This past weekend, I did my first ever bike race. This was sort of a big deal for me for a couple of reasons: the first one was that I was trying cyclocross, which was a totally unfamiliar race type for me. The second reason was that I was hit by a car while cycling to work a few months ago, and although the crash was nowhere near as bad as it could have been, it was still significant enough to have me out of commission for a few months. In addition to disrupting my PhD work and a lot of other parts of my life, the crash left me unable to cycle for a while, and unwilling to cycle for a while longer. It’s only been in the last couple of weeks that I’ve gotten back to commuting by bike.
Wikipedia gives a better description of what a cyclocross race is than I can, so I’m going to steal it here.
Cyclocross (sometimes cyclo-cross, CX, cyclo-X or ‘cross) is a form of bicycle racing. Races typically take place in the autumn and winter (the international or “World Cup” season is October–February), and consist of many laps of a short (2.5–3.5 km or 1.5–2 mile) course featuring pavement, wooded trails, grass, steep hills and obstacles requiring the rider to quickly dismount, carry the bike while navigating the obstruction and remount.
At the end of last season (I’m in Aotearoa New Zealand, so it’s winter for us right now and therefore cyclocross season), I promised a friend that I’d try a cyclocross race next season. This race was the second last of the season, so I decided to do it because I was running out of chances to keep my promise! To be honest, I didn’t really want to try it, but I do take my promises quite seriously, even when they’re about pretty low-stakes things. And the weather was perfect, to boot. So I loaded up my bike, grabbed my jersey and snazzy pink mountain biking shorts, and off I went!
In cyclocross races, you have a set time to complete as many laps as possible. For this race, we had fifty minutes. I don’t know exactly how long the course was, but there were several different kinds of terrain: packed dirt, mud, sand, grass, trail, pavement, and gravel. I completed five laps of the course, which I’m pretty happy with. The leaders completed ten! I came in basically dead last. I’m confident, although not certain, that the only riders behind me on the results list were people who dropped out due to mechanical failures.
I’m of two minds with the results. On the one hand, the main reason I went was because I wanted to fulfil my promise to my friend. I also wanted to go try something new, have a laugh, get a bit muddy, and burn up some energy. I’m proud of myself for not quitting, even though I had the opportunity to do so with every completed lap, and I’m proud that I actually got faster with each lap. That showed that I was getting a better handle on the course, I think, and getting into the groove for how it was supposed to work. So, I feel like I accomplished what I set out to do.
On the other hand, I felt a bit confused for a lot of it – I wasn’t always sure how to deal with faster people passing me, in that I didn’t know the etiquette, and I basically just tried to stay to the side as much as possible. But there were several bottlenecks in the course and inevitably, people who were significantly faster than me would get stuck behind me, unable to pass until the course opened up again. I felt bad about that, and worried that I was ruining someone else’s race, even though I was trying to do whatever I could to mitigate the problem. A friend, who is an experienced cyclocross racer, reassured me that the fastest people on the course are used to having to pass slower people, and that dealing with those bottlenecks is part of how cyclocross works. That made me feel a bit better, but I still worry that I got in front of the wrong person at a crucial moment in their race!
I wish I could sit here and say, “Yeah, that was super fun!” I can’t. It wasn’t that fun. I don’t really want to do it again. I probably will, because there’s one more race this season, and a friend who does these races will be in town for the next one. So, we’ll probably do it together, but I think that will be it for me. And yet, a friend who came to spectate told me that she and the spectators around her kept commenting on the fact that I had a huge smile the whole time! It’s odd – it didn’t feel fun. But I guess some part of me liked it nonetheless!