The Croatan Buck Fifty or, I Raced 50 Miles and Didn’t Die

20180317_113814(While this post might seem obscenely long, it has everything you could want: a thrilling race report, beautiful views, an objective review of the race organization, AND personal introspection!)

It’s been a long time since I’ve ridden 50 miles, let alone raced 50 miles. Not to mention I’ve done exactly 2 gravel rides in my life. But a few weekends ago I raced 50 gravel miles at the Croatan Buck Fifty race. It had been awhile since I’d had a real bike challenge to train for (outside of cross) and as the new year started, I felt motivated to find something to aim for. My friend Casey suggested the Croatan Buck Fifty, which is a new race down in North Carolina put on by Ridge Supply. It’s a gravel race in the Croatan National Forest, and consisted of a 50 mile out and back lap, which you could ride 1, 2 or 3 times – 50, 100, or 150 miles respectively. I was initially too intimidated to try 50 miles as my first race “back” after years away from endurance riding. But, flat course + the presence of friends + lap race = enough bravery to sign up.

In the months and weeks leading up the race, I vacillated between excitement at the challenge and serious anxiety and self-doubt. Shockingly, I’ve come to enjoy the thought of a bike challenge, as I get perverse pleasure out of wondering how much it will hurt and if/when I’ll break down. But every bike challenge – especially races were the expectation is to go fast and compete for a podium – comes with a lot of self-doubt. I do not fit in the typical demographic for races, as I’m fat and slow. I worry most about judgement and pity – *I* don’t care much that I’m fat and slow, but I can’t help but wonder what others think. Then we got some emails that mentioned “peloton” and “motor pacing” and I got even MORE anxious, as I worried my slow pace would mean I would be dropped like a hot potato and constantly passed by faster riders. To help calm my fears, I reminded myself that I have just as much right to be out there as anyone and that if someone judges me for how I look, that’s THEIR problem, not mine.

However, in spite of my anxiety, I was looking forward to a long weekend to enjoy my friends, bikes, and beaches. My friend Samantha and I drove down Thursday afternoon and about halfway there a car passed us with Dirty Kanza 200 car sticker and a bike that had handlebar tape that looked suspiciously like Casey’s bar tape that actually was Casey. So the three of us rode down in tandem and once arrived, had some delicious homemade pizza and some leftover cider we found in the fridge.

Friday’s weather was perfect, and became sweeter once we realized there was snow in the DC area! There was a pre-ride Friday afternoon, which we had planned to do, but first we had to drink some cider/beer we found in the fridge, go to the grocery store, drink some wine,  find some oysters, get a crab cake sandwich, eat ice cream cake, sit in the sun, and go to the beach and then there was no time for a pre-ride. #priorities

Friday evening, after going to the pre-race briefing at the Carteret Speedway (the start/finish line of the race), there was a mad rush at our house to get our pasta dinner assembled and get all our gear together for the next day. After a semi-chaotic dinner, and last minute prep, we all had an early bedtime.

When we arrived at the Speedway Saturday morning, I realized I had grossly underestimated the still-winter weather of North Carolina. Up in DC, it was still straight winter, but I had been lulled by the sun and warmer weather of the previous day. I assumed it would quickly warm up that morning and only brought my arm warmers with me to the track – even though I had all the winter gear back at the house. I knew I would warm up eventually, between the sun and my exertions, but it was damn cold at the start line with bare legs! Until about 9:30, it was a very cold ride, with frozen toes.

Leading up the race, my training mostly consisted of riding longer and longer distances over a series of weekends. I knew the only person I’d really be racing is myself, as there was no question I’d struggle at 50 miles in the saddle. The longest distance I rode during training was 40 miles on the C&O Canal the weekend before, which is a flat gravel trail that runs next to the C&O Canal in Maryland, and seemed like the best approximation of race conditions that I could get in the area. That was a shockingly tough ride – it was hard on the body to stay in the same position on the bike for so long, both my arms and undercarriage suffered from the flat and bumpy terrain, and mentally it was tough to keep going. Based on that last training ride, my goal was to keep at 13-14 mph pace as much as could and finish hopefully in the 4 to 5 hour range.

