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    Humbled By the 'Cross  
    Cyclocross, that is.

For the record, Sunday, November 5, 2000 at Sam Barlow High School was the first (possibly the last) cyclocross event I ever participated in.

Cyclocross is the original offroad cycling sport. It existed before BMX or mountain bikes were ever dreamed up. Masochists all over Europe have been waiting for the weather to get sloppy every year for decades so that they could put knobby tires on their road bikes and then carry them up hills too steep and slick to climb any other way. Oh, and jump hurdles with them, too.

The terrain generally keeps the speed relatively low and the effort high. When I first watched a 'cross race two weeks ago, I thought "I've got to try this... looks like a great workout!"

I didn't know the half of it.

My weapon of choice was my Fisher Big Sur, a hardtail MTB with a medium-travel front shock. I stripped it of bottle cages, pump clip and seat pack. Figured that if I flatted, the race was over anyway, and the bottle cages just make it hard to get my elbow into the diamond of the frame when I shoulder the bike. It's still heavier than would be ideal, but a good compromise.

Crossers and their "enablers" are a very nice lot. I finally met Geri Bossen and Mikkel, and made a couple of other guys happy just because I had my floor pump with me. Geri let me park my extra crud in her van so I didn't lose my keys on the course... a very real possibility.

Bike assembled, pleasantries out of the way, it was time to find out what the course was like.

Right off the bat, there's a curb to jump. Sure, I've done this before, but never in heavy traffic and never with an audience. First time worked fine. Out onto the wet grass... slick and soft. Follow the fence line around the field... a 90 degree off-camber followed by another 90, a 180 and a 180... right into a wheel-eating bog. Build some speed just in time to take a near-vertical dive to a short run across a section of the running track, then dive again down a tooth-rattling, root-strewn singletrack, up a short hill and then down again to the first set of barricades. These are tricky, and this set is even stranger than most... the approach is slick and on a steep downhill... unclip right foot, swing leg over to left side while applying brakes HARD, then snap out of left pedal just as the bike stops, hold front brake as momentum keeps the rear wheel rising, and the frame practically falls into my outstretched right hand... COOL! Now I just have to jump the two hurdles, then try very hard not to fall to the bottom of the leaf-strewn trail and onto the bridge below before coming to the wall.

This is the cruelest part of this course. Total elevation gain is probably not more than 30 feet, but the grade is more than 100%. There are two choices, go left and pick your own footing among the roots, wet leaves, and slick clay around the switchbacks; OR you can take the stairs. These aren't normal stairs. Each riser is about 2' high. Remember, my bike is on my right shoulder now. First time out, I try the stairs. My, that's a nice burn in my thighs!

OK, back in the saddle. More wet leaves as we wind away up to the highest point on the course, dropping into a small trench on the way, and carefully negotiating a slick, sweeping left-hander. The climb ends in a short, even slicker, even steeper pitch before leveling off for a long run over more soggy grass, heading back DOWN part of the climb we just came up, around a twitchy right (miss it? don't worry, that big fir will stop you!), to a slick (sensing a pattern here yet?) hairpin at the bottom of the descent. Now, UP! It steep and (yup!) slick. The best line is about 3" wide, and nobody cares if you're "on your left" here. A couple of strange berms to hit at odd angles and then break out into the light again into an extremely bumpy field, then back DOWN into the woods... another hairpin at the bottom leading into a short grind up to a 90 leading up to a sand pit in the middle of another hairpin. The sand is DEEP. Dive down to the field again through yet another sand pit, then race for another set of barricades. These aren't too hard, but they're followed by another dismounted short climb, and back onto grass. Follow the fence line again and try to ride a straight line across a steady slope of mud and wet grass. Wind down to barricade set number 3, then onto pavement for a race back to the finish line. Just before the line, there's a set of two switchbacks with no time to recover between them... hard left then hard right before you have time to think. Lap done.

