The thing about cyclocross is, it is the best sport ever. Why is it the best sport ever, you say? Because if it weren’t for cyclocross all we would have this time of year is pumpkin spice, and leaf raking. And I know you all have leaf blowers so we just have sugar and apples, which leads us to the holiday cookie-season and parkas to cover our ever-expanding bellies, until we go to kiss at the stoke of the new year and we can’t reach the other person’s lips because our bellies are in the way. Then road season comes and our kits don’t fit, or it’s spring break and our bodies are already broke.
That went into a fat/fitness rant real quick. Can we see where my mind (re: anxiety) is at?
Being spandex-clad mid-winter means more than fun fitness. You could just as easily have a gym membership, but why cyclocross? The thing about this sport is… it is hard. In nearly every way. And I am sure everything I am about to list holds true for nearly ever cycling discipline, or nearly every sport, but as I just completed my fourth year of full racing (my 5th [not] Providence, my 4th crossiversary!), I am essentially an expert at knowing the cycle-cross. I know I am expert because I am becoming more and more aware of my inadequacies every race.
So what exactly makes this fun?
Challenges mean growth! Learning is fun! Knowledge is power! (says the girl who dropped out of (albeit post-graduate) school to do said sport).
When you begin the sport, fun is the number one name of the game. Many people keep fun as their number one goal and are able to chase the local circuits, make cupcakes to bring to the races, wear costumes, try crazy antics like seeing how many races they can enter in one day or one weekend (looking at you, Mike Wissell). In the beginning, progress comes easy and and anxiety is low. The fun-loving and supportive environment is cyclocross encourages this! The best news, is that you can be in last place, and no one will even know, because after about place 10, no one is counting, and there is no off-the-back in ‘cross. Many stay at this level, and live in eternal cyclocross bliss.
At some point, many people get bitten by the bug of competitive spirit and start to worry about race results, categories, and eyeing podiums (note that this can apply from race 1, and that the above fun still applies here). Many will look to hire a coach, start to form goals, and perhaps join a local club or race team. Perhaps you will be more interested in equipment at this stage. This is when cross is really the most fun, because you are inspired to start practicing those specific skills like shouldering your bike, dismounts and remounts, and maybe riding your bike on scary surfaces you wouldn’t have dreamt of before. You start shopping for new or used bikes (hey, maybe one that actually fits!). At this point, you can’t decide if you need a carbon bike or not, but you know a CX bike is right for you, because it can still function as a road bike and is obviously a great gravel and light trail bike. You know for sure you are going to get Stan’s NoTubes Grails or Carbon Valors and the full line-up of Maxxis tubeless ready CX tires. Because you know, that even though you are just starting to get serious, you know you can’t risk a race on flatting and you can’t commit to one tire for a full season (besides, you want to use those wheels on your training adventures as well as your racing, so why can’t you have your wheels and use them too?). You start passing up handups in races and looking to upgrade.
And because cyclocross is the best, you know that it keeps getting better. As your fitness increases you are able to find your technical weak points. Maybe your realize your pre-race diet is lacking. You may even decided to start taking recovery drinks after races and who knows, maybe try a cool down spin. But now you get to work on the balance of work and training, budget and racing. How much racing can you do? There is usually the opportunity to drive to multiple races a weekend, in addition to the option to fly. For every ounce of please you feel with a great result, you offset it by taking something else out of your life, like beer, cake, or free time. Because, training.
And then you get to where I am. Where you have gone all-in. And in this respect, cyclocross isn’t the best, because I jumped in, but luckily had realized the pool had “no-diving” written all over it so instead of head-first I safely cannonballed, ensuring I had adequate support, and though I didn’t break my legs or neck, I am not exactly Michael Phelps. If I had chosen professional swimming, there may be more money in the sport, and also I could likely make this into a better analogy. For now I will flip-turn this back into the world of cycling and transition away from a zone weirdly close to triathlon oh crap we are through T2 and taking a run into dangerous pun territory, I am not even writing a sentence anymore someone please stop me, or at least give me a participation medal
Shit what was I saying? Yea. Where am I now. I do the training, I set the goals, I have the equipment and the support. And, luckily, I am still having fun. My last race in Charm City, I was laughing and smiling and back to interacting with the crowd as I passed. That’s right, even at the pro ranks cyclocross racing is still about fun. And even at the pro ranks, the equipment choices can still offer opportunity for experimentation and learning. Though mostly I have my system dialed, I am always pondering tire choices and pressure settings. It is made trickier by ever-changing course decisions. Cyclocross is a constant puzzle! Even clothing choices are crucial and difficult (long sleeved or short sleeved skin suit, base layer, or no? Light gloves, or heavier gloves? Do I want to dress warmer?)
At the pro level, I have to make the decision to race, or to train. At this level, the two are not the same thing. Last year I raced (and traveled) more. This year, I am training more. Next year, I may race more but travel less. Even Katie Compton gets to play around with her racing schedule and focus. I have started to identify very specific weaknesses and am working at targeting these in training. I have also realized that my largest hurdle is my mind and convincing myself in a race to access the training I put in. The biggest limiter right now is not my fitness, or technical skill, but instead, my conviction. Sadly, that is harder to work on, because no one can really tell you how. “Just know you can do it, duh”.
When I think about it, the only thing that has really changed for me since my beginning stages is my ability to look great in kit. Other than that I am still learning, having fun, striving to do better, and I still eat the same crap (I write this as a foreboding of blog posts to come, where I complain that my inability to reach the tippy toppest levels is my inability to live like those athletes outside of the course. Nutrition, eek).
Cyclocross. The thing about it, is that there is no one thing about it. It has something for everyone! The fitness people, the food obsessed, the fun-driven, the skilled, the strugglers, the shifters, the single-speeders, the hoppers and the waddlers.