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The Long and the Flat of it

The “neutral roll out” went well and it was fun to ride with so many people. Once the race started in earnest, I was pretty quickly on my own. I would get passed periodically by people who would be with me for 5 or 10 minutes and I could usually see a person or two up ahead, but I was basically on my own for the first 10 miles. I didn’t mind – it was beautiful and I like going at my own pace. By mile 16, I was riding generally with a group of women who all seemed to be going about the same pace. We would usually chat for a bit, say hi, someone would ride faster for a bit, I’d catch up, etc, and it was nice to have some casual company. But about 75% of the time I was by myself and enjoying it. I was doing so well maintaining my 13-14 mph pace and feeling very proud of myself! At mile 18, the lead group finally caught us going the opposite direction so we knew we’d have to be aware of traffic coming towards us. Once I had been “lapped” it was actually kind of fun, as my friends who are faster than me (all of them!) were now periodically passing me going the other direction! Every time a Bikenetic team member would pass (even if I didn’t know them personally!) I would shout “HI!”. It was energizing to see my friends and helped keep it from being too boring (it also made me seem very popular with whoever I was riding with at the time!).

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During happier riding times

I had been feeling pretty good up to this point, but 18 miles of non-stop riding at an aggressive pace was starting to wear on me and I was really looking forward to the turnaround rest stop at mile 23. At mile 20, I rounded a slight bend in the road and saw before me the whitest, flattest, straightest section of road so far and knew these last 3 miles to the turnaround were going to be brutal. This would be the first of three really (mentally and physically) tough sections.

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Toughest: Straightest

I decided the best way to tackle this section was to put my head down and power through. Instead of a 13-14 mph goal, I was now aiming for a 15-16 mph goal. Based on Strava I met that goal, and based on what I remember of the suffering, I’m glad to know it wasn’t wasted.

At the turnaround point, I didn’t stop long. I stretched, used the bathroom (which was the most vile bathroom I’ve ever been in my LIFE), ate some GORMP, got some electrolytes for my water, and pressed on. I left with the same group of women I had been riding with at the beginning of the long-straight-flat section and stuck with them for a little while, but needed to ride my own pace and left them.

I soon hit the “infamous” Savage Road, the 2nd tough section. This is a stretch of un-maintained roads, full of huge craters full of water – nasty looking water. The water could be 3 inches deep or 3 feet and I was not interested in finding out! There was a line ridden in by previous riders, tracing a path around the craters. But some of those lines were very narrow and/or right on the edge of giant crater. It was here I was so thankful for that 1 and a half seasons of cross I had under my belt. I never would have felt confident enough to navigate some of the trickier lines without the bike handling skills I’d picked up in cross. Another unexpected challenge of this road was the uneven surface between the crater sections. It was hard packed, uneven dirt and because I had slightly too much air in my tires, I was being thrown around, bouncing all over. This was hell on my undercarriage and it made the section miserable. Between the rough road and the craters, I couldn’t keep any speed which made this 3 mile section feel like an eternity!

It was a relief to leave that section behind for the “smoother” gravel roads! Once I exited Savage Road, I immediately stopped and took a break – I really just needed to unclench my body from the bike and give my lady-bits a reprieve from the saddle!

At around mile 35, the course was on pavement for a bit. Once back on pavement, I realized how mental exhausting it is to ride on gravel. You can’t let your mind wander, you always need to be paying attention to road conditions, on the look out for potholes, patches of loose gravel, other obstacles. It was a relief to let my mind go blank for a bit while riding on the pavement.

I could feel myself starting to fade and when I turned back onto the gravel around mile 37, I was able to keep up a good 13-14 mph pace for only a mile or two. After that, I struggled to keep above 10 mph! I was losing energy and power. Just in time for the last truly rough section, yay. On the way out, I had noticed a sandy-ish section, but didn’t take much notice of it. On the way back, I marveled at how I managed to forget this section because it was now torture. It had become a packed sandy road, bumpy and unforgiving. The road was either packed, bumpy sand or loose, shifty sand. I couldn’t relax for a minute and my undercarriage was taking a beating.

In hindsight, I should have stopped and let out a little air, but I was too addled at the time to think straight. This sandy section was only 2 miles long but those 2 miles almost broke me. I had only stopped twice the previous 40 miles, but in this 2 mile stretch, I had to stop twice, plus once after I finished the section. I’m sure part of the problem was I hadn’t eaten or drank enough, but, it was also 40 miles into the longest, hardest ride I’d done in years.

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I am broken, Snickers save me

One coping strategy I came up with to help get through the miles was to count the route in 10 mile sections. Ten miles seemed reasonable and I bike 10 miles all the time. So I hoped I could trick myself into riding 50 miles with less pain. And it had worked pretty well so far! But I had never seen the mileage tick over so slowly as those last 10 miles. I was counting down every hundredth of a mile. Even after I left the sandy section (which was only 2 miles!), it felt like I was moving through molasses and every pedal turn was a challenge. I had planned to finish without stopping again, but I had to stop at mile 45, to cry a little, eat a snack, and convince myself to finish!

