By Simmon Hofstetter
Normally I avoid writing up race reports, but Shari asked for at least a summary of the races so far, and I wasn’t about to refuse. After all, she pulled out a subtle puppy-dog stare. It was very subtle. You might even say she did no such thing, and that I buckled under her commanding gaze. Here are my impressions about cross racing this year (forgive the length).
This cross season is my first (of many, I hope), and was the result of being coerced by a powerful element that many of us in Edmonton are familiar with: The Roders. I’m not exactly sure of how they did it, but Bridget and Dave had me thinking of racing cross since last season. The most memorable moment of watching that season was seeing Josh on his back, retching up half of a lung at the finish line with the rest of the riders. “Looks like fun,” I thought. After hearing that Dave was selling one of his pretty cross bikes, I hopped on the wagon. No regrets.
I immediately fell in love with the two-wheeled devilry. Punchy climbs, accelerations, questionable corners- it’s a great recipe. Thankfully, everyone I rode with passed along wisdom from previous race seasons. Admittedly, sometimes one had to translate the advice. For example, useful comments such as, “Racing cross feels like you’re going to die,” and “Blood is normal in a cross race,” can be rephrased as, “You should do hard interval training,” and “There are various technical sections in every race.” Pretty soon, I had a good idea of what I was in for. [Editor’s useful comment: “Practice bunny hopping before the race”]
The goal for the season was to get out of the “Sport” category. I would need to scuttle the competition enough to snatch 40 points. After doing IM Cozumel in November, I’d lost much of my ability to sustain back-to-back high intensity outputs. I was worried. The season could go relatively well, or I could end up at the back of the pack in a bag of nettles. So, with the many pearls of wisdom about cross racing rattling in the back of my mind, the training took shape. I figured the handling skills would carry over from mountain biking, and would develop on the morning rides with Dave. There’s nothing like riding a cross bike at high speed on gravel and grass, bleary-eyed and half-awake, to get your skills up. Thanks, Dave.
Fiera’s Kettle Cross was up first. It’s not a typical cross race, but it would be a good indicator of grit on the bike. In summary, it was fun and it was painful. The race was a beast, but I’m grateful for it. Very little from that race actually applies to cross racing, so I didn’t put too much stock in the results.
Fast forward to the first weekend of shorter races- School of Cross and Hop n’ Hurl. These went pretty well for first-time races. In each, I started off middle or back of the pack to see where I would place and get an idea of how to stage in later races. One thing became apparent right from the beginning- the start is crucial. Fast enough, and you’ll get a clear field and can pull away. Too slow, and you’re stuck navigating around other riders while the front makes excellent time. All in all, these were a good lesson- and I managed to get some points. The next weekend of racing was even better, as I tried to stage as close to the front as possible. There’s really not much to say- but the lesson learned here was that technical drills pay off. I managed to make up time on those ahead of me on the sections that needed dismounts/mounts- well worth the practice.
And then there was last weekend out in Devon at the Lion’s Den Cross. Up to this point, we’d had warm weather, which, apparently, is not cross racing weather. Derek MacKenzie and I pulled into the parking lot to the eerily peaceful sight of snow falling on a white landscape as riders slowly pre-rode the course.
This was going to be wet, cold, and muddy. Excellent. For me, this was the most interesting race of the season. The snow would make the course slick, and I was curious to see how much that would influence the standings. The answer: significantly.
The “Expert” category’s first lap saw multiple crashes, and some riders pull out. I’m not sure how many didn’t finish, but it was obvious that straddling the razor between tires on the ground and ass on the ground was your ticket to a good result. It turns out that I managed to do just that, and ended up snagging second place. Good enough for my first season, and good enough to get my upgrade to “Expert.”
My impression is that cross racing definitely lives up to the hype. It’s brisk weather, warm drinks, and sublethal organ failure. During each race, you hit your maximum sustainable pace, hold on, and try not to lose control of any dignified bodily functions (in front of spectators). If you’ve ever wondered, you don’t have to worry about throwing up during a race, because although your stomach doesn’t have enough blood to function properly, the muscles involved in vomiting don’t either. That’s a sort of grey area of “good.” Kind of like cross racing. Pain and pleasure meshed together so tightly that you can’t parse them apart. From race to race, there’s going to be more of one than the other- but you don’t have the time (or the oxygen) to think about it. That, in its own way, is what I have found to be the mercy of cross racing.
The community behind cross racing was the best part of this season. The bike shops, clubs, volunteers, and racers all come together to make this scene a welcoming environment. If you’re tossing around the idea of racing cross, my advice is to leap in with both feet. Yes, as a race progresses it’s likely that the capillaries in your head get bigger and bigger, until it looks like someone tried to choke you out with a Rand McNally road atlas. Yes, cross racing is an oxygen-deprived, semi-conscious state in which the perception of time warps (for good or bad). But it’s followed by a sense of euphoria, muscle pain, and beer. All while surrounded by great people.