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.


Charm City Flyover

The race was harder than I ever imagined. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say I spent 50% of the race off my bike, walking my bike. I can’t even say I was jogging or running with my bike – I was straight up walking! Not to mention the times I just stopped moving altogether, and tried to get a bit of breath back, tried to recover a bit of strength back in my legs. I felt like I was always climbing. And the stairs were….oh those stairs! The way the pros bound up them, I never would have guessed they were actually stairs for GIANTS! The rise came up to the middle of my shin and I felt like I needed a boost up each “stair”.


Look at how far the riser goes up her leg!

There were points, especially when I was stopped, where I thought of walking off the course. It would be so easy to duck under the tape and be done with it all. But.. for some reason I didn’t. I don’t know if it was because I don’t like quitting (because I’ve been known to quit things before). Maybe it was because I don’t like leaving things half finished. Or maybe I knew suffering to the end makes a better story. The only thing I can clearly remember thinking in those moments was how much I wanted to cross the finish line as the lap counter read “0”. So, after a moment, I got moving again.

But that flyover. The older I get, the more fear I have. I can only imagine the worst case scenario in any risky situation. The loop of the worst that could happen plays in my head and I can only think of that. It happened when I spent a Christmas in Colorado with my family – I wasn’t able to master skiing because I could only think of all the ways I could crash. It happened when I hiked in Iceland – I was barely able to get over a log placed over a river because I could only imagine falling into the cold, fast river.


Log of fear

And it happened when I went canyoneering in Moab – I was hysterical mess as I repelled down, unable to think of anything but they ways I could fall.


Me, hysterically rapelling

The same thing happened as I thought of this flyover. I could only think of all the ways I could crash trying to get up or down the thing. Then I started thinking about how an ill-timed wipe out from me could take out other racers who had the misfortune of being around me.


My fear!

For some reason, I became determined to master this fear more than any fear before it. My race wasn’t until 10, and I was only planning on pre-riding after the first race of the day at 8:30. But when I got there at 6:30am, I realized the only way I was going to conquer this fear was to ride the damn thing as many times as I could. As I got to the top of the little rise before the flyover, I pedaled my bike as hard and fast as I could. And I got over the top!! What elation. First try! What was I so scared about? I went over a 2nd time – success again! But…as I went down the descent, I discovered I hadn’t tightened my stem enough, so my handlebars went one way as my tire went another and down I crashed into the ramp. I was feeling awful and anxious and scared as I went to fix and tighten my stem.

Still feeling anxious and emotional, I went back to the flyover. And I made it! Feeling good! So I went back to try again. However, the worst was still to come. This time, I wasn’t able to make it to the top before I lost my momentum and I tipped over. I slammed hard down onto my knee, impaled the side of my boob on my handlebar, then slide down the astroturf covered ramp on my knee. I wasn’t able to get any purchase to stand up, as everything was slick with rain, and I just kept sliding on my knee (which, because of the astroturf, was giving me rug burn). It was awful. When I finally clawed my way to the top, I sat there, looking at the descent, felt terrified and wondered how the HELL was I going to be able to do this during the race?? I wanted to quit so bad. Say I was done to avoid having to face this fear. But then I realized I couldn’t stay at the top of flyover forever, and, shockingly, I was feeling a burning desire to not let this stupid obstacle best me. Plus, those $35 I had paid to enter the race are apparently a really good cheering squad, because I thought of them and thought, “I won’t let you down, $35! I’m going to get this!!” And I got down off the flyover.

Normally this would be where I’d give up, where the fear loop would go on overdrive and I’d say “forget it!!” The two falls I had taken really shook me up. My worst fears were coming true. But something weird was happening in my brain. Instead of latching onto worst case scenarios, my brain focused on the things I needed to do to make my attempt successful. I was thinking of the skills I needed to do well, instead of the bad things that *might* happen. Maybe because the worst had already happened. Plus I realized if something bad was going to happen, it would happen so fast I’d barely realize it, so there was no point in fixating on it. Or perhaps because I had already accepted dropping out wasn’t an option.