First practice lap over, I'm feeling OK. I do another to try the left-side option on the wall, and I figure I'm ready, except that I accidentally punched the nose of my saddle into my left thigh at the first hairpin. That's gonna leave a mark!

The race starts, and I'm immediately in trouble. We start not at the finish line, but off the course completely, heading into what I had thought of as the second barricade set. Caught in heavy traffic as the main field moves away, I'm hopelessly behind by the time I crest the hill. The grassy traverse is even slicker now, after all the warmup traffic, and twice my back wheel tries to head south. The race becomes a prolonged interval workout without enough recovery time between each sprint. The first trip up the wall is on the stairs. OK, but I'm panting now.

The first ascent to the top of the course is screwed up by another rider dismounting directly in front of me. I try to gear down but overdo it and put the chain into my spokes. Bad words! Reposition the chain and run up the hill. The grassy run and first descent go well, but I clip the hairpin too closely and gather up about a pound of blackberry canes with my inside pedal. Each turn of the crank gains me more scratches on my right ankle. Negotiate the first sand pit and stop to clear the greenery away. Through sand pit #2 safely and away we go again.

The race becomes a blur... four laps plus the first partial. Highlights - shoes become so full of goo that I can't engage the SPDs for a while. Rain starts in lap 2 but ends soon. Mud flying everywhere as my knobbies clear themselves at high speed. Bike rides like it's on rails through the first sand pit... but the rails are leading off the course! Try the left route up the wall... dodgy, but doable. Legs are frying and my heart's trying to beat its way through my ribs. Second sand pit, more rails... right into the thicket of saplings... slide in on my left side... SAFE!, but what's left of my pride is bruised.

I finished. I don't know how I placed. I don't care. My bike has mudsicles hanging off it. I still have grit in my teeth. When the juniors started to lap me (Mikkel among them), I felt really old. But, I did it! I have bruises where I don't remember hitting anything, and my lungs still hurt. But, I did it!

I can't honestly say that it was fun. There were some fun parts, but overall, it was just really hard. I already respected anyone nuts enough to ride in those conditions, but now, I'm just in awe.

Scott "Plimpton" Saulsbury

Hey Scott, Good for you, it takes guts to enter a race like that. One question for you, years ago I went to a cyclecross race and all the riders were riding modified road bikes, you mention you were on a mountain bike. What kind of bike do most of the riders ride these days.

Jim Morrow
Team Tangerine Scream

Most of the folks who do this regularly ride true cross bikes... much as you remember. Redline seems to be the predominant brand, but there are others out there. They look like roadies, but the wheelbase tends to be a little longer and cantilever brakes are the norm (allows more clearance for wider tires). They ride on 700C rims. Most have standard drop bars. Few have triple rings, many have single rings with chain retainers.

Mountain bikes are common and legal for all of the race classes (unicycles are legal, for that matter!). Fully-suspended ones would be nice over some of the bumpier sections, but the extra weight and the sometimes odd frame configurations can make them tougher to portage.

Scott Saulsbury

I knew that Linda was thinking pretty hard about trying this, but I didn't mention it to anyone in case she came to her senses before registering. I should have known she'd be too tough to back away.

All beginners (please note, B-A, that I only race with the beginners... the only thing advanced about my racing is my age, and I'm feelin' that today!) get lumped together, so Linda and I were in the third wave of the 11:00 start. I actually tried to stay with the leaders this time, but that didn't last very long. Oxygen debt sets in really quickly in this event.

No falls on Sunday. Wish I could say the same for Linda. From the looks of the mark on the back of her jacket, I'd say she collected at least a small fraction of a frequent-flier mile before she hit the hardpack.

(Disclaimer: S&L Air frequent flier miles are only redeemable for unplanned maintenance, flat repairs, and extended turns in the draft. You really don't want to do any more flying than you already have!)

I've got the dismount thing down pat... it's that remount that scares me. Anybody who's watched it but hasn't mastered it will know what I mean. No anatomically-corrected saddle will ever take the pain out of doing that the wrong way!

Scott "still wheezin'" Saulsbury

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