Thankfully, about 1 mile later, the course switched back to pavement, which helped a bit as I knew I was so close and I could turn off my brain a bit for awhile. The last few miles went without incident and I finished with much rejoicing 3 hours and 39 minutes after I started!

Home stretch
The homestretch on the track (Photo courtsey of Natasha Calderwood)

On every level, the race didn’t disappoint. It was a great course, tough and challenging, and best of all, pancake flat! You could feel the excitement and enthusiasm of the organizers and the volunteers. And the FOOD! Entry included lunch/dinner and I was worried it would consist of tired looking spaghetti and congealed potatoes, that had been sitting out too long, with crumbs left for those who finished later in the day. I’ve never been happier to be wrong! The food was delicious and thoughtful – there were potatoes, veggies, and marinara sauce for the vegetarians, plus chicken and meat sauce for those who eat meat. Plus THE COOKIES! I engaged in an unofficial eat-off with Robin to see who could eat more of their amazing chocolate caramel and apple pie/spice cookies. And the best part was that they spaced the food out enough so there was fresh trays and cookies throughout the day – everyone had a chance to eat hot, fresh food.

Ridge Supply is a pretty hip company and I was worried the race and organizers would be full of “bros”, unlikely to welcome someone who looks like me or other newbies to racing/riding. But I following along on the Facebook event page, I was pleasantly surprised at how thoughtful and thorough the organizers answered questions that were both obvious and technical. I asked a question that I realized was obvious/stupid once I did about 5 minutes of research, but they answered it politely and without snark! It’s surprising how something as little as that can act as reassurance. I would not hesitate to recommend this race to someone who felt unsure about their racing abilities.

This race ended up meaning more to me than I could have expected. I felt so much pride after finishing so far under my goal time, so grateful for the confidence bike handling skills from cross gave me, so soul-happy to be experiencing this with so many good friends.

After I became disenchanted with bike commuting, discouraged by saddle pain, bored with the social rides, grudgingly accepting of my love/hate relationship with cross racing,

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I did it, I’m amazing

I was worried cycling didn’t have any more highs for me. While I still love racing cross, it’s a very different experience because, honestly, I don’t enjoy the racing – being slow is often discouraging, and it hurts a lot. I do feel pride after finishing a race, mostly because I didn’t quit even when I really, really wanted to – but I don’t really enjoy it. Cycling hadn’t given me any real highs for awhile and I fully expected this race to feel like a cross race – a mostly miserable experience I slogged through, mostly proud I didn’t quit. But…it wasn’t! Not at all. I even, dare I say, enjoyed myself on the race! It was truly gorgeous out there and I enjoyed both the scenery and pushing myself. I think the very flat course was mostly responsible for my enjoyment. I was able to “wrap” myself in the pain and focus on my rhythm. When it’s a consistent pain, I’m able to move it to the background a bit. I suspect this is why I struggle with cross – the pain is always shifting because the course is changing and it’s harder to ignore the pain.

It was also deeply satisfying to set a goal and hit it. I rarely race with goals in mind, partly because I’ve never had a way to measure how I was during while racing, and partly because setting goals means potentially failing and who likes that?? This was the first race where I used a computer to track distance and speed, which allowed me to set some goals to track while racing. I sort-of-not-really-on-purpose overestimated my

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The final verdict

finishing time as, even for me, 5 hours to finish 50 miles is pretty attainable, as I had done my last 40 ride on terrain that was close to the race terrain in about 4 hours. And honestly, I secretly thought I could finish 50 miles in 4 hours in a race situation where I was pushing myself with minimal stopping. And had I actually done any math, I would have realized that at a 13-14 mph pace, I would definitely hit a 4 hour goal, and even be under that goal (math is clearly not a #priority for me). But I didn’t want to jinx myself! But I didn’t want to publicly state I could do it in 4 and miss that by a mile – that felt like a disappoint I couldn’t bear. So, I gave myself a laughably attainable goal and having a computer was a shockingly good motivator! Seeing my speed was an especially good motivator. I loved hitting that goal MPH and found myself digging deep when I wasn’t hitting it.

This “win” affected me in ways I didn’t expect. Going to work Monday, I had this happy secret inside of me – all my fellow commuters didn’t know I was capable of riding 50 miles and beating my goal time! It made me feel special! Then, when I went to the Crosshairs Garage Races on Wednesday (a race series that takes place in a parking garage!), I guess the magic of Croatan 150 was still inside of me and I crushed the race. I was corning like a master and even lapping people – which I’ve NEVER done! I ended up with 16th place (out of 24!) and felt on top of the world. I know I won’t always have bike successes like I had in March, but now that I have a taste of what success (for me) is like, I think I’ll be chasing more personal wins in the future!