During the race, I had one successful flyover and one flyover where I lost my momentum right as my front wheel got on the top platform, but was able to catch myself on the railing. That trick got my calf gouged with my front chain ring teeth.


War wounds

In the end, I was dead last on the course (the person who finished in front of me in my race was a full 10 minutes faster to the line!) and the pre-ride for the next races had already started before I finished. This meant I had a gaggle of men caught up behind me as I trudged through the rest of the course, as the rules state you can’t pass anyone still racing.  I was a little embarrassed and wanted to apologize for holding them up, but then thought “Fuck it! I refuse to apologize – I have just as much right to finish this damn race as those who finished first.”

Will I do this race again? Probably not. It’s tremendously hard, I don’t have the power or gearing to avoid getting off my bike, and I don’t like walking my bike. I hated every minute of racing, and I never say I enjoyed myself while racing. However, whenever I finish a race, I feel pride for not giving up. And I felt extra proud after this race, as this was the first time I’ve stared a fear in the face and conquered it. I don’t race because racing is fun – the second the whistle blows I can’t wait for the race to finish. I race because I love being part of the community, because I feel pride after every race for not giving up, because each race is a different challenge.


By the end of the race, I realized this new way of thinking could help me with overcoming other fears – focusing on what I needed to do to make something a success instead of latching onto the worst case scenarios. And what a major brain shift! As I got older, I lost that fearlessness I had when I was younger, that pushed me to try new things which seemed dangerous. Now I feel like I have a way to get that back, a way to trick my brain into acting fearless, even when I’m not.

*A UCI race is a race sanctioned by the Union Cycliste Internationale, the international cycling ruling body. Because pros who race on UCI courses can get points, they are typically harder than a non-UCI course.

If you’re interested, pictures from the race are up on Flickr!

Cyclocross and You: The Bike

Charm City Cross 2014 (470).JPGYou’ve heard about cross, learned about cross, been to some cross races and have decided you want to join in the madness! But… where to start? It’s all so overwhelming! How do you know what kind of bike to get? How do you learn the skills needed? What are even the skills you need to learn?? Not to mention, how do you even find races in your area to sign up for?? Never fear, Anna is here! There is a lot to learn, but I’ve broken it down to make it easy to digest. The first step is The Bike. In subsequent articles, I’ll address cyclocross skills are needed (and how/where to practice them!), how to sign up for races, and what you should do on race day.

The Bike

Do I *need* to buy a new bike?

A cyclocross bike is designed to perform best in cyclocross races, but if you’re just starting out and you want to jump into some practices and into some races to try cyclocross, the answer is: No! There are lots of advantages to cyclocross bikes, but there is no need to buy one when you’re just testing the waters. Mountain bikes fit the bill, and some hybrids. BUT knobby tires are essential, because you’ll never get the traction you need off road to ride well/safely without them.

CXNats2016_Support (6).JPG

Mountain bikes: Mountain bikes are often HEAVY, which is their main drawback in a cyclocross race where you may need to get off your bike and run, or pick up your bike over barriers or other obstacles on course. That said, they are made to go off road! The only potential modification you may need to make before jumping into a race or practice is to remove the bar-ends from your handlebars.

Hybrids: Hybrid bikes can be used on a cyclocross course. Most can accommodate cyclocross tires, and the brakes have enough clearance for wider, potentially mud-caked rims. Just head down to your local bike shop and ask them to set you up with some all/mixed condition ‘cross tires! The disadvantage of a hybrid bike is that it isn’t made to go off-road, and you might feel a bit less steady in some corners because the bike is meant to be stable, not turn quickly off-road!

