Cyclocross – Expert Debut

I made my debut in the Expert Category this weekend and in my opinion I managed to have a respectable set of performances. Saturday’s course was very flat and had only very short technical sections, in the end it was basically a cyclocross time trial. I nailed it, with an average heart rate 176 BPM average for the 50min race. That’s huge, basically it means that there’s no recovery out there on the course and I really benefited from that, I really reeled some people back in during the final push to the finish. I overtook for fifth with about 400 yards to go and then was lucky with fourth trying to pass for a podium position and driving himself off into the tape and onto his bum. I just kept pushing my surge through the finish and took home fourth place only a second ahead of fifth and sixth!

Sunday’s race was a long paved climb and then a winding and sometimes flowy, sometimes technical descent on mostly grass. There was a long sand section to ride with a corner in it which proved to be a challenge and some really fun winding bits in a natural bowl in front of all the spectators. An excellent course to watch the race from. I started out knowing that I had to go really hard when I was going and do my best to recover during the flowy and fast descent. I found it incredibly difficult to push harder than my threshold effort on the climb without totally self destructing and starting to make errors on the descent. After 3 of the 9 laps I had resorted to backing off on the hard bits to only a threshold effort which I found was allowing me to make time on my competition on the descent instead of giving it away. I was following two guys quite closely and knew that I probably should be able to out-do them in the end. They got tired faster than me and eventually were caught taking it easy where they should have been working. I passed both of them and nailed the finish, moving up to ninth. Very respectable again considering the course was not designed to my strengths. I filmed the elite race, footage follows:

I’ve also been asked a lot of times why people would try and bunnyhop the barriers if there’s a way larger chance of screwing it up. Same deal with riding a challenging portion of sand, sometimes it is just as fast to get off an run and you’ll wind up less tired; why ride? The answer is simple, if you can do it successfully you are definitely the rooster amongst a bunch of chickens.

It’s the same reason that the caveman decided he was going to spend all day trying to kill a woolly mammoth for dinner instead of going out and collecting berries and digging up roots, an almost guaranteed way to stay fed. The chance that he’d return home to the cave with no food following a day of hunting was way greater, but the reward for coming home with a woolly mammoth leg over your shoulder is way greater: you’re a hero!

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Dark Knight ‘cross

Lunch-hour findings: Video of the C-race at the Dark-Knight cyclocross race in Calgary a couple weeks back. I wound up second place after a hard-fought battle. I rode off the front from laps 2-4 and was then passed. I got caught up in a corner which doesn’t make it into the footage from this clip when lapping one rider who was being passed simultaneously on both the left and the right, and decided to step left, into me! Anyways, I did bring down the gap over the last lap and had caught first place but lost traction in a corner (legs running on all cylinders – brain running on none) and had to unclip, hobble a bit and get going again. The damage was done then and the leader’s gap going into the final sand pit was too long for me to run past him. I finished only a couple seconds down (I’m wearing the hardcore kit and have glow-hoops in my white helmet). In any case, roll the footage:

Thanks to Dallas Morris for the video footage. And to Bill Quinney for the following photos:

Photo from gallery: Cyclocross 2009
Photo from gallery: Cyclocross 2009

The next day I wound up 5th place and more than a minute back of the leader at ‘Oval Cross’, run on the same course in significantly more challenging conditions (super wet and snow). I really struggled to clip in with my cleats which cost me a couple seconds about 4 times per lap, there were sections I was riding very quickly but to do well over-all you need to be able to put together the whole picture at the same time and that didn’t happen on that day. 5th was still good enough for an upgrade to Expert though and I’ll be racing there on the next go-round of ‘cross racing.

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Cyclocross Nationals

You can’t spell bicycle without also spelling ‘bile’

Nationals was a hurting situation, my result was +2 laps, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make it to the finish but did kind of expect that I’d last until my penultimate lap before being passed by the race leader… and then a while later by the rest of the eventual podium. I entered the race not anticipating that I’d do well, but didn’t really realize that pretty much no-one else had similar plans. Plenty of the guys who race (and race well) in the Elite field in the Alberta Cup series were well off the back of the race.