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ON FIRE! (photo credit: Bruce Buckley)

I still worry about how I’m perceived and if people are judging me by how I look. But I’m starting to realize it doesn’t matter what people, it just matters how I feel. And if I feel fast, or like a badass, or a racer, then that’s what I am!

 

 

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A Charmed Race: Charm City Cross

2016-10-09-charm-city-cx-59I’m not sure why I signed up for Charm City Cross. I knew it was a UCI race*, but I’d raced DCCX last year, which was also a UCI race, and that wasn’t too bad. I mean, it was hard, but I survived. I was even riding a borrowed bike that didn’t have ‘cross tires and was able to ride most of the course. Maybe because I had regretted not riding it last year. Or maybe I was ready for a new challenge.

Whatever it was that possessed me to sign up for Charm City, I felt sick to my stomach as soon as I did it. It has a long sand section and I knew that would suck (and I’ve never ridden in sand). It was a LONG course – over 2 miles! That’s a long lap. There was no beginner category, so I’d have to race with women who were faster and more experienced than me. Plus, it had a flyover, which terrified me – mainly I was terrified that it would be too steep and I wouldn’t be able to make it over without falling down.

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Charm City Flyover

Continue reading “A Charmed Race: Charm City Cross”

Bittersweet Race: DCCX

My second cross race had a very inauspicious start, what with a stolen bike and all. But despite all of that, my desire to ride was overwhelming and I found a bike to borrow for DCCX. And I’m so glad I did, because it turns out the act of racing means so much more than the bike I’m racing on!

It is a two day race and I was only planning to race on Sunday, but still went and spectated most of the afternoon on Saturday, despite the sadness of the bike theft. While Saturday was bone dry, with dust choking everything, it rained overnight and made everything a little soft. So, it turns out, if you want a muddy course, just invite me because I seem to bring the rain!

Very dust on day 1!
Very dust on day 1!

It wasn’t soupy like it was at Hyattsville, just a slick and slippery. And wow, what a course it was! I had been terrified to learn earlier that week that they had brought the flyover from Charm City to use at DCCX, but when I got there on Saturday, I heard that because 3 people had been taken to the hospital because of the flyover, they took it out for the early races with the less experienced riders. And I was thankful for that! However, it was still a wicked course. There were a LOT of sharp little inclines, all very short and very steep, which was made it a LOT harder than Hyattsville! Hyattsville was a slog, with the mud just sapping all the strength. DCCX was a lot more technical, requiring not only the legs to get up the inclines, but also the skill needed to keep up the speed around all the turns (although, “speed” is a relative term when talking about my racing). I normally would have been able to make it up those inclines, but I wasn’t able to keep up any speed on the downhill because I didn’t trust my wheels to keep enough grip on the slippery grass. Plus, the lack of tread made it impossible to stand up on the hills, as my back wheel would wash out every time on the soft ground and I’d had to do an awkward dismount to “run” up the hill.

DCCX 2015 (793)

I was learning how to be a little more fearless on the bike, to try and be a little more technical in my racing, but riding with my friend’s bike didn’t help that. I know I have the skill to be a really good technical racer, gaining and keeping speed through tricky bits, but I was so paranoid of my wheels washing out, I slowed down way more than I wanted to. I fear this is a habit that will be hard to break! The most treacherous part of the course was a “M” configuration, where you went up a steep hill, immediately went down a steep hill that turned right into another steep hill which turned right down until a longer downhill with a nice tight turn at the bottom (okay, not that tight, but it felt tight with the speed from the downhill). PLUS there were the rocks and roots on the downhill to avoid AND the sand/dirt at bottom, which not only made it very hard to keep up any speed to get back up the steep incline, but also added the risk of washing out! So, you know, basically turned me into a scaredy-cat. I’d dismount at the top of the “M” and cautiously pick my way down the hill. Chris gave me a lot of grief about that when he saw me stop and get off my bike. But in my defense, it was a new bike with crap tires, so I think I was justified in my caution.

Walking cautiously down the "M"
Walking cautiously down the “M”

This race has another first – my first handup. Honestly, this was the part of cross that I most looked forward to! The first lap I took a bacon handup, which was a mistake. It was a whole piece, which was hard to chew quickly and it was so salty! The second lap I took a beer handup, which was better, but honestly, when you’re going as hard as you are in a race, any food does not sit well in the stomach. I spent the rest of the lap regretting that beer. But I don’t think that will stop me from taking another handup….