Road bikes: Road bikes do not have fork clearance necessary for cyclocross tires, which are wider than road bike tires (32-35 mm versus 23-28 mm) and often get packed with mud. The brake set-up on road bikes also do not have sufficient clearance for the wider rims that would support cyclocross tires. There are other important differences between the geometry of cyclocross and road bikes, but fork and brake clearance are probably the key points. I found, however, that you can practice some basic ‘cross skills on a road bike. This is what I did initially, and I was able to practice the basic ‘cross skills (dismounting/remounting and barriers) enough to realize I wanted to invest in a proper ‘cross bike!  If you do practice on your road bike, you should make sure that you have appropriate pedals on your bike (SPD or Crank Brothers clipless pedals or flat pedals) and the right shoes on your feet before attempting dismounts or remounts. Road pedals and cleats are likely to get ruined quickly if you’re hopping on and off your bike! Your LBS can help you with this as well!

If you decide to invest in a new bike, the nice thing about a ‘cross bike is that it isn’t a “one trick pony.” Cyclocross bikes are excellent for all kinds of riding beyond just racing! They make excellent bikes for gravel adventures, and because they are setup to withstand the weather typically encountered in a cyclocross season, they make for excellent all weather commuting bikes (with proper maintenance). From being able to accept wider tires, to being equipped with disc brakes, to sealed bottom brackets, and more – they can make excellent commuter bikes!

How do I choose a new ‘cross bike?

Through lots of legwork and research! You must be willing to spend some time researching what you might want in a bike, so you can make an informed decision. If you want to buy a brand new bike, be prepared to spend around $1,200 for a entry level ‘cross bike or between $1,500 and $1,600 for mid-level ‘cross bike (at least at the time of writing!). You can find used ‘cross bike for less, depending on the year/model. Try Craigslist, eBay, or any local used bike Facebook groups.

I personally find bike buying to be overwhelming and intimidating! There are SO many great bikes out there, plus shops can be intimidating if you feel like a newbie. If this describes you, below are my suggestions for overcoming choice paralysis.

  • Make a list of what YOU want: be complete, be honest, and understand that there are trade-offs:
    • What do you want your bike to do? Does your ideal bike live in your house until race day, or do you need or want to use it for commuting? Bikes are like people: they can’t do everything equally well, and a bike that’s ideal for commuting is going to have rivets to accommodate brackets and may have a “less aggressive” geometry than a bike specifically designed for racing. Trade-offs between a race bike and a more all-around bike may include geometry, weight, and components. There’s no right answer, just know before you go what you want your bike to be for you.
    • How much maintenance are you willing to do? In general, higher-end components are really nice but they also require a higher level of maintenance in order to continue to perform as designed. If you’re going to to take your bike out in wet or muddy conditions on the ‘cross course or on your commute, be honest in your assessment of the time and energy you can devote to taking care of your equipment, as it may impact your decision and also what your LBS recommends.
  • Make a list of all the local bike shops in your area
    • Each bike shop will carry their own specific mix of brands – no bike shop carries all brands!
  • Visit or call each shop on your list, and say you’re looking into getting a ‘cross bike, give them a quick synopsis of what you’re looking for your bike to do, and ask what they have offer.
    • Note models they have in your price range, their price and sizing. Sometimes sizing on cycloross bikes is, well, like shopping for clothing: the numbers don’t mean what you think they might mean. Different bikes of the same size can fit very differently. Shops will usually write down what you looked and the price, if you ask.
    • Don’t be discouraged if a shop doesn’t seem to carry any bikes that fit what you’re looking for. Keep calling. And don’t be afraid to call a shop back, if what you are looking for changes.
    • It is important to know what you want, but as you are looking, it is also important to have honest conversations with folks at bike shops to make sure that your “ideal bike” is out there, or if you may need to reconsider some of features on your list to find a bike in your price range that does what you need it to do.
  • Once home, make a chart where you can compare the different bikes, based on criteria important to you
    • It could be price, size, geometry, looks…!
    • I was looking for an upgrade from my entry level road bike, so components (derailleurs and shifters) were important to me. If that is also important to you, this article by BikeRadar was invaluable in helping me learn about the different components and groupsets!
  • Test ride the bikes that you are most interested in purchasing if possible.
    An LBS may not have a bike in your size in the store, but they can sometimes transfer bikes from other locations. Be sure to ask about this option if you are seriously considering a bike purchase.
  • Because ‘cross bikes are a bit of a niche bike, and they may not have your size available a test ride. You can work with your LBS to either find a comparable bike to test ride for the purpose of determining your size, or they can work with you off the bike to determine the size you should order.

