You’ve done the prep: got the bike, practiced the skills, and actually signed up for a race! But, how do you prepare for race day? And what do you need to do once you get to the course? Race day does take some prep, and navigating the registration table can be a bit daunting if you’ve never done it before, but it quickly becomes routine.
Cyclocross can seem intimidating, what with all the jumping on and off the bike, navigating uneven terrain, etc. But with practice and some on-course experience, you can become comfortable tackling any course. There are a lot of ‘cross-specific skills to learn that you will continue to work on and refine as you keep racing.
This post will give you an overview of some of the core cyclocross skills and which of those skills you may want to work on first as you’re getting into racing.
What skills do I need to learn?
There are a number of skills that are unique to cyclocross racing:
Dismounting (getting off your bike at speed)
Remounting (getting back on your bike at speed)
Running over barriers (planks mounted in pairs)
riding off-camber (riding perpendicular on a steep hill or slope)
riding in sand
carrying/shouldering your bike
There are also a number of skills that you might not think of as being unique to cyclocross, but in fact they are among some of the most fundamental to the sport:
Climbing and descending (on particularly loose or steep terrain)
I’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.
When you’re ready to sign up for a race, the first challenge is finding races in your areas and the second challenge is figuring out which race to sign up for! While the way race categories are organized and set up is complicated and convoluted, you do not need to understand the nuances of race categories to sign up for your first race. Below, I discuss both the basics of signing up for races and the specifics of how race categories work.
Signing up for races
How do I find races in my area to sign up for?
The best place to find cyclocross races in your area is at BikeReg.com. This is the website (almost) all races in the mid-Atlantic use to facilitate registration. You can search for races near your zip code, by type (“Cyclocross”), and all the cyclocross races that are using BikeReg for registration will show up in the search results, sorted by date by default, with the earliest race appearing first in the list. (Though, just a heads-up: the search function on the website is a bit clunky, and might return events that start in January on the first page, so just flip through the pages until you get to the weekends that you are interested in.)
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!
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.
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.
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….
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!
I 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.
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.
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!)
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!)
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…
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.
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.