Saturday, September 28, 2013

Cross Fever

I've been drinking it for years... the fever has taken hold!
Note how beer marketing induces me to do crazy things.  
Cyclists do not need any help looking ridiculous.  As if shaved legs and crotch-hugging shorts don't elicit enough puzzled looks from people, Belgians discovered another way to convince people we cyclists are a puzzling lot-- cyclocross.  I can just imagine the conversation that led to cyclocross' genesis.

"Hey, let's race our bikes in a circle for an hour, on the road... and grass... and dirt."  

"In the fall and winter!"

"Yeah.  And you know what else is a great part of riding?  Getting on and off.  Let's puts some hurdles on the course so we can see how fast we can get off and back on our bikes!"

"I LIKE IT.  In fact, let's put in a few steep hills--"

"Oh I like where you're going with this.  And with the lovely fall weather here in northern Europe, we won't have to pedal up the hills, they'll be too muddy!  We'll get to hop off our bikes again and carry them up the hill."

"Sweet idea.  I've always thought bike racing needed more shit-covered foundering.  And we're on road bikes right, no mountain bikes?"

"Of course... what's a mountain bike?"

As a cyclocross neophyte, I'll admit, the origins of this sport, which dates back to the early 20th century, probably weren't so simple, but given the power of Belgian beers, I have to imagine alcohol induced enthusiasm played some role.  

About this time, I'm thinking, "What am I getting myself into?"
But given all the moronic components of cyclocross, it still appeals to me more than running a marathon, so on Thursday night at Sugar House park, I pulled my recently purchased cross bike (mainly purchased for commuting) out of the truck and joined a devoted subset of cyclists in a cyclocross skills clinic.  My reasons for this were more than curiosity; I needed a kick in the haunches after a disappointing summer cycling season.  My mileage since January 1 barely passed 1000 miles two weeks ago and my road bike has hung neglected on the wall while motivation and my schedule battled for its custody like a couple of divorced parents.  Learning some cyclocross skills and perhaps trying a few races seemed like a good way to get some fall fitness for ski season.

"Hmm, do you think my choice of 'fuel' could be to
blame for the snug jersey and shortness of breath?"

The clinic started with informal circuits on a small patch of grass on the northwest corner of the park with two barriers made of PVC pipe and standing about 8" high.  I already had a vague idea of the technique for dismounting, but doing so in front of 25 other riders, let alone drivers on 2100 South, caused a little uneasiness.  I took a few dry runs without running over the hurdles.  Once convinced I had enough of a grasp to give it a shot, it felt a little bit like using trough urinals at a sporting event, you'd prefer not to have an audience, but you really don't have a choice.  So I approached the barriers, downshifted, braked, got a firm grasp on the hoods, swung my right leg over the back tire and down parallel to my left leg, coasted a little, then planted my right foot on the ground while twisting my left foot out of the pedal.  From there, I picked up the bike by the bars and top tube like a suitcase handle and more like a Clumsy kraut than a flying Dutchman, I ran over the barriers.

After 10 minutes of this warmup, the instructor gave some tips for refining the dismount and more importantly, the remount.  What I learned very quickly is getting back on far exceeds getting off in terms of awkwardness, and the instructor admitted, many people, even pros, aren't necessarily textbook remounters.  The key to remounting requires smoothly pushing the bike out in front of you while throwing your right leg back over the saddle, catching just enough of the saddle with your upper thigh so you can quickly resume the motion of pedaling while squaring your hips.  When done correctly, it seems effortless.  When done incorrectly, you stutter step with your left foot and lose time.  A common misconception is that you're vaulting off your plant foot and hopping back on the saddle, the cycling equivalent of leaping in through the windows of the General Lee, yet, apart from the obvious anatomical risks, this can also burn time as you break your momentum.  In the course of my practice, I found it easy to succumb to each of these bad habits, but overall, I was pretty happy with my progress.  I bit the dirt when I tripped over a barrier, then a second time when I came in a little hot on one of the approaches and lost my balance, but very early on, in the blue, early evening light, I began to feel the same passion of those crazy Belgians who invented the sport.  "Let's bring on the rain and get the full monty," I thought.

The transition of a casual hobby into a bizarre form of cycling
steeplechase with just a few barriers.

What I didn't account for is that the parameters of our stunted course made the barrier practice quite exhausting.  Every 500' it was off and back on.  It reminded me of doing burpees at the gym-- way too much concentrated exertion, and just like when I'm doing burpees at the gym, it's a harbinger of even more suffering.  Next up was shouldering a bike up a hill.  We rode over to a short but steep hill on the north side of the park where we were shown how to pass our arm through the triangle, then hook your forearm back under the downtube and grab the left drop so you are actually carrying the bike on your arm rather than your shoulder.  It's pretty awkward, but this is where cyclocross riders look pretty badass... as badass as a grown man struggling to get traction on a hill can be.  The crux of this skill though, once again, wasn't hoisting the bike or getting up the hill, it was trying to remount... on a sidehill... with the bike uphill of me.  That was when I began to wonder if I should be examined?  "Am I going to be able to do this for 45 minutes?" I thought.  Considering that my target race in Idaho also included a beer festival, I wondered how likely it would be that I would ditch the race and spend the afternoon in the beer tents?  Fortunately, the Cat 1 race is first thing at 11am.  With plenty of beer waiting for me at the end, I think I can manage.

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