DCCX 2015 (801)

Advantage to doing early races: your race doesn’t have to eat up your whole day. Disadvantage to riding early: limited opportunities to pre-ride. In the Super 8 series, my race is generally at 10am, which means I can only pre-ride before the 9am race, unless I want to get to the course before the 8:15 race (HA). Another disadvantage: I rarely get to cheer on Chris/@cycleboredom because I’m always either standing in line to pick my number up or getting ready to pre-ride.

Overall, it was a great race. My dad visited me for the weekend to watch me race and it was so, so great to have him there – it was great to have his calming presence during the bike debacle and it was great to have him there to cheer and take pictures during the race. I regret that I forgot to take a picture together! It was a hard, HARD course. I felt like throwing up multiple times and definitely cried a little, both during and after the race. But the support and the atmosphere of the race make it all worth it and I can’t wait to do it again!

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Dad can nap anywhere

Bike Love and Loss and Love

IMAG0987I was all ready and excited to do my 2nd cyclcross race last Sunday, at DCCX (The Only Race In Your Nation’s Capital!), when a trip down to the bike storage area in my building revealed a terrible fact: my bike was gone. My beautiful, new, only-raced-once bike was gone. All that was left was a lousy cut cable lock (no lectures please, I already know that was dumb). The details are too painful and shameful to recount and every conversation reminds me of what I don’t have anymore and it hurts my heart too much. I always thought it would suck to have a bike stolen, but I never thought it would hurt this much. Maybe it’s the thought of all the good times I knew we would’ve had together, all the rides we wouldn’t go on, all the races we wouldn’t do. I mean, I fucking loved that bike. This inanimate object opened new doors and introduced me to new experiences and people and I just MOURN all the experiences that stolen along with the bike. That’s what hurts the most when I think of what I’ve lost – it’s not the missing bike so much that hurts, as it is all the experiences I won’t have with it.

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However, in the dark, dark storm that is trying to recover a stolen bike, there was one bright spot – the care and compassion of my fellow bike lovers and friends. I had lots of genuinely sympathetic comments on my Facebook posts and I could just tell they were just as upset as I was. When I tweeted my stolen bike with the #bikeDC hashtag, asking people to spread the picture, tons of people (most I didn’t know) retweeted the picture and some strangers even replied back, saying how sorry they were. When talking to the police and spreading the word about the bike, I wasn’t too emotional or upset. But once I felt the kindness and sympathy of all these people (strangers and friends alike), it was hard not to get emotional

The truth is, being a bike owner is living in a constant state of “I hope my bike is still there when I get back to it”. ANYTIME you have to lock your bike up and leave it, there’s a chance it might not be there the next time you go back to it. You can do things to try and make your bike seem like an unattractive bet for stealing, but in reality, there isn’t a bike lock that can’t be broken. And I think that is why there is so much sympathy from strangers when it comes to stolen bikes – everyone knows it could happen to them. All of our bikes are vulnerable to theft and every time you see a stolen bike post, you think “that could be me next time!”

Having a bike taken is like having part of your soul stolen. It hurts a lot and leaves a bit hole. But, somehow, the love and support and sympathy you get from other bike lovers helps fill the hole a little. I don’t hate life quite as much, knowing there is a whole community who knows my pain and genuinely cares for your loss.

While I was talking to the police and posting my bike picture all over social media, all I could think about was how I just wanted to be at DCCX. Partly because I wanted the distraction and partly because I love that race so much. It was pretty rough seeing everyone with their bikes, thinking about what I’d lost. I waffled back and forth during the day, trying to decide if I wanted to find a bike to borrow. In the end, I decided I wanted to ride more than anything. So, the next morning, I lined up with a bike my friend in the building had lent me. It was a little big and didn’t have quite enough tread on the tires, but it was a bike. This bike let me be part of a community that is amazing and I know I’ve only just started discovering how much this community to give me.

And in the end, the community is all that really matters. A bike is just an object and while its theft caused a huge hole inside me, I can rest a little easier knowing that my body is still whole and that there is a community out there that will embrace me and comfort me in my time of sadness.

 

Love and Cyclocross: My First Cross Race

Sometimes you try new things and it works out and you have a good time. Other times you try new things and the experience exceeds your wildest expectations.

I did my first cross race this Sunday, Hyattsville CX and I can’t believe what a ride it was. The race itself was about what I expected, in terms of difficulty. But everything surrounding the race really even more than I expected. (To read how I got to the start line, read this!)

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Not exactly jumping the barriers…

The race itself was brutal – I did not enjoy myself while racing. I chose Hyattsville CX as my first race because it seemed like a pretty easy course – and had it been dry, I assume it would have been! But, unfortunately it spent the 4 previous days raining nonstop, so the course became soft and soupy. There were two long sections where it was a pure mud pit. And holy Jesus, mud is a soul sucking, strength sapping disaster. Running the mud was out of the question (because I am not that fit!), but walking was no easier than riding and I only stopped riding to avoid falling over in the mud. I did pretty well in the technical sections, was able to handle my bike well, and seemed to have a good eye for picking good lines. Chris (@cycleboredom) insisted watching all those Svenness videos must have paid off. He’s probably right. (He also did his first race at Hyattsville. Read it here!)

