So in what I conjecture is the result of a couple of bored cyclists over several beers, somebody invented Cyclocross. Do you know what this is? Because I have to be honest that when I first heard about it, I thought motorcross, which I think involves jumping motorcycles and wearing neon green. So naturally, I assumed a passing interest in neon green was required for Cyclocross. Turns out, I was wrong.
Cyclocross is the bastard mutated child of road biking, mountain biking, weight lifting and running. On the surface it makes less sense than when those guys said (also bored, over several beers), "Hey! We should get up tomorrow and swim! And then ride our bikes! And then go for a run!" Cyclocross involves riding a road bike that's been outfitted with big knobby tires. You ride the road bike offroad. By "offroad" don't think "mountain bike trails", because it's not meant to be that rugged, but still, you're not generally on asphalt (though you can be). But then, obstacles are placed in the path, either naturally in the form of stuff you can't easily bike over, or intentionally in the form of stuff that's just meant to get in your way. When you approach these obstacles, you get off your bike, pick it up, and carry it over said obstacle before safely mounting up again on the other side. Right, so altogether it looks like: Ride your 700C wheels over rough terrain, look out for stuff in the way, pick up your bike and carry it over the stuff, then carry on riding your road bike over terra firma.
Seriously, who thinks this stuff up?
So my buddy Brazo noted in his blog how he was doing a Cyclocross race, and how it was right here in the same town we both live in. Well that sounded interesting, so I emailed him with a few questions (basics here people. "Can I ride my mountain bike? Do I clip in? Should I carry water with me?"), and thought - if the kid sleeps well through the night, I'll get up on Sunday morning and check it out.
I got there and registered in the morning. The lady handed me my number and said, "This goes on the right side." I said, "Of my bike?" And she looked at me like I'd just eaten a poop sandwich (poop sandwich copyright TriSaraTops, all rights reserved). I quickly recovered with a smile, "Just kidding." And we laughed together at the stupid funny man. Ha ha ha!
So I pull into a parking spot and observe people, typical of race-day, in all manner of preparation. Some were even warming up on trainers. What the. Before me, laid out around the fairgrounds in our fair little burg, was an intricate path laid out with posts and red tape, twisting and winding all around, disappearing across the street in the distance, coming back later to this side of the road, winding over to a sandy beach and back. I saw people picking up the bikes and running across the beach, like crazy people. I set to pinning my number to the right side of my jersey. Don't you know.
Just then Brazo and his son wheeled over, and we shook hands and evaluated the morning before us. Seems his son had taken first place in the earlier youth division! Yeah baby! Unimportant to mention that he was the only one in his division to show up, because hey. As we all know, you can't win if you don't start. So with hearty congratulations, we all spun our way to the starting line with a gaggle of 20 or so other spandex clad crazy people.
The modus operandi seems to be - find a beater road bike, one you loved in 1989 or bought at a garage sale for 20 bucks. Put fat tires on it. Commence craziness. I think Brazo and I were the only ones on mountain bikes (so, it is accepted, but not preferred). The general attitude seemed to me very relaxed, a departure from the Type A personalities that pervade even the smallest local triathlon. The race director got up and gave us some instructions. I listened intently for any idea on just what the hell I was supposed to do. He said things I didn't understand, talking about "pits" ("There are pits?" I turned to Brazo and asked. He shrugged.), and "wheel in-wheel out", and something involving long division about when you hear the bell (there is no typical "finish" line, everybody rides for 30 minutes, then a bell rings, then you follow the leader in to the finish. Who makes this stuff up?) you should note where the leader is and this is your final lap, unless you get lapped by the leader a moment from the finish line, at which time you are already finished, and there are pits?