Bile… well I was/am sick which in retrospect I’m only kind-of surprised by after a chilly and wet last weekend, a wet and cold ‘cross race on Tuesday night and a very cold ‘cross lesson on Wednesday night. Pre-riding the course on Friday night was evidently the last nail in the coffin and by midnight I was sick. Race-morning I managed down some dry toast and went back to bed instead of going out to the race site to watch Lesley win Hardcore/Triathlon Club what I believe is their first ever national championship (mega-congratulations!). I did eat a proper lunch before heading out to the race site and did a lousy warm-up. I didn’t have a trainer and riding around in the minus 5 degree weather to get the legs warm resulted in wind-chill to get the chin and toes really cold. Oh well, after running what I felt like was a respectable warm-up lap I staged for the start along with 38 others. Not willing to throw elbows and shoulders in the sprint down the start I took the first corner in last place… not to be relinquished. Not to be totally ridiculous I stayed on the pace for 3/4 of a lap at which point my HR was already 185 bpm and I needed to let it go. I didn’t actually puke (this time) but was starting to debate where I should hurl for maximum crowd-appeal, so maybe it’s a good thing they pulled me off the course.

Photo from gallery: Cyclocross 2009

All in all I’ll probably chalk it up as a good learning experience if it turns out that I didn’t get a whole lot more sick by doing so, the jury’s still out on that one. After two laps I had a rather jarring crash and was already well off the back of the pace. I had a legitimate reason to quit, besides crashing and being covered in snow and aching on my right hand side my brake hoods were way out of square and I had to bash them back into line to release the brakes. Quitting can’t be an option I had to tell myself as I hopped aboard and mentally ran through a list of body parts checking that they all still worked. If quitting is allowed to be an option things can turn south quickly, on August 29 there will inevitably be a reason to quit. The list of reasons to back off the pace is guaranteed to be long, not accepting the offer to quit is the name of the game.

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Cyclocross – Weekend footage

School of Cross – Elite Men –

Photo from gallery: Cyclocross 2009
Photo from gallery: Cyclocross 2009
Photo from gallery: Cyclocross 2009
Photo from gallery: Cyclocross 2009
Photo from gallery: Cyclocross 2009

Hop ‘n Hurl – Expert Men –

Hop ‘n Hurl – Women –

Photo from gallery: Cyclocross 2009
Photo from gallery: Cyclocross 2009
Photo from gallery: Cyclocross 2009
Photo from gallery: Cyclocross 2009
Photo from gallery: Cyclocross 2009
Photo from gallery: Cyclocross 2009
Photo from gallery: Cyclocross 2009
Photo from gallery: Cyclocross 2009
Photo from gallery: Cyclocross 2009

Hop ‘n Hurl – Elite Men –


Photo from gallery: Cyclocross 2009
Photo from gallery: Cyclocross 2009

There are more photos in the Cyclocross 2009 Gallery

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Cyclocross – An Introduction

Cyclocross is a sport that has a couple really defining attributes. That’s nothing special, every sport has defining attributes. The thing that makes it different is that it’s mostly the loosely associated attributes or that make it great, the barebones aspects of cyclocross racing aren’t all that exciting. The sport of cyclocross is the result of a set of decisions that independently don’t create something amazing, but together the maybe unexpected ramifications create something really great.

Here are the basics:

  • The race surface can be composed of any combination of the following: grass, dirt, asphalt, gravel, mud, sand, puddles… and whatever else the race organizer can find to make you ride over. The changing terrain emphasizes handling ability much more than road racing.
  • The course necessarily includes places that require dismounting from the bicycle. This can be in the form of a super steep hill that can only be run up, sand too soft or deep to ride through (beach volleyball courts), or plank barriers typically 18 inches in height. These obstacles add a required skillset to racing, successful competitors must be able to quickly and efficiently dismount and remount their bicycles. They must also carry the bicycle through sections of the course, making the ability to pick up their bike and sometimes shoulder it while running an additional skill to learn. Getting off the bike as close to the barrier and back on it as soon after the barrier is ideal, as running is slower than riding in almost all circumstances (when it is possible at all).