2015.10.04 Hyattsville CX (22)
Mud
2015.10.04 Hyattsville CX (74)
So much mud!

Riding in a race is so different than riding for fun or through town. When I’m riding on the road and on trails, I’m always looking over my shoulder to make sure I’m not moving out in front of someone, calling out my presence, apologizing. But it seemed weird to do that on the course. One women was passing me, I went to move out of her way, but she still sort of cut me off and said “Sorry!” and I said, “No worries!” I mean, if you’re passing a competitor (not necessarily someone like me who’s back of the pack), should you say, “On your left!”? I don’t know! I will say I was impressed and grateful that all the junior riders on the RCV (Rock Creek Velo) club called their passes to me – it was polite and I appreciated it.

Once I finished, my throat was so parched and that first beer I had was hands down the best beer I’ve ever tasted. Then I had a 2nd one, which was also delicious but then I had to wait a few hours to drive home again…

Post race, waiting to wash my bike. Photo by Cycleboredom

But, above all, I was just BLOWN away at how great the cross community was on Sunday. I’ve always admired how accepting the cross community feels, but never imagined it would feel this good to be on the inside of it. From the other women I was racing with, to the spectators, to my friends, to random strangers – they were all amazing. There was the woman who lined up next to me asking me if it was my first race and giving encouragement, my friends shouting my name as I rode past, the woman waiting to get a beer who asked me about the race – all of it made the whole day amazingly special.

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But the best, BEST support were the words of encouragement from every Masters women who lapped me (which I’m pretty sure was all of them!). There is a lot of talk about how women don’t support each other, how feminism makes women enemies instead of friends, how they tear each other down instead of working in solidarity, and can’t women just get along?? What I saw here turned all of that on its head. These women embraced me and welcomed me. These women  understood the struggles of life and of cross – the struggle to over come the obstacles of even getting to the start line and the actual struggle on the course to compete and finish – and reached out with their words to push me on. I was so worried about being embarrassed or not feeling worthy and with a few words, these women took every bit of that away from me.

In fact, with every word of encouragement that came from the other racers or spectators, it all became worth it and I stopped questioning why I was out there. The guy who complemented my line choice, my friend Shauna who rode next to me on the course, shouting encouragement and coaching at me while I struggled through the mud, the guy who remarked that I had a nice dismount (the new compliment to make a girl swoon?), the other guy who shouted at me “You’re right there! Finish strong!” – it seriously gave me strength to start another lap. As I finished one lap, I did not think I had the strength to do another lap. But the cheers made me WANT to do another lap and they made me happy for all of the times I had cheered my heart out for those at the back of the pack, because perhaps they need it the most.

So, for all you women (and guys!) out there who are intimidated by cross, let me tell you it’s worth it. The stress of finding a new bike, the intimidation of the skills needed, the sick feeling you get when you think of lining up – the cross community, the love they have for the sport and those that put themselves out there to try their beloved sport, make it ALL WORTH IT. Life can be hard and cruel and overwhelming, but there are times when you are surprised and grateful and welcomed. This was one of those times and I can’t wait to do it again.

Over the Barriers: A Journey to Cyclocross

I’ve had my bike for about 4 years now and most things are old hat right now – I haven’t been discovering new things or really going on new adventures, so nothing feels exciting to blog about. However, recently, I’ve been embarking on a new adventure. And that adventure is cyclocross. (if you don’t know what cyclocross is and need a primer, check out an introduction article I wrote here)

I’ve spent been engaged in the pro cycling community since the 2010 Tour de France, but didn’t really pay much attention to its winter sister of cross until a few years later. Once I actually started paying attention to cross, I was immediately fascinated. I loved the community it seemed to foster, the fun everyone seemed to have, and its accessibility as a fan. I never thought about actually racing myself, even though I loved that it was such a participation sport – I’m not drawn to competition, and the skills needed were intimidating. I’m not sure what changed or shifted in my head, but last year I started to wonder if cross participation was something I could do. However, I didn’t want to drop the big bucks on a new bike if I was going to be hopeless at the skills (as putting the crucial knobby tires on my current bike wasn’t an option). So, when I realized Team Sticky Fingers ( a women’s cycling team in DC) was running women’s only cross clinics in August and September of last year, I rode over to try it out. And it turns out I wasn’t terrible at the cross skills! Dismounting and remounting were intimidating, but not impossible. Barriers were a challenge, but not a challenge I felt I couldn’t overcome. Pus, I have decent bike handling skills. However, cross bikes are freaking expensive, and it wasn’t in the cards to buy one in time for last season. So, I saved my pennies and vowed I’d buy a bike in time to have my cross coming out season at Hyattsville (Hyattsville CX felt like a good 1st race on a few levels: the course isn’t too challenging, I bought my first bike at Arrow in Hyattsville, who sponsor the race, and relearned how to ride a bike in the same area where the race takes place). I need that hard deadline, or else I’d always find reasons to put off making the commitment.

