Falling, sliding, crashing, and winning

Before the Cyclo X series started I headed out for another Wednesday afternoon race in the Back 2 Basics series. This time I entered in the Women’s B field, and found myself starting with about 17 women. It had been windy and rainy during the pre-ride but by the race conditions were pretty great.

Awkwardly trying to hop a barrier at B2B

I managed to finish 6th out of 17 women which I was really happy with! The course had a lot of single track and tight turns which equaled much needed practice for me. The barriers went okay too, though by the end of the race I was so tired I felt like I was barely able to lift my bike up. I also got to race with my teammate, Becca, while Natasha cheered us on!

Natasha, Becca, and I after the race!

That weekend brought the first Cyclo X series race at Harlow Platts. The course is just a 25min ride from my house, but the women’s cat 3/4/5 start is at 8:15AM for the series. So at 6:30 AM I was out the door and headed to my first weekend race. A whole bunch of my RDC crew were there – including Jane and Vicky who would be cheering us on and giving us tips!

Jane helping to pin on my number

The course is a “power course”, meaning lots of sections that aren’t too technical where you can really lay down some watts. There was also a long sand section to ride through (something I’m still not great at) and a few slick turns on the grass where the morning dew hadn’t quite dried out.

Those views! (Disc golf target is not part of the course!)

The start felt huge with about 45 cat 3, 4, and 5 women all starting at the same time. We’d be racing for 40min, much longer than the 25-30min we’d done at Back 2 Basics. You line up at the start in rows with 8 people across. Those who have placed well at previous races start in the front. A race official typically tells the field they have 30 seconds before starting, then 15 seconds, and then blows a whistle to signal “go”! At that point everyone sprints hard to get in front, since passing can be a real challenge.

I’m still not a great sprinter but I managed to hold a mid-pack place from the whistle and soon started to work on passing people. I didn’t know how many cat 4 women were in front of me so I just pushed really hard.

Super focused in the sandy section trying to stay upright and thinking about passing

As the race went on I got more confident in my turns, riding the sand, and passing. On the last lap I did slide out on a tight, grassy turn just before the finish, but was able to hold off the two women right behind me.

I didn’t know it when I finished, but that was good enough for a top step on the podium with my teammate in second! One of the cool parts about cross is that you can usually see the rest of the field around the course, so in addition to friends who were cheering us on from the sidelines, our RDC team could cheer each other on while we were racing.

Surprise top set podium!

The following week brought, you guessed it, more cross! On Wednesday my plan was to return to the B2B series race. But we woke up to a gray, chilly, drizzly late September day. There was talk of canceling the race, but the heavy downpours were forecasted to hold off until later in the evening. So I packed up my stuff and headed out, only to have the rain start as soon as I left the house.

I was a little concerned since my bike has very limited clearance for mud on my bike tire. As I learned during Unbound, mud tends to clump on these tires and then jam into everything making it impossible to even walk my bike because the wheel can’t spin at all.

Nevertheless, when I showed up the rain had slowed to a steady drizzle and I thought I’d give it a go. Pre-riding the course was mostly okay, though I was worried about how it would look after the C-category riders raced several laps on it before me.

What clearance? What tire tread?

When it was time to race I lined up with my teammates Natasha and Juli. The whistle blew and I immediately knew I was in trouble. The field surged ahead quick and I could see women with mud tire (yes, there are actually tires designed to work really well in muddy conditions!) just flying out in front. I tried to settle in but I was sliding all over the place and losing a lot of speed. I managed about a lap and a half (of what would be a 4.5 lap race for the winners) and was trying to stay with two women ahead of me. They both passed a guy (the men’s B race started 30sec ahead of the women’s B race, so we’re all on the course together) and I was trying to get around him as well. But then a series of things happened – I was trying to decide which side to pass on, and ended up calling out “passing on your right” before proceeding to pass on his left. D’oh. He gently pointed that out to me, and while I was feeling my embarrassment I then proceeded to wipe out spectacularly in a patch of mud about 20 seconds after passing him.

From there on out things went from bad to worse. My chain had jammed up and my shifting wasn’t working. It took me almost two minutes to get things working again (an eternity in a 30min race). I was able to tentatively “ride” (read: slide) a bit more before my wheel seized up with mud and wouldn’t turn. I’d spend the next half of a lap riding a few dozen feet, stopping to get off my bike and clear mud, usually carrying my bike until I saw a slightly less muddy spot, getting on again, and then getting to ride a little more before doing the whole dance all over again. Thankfully by the time I made it around to the finish line they were calling the race and I was done.

So. Much. Mud.