Once you’ve decided on The Bike for you, schedule with your LBS to pick up the bike and ride on! If the bike you want is not in stock in the store, and the shop needs to order the bike, your LBS might require a deposit before placing the order, and this deposit may or may not be refundable. That said, it’s part of the benefit of working with an LBS, that if the bike doesn’t fit or you don’t like it, you can likely transfer the deposit to a new bike from that shop, which was my experience.


Do I need any special accessories?

Accessories are anything you might want to purchase in addition to your bike, just to get started. What you have on-hand is likely to change as you develop, change, learn as a rider. For the purpose of getting into cyclocross the accessories I would suggest purchasing (if you don’t have them already) are:

  • Chain Lube
    • Be. Nice. To. Your. Drivetrain.
    • This may be something you have on hand, but be sure to talk to your LBS about a good chain lube that you can use, particularly in wet or muddy conditions. You’re going to want to make a habit of wiping down your bike and re-lubing the chain. Talk to your LBS about this also – it’s a good habit, and it will keep your drive train happy.
  • Tire Levers
    • There are all kinds out there. But you’re going to want a set of your own so that you can change out tires in case you puncture a tube or because you love cyclocross so much you want to change tires depending on conditions!
      One brand I have personal experience with are Pedro’s tire levers, which are very heavy duty.
  • Extra appropriately sized tubes (28-32 or larger, depending on the size of your tire)
    • There are a whole lot of different types of tubes out there. You don’t need latex tubes to start out, standard tubes are just fine. Make sure that if you have any questions about valve stem length or sizing of the tubes you talk to your LBS folks to ensure your tubes are compatible with your cyclocross tires.
  • A good floor pump
    • You may have one, but these are always important.
  • Mountain bike cycling shoes and pedals
    • Mountain bike shoes and pedals: you’ll be doing a lot of hopping on and off your bike, as well as running through a variety of conditions, so you’ll need shoes and pedals that make it easy to run off bike, plus they need to be able to withstand the mud/dust/dirt! That being said, clipless SPD pedals/shoes are not required to race cyclocross. While I strongly recommend racing while clipped in, as it gives you more control over the bike, you can start on flat pedals and sneakers.

2015.10.04 Hyattsville CX (13).JPG

And that’s it! Once you’ve figured out what bike you’re going to use/buy, the next step is The Skillz, which I will cover in a subsequent post.

Mud, Beer, and Cross

I came home with muddy boots, muddy pants, and an achy body. But above all, I came home with great memories, new friends, and a happy heart. I spent the first weekend of the new year in Madison, Wisconsin, soaking up all that the Cyclocross National Championships had to offer.

I really had no idea what to expect, as this was definitely the biggest cross race I’d ever been to. I figured there would be big crowds, beer, and lots of cute cyclists. I was right on all accounts!