I was ready to buy a bike in August of this year but good Lord, I’d forgotten how overwhelming buying a new bike is! Researching bikes online is practically useless, as there are SO many options, I get option paralysis. So, I decided to just start with the shops: I went to all the shops in the area that were relatively accessible for me and said, “I’m looking for a cross bike, what do you have?” And that turned out to be perfect, despite the fact that most shops only carry one or two brands of cross bikes and often don’t have my size in stock. It was perfect because it really helped me focus on a handful of brands and make a decision from that smaller pool. On top of it all, I went to about 4 shops and they were all respectful and kind to me – no one talked down to me or tried to force me to buy a bike I didn’t want. So, if you’re looking for any kind of a new bike, I suggest starting with a small pool, and narrow down from whatever options you have at your LBS.

In the end, I went with a Giant TCX SLR 2 from The Bike Rack. I love how it looks and I love how it rides!

 

Once I bought the bike, I had to actually start practicing those cross skills again. As I wasn’t able to find any clinics in the area, I did some refresher reading on the internet and just went out to the local park to practice those dismounts and remounts. I’d find a relative flat, empty section of Rock Creek Park or Sligo Creek Park and just do laps, jumping on and off the bike. However, I was still really nervous about barriers – I wasn’t sure I would be able to practice that on my own and didn’t trust myself to remember how to do it from last summer. Luckily, The Bike Race racing team offered a cross clinic this week – the week before my first race, perfect timing! It ended up being a perfect cross practice, as it poured rain the entire clinic – that seemed fitting! The clinic was wonderful on a couple of levels – it gave me a chance to do some last minute skills training AND a fair number of the women who showed up were also planning on doing the Hyattsville race. The thought of a friendly, familiar face on the start line was a HUGE comforting factor for me.

But on the eve of my first race, my big secret is that it’s not failure I’m afraid of, it’s embarrassment. I worry way too much about how others perceive me and judge me, and my insides feel sick at that thought that someone might be laughing at me because of something I do, say, wear. Are these fears unfounded? Probably. But the mind is rarely rational.

I’ve been working a lot to stop focusing on how others might perceive me (because those are their issues, not mine), and this article about mindset as it pertains to cyclocross, really spoke to me. Basically, those with a flexible mindset don’t see failure as embarrassing or a setback – they see at as learning step and necessary to grow. So, I’ve been trying to move from a fixed mindset to a flexible mindset when it comes to cross, and look at whatever happens as a learning event and nothing more. Plus, every time I wonder what a spectator might think when they see me struggle, I think of every time I’ve been a spectator at a race and how much I supported and cheered and encouraged those on the course, no matter how they were doing. And in fact, I cheered MORE for those who seemed to be struggling, because I wanted to convey how much I admired what they were doing and thought they were brave. Not to mention, all the great people I’ve met in cross who are genuinely good people and would never laugh at me for a “mistake”.

So, whenever the bad thoughts crowd into my head as I think about the race tomorrow, I just imagine it’s me on the side, cheering and encouraging me on as I struggle and suffer. And I suspect I’ll need all the encouragement I can give myself.

Conquring the Wall: Philly Cycling Classic 2013

0602131320bIf Chattanooga was a last minute, impulsive decision, the decision to go to Philly to watch the newly rechristened Parx Casino Philly International was one I made a while ago. Philly is only two and a half hours from DC and I was really interested to see how the race course change would affect the race. In addition, I wanted to ride the Bicycling Open, which is basically just an opportunity to pre-ride the course the day of the race. I was terrified of the Wall (more on that later), but was excited about the challenge!

First, I need to explain the Wall. The Wall is the Manayunk Wall, named after the Philly suburb it runs through. It’s a climb that is only .5 miles long, but it has sections of 17% gradient and it is BRUTAL! This year, instead of a start/finish downtown in front of the Art Museum, and a mix of short circuits and long circuits (which include the Manayunk Wall), the Philly Classic started and ended at the top of the Wall. It also cut out the downtown short laps, opting instead for 10 laps straight up. While this meant the overall lap length was shorter, it also meant the racers had to ride up the Wall 10 times!! In addition, because the start/finish was now at the top of the Wall, the race wouldn’t end in a sprint but would most likely reward a solo move made within the last few laps, if not the last lap, and maybe even the last climb. So it was shaping up to be an awesome race!