In cross you race by time, not by distance. So if you’re doing a 40min race and the leader of the race finishes the first lap in 8 minutes you’ll do 5 laps. If the leader takes 10 minutes you’ll do 4 laps (and so on). At the finish line they’ll put up a counter with the number of laps that are left, so after you do one lap you know how many more times you’ll be going around the course. When you’re on the last lap they ring a bell (the “bell lap”) so everyone can hear that the last lap has begun. So at the start of a race you never quite know how many laps around the course you’ll do. However, just because you get lapped doesn’t mean you’re disqualified. In this case, I did 2.5 laps and the leader did 4.5 laps. So I still finished the race, but I came in dead last.

Natasha, Juli, and I at the end of a very muddy race

But I still had a blast racing, despite the ridiculous conditions and my terrible set up. I got to cheer on my friends and have a lot of fun. I’d also learned a lot about racing my bike in mud. However, I will say the hour+ it took me to clean my bike the next day was a little less fun. I probably should have skipped this one with my bike set up, but I’m glad I went!

From here I realized I was going to be doing a cross race almost every weekend through early December (in for a penny?). Despite committing to getting up at o’dark thirty every Saturday (and/or Sunday) I figured each one would be a good chance to practice skills, hang with my team, work on my high end power, and just have a really fun end to the season.

The following weekend brought a race at a cidery where, despite a bad fall and a rough day, I managed to get third (and win myself a four-pack of hard cider!). I also got to cheer on several teammates who also got podium finishes or completed their first ever CX race!

The RDC crew at Stem Cider

October brought a super fun race which gave free entries to women racing cross for the first time. A bunch of my team was in attendance, and we had a blast! The course was really fun, and included some stairs to run up and a few short, super steep hills. Despite my chain falling off I managed to snag a first place spot!

Barries on a hill side forcing a run up!

And last weekend finally brought the second Cyclo X race. The series is at a different venue each time, and this course was at Interlocken. I’d heard this was another “power course” and I was looking forward to it. However, upon pre-riding I realized there were actually a few of really tricky sections. One was a muddy hill that left everyone sliding around. A chain link fence on the right side offered something to hold on to, but it also made you a little slower. Many cross racers use “spikes” in their shoes, or little metal pieces to help them get traction on hills like this. I’d been putting off getting a pair, but after this race I decided I might need grab some sooner rather than later!

My teammate Liz and I going up the hill on lap 1

There was also a section called “carnage corner”. An off-camber, slick, bumpy, grass/mud section right above a creek. On my first lap I tried to ride it and found myself sliding straight down the hill, just managing to leap off and grab my bike right before I flew into the tape.

Carnage corner – note my front wheel is parallel to the ground as I try not to wipe out

That race my teammate Liz was also racing in Cat 4 with me, and we traded spots all race. I thought we were fighting for third, and I was trying to hold her off. As they say in cross, “smooth is fast”, and I was definitely not riding smooth. I slid out on a corner, toppled over on a steep, grassy hill, struggled up the mud hill, and tried to run through carnage corner too fast, leading me to be a bit out of control with my bike. On the last lap Liz made a great pass to get in front of me on the muddy hill. I tried to stay on her wheel hoping I could get a sprint with her at the finish. But carnage corner was up first, and in an attempt to run through it extra fast I slid out (while running!) and landed hard on my hip. It knocked the wind out of me a bit, and by the time I was back on my bike a few seconds later Liz had turned the final corner to the finish. But! Upon finishing I learned that we actually finished 2nd and 3rd (not 3rd and 4th like I thought!), earning both of us a podium spot!

The bike after going through mud hill and carnage corner several times

After the race I hung out for a bit watching other racers, eating bagels, and even celebrating with a tiny bit of Fireball with friends.

That third place finish also gave me enough points to start entering races as a cat 3 rider. The cat 3 field has been smaller at these races but has a lot of strong riders. In particular, several junior racers who are on high school teams are in cat 3. They are wildly strong, and benefit from great coaching (and, in some cases, years of training). So, from here on out, I’d be racing against a different group of ladies, but still starting in the same cat 3/4/5 field!

Despite the bruises and the beating my bike is taking, I’ve been having so much fun. And my friend (and mechanic) Eric has even lent me some new wheels and tires to make my set up a little more fast and mud friendly. Having my RDC teammates and friends out there has been particularly awesome! Some of them aren’t even racing, they just come out to heckle and cheer and take photos. It’s amazing. And no matter the finish – 1st or dead last – it’s a great way to spend a weekend. Plus, the whole race is over in less than an hour leaving an entire day to spend doing whatever – SO different from the 200 mile + gravel races!

Bruises and scrapes after going down multiple times, multiple weekends in a row (some of which are over scars from a bad fall on gravel a year ago at Belgian Waffle!)

I still can’t believe how much fun I’m having at cross races, and I’m hoping the rest of the season brings a lot more of the same!

Author: cartwheelsandcake

Cyclist, climber, hiker, trail runner, back country skier, dabbling mountaineer Lover of cake, chocolate, brownies, and sweets. Excellent napper.

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