  • The race-course is based on time not distance. Racing is done on a lap and based on how fast the race leaders do the first couple laps organizers calculate how many laps to make them to. Typically at the end of the second lap the lap countdown starts so racers won’t see it until the end of their third lap, but they’ll know how long the race is supposed to be before they start: somewhere between 40 and 60 minutes based on category.
  • The bike is a modified road bike, running knobby tyres somewhere around 32mm in size with extra frame clearance for mud around the wheels. Cantilever brakes are used and often only a single chainring is run up front with 8-10 gears in the rear. Cable routing on the frame is arranged to minimize catch-ups while picking up and carrying the bike.
  • Racing is organized into classes similar to road and mountain biking, in Alberta there are three categories for men and two for women which are always (sadly) merged during competition (because the sport is short on females: what’s new in my world). Provincial and National Championships however are split by age. If you are good in your category you’ll eventually get kicked out and have to move up to some tougher competition. If you’re at the top of the best category, someone will inevitably entice you to go and race in Europe where you will be slaughtered by some really fast guys.
  • Speaking of fast guys; the fast guys in this sport are really, really good. As a huge bonus, amateur ‘crossers get to basically participate in the same sport as the pros. It’s not like pro road-racing where the professional version is a completely different kind of competition than the amateur version. Sure, some aspects change a bit, like having a second bike and a mechanic in the pit lane just like a nascar race, but the concept is still ‘ride as fast as you can over this course’. Road-racing at the elite level is all about teamwork, peloton dynamics, leadouts, and whether or not the breakaway is going to be allowed to be successful, hardly about riding your bike as fast as you can over the course. For me this is definitely a pro – getting to race like the pros.

The fast guys are really good – did I say that already? here’s some proof from the World cup races last year:

Why choose to take up the sport? It’s not likely because you think that you really enjoy 1 hour threshold or near-threshold efforts on the bike. It’s not because the idea of jumping onto the seat of your bike at a full run is super appealing to you.

The Flying Mount
The Flying Mount

In fact that’s probably the most off putting aspect for many first-timers. The fact that other people are doing it however, and having fun, is a likely reason I think most people start. There is no secret, the sport really looks fun because the people racing are having fun. It’s also time limited, only happening for a couple weeks each year, and there’s an urgency not to miss out. Perhaps a few esoteric reasons too; the handling skills gained in cross are valuable to bring onto the road (and even triathlon) and the top end speed is something that can be added at the end of a season to a solid base developed for other forms of racing. Cyclocross is meant to be hard, and that’s an appealing reason to start too, it’s a heck of a challenge but I’ll get to that later. Ultimately though I think the apparent disorganization and chaos of a race makes for a good time, and as with all sports, it’s about fun times. Here’s someone’s story about what made ‘cross appealing:

We walked around the course with our coffees and I was getting stoked. Then we got the the first run up. There was a plank at the bottom of steep hill. This was something that clearly nobody would be able to ride. Riders would be forced to get off their bike, run over the barrier, and then remount at the base of an impossibly steep run up. People were crowded all around and cheering and yelling and cowbelling. At this point the tail end of the Masters A racers were coming though, and well, they certainly weren’t making it look easy. Everyone was struggling.

Then Barry Wicks came though like a cool breeze, bunny hopped the barrier and rode his bike up the hill. A man on the hill with an enormous cowbell chased him and screamed in his face, over and over again:

I CAN SEE YOU!

I can see you, I can see you, I can see you! That didn’t make any sense to me, but I loved it. I would later realize that shouting the most obvious shit is the best way to heckle your pals.

Turns out it was Bruce from River City Bicycles doing the yelling. It was that scene right there that did it for me, that made me want to try cyclocross: Bruce yelling in Barry’s face, and Barry riding the hill with an ear to ear smile.