I was staying with a friend of friend in Manayunk. When I told him I was driving up (I rented a car), he said “Well, parking can be a bit difficult around here, so call me when you’ve found a spot.” And, damn, he wasn’t joking. The lower half of Manayunk is a maze of narrow streets, made narrower by all the cars parked on one side. They should all be one ways, but only half of them were, so I just prayed no would come up as I was going down. I drove around for about a half hour before I found a spot that wouldn’t require me to parallel park- those skills are pretty rusty!

Camera 360

My original intention was to ride down to the art museum and spend time there before I met up with my Twitter friend, Heidi (@heidimo6). They have a great bike trail that follows the Schuylkill River on either side. But I got a late start and it was fucking HOT and HUMID. I got not even halfway there and it was clear I was not going to make it downtown! So I backtracked a bit, rode over to the other side of the river that had a trail next to a closed road (similar to Beach Drive in DC), rode for a bit, then laid down to take a nap. It was glorious! I did have someone shout at me to make sure I was still alive, and I appreciated that. Eventually I got up to meet Heidi at her hotel. The trip there was all uphill and it was still disgustingly hot. So that was fun.

After dinner with Heidi and a few drinks with my hosts, I crashed, ready for an early morning.

Camera 360

The ride started at 7:15 and I was glad we got our ride out of the way before the sun got too high. Our ride started a little bit before the Wall, instead of on top of the Wall, like the real race did. So, after biking through the town, we started up the Wall. I think the Wall can be divided into 3 sections. The first section is the longest, steep-ish, but pretty steady. I was feeling pretty strung out by the time i reached the end of that section. Even though as I think back on it. I don’t have an exact memory being  so wiped that it justified stopping for a rest, but I did. I don’t remember feeling like my legs were burning or I was hyperventilating, so I’m not sure why stopped for a breather. But I did, and then I started up the  2nd section.

1st section, with women climbing
1st section during the women’s race

That section was A LOT steeper, though not as long. I was able to ride most of the first section seated, but that was not an option for the 2nd section! As I was riding, I kept my gaze focused on the 200m to go sign- I was telling myself, just make it to the sign, then it flattens out! Because it definitely looked like it flattened out! However, once I got to the 200 meters to go sign, hyperventilating, wheezing, and burning, it was clear it did NOT flatten out! I was so demoralized, I had to stop again.

Once I caught my breath and helped a girl fix her chain, I started up the last section. It was medium steep and pretty short. I felt pretty good going up it, because of my nice break.

3rd section
3rd section

Once you make it to the top of the Wall, there is a LOVELY downhill! It just goes on and on. And because it was on a closed course, we could just buzz through all the stop signs and lights!

The rest of the course is pretty flat, except for a little bump we thought was Lemon Hill and the climb that was actually Lemon Hill! Lemon Hill is pretty steep, but not long. I was pretty wheezy at the top, but my legs didn’t feel too bad.

Heidi and I after the ride
Heidi and I after the ride

After the ride, I took a shower, and then watched most of the women’s race from a Mexican restaurant. Heidi was supposed to join me, but she got lost. So I made friends with the mom and her daughter next to me, drank lots of margarita’s and did jello shots with them.

Camera 360

Eventually I made my way to the finish line on top of the Wall where Heidi was. It was wicked watching the guys come over the top of the hill. With 7 laps left, they pulled about half of the guys out of the race (they often do that if they’ve been dropped so far, there’s no chance of catching up). The guys were just SHATTERED- total death ride faces on them. However, many of them still had enough energy to slap the hands of those of lining the barriers, hand off water bottles, or pull a wheelie. The crowd went crazy every time a rider came over the top. I suspect the enthusiasm had something to do with the fact that it was about 25 minutes between laps, and maybe we were a bit bored.

Like Chattanooga, I really had no idea what was going on with the race. I didn’t even realized who had won until they announced him on the podium. Turns out it was Kiel Reijnen, who had come in 3rd in Chattanooga! He had a disappointing race with a mechanical right at the end, so it was super exciting to see him win.

And Kiel wins!
And Kiel wins!

It was another fun weekend of race watching. I’ll definitely be back to ride the course again next year, and hopefully I can make it up the Wall without stopping! Plus, I really wish I had tried to ride the Wall a second time. Hopefully next year I can make that happen!