With all the work that Sheldon and I have put into this season, I’m frantically finding ways to extend it as best I can, and cyclocross seemed a perfect addition to a great season… After all, what’s the point of all the fitness you built if you can’t use it ;-)

For the uninitiated, cyclocross is somewhat of a Frankenstein combination of criterium road racing, cross-country mountain bike racing, and a steeplechase. Effectively, riders do short (2.5-3.5km) laps for a set amount of time – generally between 30-60 minutes (short by road or mtb standards). Over these tight winding courses a number of challenges are set up for the riders to overcome, including logs, sand, man-made barriers, stairs, and steep hills.

Originating in Europe as a way to maintain fitness off-season, riders would race from one town to another, taking whatever shortcuts were available to them, be it cutting through fields or climbing fences. This type of off-season racing was sometimes called a ‘steeple-chase’ since oftentimes the steeple was the only thing visible from one city to another (via Wikipedia).

This video should give you a better sense of what’s really involved:

Being new to cyclocross I wanted a better sense of the specifics so I signed up for a ‘Learn to Cyclocross’ course put on by the ABA. Keith from SpeedTheory was our course lead and did a really great job of running us through the required skills and tactics. Most of the first day was spent building up and practicing our sprints, high speed cornering, dismount/remounts, and portages. The second day was a quick refresher for those who needed it, then a couple laps to pre-ride the course before race time. If you’re interested in the specifics of dismounts and portaging, Bicycling Magazine has a video that does a great job of going through the basics.

Outside of regularly sanctioned races, Calgary is lucky enough to have a series called Midweek Mayhem – Every Tuesday night they host either a criterium race (earlier in the season) or a cyclocross race (later in the season), the second day of our ‘Learn to’ course piggybacked one of their races…

Race time

Mixing things up off the start

The race began with a dead sprint to the first corner. I hammered hard and tried to get myself into a somewhat respectable position, but right off the bat things got interesting… A gap opened up in front of me and I gunned for it; unfortunately I wasn’t the only one vying for position and another racer and I ‘rubbed’ a wee bit trying to get in there. Because I was leading by about half a bike length this resulted in his front wheel getting wrapped up in my pedal/foot. I managed to stay upright, but the other rider took a little tumble (if you’re reading this – I’m sorry!). I’m not really so competitive that I like to see that happen, but I guess maybe it’s like Robert Duval said in Days of Thunder “He didn’t slam you, he didn’t bump you, he didn’t nudge you… he *rubbed* you. And rubbin, son, is racin’.”

After the mass chaos of the start, I did my best to hold the wheel of the guy in front of me as we powered through the winding flats.

Grinding up the hill

Making our way through the course, it struck me how unforgiving cyclocross is; every wasted pedal stroke, each bad line, each tiny error, you can literally see the gap between guys in front of you expand (and the one behind you shrink). Outside of managing the pain in my lungs and legs, I tried to be as efficient as possible and nail the corners and climbs. The instruction and practice that I had the day prior definitely payed off in the barriers, and I usually gained ~1-2 bike-lengths every time we hit one… That felt pretty good.

As is my nature, I started off a little back in the peloton, but as the race progressed I started to slowly pick guys off one by one. I started around mid-pack (which was my goal), and by the end of the race I had eeeked my way into the top 10 (6th or 7th I think). Despite this being a ‘funsies’ training race, it was a great confidence boost not to be hanging off the back.

Keith killin' it up the hill

Another really nice thing about cyclocross is how accessible an event it is for fans. Because you’re essentially just running a short circuit race in a park there’s lots of good venues for spectators and you get to see the racers multiple times as they cruise through the laps (as you can tell by all the great photos my wife took ;-). In addition to the fans that came with the riders, the race drew out a lot of people in the nearby community as well as passersby. Good fun!

The verdict?

I have to admit, I think I’m smitten… Coming mainly off long-haul endurance events, cyclocross is a completely different beast and definitely plays to all my weaknesses (sprints, short power climbs, anaerobic recovery). It’s a good way for me to get outside of my comfort zone and hammer ;-)

Should you have a hankering, you can check out the event photos on Flickr.