Brian NoLastName – 2009

Others have described Cyclocross as “You make a bike race as stupid as possible, but it’s still a race, so people do it. And then you rationalize that, like, it’s so stupid that it must be fun”. I agree that the concept works for some people but I don’t think that’s how you’d sell the idea to a bunch of athletes who are actually looking for a physical challenge, which ‘cross is in spades, but perhaps the sheer stupidity is part of the reason for some folks. For the people who want to go out and race ‘cross, what most of them are really relishing when the whistle blows to start the race is that this is really really hard. The courses are laid out to prevent rhythm, just when your heart-rate is getting out of control there’s a hill to really add some nails to your coffin and bury you if you’re not careful. Just when your legs are tired from a long section in soft grass there will be a corner that really requires you to slow down and re-accelerate out of it to remind you that your legs are really tired. When your hands are starting to ache from all the jittering and shaking after riding over some really uneven terrain you’ll have to hop off your bike and grab the top tube of your bike with a serious grip to pick it up and run over the barriers, yeilding a big ache in the knuckles. When you think you’ll get to run up some speed down a big hill there will be a U-turn at the bottom, or maybe even a double barrier dismount to prevent you from reaping the benefits of the climb you just did. The changing pattern isn’t something that can be practiced as it’s different from week to week, the ability to change pace, position and focus is the underlying key, while at all times keeping the effort level high. Cyclocross happens in the autumn and early winter. For Edmonton that’s September to November; for Belgium and the rest of northern Europe, where this great sport began, it’s more of a November to February sport. The result is the potential of miserable weather. Why is that a good thing? Well, it makes things hard! Cold and wet sap determination. It makes the win go to the toughest competitor out there. If it’s hard, why do I love it? Probably for some of the same reasons that I’m signed up to tackle Ironman in August.

Maybe it’s the mud, or the bruises, maybe the beer, or the loose semblance of camaraderie. I think what it boils down to is that I feel more alive during a cross race than at just about any other time. Cyclocross is the most intense hour of effort, pain and joy I have ever encountered. I’m attracted to cross because I can put everything I’ve got on the line for 60 minutes, come out of it totally exhausted, covered in rain, mud and grime, perhaps with a trickle of blood running down somewhere, craving ibuprofen, blowing mud out of my nostrils, placing top 30 if I’m lucky, and loving every minute of it.

Kelly Hobkirk – 2008

Unlike road-racing where team-tactics play a huge role in competition, cyclocross is more of an individual sport. Co-operation on the course is a definite possibility but more often than not it’s co-operation with riders from another team. The main role of team-members is cheering when they’re not racing and maybe snapping some photos, that’s it. In that sense, everyone is on the same team. The pre-race course inspection and post-race random shenanigans are shared amongst the entirety of those assembled at the race. The event of cyclocross lasts more than the length of the race, it lasts the entire duration of the time spent at the park. Things like this would not at all be considered to be out of the ordinary:

One of the best things about cyclocross is the attitude. Gone is the testosterone-induced yelling and uber-competitiveness. Everyone seems to respect each other, no matter how talented or strong or skilled they are. Everyone cheers for everyone.

Kelly Hobkirk – 2008
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Cyclocross season begins

The Cyclocross season began last weekend with the kickoff race in Red-Deer and this weekend was the first double-header weekend of the year. I raced on both Saturday and Sunday… and hopefully will be doing so for the rest of the races for the next six weeks until the provincial championship.

I slapped knobby tyres back on my bike the same day I returned from my excursion to Penticton and have been going hard at it for four solid weeks… so much in fact that I haven’t had runners on in 40 days, and counting. I’ll get back at the running at least on an occasional basis before the end of the cross season but taking a break is just fine with me too. I’ve needed to dedicate focus to the cycling though to prepare properly for cyclocross season. All summer I’ve been working on developing a giant 12 cylinder diesel engine for triathlon time trial riding. It also happened to work alright for powering me through a giant and somewhat ridiculous bike trip across BC. Anyhow, that big diesel engine isn’t going to get me anywhere in cyclocross so I needed to try and add on some substantial top end speed. I also felt like my ability to generate some significant power was definitely there, but I didn’t have the ability to do my max power, recover and do it again and again and again. That results in a limited potential for racing well at cyclocross.

