjoy it as a true "B" race! For me, I know I suck so just getting to the end without a broken scaphoid is victory enough. For many however, the real reason may be that after 45 minutes balls-out in the mud you can eat like a goinfre, and as you can see, I did!
Round #2 is this Sunday, Seaview Lookoff park at 11:00. It's $5 a race or 50c a lap so it's really too cheap not to. No studded tires, bar-ends or, and this should go without saying, no tri-bars! Come down and have a go, or come and have a laugh! I mean this thing makes DILB seem absolutely sane....