To be honest, I can’t say I was overwhelmed or in awe of anything- except maybe seeing in the flesh the cross stars I’d been posting on Tumblr all season. I’m not a good fan girl- I get shy, reserved and bit awkward around those I consider celebrities. I feel super awkward asking for autographs or pictures, as much as I want them. So, when I went to breakfast the morning I got in, and realized halfway through that Ryan Trebon was sitting at a table across the way and then saw Jeremy Powers walk in, I first went crazy inside with giddy excitement, then ignored them and pretended they’re ordinary people. Which is my normal MO. I actually really dislike this part of my personality, but I’m not sure how to change it. Because, let’s be honest, I don’t see a lot of famous people on a day to day basis. ANYWAY. Regardless of my awkward fan girl nature, it was amazing to see all the people I’d only seen on the Internet. Friday there was a roundtable discussion with some of the female racers to talk about women in the sport, so I got to meet Sue Butler, Mo Bruno Roy, and Meredith Miller. Then, there was a meet and greet with some of the big names- Jeremy Powers, Ryan Trebon, Tim Johnson, Zach McDonald, Cody Kaiser, Jonathon Page…

I did work up the nerve, with the help of my twitter friend Roxanne, to get Jeremy Powers to sign the hat she had gotten from Zach McDonald. 


#CXNats takeaways:

  • Ryan seems more uncomfortable with his “star” status. Between that and his maybe more introverted nature, he’s a bit more awkward around fans. Jeremy’s more extroverted nature, his hyperness, and his comfort with the spotlight have made him a bit more comfortable with fan interaction.
  • It was tempting to run around the course to try and watch it develop, but I found it was more enjoyable to find a spot and stay there for the whole race. Running around so you can see your favorite riders again is good fun, but I found it to be less stressful to hang out in one spot and watch the laps go by- you could stake a prime spot and not have to worry about missing them as they came around. It was almost more fun to cheer on the rider in last place than the guys in the front- they may be last, but they’re still way more awesome than I am just for being there.

Tim & the cupcake

  • The course was BEAUTIFUL. I’m a midwest girl and I appreciate prairie and rolling hills and open sky, so this course was perfect for me.

  • Next year, I’ll just come out for the weekend. While it was great to be there for 3 days, it wasn’t really necessary. I didn’t know anyone racing on the first day, and only 1 or 2 on the second day. It’s not quite as much fun to watch when you don’t know anyone racing and the crowds aren’t really big yet. So basically it was two days of checking out the course, doing recon, taking pictures, and taking in the atmosphere. While that’s awesome, it doesn’t need two days! AND next year I’ll leave on Monday. Leaving Sunday evening meant I had to miss the big after party after the races! Arguably the most important event of the weekend. Seriously bad planning on my part.

Best part of the weekend? I’m pretty sure I made my family into cross converts. My sister, brother, and dad all drove up from Iowa to watch the race with me and I think they were suitably impressed. I know I impressed them with my heckling- I’m a tame heckler by most standards, but yelling insulting encouragement at the riders was not something they expected. But they yelled as loud as I did at the riders going by at the stairs, barriers, and finish line. They knew no one, but it’s so easy to get sucked into the amazing atmosphere, with all the great fans that come out. And to top off a great weekend, we got our picture in VeloNews.

Photo credit: Wil Matthews/VeloNews

Molly did a good job matching my enthusiasm. John was a little more restrained. It’s not a golf game, John!

I also have to give a shout out to my twitter pals Roxanne and Melissa who drove me around and let me hang out with them. Thanks, girls!

It was a fabulous weekend and I can’t wait to do it again next year.

Check out the rest of my photos here!

What the hell is cyclocross?

…And why should I care about it? That’s pretty much exactly what I thought when I first started seeing cyclocross articles once the end of the road season came closer. Frankly, I was pretty dismissive of it at first – what’s exciting about riding in a circle (it’s a circuit course)? And I don’t like mud – it’s gross, not a novelty (mud is definitely a novelty in cyclocross). But I came to realize that ‘cross is like the crazy (drunk) cousin to road racing. People go for good a time, good beer, cowbells, and cheering. It is both a very serious sport and a very ridiculous sport. Those in the top tier are tearing it up and really fighting for the podium, but those further back in the field aren’t afraid to have a little fun! Racers will often grab beers being held out by spectators, or even money thrown onto the course!