- The Training -

The prescription is somewhat obvious, I need to do intensity in my training at a level that I haven’t done in a long time. That means putting together some race effort work, meaning threshold efforts, and intervals that bring me slightly above threshold and then trying to quickly recover below threshold before punching it back up again and recovering again. They’re hard workouts but fortunately they’re short. I’ve been able to structure the triathlon-club workouts that I’m coaching during this period of the training season to serve two purposes, the adaptation and skills sort of work that’s necessary for people who are just starting out as well as allowing me to sit on that stationary bike and go stupid-hard during those intervals at the same time as other people are just getting used to turning the pedals for an entire hour. I’ve also been doing Wednesday night lessons, taught by a previous provincial champion with a pretty good group of riders from Edmonton, we’ve got a full range of beginner through amazing there which gives me the big benefit of riding on some good cyclist’s wheels and allowing me to learn, learn and learn. I’ve also been racing on Tuesday nights at an informal race series with a twoonie entry fee which serves to provide a good long warmup, about half an hour of serious work at race-effort and then a long cool down ride home from the park. Those three sessions each week plus racing or skills based riding on the weekends has the makings of a HUGE bike focus. It’s fun though and I’m getting better. Hopefully the big diesel engine comes back without too much effort after November.

- Cutting my teeth -

The first Tuesday night race I competed in I was absolutely slaughtered by the competition in the B category. I was dropped by the lead pack off the start and I felt like I couldn’t push the pace anywhere to try and regain ground. It was actually pretty humbling, I had no ability to go when I tried to tell my legs to go. The next weekend though we were off to Red-Deer for my first race in the provincial series and after taking an easy day prior I felt pretty good at the start line. I felt like when I wanted to go I could really go, which was a fantastic feeling. I rode reserved for the first 3 of 6 laps, staying with the leading group of 6 but refused to make any effort at the front. I tried to run as easily as I could through the sand but found that my heartrate was absolutely skyrocketing when I hopped back on the bike. I had lost my chain three times already by the time I tried to make an attack on the fifth lap, but had lost it at convenient points where it didn’t take any time to get it back on. I made an attack with the tailwind on my fifth lap and had put in a decent gap until I dropped the chain on a really bumpy descent and wound up having to dismount, re-chain the bike and start from a standstill at the bottom of a hill. Such is life I said to myself, I obvious hadn’t installed my chain-keeper properly when I switched from 2 rings to a single ring up front. I was now back in fourth place and really had to push hard to try and bring back the leader. The course was too short however, and he picked up the pace on the last half lap to stay away for the win. I was about 5 seconds back in second and third was about equally distant behind me.

- The ‘W’ -

The next Tuesday night race was a sweet one indeed. A relatively flat and winding course with one power climb and a fast descent. I started out slow, anticipating that I’d likely wind up about 10th place again and let about 20 people ahead of me off the start, slotted myself in the train and then started to get to work. I found quite quickly that I was alright at maintaining momentum where some others were not and as a result I was pretty quick on the flats, quicker than all the guys in front of me. I slowly picked them off, one or two at a time, until I was chasing people who were quite clearly faster than me. I was OK with that and just sat on their wheels and tried to keep the effort level high I had no idea who was from my race and who was from the race ahead of me, so was content to just ride. Into the finish I descended the hill near one guy and decided I’d try to race him for what I though was probably fifth place. I nabbed the win with a half wheel length on the line. It turns out that was for first place! Now I’m kicked out of the B category and have to race with the fast guys for the rest of the season, that means tough work!

Photo from gallery: Cyclocross 2009
Photo from gallery: Cyclocross 2009
Photo from gallery: Cyclocross 2009

- Wow this is tough -

Weekend #2 of ‘cross racing started on Saturday morning with the ‘School of Cross’ on a very technical course in my opinion. The mountain bike guys didn’t call it technical, just curvy, and that’s probably true. It wasn’t super technical but it did have some tricky bits and the corners were all very sharp. The result of this was that many many short accelerations were required on each lap and they really sapped my energy. Contrary to the previous week where I felt strong and fast, this week’s race I felt miserable and tired after only the first of five laps. My heartrate was above 180 bpm every time I looked at it and I felt like I was riding extremely slow. I wasn’t going all that slow though, I was actually doing very well. I started relatively well and got into the course in 5th position but the first three were getting away and it took me some time and a few tries to finally get around 4th place and try to reel them in. By that time the had formed a gap that I couldn’t cross and it was too long to pace off of them. This was less than ideal and probably contributed to me feeling like I was doing terribly. Second place got rope in his derailleur and had to pull out and by the last lap I could tell that the new Second place was fading and fourth place was gaining. I really pushed to the finish but wasn’t all that close to catching second but did hold off the charging fourth place guy for a podium position. All in all, a very difficult race and after a collapsing under a tree to catch my breath I think I could even decide that it was fun.

