My First Cyclocross Race

by Arlyn on September 28, 2009

Cyclocross is cool because the race course has such varied terrain – grass, pavement, sometimes mud and usually a little sand. This was not the case at yesterday’s race. The second race in the SoCalCross Prestige Series was held at a motorcross park way out east in the desert.

Cahuilla Creek Motorcross Park

This is an example of what normally goes on at the MX park. You could see motorcycles flying into the air in the distance as we raced.

As we lined up, the race official announced, “Course conditions are sand, sand and more sand with a little wet sand thrown in just to mix it up.” He was unfortunately not joking.

He blew his whistle to start the race and took off with 14 other Cat 4 racers. I counted myself in 9th place going around the first turn and felt pretty good. I settled into my rhythm for the first lap, trying to focus on my dismount/remount form. I wanted to be smooth which was really hard in the sand.

I learned pretty quickly that a good Cross racer can push himself right up to the razor’s edge of his Red Zone without going 1 millimeter over – unless he really needs to, of course. My average heart rate for the race was 92% of max – that’s average! I hit max HR several times, probably in the running sections.

Lined up at my first CX race

Can you see me? Carmichael kit and not looking at the camera – doh!

My only crash happened right away. Entering the first section of barriers I didn’t unclip my back foot before I stepped down which resulted in me face planting just short of the first barrier. I think I made some sort of sound and a clear “Oh!” was heard from the small crowd. I never stopped moving though, just picked up the bike and ran through the barriers.

Completing the first lap, I passed through the finish area where a race official was waving a cowbell at us. In my oxygen-depraved mind, I translated this to mean we were starting the bell lap – this would be the final lap. I was still feeling pretty good so I hammered the second lap, passing several racers. I even shouted encouragements to some guys who seemed to be going a lot slower that they should, especially for being on the final lap. Boy was I surprised when I completed the second lap and saw the official holding a sign saying “2 laps to go!” Turns out she had just been encouraging us along; I was dangerously close to my Red Zone and only halfway done! Zoinks!

I settled down and focused on recovering a little, which means I probably slowed down to 88% of max or so. I got passed by two or three racers and as soon as I got my breathing under control, I cranked it back up again, intent on catching them.

Cyclocross courses usually have a mix of grass, pavement, mud and sand. This was ALL sand.

There are a lot of technical skills for racing Cross like how to smoothly dismount and remount your bike so you can jump over barriers, for example. I passed one guy who stopped to clip in while I just rolled on, clipping and rolling at the same time. That felt good. With the sand, it was really hard to focus on form though because the bike would stop rolling as soon as you stopped pedaling.

Racing Cross is very exciting. There’s always some near-disaster to attend to. Here’s how a section of the course might have gone:

Back on the bike, clip in and roll down this super steep section – sharp left turn at the bottom in deep sand, don’t crash! Ok, max power! Here comes a steep moto-jump, I can make it, lowest gear… Bike slipping in the sand – over the top! Pick up speed, into that hairpin, more deep sand – screw it, let’s just run – off the bike, carry, run, run, running is hard! Put the bike down, swing on – clip and full speed! Someone is right behind me! Here come the barriers, coast in… Off the bike, over the barriers – one, two! Bike down, swing on, clip and accelerate!

I focused on catching the guy in front of me, trying to make every action smooth and carry as much momentum as possible. If I caught the guy, I’d pick the next guy. Sometimes I got passed and at some point I realized I was catching guys in the single-speed group who were racing on the course at the same time as us. Poor bastards, at least I could shift down.

Very sandy cyclocross course

Racers struggle for traction on a deep course.

The final lap went very smooth, but I was very ready for the race to be over. I crossed the line in 9th place – solidly in the middle of the pack. For my first race, in a sandlot – I’ll take it.

Next Sunday’s race is in Irvine and lots of other racers commented on what a great course it is. I can’t wait.

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