So the bell tolls, and we're off. The race is deceptively difficult. Most of it was on grass, with a street or two thrown in, then some gravel, more grass, a bit of sand, more grass. No climbing or descending, and pretty technical with lots of tight turns. One thinks to himself, looking at the course beforehand, that this won't be terribly difficult, unless one falls in a pit. One is wrong however, because within minutes one is sucking air. Brazo and I started in the back of the pack, his son joining us. Brazo would edge up in position throughout the race, where I would hold a pretty steady lock on 3rd or 4th from last all day. I felt like the guys who have mountain bikes at sprint triathlons - everybody on 700C wheels just looks like they're working so much less hard than I. We careen around a tree, whiz through a picnic shelter, zip over a curb and around a series of buildings. I check my watch, sure I've been out here for 20 minutes, dismayed to find it's been 3. I decide I need to pace myself a bit, so I back off. Also, I'm confident the field will return to me later in the race. This hardly ever happens to me at any race, but I adopt the strategy to feel better about backing way off, which I like to do. It's a strategy I have locked down and well practiced, backing off. Should pay off for me anytime now. Anyway, we turn a corner and there are red hurdles, less than knee-high, plopped in the path, a series of 3, one after the other. These were the proverbial pits - just a word, I guess, not a real pit. Thank God. So I approach the pits, do a pre-T2-riding dismount with my legs tossed over the side of my bike, then get off at the last minute and pick up my bicycle and jump over the hurdle and run to the next hurdle and jump over it and run to the next one and jump over it and then put my bike down and then get back on it and start riding it again. Who thinks this stuff up?
I cannot possibly be this badly out of shape, I'm thinking as I round several more corners and bounce my way over some more hurdles with my heart rate in the low 300's. And, I don't think that I am. This is just really hard. And totally foreign - when else would you have cause to even think of jumping over stuff with a bike on your shoulder? I wend my way back around the course, now towards the beach. Some unhelpful spectator yells, "You have a mountain bike! Plow through this!" so I drop into gear and I start mashing towards the beach, sure that here I'll make up some time on the roadies who are carrying their bikes through. I get 15 yards into the quicksand and teeter to a stop before having to hop off and run through the sand with my bike. I get back on my bike on the other side, turn a corner, and there's more sand. Oh, Come ON! This sand is wet, though, and if I stay low, towards the edge of the small pond the sand borders, I can ride through it. On the other side I think my lungs are going to explode. There is no way I haven't been out here for at least an hour. About 11 minutes had passed.
So, we start another lap, and this time my pace is more reasonable, but the field, alas, is not returning to me anytime soon. S'okay, I'm just happy to be here. For while my lungs are clawing themselves out of my chest and while I'm stuck in some kind of time warp that is causing 20 minutes to take an hour, I'm also having a blast. Probably because I'm surrounded by crazy people, and so one has that liberation that crazy people must feel while in the presence of other crazy people - that nobody will look at me funny for talking to my imaginary friend, because they all have one too. Everybody out there knows this is theatre of the absurd, so it's impossible to take anything about it too seriously. I smiled most of the way through the whole race, I think.
Anyway, at around 27 minutes I heard the glorious words from behind me, "On your left!", and the leader blew by. This meant that when the bell rang, I'd just follow him in, instead of having to do another lap. I did not want to have to ride through the beach for a 3rd time, even though I was starting to get the hang of when to get off the bike, the best way to carry it, when to push it instead of lift it, that sort of thing. Soon the bell rang, and as I crossed the finish line (really a stake in the earth next to a shelter where the race director yelled in my direction, "You're Done!" I was thrilled for it be over. I pulled up next to Brazo, got off my bike and leaned on it, and together we breathlessly discussed how freakin' hard that was.
Apparently they do this Cyclocross thing throughout the wintertime, and I think that would be a blast, to ride in the snow. If I do it again, or with any kind of regularity, I'll probably get my road bike rigged up for it. But it will have to be convenient - maybe right inside Madison, or very nearby - I don't think I'd travel much further, or get really organized to go do Cyclocross. But, it's a great workout, and would be a fun thing to have on the calendar. Oh, and God bless 'em, this race ended with a keg of beer in a picnic shelter. Any race that ends in beer is a good race, says I, and as I downed my well-earned brew, I tipped my cup to the crazy people who thought this up.