Photo from gallery: Cyclocross 2009
Photo from gallery: Cyclocross 2009
Photo from gallery: Cyclocross 2009

- Fun Fun Fun -

Day two of my first ‘cross double header was a course suited to my strengths. We built it the evening before at Goldbar park including what I’d consider three distinct sections. The first was a rather quick but curvy lap of the lower park, including some tricky sections that required very low speeds, but overall it was a matter of running corners as wide as possible and taking the line that allowed you to conserve the most speed. This fed directly into a climb with a mandatory dismount at the top and double barrier. This fed into a section of off camber riding and turns interspersed with short climbs. It went pretty quick but really required that attention was paid. I felt like I addressed this section well considering the technical bits are a weakness of mine. From there on out the course was a matter of pushing a big gear and cruising with your head down through a long gradual climb and a long and fast descent. At the end of the climb was a triple switchback uphill that was very tight. I insisted on building it like this and unfortunately it’s also likely the bit of the course that cost me a position on the podium but that’s getting ahead of myself. I took the race out slow and in 10th place, not wanting to go to hard right off the bat. After a half lap I started to increase my urgency and by the time I was through the first lap I was pushing hard in 5th place. I moved into third with a double pass just as I was passed by another young guy and fell to fourth. First place was off the front and looked to be pulling away and I think everyone had resigned themselves to the fact that the Juventus rider who had won the first two races and should have been upgraded by this point was likely going to win three in a row. The Pedalhead rider in second had faded badly the day before and I was expecting him to fade back as well so I worked hard to stay with third place and did so for the third lap. By lap four it was obvious that we were reeling in second place and made contact before the last climb up to the barriers. I pulled even with them here but ran slow to let the both go ahead. I didn’t need to lead into the wind on the next section, I wasn’t about to offer my huge draft to these guys. Up to the final zig-zag I decided I was going to run, which I had tested prior and experimented with once during the race. I was convinced that it was not any slower and prevented any chance of errors or overlapping of wheels in the tight section. It was probably the wrong choice however because by the time I was back on my bike I they had a tiny gap of maybe 5m. It was enough that I wasn’t poised to pass where I anticipated needed to pass and couldn’t push quite hard enough to get by them on the long fast downhill. It was about this point that I started to wonder why I was breathing at all, it felt really useless to pump air in and out of my lungs because it didn’t seem to be doing anything anyways. I took huge speed into the last climb and rode the descent on the wheel of third place. Unfortunately when we came to the line I was still a bike length back, the run in to the finish wasn’t long enough to permit a high speed acceleration, it was mostly a matter of maintaining as much speed from the downhill as possible. Fourth place. I fertilized the nearby bushes in true ‘hop ‘n hurl‘ fashion but felt alright within about 10 minutes, I was pretty happy with how I raced though and felt strong and worked hard… perhaps I could have stuck with the leader if I’d not have given away those 10 places off the start but I don’t deal well with really hard starts, so I know what I need to learn.

Photo from gallery: Cyclocross 2009
Photo from gallery: Cyclocross 2009
Photo from gallery: Cyclocross 2009

The day saw some fantastic racing in all categories and John Clarke took the win for Hardcore at our own race in the Expert Category as he now moves up to contend with the big guns with the Elites. I suppose the saving grace with a fourth place is that I am still 3 points shy of an upgrade and get to contend in the Dark Knight as well as the Oval Cross with the slower categories. Hopefully this increases the chances that someone from the Hardcore racing team can with a pig on Saturday night as we’ll be represented in all of the races. A win would be nice, but winning the pig I think is potentially more important. (A scavenger hunt on the course that involves beer for the winner… details to follow if the story turns out to be worth telling)

Youtube coverage of the Expert and Elite Mens’ races will follow pending a free lunch-hour at work to do some video editing. I snapped stills for the women as I was supposed to be marshaling in one area and the field spread out too much to make for exciting footage. Not that the race was unexciting.

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